For something that is difficult to clearly communicate, relatively recent, and nearly unknown outside of the discipline, the presumed sharp distinction between analytic and continental flavors of philosophy sure has young philosophers sweating bullets. I’ve already written a tongue-in-cheek treatise on the real difference between analytic and continental philosophy that would serve to set up the distinction if this post already has you confused. But, what I’d like to address today is the contemporary challenge that I’m terming “the continental drift” in top-shelf philosophy schools and particularly at the University of Chicago. By “continental drift” I mean the tendency of philosophers to adopt an analytic pedigree decreasing the number of self-identifying continental philosophers.
For the purposes of this post and my argument in it, I am treating “analytic” and “continental” as largely sociological distinctions–sociological in the sense that the labels are predominantly explanatory referring most to matters of relative academic lineage. That is to say, when one says they are analytic or continental philosophers they are mostly locating themselves within a tradition by appeal to 1) the affiliation of the school where they studied, 2) the affiliation of the philosophers they study or identify with, and 3) the affiliation of the school where they teach or would like to teach. Now, this is not to say that there are not other/better ways of locating oneself with regard to the analytic/continental divide including commitments to attainable truth, mathematical precision, and naive/simplistic written style, etc. on the side of analytics or commitments to skepticism as skepticism, power of narrative and the incommensurability of experience, literary writing style, etc. on the side of continentalists. While these other markers contribute to locating a thinker in one of the two camps–or as taking bits from each–it seems to me that when one takes the label analytic or continental what they intend to communicate is a flavor of academic pedigree or heredity.
Continental drift is an unintended consequence of the scarcity of philosophy teaching positions, but before I can defend the claim a brief review of the “rules” of academia. For those new to the traditionally accepted rules of higher education there are in essence three or perhaps four levels of academic institution. At the top are Ivy League schools (the original eight) and Ivy-Plus schools MIT, Stanford, Duke, and University of Chicago. The second level includes venerable, high-profile institutions like University of Michigan, New York University, Boston College, Carnegie Mellon, University of Notre Dame, and at least thirty others. The third tier includes nearly all other state and private universities and colleges. The fourth level–for the purposes of the job market–includes international universities other than ancient English-speaking schools like Oxford, Cambridge, University of Edinburgh. A fresh doctorate from a first tier school gets serious attention from employment panels at other first tier and second tier schools. Lower third tier schools tend to ignore over qualified grads for professional positions because they assume that a grad with a top-shelf education will leave for greener pastures as soon as possible. A fresh doctorate from a second tier school gets attention at second and third tier schools. A fresh doctorate from a third tier school is probably applying at community colleges and small liberal arts schools–or serving you coffee at Starbucks.
With all these factors in mind, we can finally make sense of continental drift. Top tier schools–for whatever reason–are universally self-identified as analytic. Similarly, almost all upper end second tier schools are also analytic. As undergraduate students of philosophy the overwhelming majority come from continental schools, but in order to maximize one’s chances for employment graduate students tend to switch allegiances so that they appear attractive to the largest number of schools–and specifically to appear as attractive as possible to top-tier and high second-tier schools. Thus, while a minority of students begin as committed analytic philosophers, most will at least attempt to appear to be analytic for the purposes of getting a job after the student loans come due–whether they truly are continental or not.
Why does continental drift matter? In reality–aside from the labels we attach for the purposes of CVs–most philosophers are engaged in–more–continental ways of doing philosophy. That is, most contemporary philosophers reject the possibility of a priori truths–the promise of the method of “conceptual analysis”– and do not ground their work in formal logic or mathematizable proofs while being more concerned with political and cultural issues and discussion the human situation that analytic philosophy would prefer or allow. Further, the majority of public intellectuals in the past century or so whose pronouncements have taken root and defined folk-philosophy have been–more–continental than analytic: Schopenhauer, Sartre, Nietzsche, Hegel, Heidegger, Marx, etc. (Yes, I realize Marx is a contested player claimed by both sides and even denied as either. However, my appeal is to his “style” and argumentative machinery as dialectic and concerned with the human condition.) In general, as valuable as analytic philosophy is–and it certainly is–its tendencies include a preoccupation with thought experiments/games, the consequences of premises that cannot be proven, and logic-chopping–all pursuits that tend to alienate those outside philosophy’s borders. Continental drift for me and my fellow MAPH students means having to commit to projects and thinkers that we don’t believe in so that we may maximize the possibility of getting a degree from school that will allow us to market ourselves to the widest possible range of schools. Continental drift means that the arrogant, elitist judgments of the primacy of Anglophone European philosophy remain largely unchallenged. Worst of all continental drift affirms the false premise that continental devotees ought to feel like second-class philosophers qua philosophers.
Now… that being said, I have been told by fellow philosophers–and I think they are largely correct–that my own philosophical work tends toward the analytic methodology over the continental. I do not mean this post to be in any way trolling for analytic fire-storms. However, I would love to hear a defense of the continental drift with regard to its positive consequences or a substantive case that it does not exist outside the confines of the University of Chicago and other Ivy and Ivy-plus schools–otherwise I’ll just assume that I’m right.