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Quotation Marks Needed

by Anja Steinbauer

Continental climate, continental drift, continental breakfast, all of these make sense. But what is continental philosophy? What makes it ‘continental’? And which continent are we talking about anyway?

I’m not opposed to structuring philosophy. Dividing philosophical activity up into different areas can make sense. Pragmatism, Existentialism, Phenomenology, Logical Positivism: all are distinct approaches in tackling philosophical problems. A thinker’s willingness to condone or reject, or even to subscribe to any of them can be illuminating; it makes for challenging discussions that can reveal much about their intellectual, methodological and even moral commitments.

This, however, is not true of ‘Continental philosophy’. What sounds like a mere geographical marker turns out to be something less clear but also far less innocent. The fact that Hannah Arendt, discussed in this issue by Scott Remer, and Georges Bataille, featured in Michael Mocatta’s article, hail from the European mainland is not enough to define them as ‘continental’ philosophers. After all, so did Frege and Wittgenstein. What the term denotes is hard to grasp; it seems to refer to a number of very diverse thinkers and their ideas and approaches, not at all restricted to or representative of any particular continent, European or other. If you can’t easily understand what something is, it can be helpful to try and understand what it is not. So how do people actually apply the term ‘continental philosophy’? Here – what a relief – we can make some progress: they typically use it in opposition to ‘analytical philosophy’. Alas, that term doesn’t make much sense either. How can you have a philosophy that is not analytical? What self-respecting philosopher doesn’t analyse?

An old joke goes: “Anglo-Saxon philosophers accuse Continental philosophers of being insufficiently clear, while the Continentals accuse the Anglo-Saxons of being insufficiently.” What is interesting is the language used: ‘continental’ here stands opposed to ‘Anglo-Saxon’. In fact, not all Anglo-Saxon philosophers are ‘analytical’, and many Continental philosophers are. Some Anglo-Saxon philosophers are ‘continental’. Confused? You’re not alone.

It is hard to escape the conclusion that neither the ‘analytical’ nor the ‘continental’ labels are neutral or objective: They are used almost exclusively in the English-speaking academic world, where some philosophers have proudly and conveniently adopted the very positive descriptor ‘analytical’ for themselves, and in the process have relegated everybody else to some vague ‘continental’ camp. The ‘continental’ philosopher thus turns into a bizarre ‘Other’ (a continental concept analysed by Peter Benson in his article). ‘Analytic philosophy’ is notable for a particular emphasis on the analysis of language and its relation to meaning – but that is an interest shared by hermeneutics, a ‘continental’ tradition of thought. Apart from that, ‘analytical’ philosophy defines itself by an adherence to methodological rigour guided by logic. But rational argument is essential to any kind of philosophy. Without it, no philosophy.

However, styles greatly vary, both within ‘analytical’ philosophy and beyond. Some ‘continental’ styles have been written off as lacking in clarity or even obscure. Damning judgements indeed, but sometimes we give up too easily on what we dislike or find difficult to comprehend. If you’ve had this problem with the admittedly hard-to-understand postmodern thinker Derrida, don’t despair, Mike Sutton’s article will explain all.

What can legitimately count as ‘real’ philosophy? Where do we draw the line? In its long history, philosophy has often been challenged by philosophers wanting to upend its current methods or assumptions. It is a cheap trick, far too easy and unworthy of philosophy, to simply see off challengers by dismissing them as not being real philosophers, by calling them imposters, pretending to say something meaningful when they are not. It can be effective, though, and saves the trouble of having to defeat your challengers’ arguments. By redefining philosophy as a unified, pure discipline and excluding misfits, dissenters or the unfamiliar, critics can sleep easy. I think that it is this attitude that a prominent ‘continental’ philosopher I once talked to was worried about when he referred to ‘analytical’ philosophy as “the last totalitarian bastion”. His comment also reveals that feelings run high on both sides of this strange divide.

There are ways of drawing distinctions that may be more fruitful. Oppositions related to the ‘analytical’-‘continental’ split, such as between ‘analytical’ and ‘dialectical’ can be useful, as they can refer to proper philosophical positions with distinctive approaches, perspectives and chosen contexts. However, even if we allow the ‘analytical’-‘continental’ distinction, the development of philosophy does its best to dissipate it. Healthy cross-pollination between the two is happening, and has happened for decades. It is well known, for example, that Philippa Foot, an ‘analytical’ philosopher if ever there was one, felt inspired by the arch-‘continental’ Nietzsche, whereas ‘continental’ postmodern thinker Jean-Francois Lyotard felt the same about Wittgenstein. An opening up of discussions in areas such as ethics encourages us to look beyond tribal boundaries and promotes a loosening – not of commitments to good reasoning – but of styles.

In conclusion, I feel the ‘analytical’-‘continental’ opposition is just too crude and unphilosophically judgemental. So, my advice: keep the quotation marks.

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