My Own Philosophical Project

Looking over my breakdown of the analytic versus continental philosophical divide, I think I sort of come off like a dismissive analytic philosopher. Part of that is my schooling–in most American universities, continental philosophy is considered more a branch of the Comparative Lit department than “real” philosophy–but I should really stress that it doesn’t reflect my views at all.

Here’s where I stand: I’m glad that I was schooled the analytic method because it really helps you be a logical, organized thinker. And I like selected works of analytic ethics–Rawls, for example, and Sharon Street’s done some interesting work in metaethics.

But a lot of the continental stuff I’ve read just hits me on a much more visceral level. Their concerns–especially the concerns of the existentialists–are much closer to my own. I just can’t summon up the same level of enthusiasm regarding whether or not Mary knows all the facts about the color red.

This semester I got to take “Existentialism and Phenomenology” with John Richardson, a respected Nietzsche scholar. In my last recitation, a student asked him why he choose to teach a fairly marginalized field of philosophy at NYU, and his answer helped me clarify where my own interests lay a little bit more.

What Richardson does–and what he asked us to do in the papers we wrote for his class–is apply the analytic method to continental subjects. That isn’t to knock how, say, Nietzsche approached his subject matter. I think there’s a lot to be said for accessibility (for a non-academic audience) and resonant, if overwrought, imagery. But the analytic method is the best way to put a philosophical proposition to the test. My continued interest in philosophy is sustained by the notion that its logical rigor and the continental school’s artistry and most potent ideas don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

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10 Responses

  1. As someone who has no formal training in philosophy, I’m curious-is continental philosophy regarded as “non-analytical”? If not analytical, then…what? Can’t all academic knowledge be called analytical in some way, since the definition of analytical is simply “an investigation of the component parts of a whole and their relations in making up the whole “? (definition from Princeton Wordnet)

    This seems like intellectual pretentiousness on the part of the academics who are making these distinctions.

  2. Analytic doesn’t just mean “analytic” in this case. As I explained in my earlier post, it’s a specific school, and yes, it does tend to be more logically rigorous than continental philosophy. Nietzsche, of course, was never afraid to contradict himself, and others like Heidegger, Kierkegaard, etc. tended more to just state their conception of how the world worked than present an argument.

    I’m not saying that’s a bad thing–there are merits to that approach. But I think the analytic style is the best one for testing those claims. It’s very argument-focused and works almost like a geometric proof.

  3. I met Richardson at my first Nietzsche conference back in 2001 and thought he was an incredibly nice guy. I don’t know his work that well, but his description of how to be an analytic Nietzsche scholar fits my work in the area as well.

    The way I got interested in Mary and all sorts of other core-area stuff was through metaethics. I sometimes joke that metaethics must be the central area of philosophy, because it connects to everything else.

    • Interesting. How does the Mary thought experiment relate to metaethics? I just took a really interesting class on that field, and if there’s some way to tie in some of the more arcane metaphysics and philosophy of mind stuff that might help me look at those areas with fresh eyes.

      • It’s a bit idiosyncratic, but here’s why I’m interested in it.

        A big part of my defense of utilitarianism is the idea that we can know the goodness of pleasure through phenomenal introspection alone. Then I attack all the other ways of forming moral beliefs. The idea is to argue that since phenomenal introspection is a reliable process of belief-formation and we have no other reliable way of forming moral beliefs, the only thing we really know about morality is the goodness of pleasure.

        This raises a bunch of issues about what exactly is going on in phenomenal introspection, what sorts of things phenomenal states are, and how we know about them. For example, does the experience of pleasure give someone knowledge of what goodness is, such that one couldn’t know what goodness was without experiencing pleasure? That would be the Jackson-like conclusion, and it’d be kind of awesome to be able to argue for something that big.

        I’ve never looked into the Mary literature in enough detail to see how I want to navigate these issues, but it’s something on my plate for the future.

  4. So if I’m reading the argument right, the way Mary’s room ties in is if you swap the color red for pleasure and its inherent goodness? (Man, poor Mary.)

    Huh. As something of a vehement utilitarianism skeptic, I’d be really interested to read a paper on this.

    • That’s right! Or at least, something in that vein — again, I have to dive into the Mary literature to make sure that both things are on the same side of a bunch of distinctions.

    • Oh, and I’ll be finishing up the paper in the next couple days. I’ll send it when I’m done.

  5. By the way: Neil, in your conception, is the goodness of pleasure a natural fact? Non-natural? Constructed?

    • Natural. I’m a synthetic reductive naturalist. Goodness and pleasure are like water and H2O.

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