Analytic or Continental?

The psychology of becoming a philosopher in the 21st century

Divorce need not be a tragedy. Things do turn messy, however, when parents force their kids to take sides: for one and against the other. We philosophers who are coming of age in the 21st century find ourselves, unfortunately, subject to such an unhappy circumstance. To become a philosopher today implies identifying oneself either as an ‘Analytic’ philosopher, with a commitment to ontological Truth (with a capital T) and a near scientific style, taking pride in clarity and rigor. The other option is to identify as a ‘Continental’ philosopher, for whom questions of truth and power collide, while celebrating ambiguity and playfulness in both method and style. While much has been said about how this distinction does (or doesn’t) make sense to professors, we never talk of how this conflict affects the intellectual development of aspiring philosophers.

And this is, I believe, a conversation students and professors urgently need to have. Intimidated by the hostility between heroes and heads of departments, students tend to join an academic tribe as soon as possible, while eagerly acquiring the fine (and dirty) tricks of blackmailing everyone and everything that one decided not to be. Often, we do so long before having seriously engaged with the authors, ideas, and methods that make up the two opposing schools. This is a pity, because by being so firm so early we make uninformed decisions and thus find ourselves disagreeing with vague stereotypes instead of with precise arguments about specific theories or methods. And thus we end up defending ideas not because we are convinced that they make for the best alternative, but because it’s the only alternative we know. As a student myself, I think it is not only a pity that things are this way, I think that we could – and that we should – do something about it.

After all, why are we so eager to entrench ourselves into one of the two intellectual tribes? Lost in the marvels of our own thoughts (and of those we admire), it’s easy to forget that our brains are only human brains: muscles capable of sophisticated thinking (and thus joy), but equally vulnerable to bias and prejudice. Research in social psychology shows that simply being categorized into a group is a sufficient reason for our brain to evoke automatic inter-group bias. As soon as we believe we belong to a category, and without any reference to substantive differences between social categories, we start favoring in- over out-group arguments. Social psychologists call this the ‘minimal group paradigm.’ The fact that we have this tendency does not, of course, destine us to make prejudiced choices. The real problem is that the tendency to identify prematurely makes us reject the only mechanism there is to truly combat bias, namely, information about the other. By identifying ourselves at an early stage with one tradition and from then on refusing to seriously engage with the other, we trap ourselves into a cascade of bias.

Then why are the young apostles of independent thought so eager to get trapped by such a prejudice? Entering philosophy is inevitably a humbling experience, one in which we come to realize how much there is to know and how little of it we have mastered. It turns out that in-group favoritism and out-group prejudice tend to be strongest exactly in circumstances of uncertainty and threat. In the face of social disorientation, categories such as ‘Analytic’ and ‘Continental’ – however ignorant we are of their content – give at least some sense of certainty and belonging. Once affiliated, one is no longer alone in defending an argument; one has a pre-chewed reaction ready, capable of being applied to any text, paper, or idea that passes by. These philosophical clubs, then, end up being a bit like the fraternities or sororities many college-aged students join at about the same period in life.

Attempting to remedy such intellectual and social uncertainty, we happily ‘self-select’ into intellectually homogenous groups, often echoing ignorance rather than wisdom. In some classrooms this means students manage to reach levels of vagueness that would have made even Althusser raise eyebrows. In other courses, we fail to realize that there is more to the history of philosophy than the intellectual past of just one continent. As Gary Gutting (who has written extensively on ways in which the divide could be bridged) puts it: “it’s obvious that Analytic and Continental philosophers would profit by greater familiarity with one another’s work, and discussions across the divide would make for a better philosophical world.”

Yet, in the current climate, reaching across the gap has become incredibly unattractive; if not physically impossible. In the words of Santiago Zabala, author of The Hermeneutic Nature of Analytic Philosophy, it is as if a fire-alarm goes off when anyone that vaguely resembles ‘a Continental’ tries to engage with the other side. To quote Zabala: “The doubter will immediately be attacked theoretically, academically, and probably also personally.” On the other side, Continentals are often equally aggressive and unwilling to seriously engage with someone crossing the divide. As a curious undergraduate who looked and talked like someone of the Analytical type, I was often simply shown the door by Continentals, and this without having uttered a word. (I suppose the mere sight of my pale skin and ironed shirt were enough for the Continental fire alarm to go off, which made fleeing the only safe response.)

When I signed up for courses in Continental theory (and thus could not be sent out), attending class was at times like facing a fire squad. Inevitably I found myself defending a tradition that I only partially understood. Even more to be lamented is that this happened precisely when I had signed up to learn about the views of others – not to revel in what I already knew. Yet when faced with such hostility it’s hard not to start confirming one’s own (negative) stereotypes. Psychologists refer to this phenomenon as ‘self-stereotyping.’ When we feel our group-identity is under attack, people tend to “view themselves as interchangeable exemplars of the social category, rather than unique personalities defined by their individual differences from others.” This leads to the typical, and typically useless, discussions in which both teams link arms and uncritically repeat their anthems while nobody learns anything.

This tendency towards uncritical group-homogeneity becomes especially regrettable once we realize that the scope and diversity of both Analytic and Continental philosophy has broadened greatly over the last 50 years, which has created important distinctions within (or even overlap between) the two traditions. It is unfortunate that instead of going through the toil of acquainting oneself with these distinctions, many students prefer the intellectual comfort (or laziness) of just pointing out why everything that happens on the other side is insignificant, mistaken, a waste of research funds, bullshit, or even heretical.

And although students may be blamed for quickly and eagerly learning to contribute to the standing hostility, we should look elsewhere to find its origins. No one enters a philosophy department bearing a sign that reads ‘Analytic’ or ‘Continental’ above their head. Instead, we find ourselves ‘born into’ an environment that provides all the necessary conditions for bias and conflict re-production. In psychology, it is conventional wisdom that heightened conflict among elites creates polarization at the bottom. All we do, in other words, is copy the conflict we see amongst those who are more advanced. I hear of friends who study philosophy in departments where disagreement has become so deep that professors cannot even agree on the content of a compulsory (and thus mixed) course on philosophical methods. While both sides try to keep us from tasting the dangerous and forbidden fruits at the other side, professors conclude that it’s better to leave students in the dark about such ‘potentially dangerous’ methods, and so avoid the topic altogether. Apparently, teachers think us incapable of acquainting ourselves with different ways of working, ways from amongst which we might then choose for ourselves. The consequence is that students end up in the last semester of their studies without knowing how to reference.

Although most professors (I hope) do have good and substantive reasons underlying their rejection of the other, it is questionable whether this is really the cause of their mutual hostility. Work by Robert LeVine and Donald Campbell shows that conflict only tends to escalate when groups compete, like our professors do, over the same resources (read: followers and funding). When departments become soil to conquer, war is inevitable. Once this battle over resources has successfully polarized the elites, students are quick to follow suit. And this because, in their competition over resources (read: Ph.D.’s and fellowships), students think that the only way to survive is by being as firm – and as equally full of pretense – as those at the top.

By having allowed this intellectual conflict to escalate to the point at which we stand today, the philosophic academy has created the perfect breeding ground for in-group homogeneity and out-group hostility. Even more, it has done so based on reasons that no genuine academic can feel comfortable with. Ours is now a philosophical landscape that prevents students from developing as free thinkers who can be moved by their own, rather than by other peoples’, reasons. By denying the possibility of constructive exchange between them, both traditions have created an environment in which students feel forced to make up their mind prematurely. This effectively works as a foreclosure on future opportunities for mutual learning and interaction. If we agree that these are phenomena unworthy of a world that calls itself academic, then we have a collective responsibility to find solutions – and when found, to start acting upon them.

What, then, can we do? I offer four suggestions. First, psychologists would advise us students to start engaging in collaborative learning as opposed to in-group isolation. This would imply a willingness to take courses outside of our comfort zones and to provide one-another with serious and thoughtful commentaries on the different work upon which we embark. Psychologists might also, and secondly, suggest trying what they call ‘crossed categorization,’ in which we would subdivide groups along additional dimensions, creating the possibility of overlap between groups. Research has shown that this kind of grouping pattern allows group conflict to become less polarized and more constructive. We might, for example, be able to distinguish between Analytic and Continental theory first in terms of style, and second in terms of ontological commitment to truth and then mix these groups. (The call for ‘Analytic’ secondary literature on the work of great Continental thinkers shows the viability of this proposal.) A third option would be to seek and discuss philosophical possibilities and methods applicable across, or beyond, the Analytic –Continental divide. Psychologists refer to this as ‘multiple categorization.’ In compulsory courses, it may therefore be useful to study and discuss the work more pragmatic thinkers, like Richard Rorty, who simply bracket the question of metaphysical truth altogether.

But above all we must address the problem at its source. And this means that teachers and professors must reconsider both their attitudes and the incentive systems that sustains them. It is ultimately the hostility amongst them that beams down onto students. It might help a great deal, for example, if all involved began by taking up a more civil and curious way of communicating, instead of relying on pejoratives to describe one-another’s work. In addition, professors should start using the power of ideas, and not the power of their positions, to move students towards the ideas they find most attractive. And this requires that teachers stop treating the ideas they despise as if they are infectious diseases and instead present students with the possibilities, confident that truth will speak for itself.

This, of course, does not mean we need to stop being critical of others, nor need it prevent us from grouping with likeminded people. But we should become aware of both how aggressive conflict fuels prejudice and of what we can do to minimize its effects. Only then can we keep open the possibility of having a genuine and constructive conversation across traditions. And if we young thinkers simultaneously grow the backbone to resist our instincts, and stop remedying our intellectual uncertainty with group identification, then perhaps we can restore to philosophical education its status as an area wherein good reasons, rather than prejudice, informs what we think.

Reinier Hoon is an M.A. student in Political Philosophy at the Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona, Spain. He received his B.A. in Liberal Arts from the University College Maastricht (Maastricht University) in The Netherlands.

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