Continental vs. Analytic Philosophy: Rethinking the Debate, Relativism, Objectivity, and Politics
The website Against Professional Philosophy, written by a self-described collective of anonymous “anarcho-philosophers,” seeks to critique institutional philosophy as we know it. One hot button issue which has come up is that between analytic and continental philosophy in contemporary academic philosophy. I originally wrote an email response to this website, and my email was quoted nearly in full in this post “Analytic” Philosophy vs. “Continental Philosophy”: WtF? Why Does it Still Matter So Much? An Edgy Essay by Z, With Critical Discussion by Y, X, and W. Midway through this essay is the citation of most of my email, followed by a quite reasoned discussion.
What followed, however, was a post called APP’s Readers Talk Back! 1, in which a reader identified as JdB wrote a screed against continental philosophy, and Judith Butler in particular. The tenor of what he wrote was disturbing to me, yet symptomatic of so much of this debate from the analytic side. What follows is my response to JdB’s post, his concern about the attack on objectivity which he sees at stake with continental relativism, along with feminist and post-colonial critiques of contemporary analytic philosophy and science as a whole.
While my response addresses JdB’s points specifically, my intent here was to address the larger issues of which they are a symptom. For his entire post, which I find philosophically problematic, as well as implicitly problematic on much more concerning levels, see the final link above. For more of my thoughts on this issue, see a previous post I wrote called On Description: Or Moving Beyond The Linguistic Turn and Philosophies of Certainty, A Networkological Relational Approach.
What follows is a response to JdB’s response (and BobZ’s followup responses to him) regarding continental vs. analytic. My argument is that his response is philosophically problematic as well as offensive, and that these are related issues worth philosophical reflection, due to their symptomatic nature in regard to the analytic/continental institutional divide. I’ll address these claims roughly in order.
The Issue in the Abstract: Relativism
Firstly, despite providing lip service to the intent of “reconciling these traditions,”JdB’s response regurgitates boiler-plate attacks on Continental thought. Rather than attempt to understand why continental philosophers do what they do, and why they still consider it philosophy, JdB keeps the lenses of an analytic philosopher fully on as he writes his attack on things continental. Rather than try to reconcile with the other side, he wants to subsume it. Now, as a self-identified continental, I find most everything about what analytic philosophers do strange to my sense of what constitutes philosophy, but I still recognize analytic philosophy as a type of philosophy, even if one I find highly problematic. And I clearly see the “family resemblance” between analytic thought and other types of philosophy, even if I see more of a “family resemblance” between analytic philosophy and forms of science. But JdB doesn’t even try to see beyond the divides at the heart of contemporary philosophy, rather, he looks to reinforce them. His approach is a classic case of simple “othering,” one which uses the logic of “for or against.” But isn’t the purpose of this sort of website to imagine ways beyond the deadlocks created by the institutions of professional philosophy, and all the baggage which goes with this?
What is needed, I think, is to subject the division between analytic and continental philosophy to philosophical reflection, and JdB’s rhetoric can provide a starting point for this. JdB lambasts continentals for their lack of adherence to “objective” truths, their espousal of”cultural/epistemic relativism,” and their “[p]rivileging science vs. ‘science is just another narrative,’ and to be accorded no special epistemic privilege.” To me, this is the crux of the issue, and a typical one to hear from analytics, or at least, those with little experience dealing continentals on a regular basis (or at least dealing with continentals who don’t regurgitate their own boiler-plate, allowing both sides to opt for easy modes of argument).
One place to start in problematizing JdB’s approach is with the very tools provided by the discourses of science and math themselves. The very same scientific methods which lead to anything and everything that goes by the name science today produced the early twentieth century revolutions which shook the foundations of science and math: relativity and quantum physics in science, and incompleteness in mathematics. Both make it necessary to describe any attempt to espouse a form of objectivity, at least in any traditional sense, highly problematic. Indeed, they render it 19th century. Science today cannot simply ignore the fact that when practiced in a 19th century manner, it unearths its own contradictions, for as science and math have themselves shown, when pushed to the limits, pure objectivity is a fiction. What is more, it was the very parallels of this within philosophy which lead to the division between analytic and continental. This was over how to handle Russell’s paradox, and whether to return to the early Wittgenstein as a model, or late Wittgenstein (more in line philosophers who, after the rise of Logical Positivism, at least, would come to be retroactively called “continental”). Whether in science, mathematics, or philosophy, there was a crisis of foundations in the early 20th century, and we are still reeling with its implications. The divide between continental and analytic is merely a symptom of this.
What are the primary differences then, between continental and analytic approaches to these issues? Goedel can provide a way of thinking about this. If any formal system will either be incomplete, inconsistent, or incoherent in the last instance, analytics opt for the incomplete. This the path of the early Wittgenstein, who famously argued that we “must be silent” about “the things about which one cannot speak.” This is an approach which goes for logical consistency within very strict bounds, admitting that the “irrational” exists, and in a manner inextricably tied to the “rational,” even if it wants to prioritize the rational and have nothing to do with the irrational. “Continentals” (for lack of a better term), on the other hand, take the late Wittgenstinian approach, that of incoherence. This is not to say that everything they write is incoherent, as JdB argues. Rather, as with late Wittgenstein, there is an attempt to be more complete, to talk about everything, even those matters which are left out by the analytics and early Wittgenstein. The argument is that a) when we leave out that about which “we must be silent” we lose too much to make what remains worthwhile, and b) even when we pretend we are leaving out that about which “we must be silent,” we are often really speaking about that of which “we must be silent,” even if negatively. Such an approach views what both sides often do as forms of inconsistency, as a constant shuttling between incoherence and incompleteness as needed to shore up the seeming necessity of whatever position is to be defended. Viewed as such, the analytic approach can be seen as structured by its absence, just as early 20th century set theory was structured by the absence of Russell’s paradox, much like a pearl is structured by the imperfections in a grain of sand which forms its germ. Continental thought wagers that it is worth it to talk about pearl, germ, oyster, and ocean, and that in fact we are always doing some form of this anyway, even if that might not seem immediately apparent.
This is, of course, a wager, as is the analytic approach. The question, perhaps, is the stakes of such a wager in regard to their contexts. And this very notion of stakes and contexts, the fact that these are even taken into a consideration, indicates a difference as well. That is, continental thought generally believes that the context matters, such that it refuses to bracket the ways in which “external” factors may influence “internal” ones, even as analytic thought believes that the context should not matter, while for continentals, such issues always matter. In many senses, this is the same issue as that of objectivity and relativism/particularity of bias, viewed from a different side.
No matter what, however, to call objectivity in any traditional sense science, at least in the contemporary sense, is to radically oversimplify. Rather, there are two differing approaches to the issue. One can side with incompleteness, and see science and math as fully consistent within their purview. Or, one can risk incoherence by taking a more directly 20th century scientific approach to this (ie: many different explanations for the evidences of quantum phenomenon, category and sheaf theory over set theory, etc.). But to deny that there are different approaches to this issue within contemporary science and math, and to simply articulate a 19th century position which denies the existence of these foundations crises (“pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!”), and to frame the division as that between science/math and their detractors, however, is to ignore the history and practice of science. And rather, in its place, to worship an idea of science, a form of scientism which is quite different from science which adheres to anything like the scientific method. Such an approach to science necessarily realizes that the foundations crisis existed and works to take it into account in one way or another. And there are two primary approaches within contemporary science on how to deal with the problem: exclusion/incompleteness (ie: Cophenhagen/Many Worlds interpretations of quantum physics, Zermelo-Frenkel set theory), or inclusion/incoherence (ie: Bohmian/decoherence/Fenymanian interpretations of quantum physics, category/sheaf theoretical post-foundationalist mathematics). Likewise, there are two primary ways of dealing with the issue in philosophy, one roughly adhering to the distinction between analytic and continental.
Nevertheless, there are different levels of subtlety on how to deal with this issue. On the surface, for analytics, objectivity is still a goal, if a distant one and one which is difficult to achieve. And on the surface, continentals see objectivity as a fiction, and a dangerous one at that, for all paradigms need to see themselves as ultimately relative, including ones which see themselves as striving for objectivity. But underneath this set of distinctions lies a more subtle one. For take “objectivity” to its extreme and it logically deconstructs its own foundations, in that its definition of being without bias must be a bias if it cannot be applied to everything equally well, as evidenced by incompleteness (whether in the form of Russell’s paradox, Goedel’s incompleteness, or simply the ways in which objectivity fails to account for each and every subjectivity, and certainly fails to do so equally well). Likewise, take “relativism” to its logical extreme, and it too deconstructs its own foundations, in that once universalized it becomes a pseudo-objectivity of in disguise, in which the only objective truth is the lack of objective truth. This sort of rippling set of paradoxes, symmetrical in their asymmetries, are precisely what early 20th century researchers in math, science, and philosophy encountered. Some chose to embrace the paradoxes, others tried to purge it.
Just as the issues are more subtle the more one investigates them, so too there have been coarse and subtle ways to deal with these. A more subtle objectivism doesn’t exclude relativism completely, but rather argues that while objectivity might not itself be fully objective, it is an approach which is quite useful in particular contexts. Such an approach uses the tools of relativism to argue for a modified objectivism. Conversely, a more subtle relativism argues that the approach of viewing all worldviews as ultimately relative is in fact a tacit form of objectivity, even if this is the only form of objectivity which is less relative than the others, and hence, the best there is. This approach uses the tools of objectivism to argue for a recast relativism. I think the most sophisticated philosophy, both analytic and continental, engages with issues such as these, and this is why I think that, in their ability to at least recognize the value of the other and to engage with it, this sort of thinking on both sides of the divide indicates at least one set of places where I think work could begin between analytic and continental approaches.
The differences between forms of objectivism and relativism, subtle or otherwise, however, are not merely limited to philosophy. Both show up in varying approaches to crises related to foundational issues within the disciplines of science and math, with those who believe in the very possibility of absolute, universal, and objective foundations, and those who do not. This also shows up to some degree in the difference taken to issues of objectivity and relativism between disciplines, with the sciences largely on one side and humanities on the other (with a few outliers on either side, such as those who work on foundations and history of science as outliers in math/sci, and those in the humanities smitten with objectivity via scientific method as outliers in the humanities). Broadly speaking, analytic philosophy tends to model itself on mainstream science, and continental thought on mainstream humanities (each again with their own outliers).
The Issue in the Concrete: Relativism’s Other side, or the Issue viewed through Judith Butler
If the approach I describe above views the difference between analytic and continental philosophy from the perspective of the abstract, it is also essential to view this from the concrete. Relativism, for JdB, comes with Judith Butler (the first name in the list of continental thinkers, and the one he attacks most specifically, the epitome, it would seem, of what he sees as a problem, even as the second time, the first name on his list is Luce Irigaray, another feminist). Now I agree, Judith Butler (who I will refer to with her full name, for while she has referred to herself as “Judy” in print she generally uses her full name, and so it seems patronizing to me to refer to her otherwise) writes some dense prose. But as BobZ rightly points out, Butler’s prose is no more obscure or difficult than that written by some analytics. Each tradition has those which go very deep into jargon and don’t make many efforts to reach out to those who are beyond their ways of speaking. That said, when I have seen Judith Butler speak in person, she is engaging, dynamic, reaches a wide audience, and is an activist. There is a division of labor in her ways of engaging with the public.
But the problem is, as JdB admits, at least in part the “feminist criticisms of science” and those who criticize analytic philosophy with notions such as “how dare we with out tendencies towards imperialism, sanctify our distinctly Western moral code as The Moral Code.” He then follows this with this statement: “But making criticisms such as these is not merely to attack the make up of these arguments, as though a different shade of lipstick would’ve made them more cogent.” Now, does JdB have a problem with lipstick, or in the sentence before this, make-up (a Freudian slip, perhaps)? Or is his issue with philosophers who may wear such things? Or feminist and post-colonial or anti-racist attacks which argue that the so-called “objectivity” he so prizes might in fact not be so objective if it in fact leaves out the perspective of so much of the world?
All of which leads me to say that I must admit I was really shocked to see BobZ concur with JdB that Prof. ABC was such a nice man, even though he worked hard to “blacklist” Judith Butler from teaching in philosophy departments. How nice could he be if he did this? Doesn’t this just reproduce the parochial nature of institutional philosophy that this site is supposed to work against, especially when Butler’s work is so highly regarded by so many, just not those within “institutional analytic” philosophy? Why not even a mention from BobZ that while nice to some, Prof. ABC’s intentional campaign to blacklist Judith Butler took the form of what, based on what was described, could only be seen as a personal vendetta, if one likely motivated by a sense of “saving philosophy” from, more than just a merely toxic individual (departments are full of these), but rather, someone with dangerous views? What is more, might this not indicate that the “niceness” of ABC, as stated by BobZ, or the clear admiration of ABC by JdB, might be symptomatic of other things? That is, might this not indicate that ABC is nicer to some people than others, or admirable because of how he holds back the tide of critique by people “like” Judith Butler? And might Judith Butler then have responded to her analytic courses with “Fuck this shit!” because she had fundamental criticisms, not of particular positions, but the entire foundations and methods of the discipline, both abstractly as philosophy, but also in its institutional formations, and how they exclude the perspectives of those who aren’t empowered in society, even as this is made to appear as objectivity because it can frame itself as simply common sense, when really it is status quo?
While one can look at the issue in the abstract, by casting the issue as one between objectivism and relativism, for example, perhaps this too is too abstract, an approach which leans towards the “objective” side of things by abstracting away the particularity which may often underlie things. For what if the clinging to objectivity in its traditional sense were more symptomatic of a desire (and by someone who uses “balls in a strip-club” as one of his choice metaphors, no less) to ward off feminist, queer, post-colonial, and anti-racist critique which argues that traditional objectivity is a Western, largely heterosexual white male enterprise to disenfranchise those who do not fit its molds? And that traditional objectivity works to obscure this very fact, to epistemically erase considerations of those who are do not fit a certain mold from view, and then erase this very erasure? Granted, there are people who are not white male heterosexual Westerners who advocate for traditional notions of objectivity. But they have taken on the lenses and discourses of those whose very definition of traditional objectivity is whatever seems “common sense” to the majority in dominance. But traditional approaches to objectivity and the desire for it are after-effects of power. Rather than state and need to justify its values, so-called “objectivity” pretends it does not have any. If JdB values Nietzsche as much as he says, he would see that deconstructing such an approach would simply be a good Nietzschian reading of the situation, one which ultimately leads to the quite difficult question of meta-ethics, the terrain of asking how to determine what we should value, the value of our values, and how this could relate to issues of the production of knowledge.
What I am arguing is that “traditional objectivity” is the parochial, limited, and relative perspective of a particular subset of our world: white, heterosexual, Western men and the world they’ve come to dominate by means of the very science they’ve developed. Does this mean all science is bad? No. But I believe scientism, however, the embrace of an outdated 19th century approach to science, is highly problematic. I believe it is anachronistic science, for it does not even acknowledge the incompletion at its core in the manner of the “subtle objectivity” I described above. What is more, however, I think its ultimate motivations are an admiration for the structures of power which made our current world the way it is, and this includes the structural disempowerment and epistemic erasure of those who don’t fit the mold and their perspectives on the world.
Science does not need to be scientism to work well. Relativistic approaches to science and math can still help us deal with the world, if within a frame which often feels less certain and secure, and is multiple to its core. There are benefits of such an approach, particularly in what they are not. 19th century science and 19th century colonialism were two sides of the same power structure, just one was more abstract than the others. 20th century science, that which adheres closer to the scientific method itself, as opposed to the reactionary willful ignorance of a bracketing of the early 20th century developments in science, does not ignore these developments. Anymore than the history of the 20th century should ignore the 1960’s, and the ways in which it indicated the beginning of the end of Western colonialism, androcentrism, heterosexism, capitalism, and racism. The beginning of the end, but certainly not the end. A more inclusive science and mathematics, which are postfoundational in nature, still work to make our lives better and extend our knowledge and practices in relation to the world, but they do so in ways which tolerate ambiguity and multiplicity better.
But wait, you may say, objectivity is color blind, and blind to gender, sexuality, culture, etc. Is it? Should it be? Stephen Colbert rightly criticizes such a position when he asks viewers if they are white or black, because he says he does not see race. Blindness of this sort is just that, willful incompletion. But what motivates this?
My fear is that it is fear of Judith Butler and her positions, and those of post-colonial and Marxist critics and critics of color. And moreso, of the power of their critique that what seems objective is only objective to those who are in places of social dominance, or those who identify with the perspective presented by this, perhaps because they want to become part of it. For in fact, philosophy does not start and end with problems which “find their genesis in Athens.” Has JdB taken classes in non-Western philosophy, and been exposed to different notions of what constitutes knowledge, ethics, value and what we call philosophy in different cultural contexts? Studying the past and other cultural formations tend to show the parochial and non-objective sides of what we often take for granted as the best or only way. After all, was it an accident that the foundations crises in math and science just happened to occur at the same time as Western colonial dominance, masculinism, and Eurocentrism began to collapse under their own weight, even as our technological developments began to show their dark side?
I firmly believe there are forms of science, math, and philosophy which can learn to do these better by means of the contributions of not only people from backgrounds which are not those of white male Western heterosexuals, but also a perspective shifted to take into account perspectives developed from more than one perspective on the world. A perspective which values more than mere objectivity. For what is objectivity, other than the value of having no value, a value like any other? And one which always supports, structurally and implicitely, whatever group currently determines the status quo, even if they are the minority? Isn’t the very way in which power manifests epistemologically, in the ability to act as if its exercises of power are not the particular overpowering the general, the few over the many, by simply appearing as common sense, that which goes without saying, that which is without bias or prejudice, even if in its dishonesty it is perhaps simply a more pernicious form thereof? Isn’t this lack of objectivity at the core of any pretense to objectivity? And doesn’t this indicate that the abstract approach taken earlier in this response is in fact too abstract, unless it opens onto the concrete, thereby demonstrating the stakes behind the issue of objectivity versus relativism? That is, might not an abstract approach to this issue be the symptom of the concrete, which is to say, that objectivity is perhaps a symptom of fear of a loss of the ability of the few who have determined the status quo to be able to continue to exercise their epistemic privilege to determine what gets to count as “objective”?
Science and math are richer, fuller, and more flexible when they take multiple forms of value into account. Yet in our contemporary world, we have reduced science and math support systems to other goals, only there to develop technology for markets and governments. The search for anything like “the way the world works,” a disinterested inquiry into scientific or mathematical truth, has never been the case, for science and math as we know them are secondary to profit and power, to the money which funds and directs their research agendas and the political and war machines which intertwine with these. Science and math as currently practised hardly deserve the name until they cease being pawns for the wealthy and powerful. For even according to traditional notions of scientific method, science and math should at least in theory be based on reproducibility and the consensus of the community regarding methods and results. But when science and math only allow the perspectives of the dominant power group to count as evidence or determine research agenda (often via financial, political, or social power), then any pretense to objectivity ceases becomes particularism in disguise. And when has Western science, ever been anything but this?
Science and math which are truly inquiries into the way the world works, however, would not be this parochial and biased, not because they would eschew all bias, but rather, view all determinations of what qualifies as evidence, methods, or worth researching as a not removed from questions of values. Separations between epistemology and ethics are only ever institutional, but in practice, these are always linked, even biologically, we only ever perceive what evolution has programmed us to value perceiving. To divorce epistemology from ethics, and vice-versa, is always to opt for incompletion, and in most cases, a non-subtle form at that.
But to embrace the possibility of other ethico-epistemologies, risking “incoherence” in regard to the “incomplete” perspective of a dominant majority, is to broaden and enrich what science, math, truth, and objectivity can be. And I believe, this is the better approach to these issues, because I believe that the most objective and best truth is the lack of any objective truth. Whether I justify this because I prefer multivalued logics over binary ones, or relativistic science over 19th century scientism, or a more inclusive world to the status quo, these are ultimately aspects of each other. Which is the determinant in the last instance? My guess would be the latter explanation and not the former, because I think highly abstract discourses like philosophy are symptoms of more concrete issues in society, and while I think philosophy can enrich society and its practices, including science and math, it can also impoverish it.
CONCLUSION: Turning the Lens Around…
Overall, I find JdB’s post offensive, and sexist in particular. Many have long lamented that professional philosophy, analytic and continental, is a hetero, white, Western, economically privileged man’s game. Full of fantasies of world mastery. Might there not be a link between this and certain philosophical positions, such as the love of scientism and its cult of objectivity? Analytic philosophy can and should be more than this. And continental philosophy too needs to guard against issues such as superficial inclusivity, or lack of inclusion of the concrete which drags philosophy back out into the real world from which it, I believe, ultimately finds its value.
In many senses, I read JdB’s post as highly symptomatic of why, if we are to truly work against the institutional cultures of contemporary philosophy which make it less than what philosophy can and should be, including the divide between analytic and continental, we need to get beyond boiler-plate caricatures of one side by the other. Ad hominem attacks are the result of structural issues, and boiler-plate arguments the result of wanting to keep structures in place which limit what philosophy could become. If we really want to get beyond traditional institutional philosophy, we need to get beyond these things, and really start thinking about if and why philosophy should matter today, and what sort of philosophy we think we should value creating, in and beyond the reifications of contemporary institutions.
This is course must include a process of self-interrogation by continental philosophers and those in the humanities, to see the ways in which we too produce boiler-plate caricatures of analytic philosophers as well, because this too impedes real discourse. Often there is a form of relativism which does not want to acknowledge any value to science or math, or abstraction of any sort. I believe science, math, and abstraction all have their uses, particularly when inclusively recast in regard to a general multiplicitous and inclusive frame of an effort to make the world a better place. And I think this is possible.
Of course, this raises the question of precisely what is meant by better, and metaethical concerns related to this. What is needed is a discourse on values. Clearly, I think inclusion, and not just superficial inclusion, but structural inclusion which shifts what is at stake in a fundamental way, makes our practices, including our intellectual and abstract ones, better. But ultimately, I think any notion of better, just as with any notion of truth, ultimately hinges on what matters to any and all, not as determined by finance capital or any other system which rigs the playing field for those who already have access to power, but rather, an approach which imagines what democracy, science, and truth could be if they weren’t limited by our prior notions of these things.
But most important, I think, is that we question why we take the positions we do, in the present, here and now, and interrogate all of these things, to look for the hidden motivations, the social, psychological, historical, and institutional biases which influence our choices of positions, and to question how these could change to make things better. Questioning such things, I think, is believe, that which starts the process of “know thyself,” of self-reflection on the foundations of why we do and think what we do, and to question if we could do it better in relation to the worlds in which we find ourselves. And I believe for this to be the case, we need to imagine how what seems necessary and essential to us is necessarily always partial, and to remain open to the ramifications of this in terms of our epistemology as much as our ethics, our thought as much as our action, our political as well as personal interactions.
I realize that there are strategic inconsistencies in what I wrote above, of the sort used by all philosophy. But I believe that, meta-ethically, we are able to influence the ways in which we strategically deploy our inconsistencies as incoherences and inclusions so as to impact the world around us. It’s a wager I feel we always make anyway, so I feel it’s worth it to do so in a manner as self-aware and meta-ethically engaged as possible. And I choose inclusion as much as possible.