Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Staking Out My Position

Disclaimer: It's not so smart on my part to dismiss a branch of Philosophy, and there are people out there with more philosophical knowledge who could set me straight on a bunch of things, but these are my two cents. Comments and criticisms, as ever are welcome.

I'm going to start with a synopsised summary of analytic and continental philosophy taken from wikipedia:

Analytic philosophy is a term for a style of philosophy that may be characterised by an emphasis on clarity and argument. It often incorporates analysis of language, and a respect for the natural sciences. It is committed to the idea that the object of philosophy is the logical clarification of thoughts, and also that philosophy should be continuous with those of the natural sciences. Key names would include Wittgenstein, John Searle, Daniel Dennett and Steven Pinker.

Continental philosophy includes movements such as phenomenology, existentialism, structuralism and post-structuralism (don't worry if you don't know what they are). Philosophers who subscribe to this approach are said to generally reject scientism, the view that the natural sciences are the best or most accurate way of understanding all phenomena.

From the early 20th century until the 1960s, continental philosophers were only intermittently discussed in British and American universities. However, with post-modernism (a continental idea) in the 1970s and 1980s, university departments in film, literature and the fine arts have increasingly incorporated ideas from continental philosophers into their curricula.

At least, this is how it's characterised in wikipedia. I've got a bunch of other opinions on how one can characterize continental philosophy that aren't so charitable. But the fact that it rejects science as a means to understand phenomena is probably a good starting point.

Here are two short clips. The first is of an analytic philosopher, Steven Pinker who discusses free will (ignore the text pop-ups and the Dawkins bit at the end):

And the second is Slavoj Zizek discussing the Universe (he's continental):

In both cases, I tried to find something brief, but long enough for you to get the flavor of their approaches.

OK. Now, now you'll be forgiven if you find Zizek interesting and charismatic. But read the following extract from Searle in a comment he made about Derrida and see if Zizek also fits Searle's description: "anyone who reads [Derrida's] texts with an open mind is likely to be struck by the same phenomena that initially surprised me: the low level of philosophical argumentation, the deliberate obscurantism of the prose, the wildly exaggerated claims, and the constant striving to give the appearance of profundity by making claims that seem paradoxical, but under analysis often turn out to be silly or trivial."

Derrida responded by saying that Searle had misunderstood him, Searle (and others) responded back by saying that this is a long-running excuse for his bullshit (though he didn't phrase it like that)

Since I don't have the patience to make this blog flow more smoothly, I'm just going to put all my thoughts into a series of bullet points. So this is...

  • Continental philosophy rests on the assumption that the more difficult an idea is to understand, the greater the reward will be when you do finally grasp it. Even if the mind 'rewards' itself when a difficult concept is grasped, that's not the same as being enlightened with a profound truth
  • Using specialist terms and thinking in novel, counter-intuitive ways does not elevate your thoughts above those of everyday people. It's more difficult (and ultimately more useful) to use the same language and framework of thought as everyone else, and still say something insightful
  • Some continental person responded to Pinker's clip on youtube and said the following: "Freewill is an IDEALIZATION of our mental faculties. Moral theory requires that, much like how mathematics has figures such as perfect 2-D circles which could not possibly exist in reality." That's what I'm talking about - total cobblers. It's not even a coherent sentence
  • I heard the continental accusation of science as being "bougeois". Whoever thinks that is a big fat loser
  • Continental philosophy has a powerful aroma of name-dropping and the snooty "Europeans are smarter than English speakers" attitude. Check a list of continental names some time - they are great to drop into a conversation (e.g. Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Sartre)
  • Zizek is colourful, animated and has a charming speech impediment. His video is hard to understand, yet somehow seems clever and internally consistent. So one comes away feeling like there is profound truth and wisdom in there, but one also has to keep watching it over and over to properly grasp if there is actually anything meaningful. I've not figured it out yet, and I've watched this clip a few times. Pinker, on the other hand, not only did I enjoy the first time but I understood it too
  • Continental philosophy is far more responsible than analytic philosophy for making most people feel like their not brainy enough to have anything to do with Philosophy

  • Continental Philosophers tend to have fertile minds and be well read. It fuels creative thought. If it could be a branch of the arts, on some level this might not be so bad. But to claim that it's more connected to the world than analytic philosophy is a bad idea. Aesthetics should be difficult to grasp, but thought should be clear and articulate. That's not dogmatism, it's sense
  • The ideas are sometimes interesting. But continental philosophy subordinates explaining phenomena in place of being interesting. There is an intuitive feeling that we should resist common assumptions and accepted wisdom, and also that we should develop new terms and use words in a different way. I agree with that stuff, but it can, and has been taken too far by continental philosophers - any Lacan clip would prove my point on this one better than the Zizek clip
  • I do sometimes enjoy listening to philosophers of the continental strain and occasionally feel enriched after contemplating them. I like this clip of Derrida discussing love, for example. But there are far more ideas that fun to believe, or fun to try to understand, but little more

So there you go, that's my feeling. Hit me!


Sergio said...

Hi Paul,

Five brief comments from an admirer of both traditions:

(1) Pinker is a thinker. He's not a (professional) philosopher. He claims that "there is a vast amount of complexity that means that human choices will not be predictable in any simple way from the stimuli that have impinged on it beforehand". But this rhetoric doesn't get to the core of what human freedom is or what being human means. His claim makes sense from someone who defends a computational theory of mind. However, it doesn't address the philosophical issues that such claim raises.

(2) Since you quoted Searle (a brilliant analytical philosopher), check out his wonderful lecture "Beyond Dualism" and see the difference between a thinker and a philosopher:

(3) Zizek is indeed a continental philosopher. He’s clear (although you have to know the concepts in order to follow his philosophy). But his scholarship is often poor. I notice this whenever he writes on a subject that I know a lot about (film, Christianity): he puts forwards a few good ideas, but he’s overall superficial and uninformed. He sometimes seems to be uninterested in knowledge, which is an inconsistent position for a philosopher.

(4) Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Sartre, are all marvellous - and more systematic and serious than Zizek. A lot of contemporary analytic philosophers (Collier from Southampton, e.g.) engage with their philosophy exactly because of this. It seems to me that analytic and continental philosophy have different methods. Great continental philosophers like these four have distinct voices that translate into distinct ways of writing – from their writings you can easily extract premises and arguments (but you have to extract them). In comparison, analytic philosophers are more direct, but their writings are also usually literarily unremarkable and conventional. But not always.

(5) ...Which leads me to my final point. This divide between analytical and continental philosophy is a bit artificial and can be problematic. Where would you put Stanley Cavell, who works within both traditions? Perhaps the truth is that we can always learn from and think with good philosophers - regardless of their “tag” or “group”, which is frequently a way to separate "us from them" and avoid fruitful dialogue. There are bad continental philosophers who write nonsense. There are bad analytical philosophers who claim the obvious. We should welcome the good that both traditions, together, can provide: we need the Continental resistance to (natural) scientism as much as we need the Analytical resistance to hogwash.

Paul Taberham said...

Hey Sergio!

Thanks a lot for your helpful response.

(1) Does that mean that a person is only a Philosopher if they engage with a specific set of questions? Can a philosopher not just think that certain philosophical questions are non-existent/ immaterial?

(2) Great. I've seen heard some of his lectures but I don't know that one

(3) That's helpful - thanks. Why do you suppose he's so popular? (the "Elvis" of critical theory)

(4) That's good to know. I was lumping a whole load of Philosophers together without having read them all.
What's the advantage of having an argument that needs to be extracted, rather than just being told?
This blog was forwarded to my Facebook account and a thread emerged about the difference between art and philosophy. It seems like both need a serving of insight and aesthetic charm but the emphasis is different. Is that fair?

(5) "This divide between analytical and continental philosophy is a bit artificial and can be problematic." [jump forward two sentences] "There are bad continental philosophers who write nonsense. There are bad analytical philosophers who claim the obvious."
If both strains have characteristic shortcomings, there is some merit to the division, no?
re: Cavell. Isn't that like saying that the distinction between a man and a dog is problematic because of Scooby Doo? One can fuse things but they still remain distinct

Why in Gods name is the resistance to scientism as valuable as the resistance to hogwash?

Sergio said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sergio said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sergio said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sergio said...

Hi Paul,

About your comments.

(1) He's not a philosopher. He never studied philosophy nor has he ever published anything in the field of philosophy. He's an experimental psychologist and a cognitive neuroscientist who does great work in these areas. I'm sure that from his narrow point of view a lot of the questions that philosophers deal with are "non-existent" or "not real" - like questions on free will. Searle disagrees and provides arguments. Pinker simply says that "there is no sense that we can make of that".
(Btw, "non-existent" and "immaterial" are not synonymous - as metaphysics, a branch of philosophy with contributions from the analytical and continental traditions, shows us.)

(2) See it. It's worth it.

(3) Why do I suppose he's so popular? He's made a crucial contribution to the discussion of ideology, for example. He has his strengths. His stuff on belief (that Christine is using) is also interesting.

(4) These continental philosophers weren't writing poetry, but they wrote like poets. There's always something new to discover in their texts (hence, the extraction, which is in a way unlimited because the texts are inexhaustible). For them the act of philosophising and the recording of this act in writing is as important as any solutions or answers that they have to give. It's a philosophy that it's often not meant to settle things. As I said, it's a different method, a different contribution. We should be open to it if it raises interesting questions and makes us reflect on the naiveté of facile answers. But this is just a trait. It tells us very little about the philosophical content of their work. And that is what matters. Read my next point...

(5) You write: "If both strains have characteristic shortcomings, there is some merit to the division, no?" You also write: "One can fuse things but they still remain distinct." Certainly, but my point is that they aren't that distinct and this distinction only makes sense because we tend to think in oppositions - it is this mentality, this "black or white", "us or them" that is problematic. You can read everything I wrote on continental philosophy as a caricature. It is - I'm just playing the game, because these tags mean very little to me. How about the philosophers who worked before this divided view? Was Kant analytical or continental? Does it matter? Cavell isn't fusing anything. He's simply being a singular philosopher, dialogging with the philosophers who preceded him, analytical and continental. He doesn't see them as analytical or continental, you can be sure of that. They're simply philosophers who reflected on subjects that interest him.
"Why in God's name is the resistance to scientism as valuable as the resistance to hogwash?", you ask. Because scientism is totalising - it's natural science stepping into and stepping on other fields and dimensions of our life and world. Scientism is hogwash. Read Dawkins on "God" and "religion", a good scientist dealing with philosophy and theology that he doesn't (want to) understand - according to him, he got there directly from biology... I'm just glad that a lot of scientists recognize the independence and validity of other fields, namely within the Humanities.