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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