Finished A Very Short Introduction to Continental Philosophy by Simon Critchley tonight. I got it out of the library because I wanted to know a little more about something certain fellow philosophy students like to talk about a lot, and found it to be a book about the analytic/continental divide. For those who don’t know there is a split in philosophy since (chronologically since, that is) Kant; in the English-speaking world we do analytic philosophy, elsewhere they do continental. It’s not really a geographic distinction any more but philosophy departments do tend to identify themselves fiercely with one or the other, and a student not aware of the divide going to a department studying the other discipline would find themselves wondering if they weren’t in the philosophy department.

The book itself is great when it’s talking about the conflict, because it’s about people defending their meta-philosophy on the academic stage which is always great to learn about, but it falls short when it comes to the author’s defence of his own thesis. He contrasts the excesses of both movements, scientism on the analytic side, and obscurantism on the continental (interesting, obscurantism is in my spell checker’s dictionary but scientism isn’t). These are both derogatory terms. The former is when philosophers start implicitly equating knowledge with scientifically acquired knowledge and brush what we might term wisdom under the carpet, and the latter is when philosophers are willing to hand-wave, to be vague and to try to hide this by saying that they’re talking about ideas and the language isn’t important, without providing an argument why this might be so. I have a friend who doesn’t aim for clarity in his argumentation, and this makes it impossible to actually engage with his thoughts. You can have clarity even if lots of things remain mysterious and unknown. Critchley wants us to steer a course between these two extremes, which is probably right, but I didn’t feel he was presenting it very well.

It has been interesting to discover that lots of the metaphilosophy that I have come to myself in recent months seems to fit the description of the continental approach as described by Critchley. My view that philosophy is about worldviews and it’s useless to say one is better than another because they’re all embedded into historical context and so are we is reflected there; there was something else too that I can’t remember. However I generally tend towards the analytic approach in actually doing the subject. Rigour, clarity and elegance. And the better I get at it the more I get pulled in. And even if analytic philosophers are looking at the wrong problems, the tools of the trade are the best ones available to subject more sweeping continental claims to, as my tutor puts it, “proper intellectual scrutiny”.


It occurs to me that I might be the “friend who doesn’t aim for clarity in his argumentation”- if so,  this is not actually the case. I do aim for clarity, for exactly the reason you state.

Of course, if you meant someone else, disregard the above :P

Comment by jr512 Thu 16 Jun 2011 12:58:54 UTC