Analytics vs Continentals: the kayfabe of the 20th century | Dominican University College

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Analytics vs Continentals: the kayfabe of the 20th century

Thursday, December 18, 2014

By Iva Apostolova


There are perhaps very few so vigorously re-fueled love-hate relationships in the history of philosophy as between the Analytics and the Continentals. It is not a secret that since its birth in 1900 Analytic Philosophy has acquired quite a reputation, a reputation that has created its own mythology (crossing both sides of the barricade, mind you; credit needs to be given where it’s deserved!). Fortunately, over the past few decades the analytic-continental blockade has begun to crack. Richard Rorty was one of the first few to do the unthinkable—openly and publicly cross the line from analytic to continental—and today Merleau-Ponty is on the tip of the tongue of many analytics.

But for the first timer, here is a glimpse at some of the myths following the analytic tradition like a faithful shadow (leaving aside the fact that ‘analytic philosophy’ is an umbrella term huddling philosophers who do not want to be seen in the company of other ‘analytic’ philosophers. Strangely, Wittgenstein and his mentor Russell are the first that come to mind…)

Myth 1: Analytic philosophy is dry: all it does is split hairs in an impossible jargon.

Russell, one of the fathers of the analytic tradition, worried all his life (almost a century-long life!) about what he called the ‘unity of the proposition’. His main concern: how to analyze a meaningful philosophical proposition without actually losing its meaning. As for the jargon, well, if Kant’s ‘noumena’ and Heidegger’s 'Dasein' are not jargon, I don’t know what is! Inventing new vocabulary in the name of accuracy and depth is part and parcel of almost every philosopher’s agenda.

Myth 2: Analytic philosophy doesn’t pay attention to the history of philosophy, it takes philosophical ideas out of context and analyzes them to death.

Russell’s two-volume The History of Western Philosophy is still considered a must-read intro to philosophy. J. O. Urmson, a classically trained Oxford don, considered himself an Aristotle scholar before anything else.

Myth 3: Analytic philosophers are boring and not interested in the meaning of life questions.

William James, one of the great American Pragmatists and a major influence on the analytic tradition struggled with depression all his life. It is those struggles, as he himself admits, that pushed him into re-evaluating his own views on religious tolerance and truth. Truth, he thought, was the end of a thought ‘path’ in a stream of consciousness where the pen is as much a part of my experience as I am of the pen’s.

And if you want philosophical excitement, you should read Wittgenstein’s Poker: The Story of a Ten-Minute Argument between Two Great Philosophers. Trust me, it’s worth your time!