Saturday, August 26, 2006


To the Vienna Station and beyond

Following the latest round of debate over on Leiter Reports on whether there is a distinction really to be made between analytic and continental philosophy, and if so, how it is to be drawn, I've been rereading Leiter's introduction to his interesting The Future for Philosophy volume and reflecting on my own attitudes.

It's been tough for me to get the hang of the debate. In St Andrews things seemed fairly straightforward. My teachers there who most influenced me, Peter Clark, Stephen Read, Stewart Shapiro and Crispin Wright, all seemed to me to more or less locate themselves in the tradition described in Alberto Coffa's wonderful The Semantic Tradition from Kant to Carnap: To the Vienna Station. This was a tradition that was characterised by its struggle to offer rival accounts of a priori knowledge and of natural science to Kant's, thought flawed because of his appeal to the mysterious notion of pure intuition. The linguistic turn in philosophy becomes, not the thesis that all philosophical problems reduced to problems in the philosophy of language, or would be solved there (though of course there are plenty of philosophers of that period who did advocate these views), but rather the thought that improving on Kant's undernourished and underdeveloped picture of semantics would enable one to avoid appeal to pure intuition in accounting for central parts of human knowledge. (I personally think that it's much harder than Coffa made out to fit Frege into this tradition so characterised, as excellent recent work by Burge, Demopolous and Dummett has shown. But I'll leave that aside for now).

Now, the tradition Coffa describes starts with Bolzano, and really gains momentum with Frege. It's traced from Jena through Cambridge, and ends, as the title suggests, in Vienna. (I'm skipping out all sorts of details; the place of Tarksi for example. But nevermind). Or rather that's where the story ends in the book. In an earlier little paper in J. Phil., 'Kant, Bolzano, and the Emergence of Logicism', Coffa reaches about the same point in the story. But the final four words of the paper are (1982: 689):

'And then came Quine.'

Leiter (2) also flags the influence of Quine's work, along side the work of the later Wittgenstein, as hastening the demise of anything truly worth singling out to be called analytic philosophy. But I'm pretty sure few of my old professors would agree to this account. I'm wondering how much which side of the Atlantic one was on makes a difference to how one is likely to perceive this debate. The influence of the later Wittgenstein is, of course, a notoriously tricky thing to describe. That said, there's an important trend in British philosophy starting with Dummett's work, and running through Wright, which thinks that the Investigations says something important and true, but tries to preserve those insights within a more Fregean picture of philosophical method and of the philosophy of language. As Bernhard Weiss puts it in Michael Dummett (4),

'Wittgenstein for Dummett is a brilliant thinker who provided a corrective to many Fregean misconceptions. Whereas Frege provided an account of meaning that is essentially Platonistic, (since his only way of securing objectivity of meaning was via reification), Wittgenstein emphasizes the intersubjective realm and the role of language in communication and in human life in general. But Frege provided the basic framework for conceptualizing how language functions. Wittgenstein (intentionally) provided no framework and cannot be seen as a model for how to practise philosophy.'

So for those in this tradition, Wittgenstein provided several insights which we're still struggling to accomodate, but didn't really offer a serious threat to so-called analytic philosophy. Quine, at least as I learnt this period of history, didn't ever really threaten to erode the deep influence of Carnap on British philosophy.

That basically sums up contemporary philosophy as I inherited it, and I've for a number of years viewed myself as practising (or at least attempting to practise) philosophy in this tradition. That's deeply shaped my view of what topics in philosophy are fundamental; the nature and scope of a priori knowledge, the realism/anti-realism debate, the rule-following considerations, the semantics of natural language, etc. It's not that I fail to recognise that there are plenty of other fascinating and important issues in philosophy worth pursuing, and historical traditions in philosophy worth studying and learning from. But I do tend even now to want to locate myself in this tradition, broadly conceived, and much of what's typically labelled continential philosophy I perceive as somewhat alien to my concerns. That's to take a somewhat narrow view of contemporary philosophy, I know, but I don't have time to read everything I would like to read even with these blinkers on.

None of this is meant as an argument to convince someone that there's a distinction worth drawing here between continental and analytic; rather I'm trying to explain (and get clear on myself) the particular perspective I've brought to these discussions. And I have to admit, I'm being forced to reconsider things frequently. Regular readers of this blog will know that I have a continuing interest in McDowell's work, and though I recognise the questions he's trying to answer as deep, significant ones, it's hard to view much of his recent stuff as of a piece with the tradition I described above. Tom Hurka points out in his comments on one of the recent Leiter Reports threads, and has argued at length in his excellent paper 'Moore in the Middle', that we distort the history of metaethics if we think of it as taking a significant turn around the turn of the last century, when the key figures of early analytic philosophy were doing their thang. Leiter has argued in his contribution to the volume mentioned above that anyone interested in the naturalistic turn in recent philosophy can't fail to take seriously and learn from the works of Marx, Nietzsche and Freud; three figures I can't honestly say it would otherwise have occured to me to study with any particular enthusiasm.

Obviously a black and white picture of philosophy is going to become increasingly untenable as philosophers continue to show how much damage we do to our understanding of certain issues if we ignore the insights of some particular philosopher or philosophical movement because we perceive them as coming from a tradition which we assume has nothing to offer. But that said, I still find it very useful, for my own still very much developing sense of where I fit into the world of philosophy, and where others fit into it, to locate myself within broadly the tradition described above; although it's ridiculous to suggest that all those philosophers shared exactly the same conception of the goals of philosophy and how they might be reached, I recognise common ground with those thinkers that I found completely absent when I tried to read, for example, Being and Time. So I'm not yet persuaded there's no intelligible or useful distinction to be made.

Update. I've realised I make St Andrews sound a little like a place where non-analytic philosophy meets with the response 'there be dragons'. I don't mean to give that impression, and my reflections above are based on my own interests and course of study while I was there; they aren't reflective of the attitudes of the department).

Further update. Much of the preceding post was me thinking out loud. Having had a couple of days since to consider the issue further, I've just written up some further thoughts in response to a post by Brit Brogaard over at Lemmings.


Hi Aidan,

For someone like whose actually been educated, on my under-grad in Denmark, in Heidegger,

Husserl and the others, I have to say I don't really understand how someone can think that

there isn't a clear distinction to be made between analytic and continental philosophy. At

least historically, there is no question for me that there's a fundamental difference

between, for instance, Heidegger and Carnap. Actually, I think these two figures are

representative of the 'parting of the ways' that took place in the 1930's, to borrow the

title-phrase from Michel Friedman's book (Open Court, 2000) on that matter.

Friedman's book is definitely worth looking at, although I found some of the chapters nearly

incomprehensible. It traces the divide back to the opposition between the so-called Marburg

School and the South West School in Neo-Kantianism to be found in Germany around the turn of

the last century. In contrast to Coffa, for Friedman the issue is not so much over the

status of the a priori and analyticity as it is over the nature and ground of objectivity.

In my own opinion, the issue between Heidegger and Carnap - at least if we're comparing

Sein und Zeit to the Aufbau - is best described as one over how and to what

extent language can capture the features of reality.
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