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On Dialogue

by Rick Lewis

Apologies if this editorial is a little less polished than usual. The one literate member of the Philosophy Now editorial team has skived off to Greece to lie on a beach.

Anyone who takes up philosophy is soon told that there is a mighty split between the way philosophy is done here in dear old Blighty (and in America and Australia) and the way it is done over there on the Continent. At first it may look like the world’s philosophers are indulging in some arcane kind of tribal warfare, but on closer inspection it is apparent that most of the time the two groups are just politely ignoring each other. For nearly a century there have been two separate strands of development in Western philosophy, without all that much communication between them. Indeed the stony silence is punctuated by the occasional massive row such as the one last year when Cambridge University proposed Jacques Derrida for an honorary degree, and various English philosophers accused him of being a charlatan.

Of course, to describe this divide in geographical terms is a gross oversimplification. However, there really do seem to be two traditions, separated not only by the jargon they use but by real differences in their approaches and aims. The Anglo-Saxon (or ‘Analytic’) philosophers are noted for their close analysis of the language in which philosophical questions are asked, and for a careful, precise approach to philosophy generally. The Continentals are famed for their continuing attention to the big problems of existence and the meaning of life, but are accused by the Analytics of skating carelessly over difficult matters. They tend to respond that Analytical philosophy is dessicated and has lost sight of the important questions. The Bluffer’s Guide to Philosophy (my main reference book!) put it rather neatly when discussing Existentialism: “Analytic philosophers are inclined to despise Existentialism for not being sufficiently analytic: Existentialists are inclined to despise Anglo-Saxon analytic philosophers for simply not being sufficiently.”

The differences in terminology are a big problem, though. I once had a friend who was into Derrida, Foucault, Lacan and so on (you know who I’m taking about, Ian). When asked to explain the theories of, say, Lacan, he would start off “well, basically….” and those would be the last words that I’d understand clearly for twenty minutes. It was very frustrating! In this issue, Mike Fuller not only conducts an in-depth investigation of the nature of the great rift, but also provides a key to a variety of thinkers such as Derrida, in terms that even pig-ignorant Analyticals such as myself can grasp.

Dialogue between people with radically differing approaches and views is a refreshing thing for all concerned. This doesn’t imply in my view that a single new type of philosophy should follow a merger of the old traditions. If that were to happen then an initial burst of vitality might give way to an increasingly stale monologue. The trouble with everyone being on the same wavelength is that after a while you neither see nor question the assumptions underlying philosophical enquiry. Therefore as far as I’m concerned, vive la difference! But let’s at least talk and exchange ideas.

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