On the sociology of the analytic-continental divide and its passing

Though I am friendly towards continental philosophy, I do not really identify with it. I tend to locate the split between analytic and continental philosophy fairly recently, at the time of the French explosion of the late 1960’s with Derrida, Foucault, and Deleuze, among others, and think of it largely as an Anglophone, especially an American phenomenon. The dominance of analytic philosophy in the English-speaking world could only have occurred after the rise of a particular university culture in English-speaking countries at large: without the ideal of everybody having a degree, it would not be generally possible for analytic philosophers to focus on “research”, “rigor”, being on the “cutting edge”, etc., since the economic resources for the possibility of the kind of deep compartmentalization constitutive of analytic philosophy weren’t yet present.

By contrast, the tendency among continental philosophers to stress broad knowledge of the philosophical tradition can only be accounted for in its present form as a minority reaction to the development of the research university and the kind of philosophy it encourages. As such, continental philosophy takes advantage of a tension in the culture of American higher education between research and liberal arts universities, a tension that doesn’t appear to be as present in the cultures of the UK or many countries on the European continent. This helps explain the more widespread presence of respected philosophers pre-1970 who don’t neatly fit into either tradition, e.g. Thomas Kuhn, Dietrich von Hildebrand, Jacques Maritain, even Kurt Gödel.

What we are witnessing today is not so much an overcoming of a divide as a growing out of it. The disputes of the past don’t have the same gravity for younger researchers that they do for their older colleagues. The result is a watering down of not only the vices, but also the virtues of both traditions. Future philosophers will be less prone to obscurantism or logic-chopping; they will also be less likely to be a Heidegger or a Wittgenstein. Both the characteristic virtues and the vices of the coming generation are likely to be different.

More on this later.

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On the future of research in the history of philosophy

Many problems in research in the history of philosophy arise from a basic orientation of philosophy at research institutions: philosophers in general tend to be more concerned about the present and future than about the past. Quine and those influenced by him, for instance, are explicit in regarding theories even in history as fundamentally guided by concerns about prediction; more concretely, much literature on nearly any topic is primarily concerned to see if the argument “works”–that is, is able to do work for us. This basic tendency to evaluate everything on the basis of its ability to be appropriated leaves many philosophers unequipped to engage in research on more than individual figures for the sake of more than adopting them for contemporary needs.

A mark of this tendency is the ease with which much research in the history of philosophy can be taxonomized into two approaches: the one I shall call the ‘necromantic approach’; the other, ‘Mormon genealogy’. [i]

The aim of the necromantic approach is to resurrect the mighty dead in order to get into an argument with them. This approach tends to focus on well-known figures (there’s not much value in picking a fight with the feeble dead), with an eye towards appropriating their ideas for contemporary purposes.

The Mormon genealogist, by contrast, baptizes his roots: he does not raise the dead to slay them, but redeems them by linking them to something greater – the attitudes and contributions of the researcher’s own generation. One finds this approach in the naming of contemporary principles and positions for thinkers who couldn’t possibly have known or held them (e.g. ‘Hume’s Principle’, ‘Neo-Humeanism’); in the assimilation of ancient theories to contemporary ones (e.g. Aristotle’s physics and psychology to contemporary functionalism); in the myriad works tracing the origins of scientific method to the later Middle Ages, the historical-critical method to Medieval biblical exegesis, contemporary advances in mathematical logic to Medieval logicians, etc.

Neither of these approaches addresses history in the manner in which it addresses us.

‘History’ names the past. The fundamental givenness of the past in its pastness is as weight. The past is what presses us. As pressing, it presses us toward some end. This is the basis for the connection fashioned by ancient peoples between the star of one’s birth and one’s destiny.

The recognition of weight grounds the recognition of my own history as mine. This weight is given prior to any assessment of its value or goodness. Whether the weight of history be one of sin or of glory, it prepares a rapport of its bearer towards a future.

The name ‘history’ specifically signifies the past in its wholeness. This is why the French ‘l’histoire’ means both ‘history’ and ‘story’; it is also why our removal from an authentic experience of history should be accompanied by an increasingly atomistic approach to historical research. The necromantic approach only values the thinker by de-historicizing him. The genealogical approach treats the thinker as a node to be connected with other nodes in order to reconstruct channels of influence. The atomistic presuppositions behind both projects are a fiction. Ideas do not come from thinkers, nor does their transmission resemble that of your cell-phone data to the government.

Though the pressure associated with research in philosophy is great, the direction of research itself increasingly demands that no attention be given to research as pressure. Recall the following from Kant’s “What is enlightenment?”

  • The officer says: “Do not question – drill!” The tax collector: “Do not question – pay!” The pastor: “Do not question – believe!”

To these we may add the mandate of the university itself:

  • Do not question – write!

What is most uncanny here is that the mode of futurity assumed by historical research divorces it not merely from the experience of history in its pastness: in doing so, it also deprives the researcher of an originary experience of futurity. Futurity is authentically given as what is to come. As such, it may be longed for, anticipated, feared, dreaded. One comes to a future out of a past, like an arrow to its mark from the taut bow. Instead of this, futurity is present to the researcher in the mode of optionality. It is that which is available for the choosing from a position of superiority.

Where there is no reckoning of ground, neither is there the reckoning of a height to be reached; and a thinker who does not think through an inheritance does not think.

[i] The first phrase comes from Charles Pigden. See Charles Pigden (2015). “Scott Soames: The analytic tradition in philosophy, volume 1: Founding giants” Philosophical Studies 172: 1671-1680. The second was suggested to me by a medievalist in Europe in private correspondence.

A rule for commenting on philosophy blog posts

A rule for commenting on philosophy blog posts

Before posting your comment, read each and every previous comment. Only comment if the point you wish to make has not been previously stated by someone else in some form.

The justification of the rule

A post, along with its comments, is the unified work of a collective body. While it typically has one principal architect (i.e. the author of the post), a number of individuals will make contributions to the final form of the work – primarily through its comments section.

As a work, the post, along with its comments, is precisely not a documentary of a moment in time, but rather, has something artificial to it. In live talk, a latecomer to a conversation might need to be updated on the previous topics of conversation, leading to considerable repetition; whereas in the literary form of a philosophical dialogue, such a newcomer may come across as having no such need, as though he had been listening in on the conversation all along. In the latter case, the shift from the spoken to the written word brings with it a corresponding shift in the character of the text, from the transience of the utterance to the stability of the written mark. The spoken word moves from absence to presence and back again; the written manifests itself simultaneously as a synoptic whole. As text, the work is a concrete unit of simultaneous presencing, bringing with it the impression that all of its participants share a panoptic view of it.[1]

Because of this, the post-with-comments is governed by the ideals of good philosophical writing in general: specifically, by the idea that powerful speech is parsimonious speech; and in particular, by the idea that redundancy is to be avoided. Repetition crowds out: it disrupts the integration of the various parts of the conversation, and therefore serves to obfuscate the whole rather than foster its clarification as a whole. Verbal economy, by contrast, promotes the essential integrity of the totality.

[1] This remains the case even when the standpoint of some of the participants is what we would call ‘incomplete.’ The standpoint of a Glaucon is incomplete not because it fails to grasp all of the parts of the conversation, but because it fails to grasp the whole in its fullness: the failure is a one of depth rather than breadth.

This is also a key difference between philosophical fiction and tragedy: in the latter, but not the former, one often encounters precisely this other sort of partiality, where the hiddenness of some piece of information sets the series of events on a certain course.

On teaching as authority and mediation

In its fourth chapter, the Chicago Handbook for Teachers (2nd edition) advises the following when lecturing:

“Speak loudly and forcefully, both to ensure that everyone in the room can hear you and so that you do not seem tentative or unsure…Look directly at your audience as much as possible…be sure to speak in a deliberate and unrushed way…Change your inflections and even your pace as you move from one kind of statement to another…And finish on time.” (43)

Overall, the above advice leaves the following impressions:

  1. For the purposes of teaching, it is best that the teacher be both knowledgeable and confident. But if the teacher is lacking in either of these areas, feigned confidence is on the whole preferable to candid disclosure of one’s weakness.[1]
  2. A skilled lecturer ought to be able to control his environment. This is partially achieved through the speaker’s ability to make his presence known through voice[2] and through eye contact.[3]
  3. Though the pace of the lecture may change slightly,[4] the overall mode of presentation should be grave.[5]
  4. The lecture must have a beginning, a body, and an end, fit into the confines of the time allotted. There must be a kairological unity not only to the semester, but also to the individual lecture units that make up a semester.

The authors conclude the above section with the following two maxims:

  1. “In the end, however, the success of a lecture depends on its content, and on your ability to deliver it convincingly.” (45)
  2. “The only things that all lecturers have in common are being clear and articulate, being organized, and being engaged.” (45)

This implies the following:

  1. A lecture is divisible into two components: content and presentation. The content will have its own draw: the lecturer is responsible for the presentation of that content.
  2. The job of the lecturer is to “convince” his students. More adequately, the lecturer serves as a medium whereby the content itself convinces the student.
  3. As a consequence of this intermediary role, the lecturer must retain an element of invisibility: he must be “clear”. The ability of a lecturer to fulfill his function depends on his ability to fit well within this hierarchy: he must be “organized,” not merely in the sense of being well prepared, but more than this, to be well prepared to fulfill one’s role within the systematic transfer of knowledge—i.e. to be “organized” in the sense of being oneself in one’s right hierarchical place.[6]

On the whole, these statements place the lecturer in a tendentious position: the lecturer, qua mediator, tends teleologically towards his anonymity: the role of the lecturer is self-effacing in the face of the knowledge it seeks to communicate. Thus, in an age of the immediate transferability of any kind of knowledge, even the best lecturer can be viewed not so much as a medium as a barrier to knowledge. The lecturer’s ability to serve adequately depends on the keeping in place of certain material conditions. But as technology demures from these conditions—e.g. microphones ensure that audiences can be larger, and media such as YouTube allows a lecturer a certain ubiquity vis-a-vis his audience—the lecturer’s job security and relative importance catches up with the self-effacing nature of the vocation itself. Thus, the peculiar importance of the lecturer as a mediator of knowledge is denied more and more as other avenues of information exchange open up. This can lead to anxiety and/or loneliness.

On the other hand, the lecturer is, in different sense, opaque: his personal life must remain largely hidden to his students,[7] and even his pedagogical ability is occasionally obscured in order to maintain a position of authority.[8] Thus, while the lecturer is anonymous from the standpoint of the knowledge conveyed, he is fully present in his ability to control the flow of the lecture through rhetorical force—i.e. through his ability to deliver information “convincingly.” Thus, the lecturer’s sense of self-importance is often not composite with the self-effacing telos of his office. This misconstrued relationship can lead to resentment of students, colleagues, and/or “the system.”

If one seeks an academic career, one must instead find a way to navigate this tension between knowledge and force, rhetoric and invisibility. How this is to be done depends on understanding the lecturer as both mediator and authority.

[1] One ought not to “seem tentative or unsure,” even if one, in fact, is.

[2] “Speak loudly and forcefully.”

[3] “Look directly at your audience as much as possible.”

[4] “Change your inflections and even your pace as you move from one statement to another”

[5] “Be sure to speak in a deliberate and unrushed way.” By “grave” I do not mean “deathly serious,” nor do I intend anything about one’s comportment while lecturing. Rather, the word is taken here as recommending a slow but sharp cadence in speech, more reminiscent of Roman gravitas than English gravity.

[6] The hierarchy of knowledge alluded to here is not identical to the institutional hierarchy of the university itself. What is alluded to here is that the teacher’s role as mediator between knowledge and the student.

[7] “Do not…allow a lecture to become the occasion for elaborate explorations of your personal history” (44)

[8] “You can obscure a great deal of your own anxiety simply by speaking emphatically and clearly” (43).