Trying to cross the analytic/continental divide

Many of us were at the SWIP UK Conference on Embodiment and Identity over the weekend in Hull. I’ll be blogging more about it later, and perhaps some of the rest of us will too! But here I just want to talk methodologies. Feminist philosophers often criticise more mainstream philosophers as not sufficiently open to new methodologies. But I think it’s important to talk a bit about how genuinely difficult it is to engage with methodologies that are not one’s own. I’m a very analytic philosopher, and the SWIP conference gave me quite an immersion in continental philosophy. It was really exciting– lots of great people, lots of fascinating stuff that was very new to me, lots of wonderful energy. But I also spent a lot of time feeling like I was in a different world, with a language I don’t know and a culture that is unfamiliar. Sometimes I couldn’t understand anything at all that was going on. Sometimes, usually when detailed examples were used, I got a lot out of it. But sometimes it was something in between– I kind of got what was going on, or thought I did. Then someone started talking about water having ‘agency’, and everyone in the room was nodding sagely. It was already several replies into a question, and the queue was long, so I decided not to query further. But it gave me a real sense of the difficulty of simply asking people to be more inclusive with regard to methodologies. It’s just HARD to engage with things when you really don’t understand what’s going on– and doubly so when some of the words are ones that you yourself use differently. (If it hadn’t been for that example, I might well not have realised that clearly something different was being meant by the familiar word ‘agency’.) Do others have thoughts, experiences, advice on the topic of crossing this divide?

16 thoughts on “Trying to cross the analytic/continental divide

  1. Here’s a thought: just cross the divide!
    I am fortunate enough to have had training in both “traditions” and methods. I can navigate from one to the other without too much pain. I gave a “continental” commentary on 3 analytic papers on promising in 2006 and it was great fun. It was because I could understand what was going on (although a bit tough upon reading the papers at first because it had been a while since I had read analytic philosophy).
    What a find troublesome is the fact that we tend to let ourselves be trapped in our worlds. Students in continental philosophy literally shiver with fright at the mere mention of analytic philosophy while students in analytic philosophy ignore continental philosophy with a shrug of the shoulders. what to do? I think that well balanced programs that expose students to both equally (and not just via the traditional electives) would be one way. The same that exposure to other non-traditional philosophies would be salutary (i.e. race theory, feminist philosophy (!), Asian philosophy, etc.)
    A few thoughts, thanks for launching the topic.

  2. I have two good friends and fellow philosophy grad students who are deeply Continental feminist philosophers, and while I studied some Continental philosophy when I was still taking classes, my approach is definitely going to be Analytic.

    I asked them recently what they thought of the idea that the Analytic/Continental divide is weakening, and we may see a gradual reconciliation over the course of our careers — that they’re just two different ways of tackling roughly the same project. Both thought this was horrible, and deeply mistaken about the aims of Continental philosophy.

    As I understood them, they’re primarily interested in uncovering and problematising assumptions made in other disciplines, especially politics and science. We also decided, over the course of this conversation, that my aim is — in the spirit of Dewey, Carnap, and Neurath — to clarify and understand the relation between various `domains’ (science, ethics, the political and economic conditions of a society, etc.), and that many or most Analytic philosophers working in metaphysics and epistemology are after theoretical knowledge of something like the fundamental structures of reality and vanquishing epistemological scepticism.

    If this caricature of a taxonomy is at all accurate, then it’s hard to see how Continental methodologies can be applicable to Analytic problems and vice versa.

  3. i think broadly “political” (or, more generally, “applied” ) questions like gender and race lend themselves to lots of bridge-crossing. first, all feminist philosophers know and care about the category of “gender” and the oppression of women, so there’s a good amount of common ground at the level of content (even if methodologies/literature is vastly different). there are a number of “big-name” scholars in feminist and critical race theory who use a blended approach (e.g., Alcoff, Gooding-Williams, just to name the first that come to mind…). i know a lot of feminist/poco/crit. race scholars of my generation that have a continental background but are generally “omnivorous,” so to speak.

    i guess i should also offer the caveat that i’m in a highly pluralistic department, so i’m used to people being very accepting and supportive and generally averse to the sort of partisanism that happens in other departments…

  4. doctaj: They pop up sometimes with the close bracket. I’ll try to get it to go away.

    It does catch one’s attention, I have to say!

  5. A whole area of cognitive science/neuroscience – the embodied, enactive stuff – has a lot of interaction with phenomenology. There’s a journal “Phenomenology and the Cognitive Science,” and recent books by Alva Noe and Shaun Gallagher, among others, display quite a bit of crossing over.

    I go to quite a few phenomenology and cognitive science conferences; I find them generally much more exciting than the regular philosophy conferences, though this year’s Pacific APA had a number of us regulars on the program.

    Nonetheless, I have a great deal of difficulty reading some phenomenology, for reasons quite like one of Jender’s. It’s hard to know what the words mean. And sometimes the sentence structure brings tears to my eyes. 80-word sentences seem to me to offend against basic properties of short term memory.

  6. jj:

    the 80-word sentences are most likely the fault, so to speak, of translation (and, uh, if i may be a bit twain-esque here, we can blame a lot of it on the german langauge itself…). usually that stuff is relatively clear in the original language, but is difficult to really “get” into any sort of english formulation that both makes sense and preserves the meaning/structure of the original. for example, when you are trying to translate one of those tremendously compounded german words into english, it becomes nearly impossible to maintain any sort of elegant or economical sentence structure (b/c you now have a whole clause, whereas in the original it’s just one word).

  7. Doctaj,

    Yes, often, though I remember the joke that went around a very highly respected British philosopher that working on Kant ruined his style and that of many of his students. The one time I actually counted was when I was reviewing a book by an English speaker who was heavily involved in the phenomenological literature.

  8. Christine,
    I’m sorry to say our spam catcher put you in the spam basket! Still, now you’re out to be seen.

  9. Maybe this won’t be a popular response, but frankly — after 7 years of study, an ungodly comprehensive exam list, and even a course in “analytic philosophy” — I’m one year away from getting my PhD, and I don’t really see the difference.

    From where I stand, it seems to be an issue of what your archive is, really, who you’re reading and thinking about with respect to what you’re working on. But I could not for the life of me give you a definition of what contemporary “analytic” philosophy is versus “continental” philosophy. I agree with Jender that the “continental” crowd (and here I’m thinking mostly of the postmodernists) tend to use unnecessarily convoluted language. But even that is improving. I mean, look at Butler’s early work versus what she’s writing now, and there’s a noticeable improvement: the recent stuff is much more easily comprehended IMO.

    And Jender, even as someone who (from what I can tell) is more “continental” than “analytic,” I think most of the sage head-nodders are usually either faking it or fooling themselves, anyway. Drives me nuts.

  10. Many thanks for these responses! I am dubious about most ways of drawing a sharp distinction. For example, analytic philosophers will often claim that clarity is our most prized virtue– a claim quickly undermined by a quick glance at McDowell. But I do think there’s a historical divide, and a real one– we’re working from different literatures, which have defined problems differently and which use different terminology, and which take different claims for granted. And that’s enough to make it tough to understand each other.

  11. Hello-
    In the interest of trying to cross the Continental/Analytic divide, would anyone here be interested in recommending to me resources in analytic feminist philosophy? I’m not asking for an exhaustive list, but suggestions of what you consider to be influential articles/books by analytic feminists, or even websites where bibliographies might be located? I’m trained in continental philosophy, but have recently realized that an “analytic” style (to the extent they are different) may be more, or at least equally, helpful for some feminist projects. I realize this is a broad request–any suggestions are appreciated. Thanks.

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