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The contemporary philosophy divide

Jack Reynolds

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Matt Smith:

Welcome to the La Trobe University Podcast with myself, Matt Smith. And joining me today is Dr. Jack Reynolds from the Department of Philosophy. Thank you for joining me, Jack

Jack Reynolds:

Thanks for having me, Matt.

Matt Smith:

Now, you’re hear today to talk to me about what I see as, probably, your area of expertise which is contemporary philosophy and the divide that exists between two mainstreams of it which is analytic and continental; that’s the general ballpark of it.

Jack Reynolds:

That’s it.

Matt Smith:

Can you explain to me the two schools of thought and how did they arise?

Jack Reynolds:

They seem to, largely, be a phenomenon that arose at the start of the 20th century with philosophers like Bertrand Russell and others who tried to inaugurate a, kind of, philosophical revolution and start philosophy afresh and say, all the history of philosophy’s been a waste of time; we need to do philosophy in a more scientific manner, in a more logical manner. And so, that heralded the beginning of analytic philosophy.

 

In the meantime, in so-called European or Continental countries, philosophy went on much as it had done—well, to some extent—at least continue as with the history of philosophy. So, Anglo-American countries; mainly the UK and then America from the 1930s become the geographical base of what’s now called analytic philosophy.

 

Even though, now, the nice and easy distinction between analytic and continental is no longer able to be merely pinpointed in terms of geographical locale since people like myself, sometimes called continental philosophers, despite being pretty average in terms of my being French and German-speaking and being born and bred in Australia, of all places.

Matt Smith:

What makes them different branches of philosophy?

Jack Reynolds:

One of the central differences, I think, is that most analytic philosophers have a norm of what people would call methodological empiricism. Which isn’t to say they’re all empiricists; they don’t all just think that knowledge only comes from experience. Some of them think there are truths of mathematics and things like that.

 

But the idea is that philosophy should be, roughly speaking, continued with sciences as much as possible and that kind of metaphysical speculation should be limited. Whereas the, so-called, continental tradition even know encompasses a wide variety of different kind of philosophies; you might think of critical theory or continuation of Marxist philosophy.

 

We might think of phenomenology which was started by Edmund Husserl. Phenomenology attempts to explicate how it is to be in the world more generally. Some of these, kind of, more general meaning of life-type issues still pursued by continental philosophers but, I would say, less the focus of analytic philosophy.

 

So, it always becomes difficult to offer a nice, rough and ready necessary—this is philosopher’s jargon, so forgive me—insufficient conditions of either being an analytic philosopher or a continental philosopher. So, you just can not come up with a list; tick the box and that will explain where you’re going to be located.

 

But there are some different norms, different attitudes to the role of philosophy in relation to the sciences; to the role of philosophy in relation to common sense which helped to distinguish them in, so-called, Continental European philosophy. In the methodological sense, a large part of what seems to be one of their interests is what I coined, the idea of the, so-called, temporal turn.

 

So, they’re interested in looking at their relationship between time and subjectivity and the sense in which particular pronouncements have a, kind of, history. So, concepts have a genealogical history, which we need to understand. This kind of emphasis on time and history is perhaps less prevalent, I think, in contemporary analytic philosophy.

Matt Smith:

Continental philosophy seems to have a lot in common with the society’s perception of what philosophy is and traditionally has been. Does that seem to be accurate?

Jack Reynolds:

Yeah, I think you might be right about that. There’s a well-known analytic philosophy—well, well-known in philosophical circles, at least—Jerry Fodor who, somewhere, be moans the fact that when he goes into a book store, what he sees are all of these books by European philosophers and books in the history of philosophy. And typically, books by analytic philosophers are being sold in great numbers in your average bookstore.

 

But of course, they’re being highly influential within academic philosophy itself and libraries, obviously, have plenty of these books. But he expressed some bemusement that he couldn’t understand why his own books weren’t stocked in these stores. And whereas, Foucault, let’s say, it was Jacques Derrida or some of these people associated with French philosophy are sold quite widely and the part of public idea philosophy, I think.

Matt Smith:

So, does that mean that, in some ways, analytical philosophy has failed to make a big impact in the world? Or maybe it’s got a lot more steps to take, a lot further to come than continental philosophy would?

Jack Reynolds:

I, probably, wouldn’t quite say that. It depends on what we think about in terms of an impact on the world.

Matt Smith:

I guess, mainstream penetration is what I’m going for there. I didn’t mean significance.

Jack Reynolds:

Mainstream penetration of analytic philosophy hasn’t been the same level of saturation. You couldn’t imagine, say, 50,000 people attending a funeral of an analytic philosopher and that’s how many people attended Jean-Paul Sartre’s funeral in France. So, there’s definitely a difference in that respect.

 

But, of course, analytic philosophers would say, and I think rightly, that what they’re largely doing is in association with the sciences. So, they’re having impacts upon various other disciplines; particularly in the sciences, particularly in physics and those kinds of disciplines, perhaps, in psychology to some extent.

 

So, perhaps the way of putting it might be that analytic philosophy has had and continues to have a large impact on academia and the sciences. A bit large but whether they had any real impact upon people outside of academia is perhaps debatable and less clear.

Matt Smith:

What is the relationship between the two branches of philosophy? Is it a bit of a “West Side Story” thing going on?

Jack Reynolds:

It has been a hostile story for much of the 20th century. So, a book that myself and my co-author have recently published; the first part of it traces a history of these, kind of, polemical encounters between well-known representatives of each side. So, we have Bertrand Russell and Henri Bergson, French philosopher; we have Martin Heidegger, German philosopher and Rudolf Carnap. There are all these, kind of, situations of polymers of disagreement and various terms of refute being issued on either side.

Perhaps what’s happened since about the 1950s, though, is rather than this polemic engagement with one anther. There’s been indifference—let’s just do our own thing and we’ll try to ignore each other as much as possible.

 

So, part of what this book is trying to do is to overcome this indifference, all this parting of the ways that has happened between analytic and continental philosophers. And it remains to be seen whether it will be successful but it’s an effort in that direction.

Matt Smith:

One thing that strikes me, that continental philosophy is, at times, might struggle with being relevant to today’s society. Do you see that as being a problem at all?

Jack Reynolds:

These are relevant to today’s society.

Matt Smith:

They might struggle with some things at times; specially, with how to approach the sciences and scientific studies.

Jack Reynolds:

Yeah, a cliché about continental philosophy would be that it’s anti science. I think that will be a little bit too strong. But certainly continental philosophy doesn’t have a differential relationship to the findings of the sciences. It doesn’t think that science is the truth, full stop. And that philosophy’s job is to mediate that truth in relation to morality or other kinds of claims. So, that is an important difference with analytic philosophy.

 

One of the things that people might say in favour of so-called continental philosophy and its contemporary relevance is that there is a preoccupation with things that are about time. Issues like modernity; what is are to be in modernity? Issues like capitalism are a major theme of reflections in contemporary continental philosophy. What does capitalism do to us as desiring agents?  Those kind of questions are very much question that preoccupy the contemporary post-structuralist, continental philosophers.

 

So, I think, those kinds of things are still relevant. There are other kinds of relevance that European philosophy has. There’s still a preoccupation with some of these meaning of life-type questions. What is our relationship to death? Should we fear death? How should we live a good life?—those kinds of questions, which are old questions for philosophy.

    Arguably, although, they are old, they’re also ubiquitous; questions we’re never going to get away from, questions we’re always going to have to grapple with. But I think it’s true, by and large, that so-called continental philosophy has had less of an engagement with the physical sciences. And in that sense, might be sort of seen as—how should I put it—backing a trend of contemporary society which is, increasingly, more and more invested in the scientific model of knowledge acquisition.

Matt Smith:

Do you think in the future there could be a bit of working together as more philosophers come to the fore front? They’d be out at, say, merit in both analytical and continental philosophy?

Jack Reynolds:

Yeah, we see ourselves as contributing one step towards that. But there is an emerging trend, I think, in certain areas in what’s called philosophy of mind; for example, which looks at their relationship of the mind to the brain—the mind to the world. There is an increasing tendency in which analytic philosophers of mind and phenomenologist will come into some kind of dialogue.

 

In other kinds of areas like, let’s say, feminism or in terms of ethics; where there’s a kind of topical focus, philosophers will draw reasonably readily on both traditions. Arguably, it’s still not the norm.
    The norm is still the kind of mutual indifference and occasional outbreaks of hostility but I think there’s reason for some optimism. It’s hard to prophesize about the future. But in the next generation or so we will see a less hostile attitude towards the other camp.

Matt Smith:

What do you mean by hostile? What’s happening there?

Jack Reynolds:

Well, it’s not that hostility is particularly pervasive in my department here in La Trobe. We’re fairly—

 
Matt Smith:

I did notice a line drawn.
  [Laughter]

Jack Reynolds:

That’s right. Well it happens that most of the so-called continental philosophers are located on level two of Humanities 2. And most of the analytic philosophers are on level three. But that’s merely a coincidence.

    What I mean by hostility? At the moment, we have two kinds of conferences in Austral-Asia. There’s the Austral-Asian Society of Continental Philosophy conference, which happens once a year. There’s the Austral-Asian Association of Philosophy, which is largely the analytic conference, which happens once a year.

 

Occasionally, there are, like I said, often not overt hostility but a tendency to not respect the other side. To think that they’re missing the point of what philosophy should be; they’re missing the idea of the vocation of philosophy and to, hence, dismiss the worth of what’s going on at these other conferences. I don’t want to be too pessimistic about this hostility and that happens in many disciplines; philosophy is not unique.

 

So, if you think about sociology or English or history; from what I’ve been told by colleagues in these disciplines, there are some kinds of splits that aren’t unlike these so-called analytic-continental split.

Matt Smith:

Let’s go to your book for a second which is called “Analytic versus Continental”; funnily enough, very appropriate here. And it’s co-written with James Chase with the University of Tasmania. How did you manage to remain balanced and impartial when writing this book? And how has it been received by both sides of the philosophy fence?

Jack Reynolds:

Good questions. James is ex-colleague and friend of mine from the university I was previously at. So, we had a certain kind of friendship which, sort of, made this dialogue possible.

 

According to most people, James is the analytic philosopher and I’m the continental philosopher. So, the ‘versus’ was, you know—we actually have a particular polemical or tense relationship in writing this book because we are friends. And the ‘versus’ was the publisher; they liked the idea of a ‘versus’, some kind of confrontation in the title. We actually wanted to have “Analytic versus Continental?”  But they didn’t like the question mark; they said, books with question marks don’t sell.

 

In terms of how it’s been received; of course, we’ve been presenting parts of the book at conferences round and about the place. I think the reception has been, I’d say, ambivalent. I just gave a talk recently at the Australian Association of Philosophy conference, which is largely an analytic philosophy conference. I had a lot of people there. I had thirty-odd people there but they were, mainly not analytic philosophers, it seemed.

    So, in Australia, at least, so-called continental philosophers are the minority. And perhaps, continental philosophers are, kind of, more invested in this issue—more interested in this issue than analytic philosophers who are the majority in and who, perhaps, don’t see the need to some extent to ask these kinds of questions. Although, obviously, James Chase might call it an exception to that, I don’t what to profit too many generalizations about all analytic philosophers not being interested in the divide.

Matt Smith:

You said a couple of times that most English-speaking countries fall into the analytical philosophy category and yet, you are considered a continental philosopher. Do you consider yourself a continental philosopher?

Jack Reynolds:

To some extent, I do. But it’s not because, obviously, I have no birthright. But it’s simply that the philosophers who’ve influenced me the most have been, largely, French and German philosophers as most people do in high school, as reading Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus novels. And that was kind of my full reign into philosophy. And so, I started reading Sartre’s philosophical treatises as well.
  Since then, other French philosophers like Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Jacques Derrida have been really important for me. My thesis was largely oriented around their works. So, in a sense, I’ve kind of imbibed something of this continental ethos. Obviously, the whole project of labeling, “You are a continental philosopher,” “You are an analytic philosopher,”; ideally, this wouldn’t be happening. But it’s part and parcel of the contemporary scene.

 

To some extent, we are labelled in this way. And I guess, the thing that the book is trying to accomplish is sort of give a certain sense of the philosophical significance of these terms. But also, not be trying to through-cast people onto these stereotypes of clichés; allow some kind of freedom of movement in relation to what we think of as an analytic philosopher or a continental philosopher. And ultimately, to encourage rapprochement and projects that supersede or move beyond this divide that has fairly pervasive throughout much of the 20th century.

Matt Smith:

Well, for this sort of book to come out of Australia, it maybe proves that both you and James aren’t really what the typical analytical and continental philosophers are thought of being.

Jack Reynolds:

Yeah, that’s possibly true which, I guess, raises some issues that you were eluding to earlier regarding our own position in relation to this divide and writing of this book. And that there’s, obviously, a reason that we’re both interested in pursuing this project. There probably haven’t been any such books, really. There have been a couple of edited collections on this. And so, there hasn’t really been a book on this before which is a bit anomalous given the thousands upon thousands of books that are published every year around the world.

 

So, yeah, I guess we have to accept we are a little bit anomalous in that regard. That’s a good question, one that causes me to reflect from time to time. This is, sort of, a cliched continental question; but what are the conditions of our discourse? What are the conditions of James and I engaging in this kind of dialogue. And obviously, one of those conditions is the fact that we are friends and can have a certain kind of trust. We can disagree with one another and not feel it’s going to descend into name-calling and things like that.

 

Of course, one of the risk of that friendship, maybe, that we, kind of, make things a bit nicer, a bit more ecumenical than some other people might want to characterize the divide but we’ll see what the broader academic community thinks.

Matt Smith:

So, Dr. Jack Reynolds’ book which he co-writes with Dr. James Chase is called, “Analytical Versus Continental” And it is available now from Acumen Publishing. If you have any comments, questions or feedback about this podcast or any other, why not send us an email at podcast@latrobe.edu.au. Dr. Jack Reynolds, thank you for your time today.

Jack Reynolds:

Thank you, Matt.

 

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