Analytic/continental philosophy, political theory and geography

Graham Harman has written on the analytic/continental ‘divide’ in philosophy, through a reading of Brentano here. Levi Bryant has an interesting reply here.

I’ve never had an official position in philosophy, apart from a three month visiting research post in Tasmania, though I’ve been a visitor to a number of philosophy departments to give lectures and often attend conferences within the discipline. I can well imagine the hiring politics that goes with perceptions of this divide. This is one of the reasons that the Middlesex situation is so tragic, given that this was one of the few departments in the UK where continental/European work was the focus.

Graham’s argument about the divide seems to me to be perceptive and persuasive – that ‘analytic’ work sees philosophy as based on arguments, and a cumulative enterprise; ‘continental’ as much more orientated towards the great thinkers and great books. Both approaches have their problems. I don’t like the idea that the thinkers of the past can be debated as if they were colleagues in the office next door, since that inevitably ignores anything about context, tries to encounter them on the ground of the present, thus giving the present an unreasonable privilege, and conducts work with violent disregard for the history of ideas. But there are problems with any idea of a ‘canon’, the privileging of certain thinkers and the endless continuation and proliferation of secondary literature. (I’ve contributed to the latter myself, in some small way, although I’d like to think I was always driven by specific questions in doing so.)

Similar divides can also be found in other disciplines, of course. I found political theory to be a problematic field, in part because the hegemony in the UK was debates about ‘justice’, and endless analysis of the nuances of John Rawls and everyone after. Other issues, such as freedom and power, were marginalised; as were other thinkers that could not be shoehorned into positions. In a way this seemed to combine the worst aspects of both analytic and continental philosophy. On the one hand there was the insistence on arguments without context (I remember an appointment committee discussion where one candidate was praised for being the ‘only one who said something I could disagree with’, when most of what they said was either problematic, unimportant or plain silly); on the other the privileging of great thinkers and texts. International Relations was obsessed by its ‘three debates’, although my experience in Copenhagen recently gave me hope that this was becoming less important.

Geography can have its own moments of this kind too, of course. Some of the less interesting – but widely publicised – debates have drawn pretty artificial lines between people and groups, and then played these out in some frankly uninteresting ways. I speak as someone who hasn’t really been involved in these, but has friends and colleagues who care deeply about them. One of the worst tendencies is to tabulate arguments and people making them.

A key issues is labelling. If you can label someone as ‘analytic’, ‘Rawlsian’, ‘constructivist’, ‘non-representational’, etc., then in a certain way it allows a short-cut to thinking or engagement. Since you already know their arguments you don’t need to engage with them. If you know the work of thinker X, who fits in category Y, then you can make confident statements about thinker Z because they are also a Y. A badge or label can be helpful, in the sense of a school, set of shared interests, common themes, etc., but it also acts as a barrier to actual engagement with the thought. Not being part of a group means people either ignore you or if they do want to say something about you, have to read you.

One theme that Levi picks up is interesting here. This is the different weight given to books and articles. When I first came in geography, I remember a colleague saying that in geography books were valued about the same as articles. I laughed and said that they had clearly never written a book (they hadn’t). I appreciate the different currency of different parts of the discipline, notably physical geography, but the geographers I read before I came into a geography department were ones I knew through their books – Agnew, Thrift, Harvey, Smith, Massey, Gregory, etc. I think the attitude is changing, and there are more and more people in geography writing books. One of the things that books can achieve is a visibility outside of your own discipline, and potentially even outside of the academy. Hopefully Levi’s appreciative note to theory done outside philosophy will be enriched by this.

The object of inquiry is perhaps the only profitable way to enter any debate. What’s the question or problem? I don’t mean this in the narrow, disciplining sense of ‘a research question’, but rather in the sense of a motivation. In such an inquiry, the texts needed, the arguments to be engaged with, the positions to be taken and so on emerge from the problem, rather than are pre-given. This is one of the reasons why geography has actually been such a liberating place for me to end up – there isn’t an established canon, the field of inquiry is as broad as you could ask for, and such set-piece debates as there are can be fairly safely ignored. I’m aware that this may not be the same for others. But given what I came from – political theory – and where for some time I hoped I’d end up – philosophy – I could have done a lot worse.

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3 Responses to Analytic/continental philosophy, political theory and geography

  1. Clare says:

    Thanks for posting this Stuart. This is an issue I feel very strongly about. In my view in the English language world – Anglo- American analytic styles of philosophy have completely hijacked the term philosophy. In institutional terms – the European practice of philosophy does not even count as philosophy and is almost universally excluded from the institution.

    I really dislike the term continental philosophy as it is only really ever used by analytic styles to designate something they regard as rather dubious and outside the disciplinary boundaries of ‘real philosophy’ which they regard themselves as having a monopoly on.

  2. stuartelden says:

    Thanks Clare. Yes, ‘continental philosophy’ is a problematic name, but it has been taken up by some people as a description of what they do, rather than just from the outside. So, the journal Continental Philosophy Review, Simon Critchley’s Continental Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction and so on…

  3. Clare says:

    I have in fact been an occasional member of associations such as the Australasian Society for Continental Philosophy but I have been trying to mount a rear guard action for some time over the label.

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