Sunday, February 24, 2013

American Philosophy as De-Militarized Zone


When I explain the difference between analytic and continental philosophy to my students, I give them two points of distinction. The first is geographic and historical. The second, and more interesting, is that continental philosophy absorbed the nascent human sciences in their mutual childhood, while analytic philosophy launched through the breakthroughs of modern logic and ingested the ways of physical science. I do not, as some claim, tell my students that the distinction is between anti-realism and naturalism, or literature and science, or figures & texts and topics and evidence.

I once claimed that the distinction was “sociological” over at New Apps, and many piled-on thinking that I meant that it was “arbitrary” or “merely descriptive but not normative” such that we should collapse the distinction, but that is not what I meant. Reading “sociological” in that way indicates a commonly analytic frame of mind, whereas the continental frame would not separate the contingent ways of human knowing from the scientific attempt at universal truth.  These differing mentalities, fostered by a difference in tradition, are not reducible, and I find the contingency of either not to be a diminishment.

Though I began the study of philosophy within analytic circles, I branched into continental, encountered East Asian, and then specialized in history of continental and American philosophy. As an Americanist—mostly a pragmatist—I find myself to be left out of the analytic vs. continental debates while at the same time being expected to conform to the traditional expectations of each. No, analytic is not “American” insomuch as it is not part of that historic tradition but another.

I feel kind of like Korea—being between both China and Japan—and have militarized against squabbles that I would rather have no part in, but everyone wants me to be on their side, while constantly commenting about how defensive Korea (or pragmatism) is. Put this way, I hope that more interlocutors understand why pragmatism seems a bit defensive. I mean, when was the last time you engaged in a continental vs. analytic conversation and stopped to comment upon American philosophy?

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