Monday, June 17, 2013

Ian James on a Difference between Analytic and Continental Philosophy

Concerning my prior post on the differences between continental and analytic philosophy, Richard Marshall's review of Ian James' The New French Philosophy gives an accurate and fair depiction:

He [James] continues: ‘Continental philosophies of experience try to probe beneath the concepts of everyday experience to discover the meanings that underlie them, to think the conditions for the possibility of our concepts. By contrast, continental philosophies of imagination try to think beyond those concepts, to, in some sense, think what is impossible.’ Gutting thinks there is a substantial distinction to be made between continental and analytic philosophy and in the course of defending this now contested view he writes that ‘…analytic philosophy reads experience in terms of common-sense intuitions (often along with their developments and transformations in science) and understands reason in terms of formal logic. Continental philosophy, by contrast, typically sees experience as penetrating beyond the veneer of common-sense and science, and regards reason as more a matter of intellectual imagination than deductive rigor.’ If this is right then my disbelief in the causal efficacy of an absent ontology is merely a defect of my intellectual imagination! Well, whatever you might think about this, Gutting’s comments helpfully contextualise the new French philosophers that James writes about.


When an analytic philosopher asks me to, or tells me that I "appeal to your intuitions," I am always amused, because appealing to one's intuitions is anti-philosophical from a continental point of view. My reasons are similar to James', and a common thread in continental philosophy: intuitions are a relatively arbitrary product of culture, something that philosophy and social science has noted for centuries, and thus the methodological appeal to intuitions is almost worthless. Common intuitions are precisely what we are to overcome, and analytic philosophy acknowledges this in its talk of "just-so stories" or "folk theories," yet grasps in one hand what it denies in the other. This is a pervasive, but not total, problem. Hence, when I pick up this year's catalogue of philosophical publications from Oxford Press and see continental philosophy labeled "philosophy of culture" (read: not serious), I cannot help but feel slapped in the face. Insomuch as culture is an irreducible ground for meaningful thought, yes, continental and also americanist philosophy will be very concerned with it. Though not in the same way, for instance, continental tends to focus on "discursive practices" (more passé now), whereas pragmatism focused on "habits" in its cosmic, physical, and physiological connotations (not narrowly behaviorial or linguistic). Moreover, whereas materiality is a recent focus on continental, it was a ground-floor concern since at least William James for pragmatism, and possibly earlier for Americanist thought more broadly. Hence, where many analytic philosophers begin, continental and pragmatist philosophers end. 

In discussions, I usually just "go with" the appeal to intuitions, because I've discovered that challenging them tends to be a show-stopper. But then, I run the risk of being called disingenuine if I disagree with that move latter in the conversation, especially since it's seen as so basic to "philosophy" for analytic philosophers. By the same token, an analytic philosophy may "get my goat" if I am asked what continuity or habit are, as those are such basic and difficult to explicate concepts. But in a good conversation, we try and learn.

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