Continental Philosophy vs. Analytic Philosophy: Clarity, Obscurity, Argument


i) Introduction ii) Analysis and Argumentation iii) Clarity iv) Obscurity v) Deconstruction vi) Conclusion


The subjects covered in this piece have often brought about much heated debate. Indeed the very title of this piece will make some philosophers and commentators get very hot under the collar.


Of course the following words are bound to be biased — at least to some extent. That said, critics of my position will be — to some extent — biased too. So all that should simply be taken as given.


Put basically, my own bias leans toward analytic philosophy. Yet that doesn’t mean that I’m entirely positive about analytic philosophy or entirely negative about continental philosophy.


What’s more, the very terms “analytic philosophy” and “continental philosophy” have inevitably been fiercely criticised by philosophers and commentators. Some have classed them as worthless generalisations which have many exceptions. (A couple are discussed in this piece.)


So now let’s take Professor Simon Glendinning’s rhetorical — and almost shouty — words. Firstly we have this:

“[C]ontinental philosophy could not have conceived itself, because crudely speaking, there is no continental philosophy.”

Indeed Simon Glendinning believes that “the term ‘continental’ is an Anglophone designation”. Oddly enough, he most certainly does believe that there is such a thing as “Anglophone analytic philosophy”. And if you want to know the position of (to use his own words) “self-styled analytic philosophy” on continental philosophy (which, remember, doesn’t exist), it’s

“the false personification… the possibility of being empty, the possibility of sophistry”.

What’s more, for analytic philosophy (in its “rhetoric”), continental philosophy is its own “other”.


Ironically there are some “binary oppositions” (not Glendinning’s own words) which have been set up between analytic philosophy and continental philosophy which Glendinning completely rejects and which I — to some extent at least — believe are very real. He cites the cases of

“logic and rhetoric; clarity and obscurity; precision and vagueness; literal language and poetic language; analysis and speculation”.

Yet despite all of Glendinning’s problems and his rejection of the terms, in the very same book from which his words come (i.e., New British Philosophy: The Interviews), Professor Simon Critchley not only accepts that there is such a thing as continental philosophy, he also tells us what its “goal” is. (Incidentally, Critchley explicitly states he’s more sympathetic to continental philosophy than to analytic philosophy). In full:

“The goal of continental philosophy is both individual and social emancipation.”

He then continues by saying that the

“continental tradition can be summarised in three terms: critique, praxis and emancipation”.

So because there’s disagreement on these issues even among the fans of continental philosophy and the critics of analytic philosophy, I may as well stick to my guns by stating the following words.


In most cases one would recognise if a paper were written by an analytic philosopher (as opposed to one written by a continental philosopher — even if written in English!) almost within seconds. More particularly, if a paper by, say, a post-structuralist accidently found itself in a analytic philosophy journal (such as Analysis or Mind), then it would stick out like a sore thumb and readers would spot it immediately. Similarly, a piece on, say, mereological nihilism by Ted Snider which somehow found itself in a continental philosophy journal (such as Continental Philosophy Review or Deleuze and Guattari Studies) would immediately bring about similar responses on the (scare-quoted) “other side”.


Again - of course there are exceptions! Yet the prose styles and subjects used and covered by analytic and continental philosophers are — in many cases — so monumentally different that the exceptions may not tell us as much as some commentators (such as Glendinning) claim.


To sum up.


The large and obvious differences between most analytic philosophy and much continental philosophy obviously don’t factor out the often small and rare similarities.


Analytic Philosophy


Many analytic philosophers stress the point that analytic philosophy isn’t about the sharing of views or positions. They claim, instead, that it’s about the sharing of philosophical tools and a basic commitment to clarity. And all this is regardless of what philosophical position a particular analytic philosopher may advance.


In his book What is Analytic Philosophy?, Hans-Johann Glock elaborates on this position in the following:

“Philosophy is not about sharing doctrines, but about a rational and civilised debate even about one’s own cherished assumptions.”

It can be seen that Glock doesn’t use the words “analytic philosophy” at the beginning of the passage above. However, he does conclude by saying that

“[s]uch a debate remains easier among analytic philosophers than between analytic and continental philosophers”.

Of course it’s also the case that many analytic philosophers do actually “share doctrines”. However, it’s just that the sharing of philosophical tools and practices is deemed to be more important than sharing doctrines. It also seems to follow that from the sharing of philosophical tools and the commitment to clarity there can be “rational and civilised debates even about one’s cherished assumptions”. That is, the sharing of philosophical tools and a commitment to clarity enables (or allows) rational and civilised debate.


Certain questions naturally arise here:

i) Do analytic philosophers really share many — or indeed any — philosophical tools? ii) Is there genuine civilised debate between all analytic philosophers at all times?

Many commentators have questioned this claim that analytic philosophers share tools. Others might have questioned the deepness (or genuineness) of the “civilised debate” too. This basically means that there’ll be exceptions to i) and ii) above — and no one should expect otherwise. However, on the whole, it’s easy to see that most analytic philosophers do indeed share many tools and practices.


All this runs parallel to an account of science as a whole which can be distinguished from any accounts of individual scientists. That is, individual scientists can be very unrepresentative individuals: they can falsify experimental data, stick dogmatically to their theories, be told what to say and do by big business, let their politics influence their science, etc. Nonetheless, unrepresentative scientists certainly aren’t the norm in most science. Sure; all this will also partly depend partly on which science we’re talking about; which period of scientific history; the country in which scientists work; etc.


The same kinds of distinction can be made between individual analytic philosophers and analytic philosophy itself. There may indeed be unrepresentative analytic philosophers. It may even be the case that poor standards (however that’s defined) are sometimes displayed within books or academic papers. (They’re certainly displayed by many analytic philosophers on Twitter when they discuss anything even remotely political.) However, as with science, none of this is really true of analytic philosophy as a whole.


Analysis & Argumentation


In broad terms, it can be said that Philosopher X is an analytic philosopher simply because he uses the tools of analytic philosophy and indulges in philosophical analysis. Of course we’d need to specify exactly what the tools of analytic philosophy are and what, precisely, philosophical analysis is. Indeed these issues have caused a lot of dispute actually within analytic philosophy— especially in the last couple of decades.


So analytic philosophers have also provided analyses of the words “philosophical analysis” and subsequently asked some questions about the term. For example, Professor Barry Dainton and Professor Howard Robinson have this to say about philosophical analysis within the tradition of analytic philosophy:

“[T]here are many different conceptions of analysis to be found within the analytic tradition. For some ‘analysis’ means an investigations into concepts. For those impressed by Russell’s theory of descriptions, analysis is a matter of revealing the true but concealed logical form underlying ordinary language statements. For others it is a matter of carefully studying the way expressions are actually used in ordinary language, with a view to dissolving rather than solving philosophical problems.”

These are very different accounts of philosophical analysis. However, surely we can still count them all as being philosophical analysis. Though this raises the questions as to what other types (or examples) of philosophy bypass analysis altogether; and, indeed, if that’s even possible.


One thing that analytic philosophers do share is a commitment to argumentation. That is, the “investigation into concepts” mentioned above will also usually involve argumentation of some kind. The same is true of Bertrand Russell’s approach and the stress on the expressions of ordinary language. All these approaches will include argumentation and also be defended with argumentation.


Argumentation, then, is opposed to simply making statements or offering “occult pronouncements”. That is, when someone engages in argumentation, that basically means that he’s defending (or justifying) what it is he has said.


In much continental philosophy, on the other hand, there are many statements which don’t appear to be the result of prior argument. That is, they aren’t conclusions of claims or premises which themselves contain arguments, data, or empirical evidence. At its worst, such philosophy makes philosophical pronouncements that aren’t argumentatively defended (or justified) at all. Of course here I’ve simply shifted the debate here from an account of the words “philosophical analysis” to references to “argument”, “justification” and the like. So it can now be said that analysis either is argumentation or that it includes argumentation.


Clarity


The idea that analytic philosophy isn’t a matter of doctrines is again stressed by the European Society for Analytic Philosophy. It writes:

“Analytic philosophy is characterised above all by the goal of clarity, the insistence on explicit explanation in philosophy, and the demand that any view expressed be exposed to the rigours of critical evaluation and discussion by peers.”

It can be said that the notions “clarity” and “explicit explanation” may simply be relative to analytic philosophers and what they take those words to mean. In other words, analytic philosophy may only be clear to analytic philosophers. And the explicit explanations found in analytic philosophy may only work that way according to analytic philosophers. This may mean that those on the outside (including highly-educated people) may not appreciate (or even recognise) the clarity or take the explanations to be explanations. Of course this is a sceptical view of both analytic philosophy and the passage above. Nonetheless, even if clarity and these explicit explanations are only relative to analytic philosophers, it’s surely still the case that most analytic philosophers have the “goals” of clarity and explanation in mind. And that takes analytic philosophers one step beyond many continental philosophers; who, it can be argued, often revel in obscurity and pseudo-profundity.


The final passage in the above also seems to explicitly and strongly tie all analytic philosophy to a university setting in that it stresses the “critical evaluation and discussion by peers”. Presumably these peers will be fellow academics. This also highlights the fact that analytic philosophy is more closely tied to university departments than continental philosophy. Of course there’ve also been many continental philosophers who’ve been professors or academics. (Virtually all the critics of analytic philosophy have been — and still are — academics/professors too ; as with those names cited and quoted in this piece.) However, when it comes to analytic philosophy, virtually every well-known (or even not so well-known) analytic philosopher has made his name at some university or other. Indeed analytic philosophy outside of a university setting seems to be like a fish out of water.


Analytic philosophers rationalise this extreme university-centric bias by stressing the technicalities and specialisms of the subject. They may say, for example, that most physicists and biologists are also tied to — and reliant upon — universities. Yet even in the case of physicists and biologists there have been far more people who’ve done good work outside universities than analytic philosophers. (This includes the many “amateur scientists” who did great work from the 17th century onward.) Of course once a philosopher has established himself in a university (or in a handful of universities), then he’s free to move beyond academia. However, even this is very rare within analytic philosophy. It seems, then, that contemporary analytic philosophy really is a university phenomenon and that partly explains the European Society for Analytic Philosophy’s reference to the “critical evaluation of peers”.


Obscurity


Hans-Johann Glock referred to “rigour, clarity, scholarship and intellectual honesty” in the passage above. Of course these virtues aren’t the sole domain of analytic philosophy. After all and to take only three examples, Aristotle, Hume and Descartes all predate analytic philosophy and their work was analytical. There were also 20th century continental philosophers who were rigorous and analytical. On the other hand, many continental philosophers have indeed been obscure and pretentious. But this simply begs the question as to what analytic philosophers mean by the word “obscure”.


So let’s go into a little more detail as to what the word “clarity” may mean within a philosophical context. I will quote the American philosopher Gary Gutting here. He wrote:

“My concern, however, is about the obscurity that arises because authors do not make a sufficient effort to connect their novel concepts to more familiar (even if technical) concepts that would all an informed and conscientious reader to make an assessment of their claims. The result is writing that is hermetic in the sense that it cuts itself off from the very issues of common concern that it is trying to address.”

First things first.


It will be said that that passage is a gross generalisation. Is this meant to be about all continental philosophy? After all, I doubt that Gary Gutting had Frege, Husserl, Carnap and others in mind when he wrote the above. Indeed I doubt that what he says can be applied to (much of) Michel Foucault, Jürgen Habermas, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and other continental philosophers. Yet the reason for this is simply that Gutting only had Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Derrida and Emmanuel Levinas in mind.


In the passage above there’s also a hint (rather than an explicit statement) that such uncertainty and obscurity is deliberate. That is, such philosophers

“do not make a sufficient effort to connect novel concepts to more familiar concepts”.

This means that the writing Gutting has in mind is intentionally “hermetic”. In other words, there can be philosophical writing styles which are unclear or even obscure — yet not deliberately so. This may apply to a philosopher like Kant or perhaps to certain works by Husserl. More clearly, I doubt that Kant went out of his way to be unclear or obscure. Yet Kant is indeed often unclear (depending on translations) because of his writing style, his academic audience and the complexity of the issues he was addressing. Nonetheless, his writing is rarely also rhetorical or oracular; as much continental philosophy is.

So why this deliberate obscurity or unclarity?


The American philosopher John Searle comments on this issue in a seminar he once gave in which he referred to Michel Foucault (whom he classed as a “good friend”). This is Searle’s account of the conversation:

Searle: “Why the hell do you write so badly?” Foucault: “Look. If I wrote as clearly as you do, people in Paris wouldn’t take me seriously. They’d think that I was childlike. Naive.”

Searle went on to say:

“You’ve got to be 10% incomprehensible otherwise people won’t think it’s deep. They won’t think you’re a profound philosopher.”

Many commentators have also accused these philosophers of hiding mundane or trite ideas under pretentious prose. Others have even said that “nothing is hidden” because effectively there’s nothing to hide. Or as Professor Hugh Mellor (at Cambridge University) said about Jacques Derrida: this stuff is “bullshit”. Mellor also wrote:

“That is much latter work which seems to be wilfully obscure. If you spell out these later doctrines plainly, it becomes clear that most of them, if not false, are just trivial.”

Mellor then added that Derrida “goes in for mystery-mongering about trivial truisms”. Having said that, before those words Mellor had also said that “some of Derrida’s early work was interesting and serious”. However, “this isn’t the work he has become famous for”.


Of course a lot of analytic philosophy is also “trivial”.


It’s also the case that some analytic philosophers hide their triviality under prose which is “wilfully obscure”. Then again, such analytic philosophy won’t be trivial or wilfully obscure in the same way in which Derrida’s later work is. That is, it won’t be poetic, vague and oracular. Instead, analytic triviality is hidden within forests of jargon, schema, symbolic letters, footnotes, references, “backward Es” (to quote Hilary Putnam), words like ceteris paribus and the like. In other words, basic analytic academic prose will be used to hide the trivialities. In Derrida’s case it’s a different kind of obscurity; though, in the continental tradition, it can be equally academic.


Hugh Mellor also said that some of Derrida’s “doctrines” are “simply false”. Well, Mellor most certainly must believe exactly the same thing about many doctrines offered up by analytic philosophers. However, I suppose that he must also believe that even though such doctrines are false, they aren’t also “trivial”. And my bet is that he certainly won’t see them as being examples of what he calls “mystery-mongering”.


Deconstruction


Despite Gary Gutting saying that Derrida and others deal in “obscurity” and don’t make any effort to communicate to those outside their own particular philosophical cults, he nonetheless does claim to understand one of Derrida’s positions: namely, that “every concept deconstructs itself”.


Now whether or not this is true (or whether or not it can be true), this belief in self-deconstructing concepts may partly explain Derrida’s obscurity or unclarity. After all, if all concepts do indeed deconstruct themselves, then isn’t that f̶a̶c̶t̶ (sous rature!) going to be reflected in Derrida’s prose itself? Or, to be more accurate, if Derrida believed that concepts deconstruct themselves, then he might have wanted to display that reality within his philosophical prose. Indeed isn’t that precisely what Derrida did attempt to do? In other words, since Derrida (at least at one point in his career) emphasised what he called philosophical and/or linguistic “play” (i.e., “the play of the sign”), then it seems that Derrida himself might have embraced obscurity or at least arcane play.


Gutting also says that French philosophers believes that “contradictions can never be avoided”. Here again, if some French philosophers really do believe this, then surely they’re going to display (or reflect) that t̶r̶u̶t̶h̶ in their philosophical prose. And won’t that very acknowledgement and highlighting of philosophy’s (or language’s) inherent contradictions inevitably lead to an unclear or even obscure prose style?


On the other hand, one can indeed have Mellor’s “trivial truisms” which are expressed in a prose which is bizarre and strange. This suggests, then, that obscurity and unclarity are sometimes chosen, rather than forced upon a philosopher by either the world or by inherent philosophical contradictions. Then again, it can be argued that even if a philosopher stresses and acknowledges such inescapable contradictions, it’s still possible to do so in a prose which isn’t obscure. Think here of the philosopher Graham Priest who upholds a dialethic position on logic and philosophy in which what he calls “contradictories” and “inconsistencies” are acknowledged and even embraced. Nonetheless, all this is carried out in a prose which is both clear and unpretentious. Having said that, a distinction can be made here between embracing and acknowledging contradictories and actually displaying them in one’s prose. In addition, physicists who concentrate on quantum mechanics can also express their physics in a prose which is clear and unpretentious. In this case — and perhaps in Priest’s too — it is the world (nature) itself which is bizarre and strange, not the prose which describes that bizarre and strange world.


Conclusion


It’s not a surprise that “debate” between analytic philosophers and other analytic philosophers is “easier” than debate “between analytic philosophers and continental philosophers” (as mentioned in the Glock passage above). After all, debate between biologists and physicists is harder than between physicists and physicists. Then again, you’d expect — prima facie — that a debate between analytic philosophers and continental philosophers would be easier than between biologists and physicists because, after all, we’re talking about philosophers debating with other philosophers here (even if from different traditions). Having said that, both biologists and physicists are scientists — so the same can be said about them.


At it’s most extreme, if analytic philosophers and continental philosophers use different tools and technical terms, do philosophy in a different way, and don’t even discuss the same issues, then it’s not a surprise that there’s a lack of debate between the two traditions. As it is, however, things aren’t always this bad. Apart from the fact that some philosophers on the continent have also been analytic philosophers, even when they aren’t some of the issues both traditions have discussed have indeed been the same. However, it’s still the case that these same issues have been — and still are — discussed in very different ways.


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Note:


(1) There are of course many other areas of this subject which might have been discussed.

For example, the following quote from Federico Amadeo has enough material in it for an entire piece. (Incidentally, this passage is a reaction to the words of John Searle quoted above.) So I’ll quote it in full as food for thought:

“I agree that the sort of literature in question has awful prose and it could be clearer. However, I’ve become weary of the way much of the analytic tradition fetishizes ‘clarity’. This is how they subject themselves to criticism of their own: the focus on thinking about aspects of the world that are the most intelligible. But the most intelligible isn’t necessarily the most important. There’s something extremely artificial about avoiding ambiguity at all costs, as language itself is ambiguous. If in considering the world in its most meaningful depths we find obstacles within the language to express it, must we give up the world? A little ambiguity is inevitable, perhaps even desirable. If continental philosophy sins in obscurantism, analytic philosophy sins in superficiality.”

The obvious response to Federico Amedeo is that some (or much) continental philosophy is both obscurantist and superficial. In parallel, some (if not much) analytic philosophy is both clear and deep. So is Amadeo assuming some kind of strong link between obscurantism and a lack of superficiality? Similarly, does he believe that clarity often (or even always) comes along with superficiality?


Amadeo also says that “language itself is ambiguous”. Yet that’s to ignore much of what’s been said in the article above about the philosophers who indulge in deliberate (or intentional) ambiguity — for whatever reasons. Unless, of course, that ambiguity isn’t deliberate and is simply a result of philosophical responses to “the world in its most meaningful depths”. So is Amadeo’s poetic phrase itself an example of the meaningfully deep and non-superficial?


In addition, what is it to “fetishize clarity”? Is seeing clarity as being of vital importance automatically to fetishize it? Do other philosophers fetishize unclarity and arcane prose?


[I can be found on Twitter here.]


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