La División Analítico - Continental

Por Jorge Luis Fabra Zamora (

February 19, 2012, 5:00 PM

Bridging the Analytic-Continental Divide

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Many philosophers at leading American departments are specialists in metaphysics: the study of the most general aspects of reality such as being and time. The major work of one of the most prominent philosophers of the 20th century, Martin Heidegger, is “Being and Time,” a profound study of these two topics.  Nonetheless, hardly any of these American metaphysicians have paid serious attention to Heidegger’s book.
The standard explanation for this oddity is that the metaphysicians are analytic philosophers, whereas Heidegger is a continentalphilosopher.  Although the two sorts of philosophers seldom read one another’s work, when they do, the results can be ugly.  A famous debate between Jacques Derrida (continental) and John Searle (analytic) ended with Searle denouncing Derrida’s “obscurantism” and Derrida mocking Searle’s “superficiality.”

The distinction between analytic and continental philosophers seems odd, first of all, because it contrasts a geographical characterization (philosophy done on the European continent, particularly Germany and France) with a methodological one (philosophy done by analyzing concepts).  It’s like, as Bernard Williams pointed out, dividing cars into four-wheel-drive and made-in-Japan.  It becomes even odder when we realize that some of the founders of analytic philosophy (like Frege and Carnap) were Europeans, that many of the leading centers of “continental” philosophy are at American universities, and that many “analytic” philosophers have no interest in analyzing concepts.
Leif Parsons
Some attention to history helps make sense of the distinction.  In the early 20th century, philosophers in England (Russell, Moore, Wittgenstein) and in Germany and Austria (Carnap,  Reichenbach, Hempel — all of whom, with the rise of the Nazis, emigrated to the United States) developed what they saw as a radically new approach to philosophy, based on the new techniques of symbolic logic developed by Frege and Russell.
The basic idea was that philosophical problems could be solved (or dissolved) by logically analyzing key terms, concepts or propositions.  (Russell’s analysis of definite descriptions of what does not exist — e.g., “The present King of France” — remains a model of such an approach.)  Over the years, there were various forms of logical, linguistic and conceptual analysis, all directed toward resolving confusions in previous philosophical thought and presented as examples of analytic philosophy.  Eventually, some philosophers, especially Quine, questioned the very idea of “analysis” as a distinctive philosophical method.  But the goals of clarity, precision, and logical rigor remained, and continue to define the standards for a type of philosophy that calls itself analytic and is dominant in English-speaking countries.
At roughly the same time that analytic philosophy was emerging, Edmund Husserl was developing his “phenomenological” approach to philosophy.  He too emphasized high standards of clarity and precision, and had some fruitful engagements with analytic philosophers such as Frege.  Husserl, however, sought clarity and precision more in the rigorous description of our immediate experience (the phenomena) than in the logical analysis of concepts or language.   He saw his phenomenology as operating at the fundamental level of knowledge on which any truths of conceptual or linguistic analysis would have to be based.  In “Being and Time” Husserl’s student, Heidegger, turned phenomenology toward “existential” questions about freedom, anguish and death.  Later, French thinkers influenced by Husserl and Heidegger, especially Sartre and Merleau-Ponty, developed their own versions of phenomenologically based existentialism.
The term “continental philosophy” was, as Simon Critchley and Simon Glendinning have emphasized, to an important extent the invention of analytic philosophers of the mid-20th century who wanted to distinguish themselves from the phenomenologists and existentialists of continental Europe.  These analytic philosophers (Gilbert Ryle was a leading figure) regarded the continental appeal to immediate experience as a source of subjectivity and obscurity that was counter to their own ideals of logical objectivity and clarity.  The analytic-continental division was institutionalized in 1962, when American proponents of continental philosophy set up their own professional organization, The Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy (SPEP), as an alternative to the predominantly (but by no means exclusively) analytic American Philosophical Association (APA).
The claim that working in the analytic mode restricts the range of our philosophical inquiry no longer has any basis.
Over the last 50 years, the term “continental philosophy” has been extended to many other European movements, such as Hegelian idealism, Marxism, hermeneutics and, especially, poststructuralism and deconstruction.  These are often in opposition to phenomenology and existentialism, but analytic philosophers still see them as falling far short of standards or clarity and rigor.  As a result, as Brian Leiter has emphasized, “continental philosophy” today designates “a series of partly overlapping traditions in philosophy, some of whose figures have almost nothing in common with [each] other.”
The scope of  “analytic philosophy” has likewise broadened over the years.  In the 1950s, it typically took the form of either logical positivism or ordinary-language philosophy, each of which involved commitment to a specific mode of analysis (roughly, following either Carnap or Wittgenstein) as well as substantive philosophical views.  These views involved a rejection of much traditional philosophy (especially metaphysics and ethics) as essentially meaningless.  There was, in particular, no room for religious belief or objective ethical norms.  Today, analytic philosophers use a much wider range of methods (including quasi-scientific inference to the best explanation and their own versions of phenomenological description).  Also, there are analytic cases being made for the full range of traditional philosophical positions, including the existence of God, mind-body dualism, and objective ethical norms.
Various forms of empiricism and naturalism are still majority views, but any philosophical position can be profitably developed using the tools of analytic philosophy.  There are Thomists and Hegelians who are analytic philosophers, and there is even a significant literature devoted to expositions of major continental philosophers in analytic terms.  The claim that working in the analytic mode restricts the range of our philosophical inquiry no longer has any basis.
This development refutes the claim that analytic philosophers, asSantiago Zabala recently put it, do not discuss “the fundamental questions that have troubled philosophers for millennia.”  This was true in the days of positivism, but no more. Zabala’s claim that analytic philosophers have not produced “deep historical research” is similarly outdated.  It was true back when the popularity of Russell’s “A History of Western Philosophy” signaled the analytic disdain for serious history.  Now, however, even though many analytic philosophers still have little interest in history, many of the best current historians of philosophy employ the conceptual and argumentative methods of analytic philosophy.
Because of such developments, Leiter has argued that there are no longer substantive philosophical differences between analytic and continental philosophy, although there are sometimes important differences of “style.”  He has also suggested that the only gap in principle between the two camps is sociological, that (these are my examples) philosophers in one camp discount the work of those in the other simply because of their personal distaste for symbolic logic or for elaborate literary and historical discussions.
Some continental approaches claim to access a privileged domain of experience.
I agree with much of what Leiter says, but think there are still important general philosophical differences between analytic philosophy and continental philosophy, in all their current varieties.   These differences concern their conceptions of experience and of reason as standards of evaluation. Typically, analytic philosophy appeals to experience understood as common-sense intuitions (as well as their developments and transformations by science) and to reason understood as the standard rules of logical inference.   A number of continental approaches claim to access a privileged domain ofexperience that penetrates beneath the veneer of common sense and science experience. For example, phenomenologists, such as Husserl, the early Heidegger, Sartre and Merleau-Ponty try to describe the concretely lived experience from which common-sense/scientific experience is a pale and distorted abstraction, like the mathematical frequencies that optics substitutes for the colors we perceive in the world.  Similarly, various versions of neo-Kantianism and idealism point to a “transcendental” or “absolute” consciousness that provides the fuller significance of our ordinary experiences.
Other versions of continental thought regard the essential activity of reason not as the logical regimentation of thought but as the creative exercise of intellectual imagination.  This view is characteristic of most important French philosophers since the 1960s, beginning with Foucault, Derrida and Deleuze.  They maintain that the standard logic analytic philosophers use can merely explicate what is implicit in the concepts with which we happen to begin; such logic is useless for the essential philosophical task, which they maintain is learning to think beyond these concepts.
Continental philosophies of experience try to probe beneath the concepts of everyday experience to discover the meanings that underlie them, to think the conditions for the possibility of our concepts.  By contrast, continental philosophies of imagination try to think beyond those concepts, to, in some sense, think what is impossible.
Philosophies of experience and philosophies of imagination are in tension, since the intuitive certainties of experience work as limits to creative intellectual imagination, which in turn challenges those alleged limits.  Michel Foucault nicely expressed the tension when he spoke of the competing philosophical projects of critique in the sense of “knowing what limits knowledge has to renounce transgressing” and of  “a practical critique that takes the form of a possible transgression.”  However, a number of recent French philosophers (e.g., Levinas, Ricoeur, Badiou and Marion) can be understood as developing philosophies that try to reconcile phenomenological experience and deconstructive creativity.
In view of their substantive philosophical differences, it’s obvious that analytic and continental philosophers would profit by greater familiarity with one another’s work, and discussions across the divide would make for a better philosophical world.  Here, however, there is a serious lack of symmetry between analytic and continental thought.  This is due to the relative clarity of most analytic writing in contrast to the obscurity of much continental work.
Because of its commitment to clarity, analytic philosophy functions as an effective lingua franca for any philosophical ideas.  (Even the most difficult writers, such as Sellars and Davidson, find disciples who write clarifying commentaries.)  There is, moreover, a continuing demand for analytic expositions of major continental figures.  It’s obvious why there is no corresponding market for, say, expositions of Quine, Rawls or Kripke in the idioms of Heidegger, Derrida or Deleuze.  With all due appreciation for the limits of what cannot be said with full clarity, training in analytic philosophy would greatly improve the writing of most continental philosophers.
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Of course, analytic philosophers could often profit from exposure to continental ideas.  Epistemologists, for example, could learn a great deal from the phenomenological analyses of Husserl and Merleau-Ponty, and metaphysicians could profit from the historical reflections of Heidegger and Derrida. But in view of the unnecessary difficulty of much continental writing, most analytic philosophers will do better to rely on a second-hand acquaintance through reliable and much more accessible secondary sources.
It may be that the most strikingly obscure continental writing  (e.g., of the later Heidegger and of most major French philosophers since the 1960s) is a form of literary expression, producing a kind of abstract poetry from its creative transformations of philosophical concepts.   This would explain the move of academic interest in such work toward English and other language departments.  But it is hard to see that there is much of serious philosophical value lost in the clarity of analytic commentaries on Heidegger, Derrida, et al.
There are some encouraging recent signs of philosophers following philosophical problems wherever they are interestingly discussed, regardless of the author’s methodology, orientation or style.  But the primary texts of leading continental philosophers are still unnecessary challenges to anyone trying to come to terms with them.  The continental-analytic gap will begin to be bridged only when seminal thinkers of the Continent begin to write more clearly.

Gary Gutting
Gary Gutting is a professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, and an editor of Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews. He is the author of, most recently, “Thinking the Impossible: French Philosophy since 1960,” and writes regularly for The Stone.
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