Continental Drift

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.


2 comments on “Continental Drift

  1. Outside These Paradigms says:

    This idea of the top tier, I think, already assumes an institutional paradigm that most schools in the continental realm would reject. The students at my institution — which probably falls into second-tier by your evaluation — wouldn’t want to teach in some of the “top tier” schools, because they simply wouldn’t receive there the financial and social support they crave for the kind of philosophy they want to do. Within the continental world there’s an understanding of which programs are top tier, second tier, etc — a set of rankings that owes nothing to the dubious and circular methodology of the PGR.; and then within the continental world there’s the additional microcosm of the Catholic universities. Also, while it might appear that top tier schools — in your paradigm — provide superior material support for the philosophers they hire, there’s also the issue of academic networks (an issue perhaps chiefly of relevance to those seriously committed to the coordination of the acquisition of knowledge — say, the admirable coterie of contemporary Husserlians and neo-Kantians). And it seems to me, as far as I can tell, that continental schools tend to have much better and, also, many more, ties to various international institutions (especially in Europe, Australia, and Asia), probably because they produce some of the best general education in history of philosophy.

    So, without trying to imply anything about you or your fellow MAPHers, I wonder if the issue of continental drift isn’t a case of the uncomfortable combination of a paradigm of material success taken from, e.g., the PGR, with a vocation for non-analytic philosophy.

    Ps., just a note on your distinctions between analytic and continental philosophy… literary vs. simplicity of style? skepticism vs. the attainability of truth? These seem exceptionally naive distinctions. On the one hand we have profoundly literary analytic philosophers like Cavell; on the other, profoundly precise and clear (and somewhat unliterary) philosophers like the American pragmatists or the non-Heidegerrian tradition of Husserl. Then we have the rejection, by the first properly “analytic” philosophers of the whole of ontology in favor of the clarification of language — if this isn’t a kind of limiting skepticism, what is? While, on the other hand, the neo-Kantian and German idealist project of knowledge is profoundly optimistic about human reason. To further complicate the picture, one should mention philosophers like Brandom and McDowell and Rorty, who have in various ways become post-analytic. Also, take a look at contemporary philosophy of mind, where analytic and continental thought is increasingly and brilliantly cross-fertilizing. To be frank, the contemporary philosophical scene has moved way beyond any simplistically defined analytic/continental divide — the scene is simply too complex to support that dichotomy any more, and one mostly hears it in the mouths of hardliners on one side or the other.

    • maphman says:

      I would agree with your assessment that the angst that many of us feel is due to feeling forced to adopt an analytic paradigm AND all the trappings associated with it. Further, I would agree that–in general–strongly continental schools (that actually function as continental schools) are the sorts of places that most of us wish to teach. However, I believe it is a dubious proposition that continental schools and committed continentalists are somehow immune to considerations of Ivy, Ivy-plus, Research 1, etc. One of my friends is currently teaching in a third-tier school having graduated from a second-tier program and has discovered that the continental emphasis of his school–and his own work–is preventing him from advancing in the application pool for Research 1 schools. Now, presumably, you might say that my friend ought not to wish to teach at a Research 1 institution–as this is adopting the paradigm unique? to PGR or Leiter or the general view of collegiate life. However, the very advantage of a research school position is not financial, materialistic, or necessarily honorific–it is related to having sufficient time to do the sort of work one wishes to do–and therefore not resting on the evaluative paradigm of the PGR etc. While I think it is easy–from the outside and briefly from the inside–to view analytic schools as not providing academic networks, social support, or all those warm, fluffy necessities, my experience says that good supportive folks exist within the analytic world just as they exist within the continental. There is a danger in generalizing continentalists as “the good guys” and analytic devotees as “the one percent.”

      With regard to your critique of my–admittedly–over-generalized and sketchy distinctions between analytic and continental please refer to the much more nuanced–yet, still over-generalized–post mentioned in the first paragraph. However, a word probably needs to be said about the whole distinction between continental and analytic as method and discipline–as opposed to pedigree. As many others have said the distinction is a hackneyed caricature and does little to actually distinguish the sort of work engaged in or the sort of methods employed by either camp. Yet, it continues as a sociological distinction and, therefore, keeps coming up. Clearly there are analytic philosophers who work on problems generally classified as continental–and the reverse. There are also continental philosophers who apply methods or write in styles more commonly associated with analytic philosophy–and the reverse. We can both pull out paradigmatic examples and exceptions to demonstrate the validity or the inexcusable naivety of my–brief–descriptions. The point is not the exact nature of the distinctions as constituting a real difference, the point is that the analytic/continental divide is propagated as a real distinction when it is not only less than meaningful, but actually harmful.

      Thank you for your contribution to the discussion and I hope that I hear from you again in the future!

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