Thursday, April 20, 2006

I am So Sick of the Analytic-Continental Feud

Rather than doing some "real" research today, I found myself sucked into reading this post over at Crooked Timber. The more I read on, the more frustrated I became. In particular, it forced me to think about the nastiness that most of my Analytic professors and former graduate students heaped on me or anyone else interested in Continental Philosophy during grad school. (I could tell you stories!) I am a Continental philosopher and quite proud of it. I get unbelievably pissed off when I watch thinkers, whose work I would generally respect, dismiss the value of studying Continental philosophy.

Harry (from Crooked Timber) writes:

I have long been uneasy about the behaviour of analytical philosophers in the 1980’s and 1990’s, during which time the kind of ideas associated with Judith Butler and Jacques Derrida (names he mentions) had enormous influence within the humanities and social sciences. With some very honorable exceptions, my sense was that we kept our heads down, identified ourselves in some way with the hard sciences and mathematics, and allowed those ideas to do their worst; all the time maintaining a sense of our own superiority because we weren’t fooled by that nonsense.

While Harry doesn't do this in his post, many of his commentors go on to equate all Continental philosophy with Jacques Derrida, Judith Butler, or Jacques Lacan. This is a classic strawman argument, not to mention the piles of ad hominem attacks in the comment thread. Not all who have interest in or study Continental Philosophy are interested only in Post-modernism, Post-structuralism or Psychoanalytic thought. Continental Philosophy=Post '68 French thought. Moreover, there are plenty of folks like me, whose entire orientation toward philosophy was first inspired by reading thinkers like Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, Hannah Arendt, or Simone de Beauvoir, who find these petty arguments perpetuated among Analytic philosophers to be tiring.

One of the things that has always bugged me the most is how Analytic philosophers often like to portray themselves as "victims" of the "Continental nonsense" of Butler and Derrida. They argue that this fashionable nonsense took over the humanities and infected graduate students with sophistical thinking. And yet, as a Continental philosopher, nothing could be clearer to me than the fact that Analytic Philosophy totally dominates the university. When you are on the job market as a Continentally trained thinker--especially after Leiter started his report--you are told straight up that you shouldn't even consider applying for jobs at ANY school where there is not a majority of faculty sympathetic to Continental thought. One of my good friends, who got an interview at Michigan (VERY Analytic program), actually stood up and left the interview after 20 minutes when it became clear that the interviewers were having more fun trying to demonstrate why his work on Habermas and Kant was just plain stupid.

In my graduate program, which was indeed Continental, all of us were REQUIRED to study Analytic philosophy and logic. All of us are qualified to teach these subjects and many of my former Continental philosophy grad buddies are the logic professors at the colleges where they landed. It's just ridiculous to me that Analytic philosophers think that Continental thinkers don't care about or understand rational arguments. I am fairly certain that none of my Analytic friends who studied at their hard-core Analytic programs were ever required to read any Continental thought, either from the 19th or 20th century. In fact, many of them probably got away with not reading a whole lot of the canon of philosophy outside of Plato, Aristotle, Hume, Locke and Kant. Whereas, I can say with confidence that I received a rather rigorous grounding in the history of philosophy from all of the Continental programs I attended.

What is also interesting, btw, is how often you find the Continental philosophers really drawing in undergraduate majors to continue to study philosophy in this day and age where the liberal arts in general seems rather devalued. My department of 5 professors at a small liberal arts college once boasted of having 100 majors, more than Penn State. And, I would dare to say that it was in part because three of us are Continental Philosophers who have used our training to raise questions of identity, moral responsibility, what makes for a meaningful life, what our obligation is to the Other, freedom, etc. Not one of my colleagues teaches a course in Derrida or Butler. While many of us might teach an essay once in awhile, we don't see the point of an undergraduate education in philosophy to train our students to understand one narrow strand of philosophical thought from 20th century France. I would say that our Continental training has influenced the kind of courses we design: The Ethics of Food, The Philosophy of Psychiatry, Human Rights, Gender and Identity, The Meaning of Work, The Many Meanings of Illness, etc. We teach really interesting courses that raise questions that many of our students want to think about. We also--all of us--care about careful arguments. None of us ever advocates teaching our students to be relativists or to see all philosophy as some kind of aesthetic dance with texts.

I am also fortunate to have learned a lot from my Analytic colleague, Steve G. I am grateful for the education he gave me, which stirred up my earlier love of science (I started in Chemistry). I spent some time doing a reading group in Geometry with him. He has helped me to be a better writer, while never telling me that my ideas were just plain "nonsense." I also had the opportunity to have my dissertation directed by a logician, who had studied with Alonzo Church. Again, I was never treated by him with the sort of haughty disdain that I see in the comments on Crooked Timber site. It is not inconceivable or impossible to imagine that Analytic philosophers might find something of value from us Continental types. The sub-specialty that I work in--the Philosophy of Psychiatry--is a perfect example of a discipline that is a real dialogue between Analytic and Continental thinkers. This is, in part, because many of the Psychiatrists were trained when people still read thinkers like Karl Jaspers. But also, it is because in their practice, existential questions are simply unavoidable. I cherish these productive exchanges and wish I could see more of them.

The fact is, that the Analytic takeover (you should read John McCumber (Time in the Ditch: American Philosophy and the McCarthy Era) of Philosophy departments has institutionalized a bitter feud between Continentals and Analytics. We are taught to disdain each other (sort of like the way you grow up hating Israelis if you are Palestinian or vice versa), which is rather unfortunate for any real productive and fruitful exchange that might be mutually beneficial in the ways I have been fortunate enough to experience. I am proud that Steve G and I have not pigeon-holed our students into "Continental" or "Analytic." They leave probably unaware of the distinction. Granted, most of our students don't go onto graduate school (Thank God!), the ones that do have gone off equally to Analytic and Continental programs.

I fear that this bitter feud will continue as long as Analytic philosophers see the importance of Philosophy to lie in a very technical, narrow, research program centered mostly on Philosophy of Language, Logic, or Philosophy of Science. I applaud that careful technical work, but it is not all that Philosophy has to offer. I think Philosophy and its commitment to teach students to be critical--if nothing else--has enormous benefits for almost anyone willing to take a course. Philosophy allows us to step back from the merely technical questions or pragmatic questions and look at the bigger picture. It gives us pause in an era that is flooded with too much information, and most of it really misleading or bad. I refuse to believe that the future of Philosophy lies in the methodological innovations that need not have any cultural relevance. Sure, advances in logic will be profoundly important. But, there are a great deal of questions that hopefully philosophers will think through that are not only culturally relevant, but that promise to transform many of our ideas about what it means to be human. Biotechnologies or Genetic Engineering, for example. We need to think about what these practices mean to our very notions of what a self is.