Monthly Archives: February 2012

difficulties

There’s been some chatter recently concerning the nature and state of the “analytic/continental divide” – but when hasn’t there been? What I’m specifically thinking of is this piece in the NYT’s “The Stone” column by Gary Gutting, Brian Leiter’s entirely predictable reaction to (and more-or-less endorsement of) it, and Eric Schliesser’s more critical response on New APPS (as well as John Protevi’s Deleuze-specific clarifications). Now, I have to say that for the most part I agree with the points that Schliesser makes, so that there’s no need to repeat them.

But, I do think it’s worthwhile to emphasize one particular thing that he says, because (1) it’s something to which not nearly enough attention is drawn, and (2) it’s a particular pet peeve of mine: namely, the idea that “analytic” philosophy is (as a rule) written with clarity and precision, while “continental” philosophy is (to paraphrase Gutting) “unnecessarily difficult.” Schliesser hits the nail on the head when he writes that “the clarity of analytic philosophy is something of a self-serving myth.” Much of the supposed clarity of analytic philosophy is simply a result of the fact that those propounding its clarity are familiar with its jargon – a jargon that does, admittedly, allow for a great degree of precision within its context of use. However, it takes effort to become familiar with such jargon, as it does to master the tools of any trade. To imply that an average representative text of analytic philosophy (whatever that may be) is easily understandable by an average non-philosopher (whoever that may be), whereas a corresponding continental text is very likely to be less understandable, is simply ridiculous.

It is impossible to quantify and compare the amount of effort it takes to master the terminology of, e.g., texts in philosophy of mind, versus texts in existentialism or deconstruction – not only because it’s hard to imagine what one would use as a reliable metric, but also because the amount of effort required in each case would depend partly on the reader. A variety of factors would influence how easily any particular person is able to make sense of any particular text. For me, it was certainly the case that – having been exposed to philosophy from both sides of the divide in the early stages of my philosophical education – I found representatives of continental strains much easier to grapple with than those from analytic traditions.

What makes the tired line that analytic philosophy is clearly written while continental philosophy is obscure or imprecise bug me the way that it does, though, is not simply that it’s incorrect but that it often not called out as incorrect. Instead, the rebuttal might be offered that, yes, analytic philosophy is clear, but it’s irrelevant to the world, or that the “obscurity” of continental philosophy allows for deeper levels of meaning and more rewarding reading.  But these responses take the initial claim as uncontested, and I agree with Schliesser that it should be contested. Yes, Heidegger is difficult reading (in that his texts require time and attention), but so is Davidson, Sellars, even Austin (and for the same general reasons). And perhaps it’s true that you’re less likely to find wordplay or literary tropes in the texts of Rawls or McDowell than in those of Derrida, but that’s not to say that the latter are not philosophically rigorous (I would, and have, argued that Derrida is one of the most rigorous and philosophically substantive writers of the 20th century).