POC Blog

The random technotheolosophical blogging of Reid S. Monaghan

Continental Breakfast OR Philosophical Ultimate Fighting

Today's guest post is from Tim Dee's Fact of the Day:



The word philosopher conjures up an image of an ancient Greek with a long beard and an entourage of young followers.  In this fantasy world, they sit around and issue aphorisms.  But the reality is that philosophers can be just as petty as the rest of us.  This can be seen most clearly in the conflict between the analytic and continental philosophers.

But first, let me talk a little about those two terms, and it's worth noting that it's tough to generalize about the two schools, but let me try anyway. 

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, philosophy had stalled out.  They had been asking the Big Questions - existence, non-existence, God, being, ethics - for a long time, and they had started spinning their wheels. 

On the analytic side, one philosopher, Bertrand Russell, had grown tired of the whole thing, and he decided to strip philosophy down to its logical roots.  One young Austrian, Ludwig Wittgenstein, started showing up at Russell's lectures, and the two quickly became friends.  Shortly after, Wittgenstein locked himself in a cabin in Norway and wrote a book entitled the Tractitus Logico-Philosophicus, which effectively boiled language down to its bare logical elements.

Wittgenstein's book sent shockwaves through the world of philosophy, and Russell decided that this was the new way in philosophy.  The Tractitus attempted to make philosophy less fuzzy; if Wittgenstein and Russell had their way, philosophy would no longer be a brazenly unscientific inquiry into the Big Questions, it would be an extremely scientific dissection of language.  This grew into the analytic school.  The analytic philosophers sought to break language down to its barest elements.  If there was any room left for the fuzzy in analytic philosophy, Wittgenstein blew it away with the last line of the Tractitus, which has since become a manifesto to analytics: "what one cannot speak of, one must remain silent about."  That means that philosophers couldn't ask the Big Questions anymore.

Meanwhile, on the continent (hence "continental") another movement was going on.  Edmund Husserl, a spunky German Jew (who was later booted out of academia during the Nazi period), put together a number of disciplines - math, psychology and philosophy - and came to the conclusion that there was no objective reality.  Everything, Husserl contended, was subjective.  This meant that the things that seemed scientific and mathematical to the analytic philosophers were actually just as flaky and ephemeral as the Big Questions.

Because, to the continentals, everything was subjective, one had to talk about the Big Questions in light of history.  Thus, philosophers became involved in the moment.  They began to write history books and political books, and they began to leap across disciplines.  If there is one person who sums up the continental movement, it is Michel Foucault, a French philosopher who has used history as a means of exploring philosophy.

So the battle lines are drawn between the analytics and the continentals, and the two do not get along.  Since the 1970s, the rift has grown, and now the two will rarely even hold conferences together.

But what makes this spat different is the technique that the analytics have found to push out the continentals. 

In 1989, Brian Leiter, a hard-core analytic, published a set of philosophy program rankings, known as the Philosophical Gourmet Report (PGR, for short).  In 1996, the PGR went online, and shortly thereafter it became orthodoxy. 

There's just one problem with the PGR: Leiter slanted it toward analytic philosophy.  Thus, programs with excellent analytic departments, such as NYU and Rutgers, were highly rated, while programs with superior continental departments were bumped to the bottom, or left off altogether.  For instance, in 2006, Emory's program, which boasts a top-notch continental department, was simply not ranked.  On the PGR's website, Leiter has posted an essay that amounts to a defense of the relevance and importance of analytic philosophy, and it dismisses continental philosophy in passing.

Stories began to circulate about the effect of the PGR: tales of professors hired or fired in an attempt to impact rankings became commonplace, and finally Richard Heck, then a major analytic professor at Harvard, became worried that the PGR was bullying continentals out of philosophy.  A group of professors joined Heck and posted a petition, but the damage had been done.  Attempts to set up rival rankings for continental programs--such as the Hartmann Report--failed to gain traction.

The net result of all of this is that analytic philosophy runs the show in America these days.  They get the best graduate students, the best rankings, the most funding, and the most clout.  It has little to do with the merits of the two philosophical systems; it has everything to do with the state of the modern university.