Analytic – Continental – A false opposition

When writing on philosophy, I noticed recently that I tend to use the words ‘analyse’ and ‘interpret’ interchangeably, although I am aware that they do not designate the same. Analysis breaks a subject of reflection down in smaller parts, possibly in the smallest meaningful parts, to show the structure of the phenomenon one talks or writes about. Interpretation is after the meaning of a word, expression, or entire text – without necessarily dividing its subject into elements, but translating it into another meaningful composite that helps to bring to light what it is about. The two approaches are supposed to stand for two currents in philosophy called analytic and hermeneutic. So why do I tend to mix them up? Not, as I said, because I suppose them to do the same – but because I see no reason to restrict myself to the one or the other. Finding meaning needs both, in the same process.

I suppose some colleagues think I am against analytic philosophy, but this is a misconception. I see analysis as one of the, most neccessary, tools we have to reflect and gain understanding. I do think it to be dangerous, though, that analytic philosophy seems to get the most credit in our discipline nowadays. No, not just annoying, but dangerous. Before I go further into this, let me clear away the other common misconception – that analytic philosophy is opposed to continental philosophy. This shows a category mistake, opposing a geographical and essentialistic designation to a methodological one. The current opposition used to be, some thirty years ago, ‘continental versus anglo-saxon’. Which expresses a category mistake too, by the way, opposing a unity of language/culture to one of geography, but at least it didn’t mix the methodological criterion with something entirely extrinsic to methodology. It all doesn’t make sense, from a viewpoint of description anyway. Descartes thought it to be very useful to apply analysis in reasoning, but he was definitely from the continent, and stayed there too. William James took a phenomenological approach to things, which would place him on the ‘continental’ side – but he is generally supposed to be at the roots of this all-American current in philosophy, called pragmatism. Should we see his prolonged stays in Europe as the cause for this cross-over behavior of his?

What does it make sense for then? The opposition ‘analytic-continental’ which is in fashion nowadays is nothing but an instrument of strategy in a struggle for hegemony in philosophy. It happens that analytical philosophers reproach those they call continental for being not exact in their reasoning, leaning towards esthetic play in their texts and placing themselves thus on the outside of thorough scholarship. It also occurs that continental philosophers reproach the analytical ones to place themselves outside of thorough scholarship, because they would lack depth as well as knowledge of the great works of the philosophical tradition, and play superficial games of reason without content. The prize in this competition is not only honour, the worthiness of being the best thinker, but also something more superficial – money. Competition among philosophers has been provoked to a nasty degree in the latest decades – due to the transfer of money from universities to research institutions and market parties, that should select the best projects and the most promising researchers for funding. In philosophy, where there are not much results that are directly useful to society, and where projects cannot be judged to scientific measures like their promise to give opportunity to empirical testing – the researchers have to compete by making claims to thoroughness – depth for the continentals, edge for the analyticals. Analytic philosophy makes a stronger case in the boxing ring, as it mostly provides the committees who judge applications with clearer structures of what is to be done and how.

Why do I consider this to be dangerous? Not because I suppose continental philosophy to address the questions that really matter in a better way – not at all. The danger lies in the fact that the illusion of the opposition remains undisturbed. My point is that philosophers should not be competing, making use of improper self-indentifications, like boxers that are put in the ring for profit. They should address real problems of real living beings in the real world. Use their experience and training in reflection to see what is happening outside of the ivory tower. What is happening is that neither the old continent, nor the anglo-saxon empire of old, nor even the transatlantic Euro-American world can claim to be the center of the world anymore. The idea that this old world is the standard of reason and truth is a form of dangerous blindness. Dangerous not only for those who belong to it, but even more for those from other continents and histories who believe it still, following it into pernicious abstractions while forgetting to address that life is going to waste all around us. Let us not focus on the tragedy of some species going extinct, but on what causes so many species to go extinct so rapidly. Let us not focus on the destruction of natural landscape due to this or that kind of energy source, but to the fact that the human species has become a bunch of addicts for energy. Let us not focus on this war or that, but on the underlying competition over possession of land and resources, over ethnic or religious unity, over ‘us’ over against the ‘others’. The best thinkers of the world should consider these issues, instead of playing power games over money and prestige.

Those who will realize the importance of addressing such real problems could see that geographical, lingual, or methodological oppositions amongst philosophical tribes are obsolete. And dangerous. True philosophy should not be analytic, anglo-saxon, or continental – it should make haste to attain an entirely different level of understanding: the level of intercontinental philosophy.

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