On the Rift

Justin Erik Halldór Smith on the analytic-continental rift. As my recent work has drawn me more and more out of the continental and into the analytic tradition, I can’t help but sympathize with the assessment he borrows from Brian Leiter that the majority of people working in the former are producing work with lower standards of rigor. I’d include myself here, and I don’t think its anyone’s fault. Most of the brightest people I know work in continental philosophy. The problem is that less is expected and required of them. I certainly feel that way about my own intellectual development.

Smith suggests the rift is a symptom of the deeper divide between the cultures of the natural sciences and the humanities, the latter in its post-modern form having thoroughly purged itself of the trappings of its scientificity and even at times expressed skepticism about scientificity in general. If the humanities, and a fortiori work being done under the banner of continental philosophy, is to reassert itself now as the post-modern identity loses the last of its intellectual appeal and public respectability, it should do so by recognizing the distinct sort of scientificity it ought to pursue, one concerned not with knowledge of objective, attitude-independent truths about the external world, but with what Pete Wolfendale calls the realm of non-objective truths. At its most abstract, philosophy deals with those truths that, while independent of the particular attitudes of individuals and groups, are nonetheless true in virtue of the structure of attitude-having in general, or transcendental truths. The more concrete elements of the humanities, both in the philosophical/reflective and in their practical significance, then deal with the concrete cultural phenomena of that which is true because we take it to be true (for example, that a commodity has a specific value, or that a poem can be considered brilliant).

What is called for is a rescuing of the concept of truth from its post-modern degradation. There is a sense of truth indigenous to the humanities (or human sciences, really) that, when properly distinguished from the sort of truth pursued by the natural sciences, should avoid the problems diagnosed by continental philosophers throughout the 20th century. This does not mean advocating the sort of cavalier repurposing of the concept that Badiou undertakes, as he ultimately only continues the fraught tradition of employing a monolithic notion of truth whose lack of precision does little to overcome the rift within philosophy.

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4 Responses to On the Rift

  1. Kristofer says:

    I’m an undergrad at a typical ho-hum state university with a typical ho-hum analytic philosophy department. An anecdote:

    After the first day of my philosophy of science class got out, I happened to follow two physics students down the hall. They were engaged in some pretty boisterous mockery of another philosophy professor, as well as his understanding of certain principles in physics he liked to invoke. They must have dropped the class; I never saw them again.

    One physics student stayed in the class. He sat in the back and read his classical mechanics textbook, occasionally looking up to correct the professor on various points I didn’t understand – which, from the looks of it, the professor didn’t understand, either.

    One of the guys at my department is even a newly minted Princeton grad. And yet, I often get the distinct feeling they are all full of shit, every last one of them. Worse, I often get the vibe I have wasted time in the most thoroughly ghettoized discipline in the humanities. Scientists don’t care about analytic philosophy, and analytic philosophers look down on just about everybody that isn’t a physicist. And even physicists are apparently in a state of utter confusion about their own methodology, if analytic philosophers are to be believed!

    I don’t know what life is like at a continental department, but it is hopelessly dreary in an analytic one.

  2. Joshua says:

    I like this turn in your work, and look forward to reading your development along these lines. That said, I struggle to see the significant difference you assert in the end between this destination for philosophy and Badiou’s project. I wouldn’t normally bother with such a comment, but I am often struck by the indistinctness of the distinctions you make between your perspective and Badiou’s – in contrast with your pointed and systematic thinking your remarks on him often seem forced.

  3. Pingback: What in the hell … :: … is wrong with you people? :: January :: 2011

  4. Hauberg-Lund says:

    The reference to ‘the realm of non-objective truths’ can and will not help us by itself. You talk about attitude-having, and I believe this notion is more useful than, say, the (re-)invention of transcendental, if not simply correlationist, needs and desires. I am not trying to say that ‘the speculative turn’ is through and through impotent, but simply that some histories of philosophy exhibits a keen eye for nothing else than what the speculative Wolfendale seems to be calling for. As Heidegger begins one of his lecture courses on Hölderlin, it ought to be said in relation to the rift between analytic and continental philosophy as well that we must avoid taking our point of departure with a ready made ‘guideline’ or ‘manual’ in hand. Instead, following Heidegger, we must make the attempt to keep an open attitude when concerned with ultimate matters as well daily business. This radical opennes, I believe, is exactly what Heidegger – insofar as he can be said to ‘have’ an ontology – installs into his (especially) later writings as the main heuristic principle. The real advantage and superiority of ‘continental’ philosophy is that it inherently respects what Heidegger called ‘the piety of thought’, namely questioning.

    A large part of the recent history of analytic philosophy – in its unfounded respect for neurobiological cognitive science, the results of the exact empirical sciences in general, etcetera – cannot embrace this openness of the continental tradition. The virtue of contextual awareness, we might say, allows the thinkers identifying themselves as continental philosophers to transcend the boundaries of mere ‘analysis’.

    As William Blake would have it, the business of continental thought is not so much to critique as it is to create – and in this way embrace the new!

    Let us hope that it is this attitude that will prosper and thus outgrow the stubborn attempts to make things stay the way they are. Let us hope that the speculative turn itself turns out to accomplish what it seems to have set out to do. Let us hope that it will be in favour of the openness of thought.

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