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The Value of Contemporary Philosophy: Analytic vs. Continental

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  • The Value of Contemporary Philosophy: Analytic vs. Continental

    Originally posted by John West View Post

    I think Dan would probably be fine hearing about slightly older continental philosophers in natural theology as well. But I was replying to your comments about continental philosophy and Ouros's follow-up questions, not Dan's original post.

    I think part of the problem is that the crazy, controversial, politicized stuff tends to be what gets translated into English. I'm not sure about the disparity of quality. I've become rather intoxicated with the grandeur of German philosophy in the last couple years. I find analytic works clever but piddling. (I think a lot of contemporary continentals could stand to be beaten with the logic and clarity stick, but a lot of analytic philosophers could stand to take a step back.)



    I'm not sure analytic philosophy is in that much better shape. For instance, a lot of the great analytic ontologists died in the last twenty years (e.g. Quine, Lowe, Lewis, Armstrong, etc.). I know you really like Pruss and Leftow and they do have some clever work, but it's a bit of a stretch to call them greats. I think analytic philosophy probably does have a few more notable greyhairs that haven't quite died yet (e.g. Kripke is getting pretty old), but I'd be wary of overselling the situation.
    But really, can you say living, contemporary continental philosophers don't get completely blown out of the water by the living, contemporary analytic philosophers we still have today? One can debate who really deserves the title of "great", but it still seems like contemporary analytic philosophy doing much, MUCH better than contemporary continental philosophy, Germans included. For instance, could you really name as many living continental philosophers with the same quality and importance as, e.g.: Saul Kripke, Baas van Fraassen, Alasdair MacIntyre, Thomas Nagel, Timothy Williamson, Richard Swinburne, Alvin Plantinga, Josh McDowell, Nancy Cartwright, Gettier, Chalmers, Searle, Craig, Pruss, Leftow, etc.?

  • #2
    I don't have time for a composed reply, but I don't want to short change you either. So, I'm going to sketch my thoughts in fragmentary form (which, in keeping with the German theme, a friend informs me Schlegel was a big fan of):

    1. I sort of already stated my view in my last reply. I don't think either side of the divide is doing terribly well, and I think this will become more apparent in twenty or thirty years (when, e.g., Kripke has died).

    2. I'm not bought into the old analytic narrative (here in metaphysical and theist drag) of rising out of the stagnation of modern philosophy and progressing into the future.

    3. I'm struck by how often analytic philosophers triumphantly claim to have made some great new contribution to philosophy when they've really only reinvented the wheel. Plato and the ancient skeptics were making the same general point as Gettier with his counterexamples with the regress of reasons and mode of regress over two thousand years ago (cf. Armstrong's Belief, Truth and Knowledge) and the French skeptics were making the same specific point hundreds of years ago. The scholastics wouldn't have found the points of skeptical theists at all new in the late middle ages, though they were warier of the potential consequences of those points. The scholastics were also making a lot of the same modal developments as contemporary philosophers in the late middle ages and were informally using the lingo of possible worlds to talk about some theological problems even before that, so that even in the one place where I indisputably think analytic philosophers (Kripke) have made a genuine lasting contribution it's not as substantially new as they think and it was probably only ever a matter of time before the two pre-existing ideas were combined and it was made. I think continental philosophers are right to point out that analytic philosophers only think so well of themselves because of how historically ignorant they tend to be.

    4. I think that a lot of analytic philosophers' other supposedly new achievements aren't actually achievements and only look that way until other philosophers' considerations are brought in. (cf. Pruss's response to the free will objection to the PSR, the arguments for simplicity, and Grant's version of the accidental property objection.) If the measure of a philosopher's “quality and importance” is how much he has contributed to the progress of philosophy, then I don't think either contemporary continental or analytic philosophy have that many philosophers of quality and importance.

    5. Contemporary continental philosophers are heavily influenced by Nietzsche and likely don't agree with this metric of “quality and importance”. Rather, I think a lot of crazier contemporary continental philosophers are in some sense trying to get past truth and cope with the Death of God and that they seem slightly less crazy in this light.

    6. I'm not sure it's any more fair of me to criticize continental philosophers for doing poorly at something they were never trying to do in the first place than it would be of me to criticize a philosopher for failing to include something in his book that he never intended to include in the first place.

    7. I find the list of philosophers bizarre. What, for example, is Craig doing in a list of quality and importance with Kripke?

    I don't want to go on and on and on about this. I don't have time to fight to the death over every little detail, even where I might have the arguments.
    Last edited by John West; 03-19-2019, 09:03 PM.

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    • #3
      I might reply to the rest of the post some other time, but right now, this part caught my attention:

      "I find the list of philosophers bizarre. What, for example, is Craig doing in a list..."

      To make myself clear, I never meant to suggest Craig is on the same level of importance as someone like Saul Kripke. I think we can even say that, for instance, people like Baas van Fraassen and Nicholas Rescher have been more important than Craig for philosophy in general. But that being said, Craig has a lot of merit, and I genuinely think he deserves a spot among some of the most important and influential philosophers in recent years. He almost single-handedly revived interest in the Kalaam argument and made it one of the most intensely discussed topics in philosophy of religion, and that is because of his consistent and strong defense of it. You can disagree with him, but I think it's hard to deny he did a great job showing how a cosmological argument of that kind can be plausibly and strongly defended today. And he has also greatly contributed to interactions between science and philosophy in the literature. And then we could also mention his important work on the philosophy of time. His recent work on the nature of abstract objects is pretty interesting, too.

      I think he's the third most cited name in the philosophy of religion (behind Plantinga and Swinburne), and I don't think that's undeserved, even if, for instance, I prefer Pruss's work.

      Craig may not be on the level of a Saul Kripke, and I didn't mean to suggest he was. But I think his work has a lot of quality and importance, and as such he is a good example of an important philosopher who has been consistently producing good stuff (whether or not one agrees with his conclusions). And that was my point. We can name a bunch of contemporary analytic philosophers who have been producing works with lots of quality and importance, and I'm just asking if you could do the same with contemporary continental philosophers.

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      • #4
        I disagree about Craig. (I actually involuntarily scoffed when I saw his name in your list of writers of quality and importance.) He explicitly recycles other people's work for presentation purposes rather than adding anything new.

        It's no surprise that he is cited a lot. He is a popular figure and writes more clearly than most of his contemporaries.

        And that was my point. We can name a bunch of contemporary analytic philosophers who have been producing works with lots of quality and importance, and I'm just asking if you could do the same with contemporary continental philosophers.
        I dismissed your question because it assumes I accept that recent analytic work has a lot of quality and importance and then asks me to show recent continental work that matches it in quality and importance. I don't accept that recent analytic work has a lot of quality and importance. I argued along those lines in my fragments. (To be fair, we may simply differ over what constitutes work of quality and importance. If all you're saying is that contemporary analytic work is clearer and more rigorous than contemporary continental philosophy then of course I agree. But I think that it's clear, rigorous, and largely a waste of time.)

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        • #5
          I think the conversation is going to be hard to have unless we agree on a definition of "quality and importance", or at least clarify what we mean by "quality and importance". I assumed you think philosophical work has quality and importance if it contributes towards systematic knowledge—scientia in the scholastic sense—and argued accordingly. I might have been too quick. I further assumed that it had to contribute something substantially new towards that body of knowledge.
          Last edited by John West; 03-19-2019, 11:11 PM.

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          • #6
            I think there's a genuine disagreement about the nature of philosophy between analytics and continentals. And I think that plays a part in this debate. People doing continental philosophy don't always or often think of their work as the sort of collective problem-solving, the way many analytic philosophers do. If we think of great philosophers as people who put forth strongly argued answers to widely asked questions, it may just be that continentals are doing something different.

            For example, Zizek and Badiou never deal with problem of universals (as far as I know). They are doing something fundamentally different, or at least think they are.

            If you take a more esoteric Platonic/Christian view of the goal of philosophy (Wisdom as a state achievable by humans that transcends a merely ethical state), the average analytic or continental aren't even doing philosophy. You might see "real" philosophy being done more or less by Academic outsiders, people like James Cutsinger, Peter Kingsley, James Hillman... You might also see these people as cranks, but you get my point. Greatness is in relation to the end being pursued. If there's no agreement on ends, there can be no consensus on greatness
            Last edited by Brian; 03-19-2019, 11:16 PM.

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            • #7
              This is an odd topic for me. I think Frege and Wittgenstein were magnificent philosophers, and I hardly know anything about contemporary continental philosophy*, but I also think lots of contemporary analytic work is garbage. At this point I think there is nothing other than a historical reason for collecting all of this work under the heading 'analytic'.

              I'd note that McDowell, like Sellars before him, is interested in fusing the analytic and German idealist traditions, and his later work is especially indebted to Hegel. He can hardly be adduced as evidence that analytic philosophy is superior to continental. And MacIntyre has engaged with analytic philosophy his whole life, but I am not sure that anything else qualifies him as an analytic philosopher. His philosophical approach is extremely genealogical and hermeneutical. He himself constantly (at this point, I think, rather boringly) inveighs against the state of Anglo-American philosophy, which he thinks has been destroyed and made banal by professionalization.

              *I have read some "critical theory", ostensibly some of the seminal work in that tradition, according to people who like it, and was not very impressed. But I grant that this is not representative of continental philosophy today and it was in fact mostly written in America.
              Last edited by Greg; 03-19-2019, 11:21 PM.

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              • #8
                Greg This is why I increasingly think it unhelpful to talk about Anglo vs. continental philosophy, and try to talk about analytic philosophy, phenomenology, existentialism, German idealism, English idealism, scholasticism, etc., when I have to carve philosophy. These movements have clear traits to distinguish them from each other and cut across the Anglo vs. continental European divide.
                Last edited by John West; 03-20-2019, 09:16 PM.

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                • #9
                  I think I've sorta made my point already, but I don't think it is all that important anyway. I agree with some of your criticisms, includi that a lot of times analytic philosophers seem to have simply "reinvented the wheel" and so on. I still think analytic philosophers in general have been doing a lot better - I think the names I mentioned provides us with some nice examples. But I think a more interesting question would be what insights German philosophers have, or what exactly were you referring to in the last thread when you implied that Germans have been dealing with things the analytic philosophers aren't even able to grasp right now, etc.

                  What exactly are you referring to, and why do you think it's a big deal?

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                  • #10
                    Originally posted by Atno
                    But I think a more interesting question would be what insights German philosophers have, or what exactly were you referring to in the last thread when you implied that Germans have been dealing with things the analytic philosophers aren't even able to grasp right now, etc.

                    What exactly are you referring to, and why do you think it's a big deal?
                    That's not quite what I said. I said that German philosophers are talking about things that analytic philosophers aren't and probably can't (here).

                    Analytic philosophers, phenomenologists, existentialists, etc., are all restricted by their respective methods, but they're not all restricted in the same ways; and as philosophers it's up to us to pursue truth through every method at our disposal. Husserl's insights into the ego couldn't have been achieved through analytic dialectics. Heidegger's insights in Sein und Zeit couldn't have been achieved through analytic dialectics. Nietzsche's insights into the evolution of moral beliefs and the Death of God couldn't have been achieved through analytic dialectics.* My point was that there is more to philosophy than fine-grained analysis and argumentative back and forth and that the continentals are talking about some of that whereas analytic philosophers not only aren't but can't qua analytic philosophers.

                    Obviously my skepticism leaves me feeling bleak about all these methods.** But what I wanted to highlight in that post was the number of big, unique ideas (including analytic ones) that you can find (nowadays often relatively nameless) continental philosophers talking about and taking seriously that you can't find others talking about and taking seriously.***

                    I think I've sorta made my point already, but I don't think it is all that important anyway. I agree with some of your criticisms, includi that a lot of times analytic philosophers seem to have simply "reinvented the wheel" and so on. I still think analytic philosophers in general have been doing a lot better - I think the names I mentioned provides us with some nice examples.
                    I haven't let you off for this almost contentless, ignoring reply by the way, but you're right that it's uninteresting and I have no intention of following it up.

                    *I even incline towards the Platonic idea that philosophers should explore roads to truth like religion and mysticism.
                    **Incidentally, I think the existentialists are better positioned to face up to this bleak state of affairs than the others.
                    ***It's worth flagging that there are only 200 million German speakers in the world, and something like 1.3 billion English speakers and that English dominates as the language of international academia. German philosophy punches way above its weight.
                    Last edited by John West; 03-24-2019, 07:00 PM.

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                    • #11
                      Fair enough, you made some good points. I suppose continental philosophy shouldn't be underappreciated just because it's inferior. And I have probably been guilty of that.

                      But then again, I think subjective interests will tend to guide people's preference for certain traditions.
                      Last edited by Atno; 03-24-2019, 07:17 PM.

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                      • #12
                        I try to drink from the wellsprings of all traditions, but align with none. Traditions are many, but truth is one. (Whether or not I live up to this ideal is another matter!)

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