Philosophy’s History Part I:

February 13, 2015 § Leave a comment

Before I write anything else, I want to offer my apologies to everyone for being absent from this blog for such a long time.   The reason for my absence is rather embarrassing.  I set out to write this post, outlining the history of philosophy as an academic discipline, and found myself paralyzed by its sheer expansiveness.

Philosophy is the oldest continuous intellectual tradition in all of the civilizations (European and Islamic) descending from ancient Greece, where it began in the 6th century BC.   It spawned all of the natural and social sciences, and all of the humanities except for history (which it still touched deeply).*  So, I wanted to start in ancient Greece and lay out the long, slow development of philosophy, charting every time it morphed or sloughed off another major discipline until we found it in the shape you might recognize if you stumbled into an undergraduate seminar on metaphysics today.

After writing several thousand words, I had only reached Aristotle (a really important thinker– he basically invented literary analysis with his Poetics, developed systems which would later grow into natural history and various sciences, and built the philosophical system which the Catholic Church would develop its theology around hundreds of years later).  There were still a couple of millennia to go, and even though Western philosophy’s disciplinary scope has narrowed over that time, it has produced an ever-increasing number of thinkers and schools. **  There was just no way I could address all of them.

I also realized that when I got around to the other disciplines, I would talk about the places where they broke away.  And I would eventually get to all of them except for the natural sciences.***   So, I realized that I should try to talk about something smaller instead.  So I decided to pick something that really helped give the discipline its current shape: the analytical/continental split.

Most philosophers today fall into schools called “analytical” and “continental.”****  These schools are fairly loose– they’re defined by resemblances rather than basic fundamental beliefs.  To give you a sense for how they’re different, I’ll talk about some of the traits which are better-represented in each group (though there are lots of exceptions on both sides).*****

Analytic Philosophy:

In the US, practitioners usually work in Philosophy departments

Mostly about abstract situations, employing elaborate thought experiments.

Writing is precise, tries to articulate clear statement about terms whose meanings are clearly defined.

Tends to be very self-serious, clinical, dry.

Most famous practitioners come from the UK or US

More disciplinary alignment with mathematics and the physical sciences.

Usually focuses on individual units

Practitioners seek general solutions to their questions

Practitioners seek to be apolitical, in practice tend to hold center-left, center-right, or libertarian positions

Biggest heroes: John Locke, David Hume, Jeremy Bentham, J.S. Mill, Immanuel Kant, Bertrand Russell, the Vienna Circle, Gilbert Ryle, WVO Quine, GE Moore, AJ Ayer, Gertrude Anscombe, Patricia Churchland, Daniel Dennet, Hilary Putnam, Thomas Nagel, Saul Kripke, Philippa Foote, John Rawls, Peter Singer, Catharine McKinnon, J.L. Austin, Derek Parfit, Alvin Plantinga, John Searle, Ludwig Wittgenstein

Continental Philosophy:

In the US, practitioners usually work in English departments

More frequently focuses on exploring real-life events, institutions, and texts through a philosophical lens.

Writing tends to be more messy, embracing of ambiguity, and obscurationist.

Often self-referential, witty, and humorous.

Most famous practitioners come from Germany or France

More disciplinary alignment with the humanities and qualitative social sciences

Treats systems holistically

Practitioners often believe in using different solutions for different types of case

Practitioners are enthusiastically political, frequently tend to be Marxists or anarchists, are almost always far-left leftists, but sometimes are some kind of weird reactionary thing

Biggest Heroes: GFW Hegel, Friedrich Nietzche, Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, Soren Kierkegaard, Antonio Gramsci John-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, the Frankfurt School, Simone de Beauvoir, Helene Cixous, Jacques Lacan, Frantz Fanon, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari, Stuart Hall, Judith Butler, Roland Barthes, Pierre Bourdieu, Jean Baudrillard, Slavoj Zizek, Ludwig Wittgenstein

This apology/explanation and setting of the stage is probably a big enough chunk for most people.  In the interests of actually getting something out again and not crushing you with a glacier of text, I’ll explain how this split developed in part II!

*Mathematics, like history, isn’t a lineal descendant of philosophy.  But like history, it has been significantly influenced by philosophy.  It has also provided philosophers with some important tools, like various kinds of formal logic.

**Which makes sense, because the number of humans living in Europe has grown a lot, the number of them who are able to spend their time doing something other than subsistence farming has grown even more, and the number who have jobs which allow them to philosophize full-time without being ridiculously wealthy has grown still more than that.

***Short version of that story– we start seeing a “scientist”-like identity forming around the time of Galileo.  The people who fit that profile– like Galileo, Copernicus, and Keppler– were usually both mathematicians and philosophers.  Around the time of Isaac Newton in Britain, we start to see organizations of “natural philosophers” (17th century scientists) like the Royal Society, which gradually started to split off and become the sciences we know and love today.  The distinctions weren’t clear for a long time, though– Isaac Newton was an alchemist and theologian, and saw that work as related to his physics.

**** There are a bunch of 20th and 21st century philosophers who people don’t identify with either camp– Richard Rorty, Cornell West, Thomas Kuhn, and Paul Feyerabend, among others.  But they’re a minority.

*****Since people are going to try to guess my preferences from this list anyway, I’ll just make them explicit: I think that Continental philosophy tends to engage more actively and flexibly with a wider variety of human concerns, which makes at significantly more useful for most humanists, but it’s generally far more likely to be pretentious, incomprehensible, or just total bullshit.  I like the fact that both schools exist, and create thought which is useful to me in different ways.  I built my own personal philosophical system from a mishmash of the two, and in practice, it resembles pragmatism, one of the philosophical schools which analytic and continental philosophy displaced.


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