Category Archives: philosophy

the sociology of the analytic/continental divide in philosophy

I agree with William Blattner that “the so-called Continental-analytic division within philosophy is not a philosophical distinction; it’s a sociological one. It is the product of historical accident.”

The Continental and analytic schools each encompass too much diversity and overlap too much to allow them to be distinguished on the basis of doctrines or methods. Rather, they are two social groupings whose behavior can be illuminated by thinking about group-dynamics, incentives, and structures that may apply in other such conflicts.

In other words, we can put aside the content of the philosophical discussion and view analytic and continental philosophers as analogous to other examples of rival groups that display similar behavior, such as the Jacobins and Girondins during the French Revolution (minus guillotines), Weimar Classicists vs. Jena Romantics around 1800, or perhaps mods and rockers in British youth culture around 1960.

Here are the features I would note. Professional philosophy is a community that controls who can belong, and memberships (college teaching jobs) are scarce and desired by a larger population than can be accommodated. The community is decentralized, without a single authority; decisions about membership are made by local clusters (departments). However, the prevailing culture is hierarchical and status-conscious, and participants value reputation highly–fame is more salient than money. A small proportion of members have reputations across the community, but most are not widely known.

Within the whole community, two larger groups formed in the later 1900s and persisted for many decades: the analytics and the Continentals. They never encompassed all philosophers. There were also smaller self-conscious groups (American pragmatists, Thomists, specialists in classical and Asian philosophy, Marxists) and many individuals who refused to identify with a group at all. But some philosophers were committed to the analytic-Continental distinction and invested effort in debating, shifting, and maintaining the boundaries of their own group and expanding its influence.

Individuals may hold principled reasons to identify with one of these groups or the other, or not to participate in the distinction at all. They also have incentives to align or not align and to publicize or obfuscate their own stances. Such incentives vary. Is there an opportunity to get a job in a department that is overwhelmingly analytic? Is that department looking to reinforce that tilt or to diversify? Some philosophers may want to avoid such careerist considerations, but natural selection will weed out many of the purists.

A situation like this encourages people to treat some individuals as shibboleths. Perhaps a controversial person is influential–although not universally admired–within Group A. Most people in Group B cannot believe that this person has any admirers at all. Not only do they make tolerance for the person a defining characteristic of Group A, but they attribute aspects of his beliefs and behaviors to everyone in Group A.

Perhaps Robespierre is an example, polarizing Jacobins and Girondins even though many Jacobins hated him, and even though it is hard to identify sharp conceptual differences between these groups’ ideologies.

I think Blattner is right to attribute this role to Heidegger in the analytic-Continental divide. Although many Continental philosophers dislike Heidegger on numerous grounds (not only his Nazi phase), most would acknowledge that he belongs in the curriculum, that he inspired valuable work by others, and that one should know his work. For many analytics, he is a willful obscurantist, and they tend to attribute various aspects of his writing (an extremely self-conscious style, lots of hard-to-define neologisms, close readings of Romantic lyric poetry, an idealist history of thought) to Continental philosophy in general.

I am not sure which specific author to mention as a shibboleth on the analytic side, but it would be someone who dismisses historical philosophy and insights from the humanities in favor of only the latest natural science and logic and who denies being influenced by his (sic) social, cultural, and class position. Maybe A.J. Ayer?

Philosophy is usually under external pressure–since Socrates–and it now faces declining enrollments and doubts about its economic value. (See “the ROI for philosophy“.) External pressure could unify the discipline, and maybe it is doing so to some extent. But it can also fuel the fires of internal division, as when royalist invasions of France provoked Jacobins and Girondins to turn on each other as traitors.

There have been many examples of fruitful interaction at the level of individuals or even between groups. But the analytic-Continental conflict persisted for so long that plenty of people carry lists of grudges. “Yale Riot Protests Tenure Denial” said the headline after Richard J. Bernstein was denied tenure at Yale–in 1965–and that episode lingered when I majored in the same department two decades later.

Affective polarization within the discipline is a Bad Thing, because it discourages learning, promotes stereotyping, and discriminates against heterodox approaches. But I don’t think it is unusual or inexplicable. In philosophy, the problem may already be improving. To the extent it persists, we should think about group-dynamics and instutional incentives more than actual philosophical differences.

MacNeice on other people

Canto xvii of Louis MacNeice’s Autumn Journey (1939) opens with luxurious experiences, such as watching a morning scene over breakfast and lying in a bath “under / Ascending scrolls of steam,” feeling “the ego merge as the pores open … And the body purrs like a cat.” He writes these passages in the first person plural, and it’s not clear whether he’s alone or with someone at the breakfast table and in the bath. In any case, these moments end; we must leave them. It is a mistake to pursue “the luxury life.”

And Plato was right to define the bodily pleasures 
As the pouring water into a hungry sieve* 
But wrong to ignore the rhythm which the intercrossing
Coloured waters permanently give. 

And Aristotle was right to posit the Alter Ego**
But wrong to make it only a halfway house: 
Who could expect – or want – to be spiritually self-supporting, 
Eternal self-abuse?

Why not admit that other people are always 
Organic to the self, that a monologue 
Is the death of language and that a single lion 
Is less himself, or alive, than a dog and another dog?

Louis MacNeice, Autumn Journal: A Poem (1939), Faber & Faber, Kindle Edition. 

*referring to Plato, Gorgias 493c (Lamb trans.): “and the soul of the thoughtless he likened to a sieve, as being perforated, since it is unable to hold anything by reason of its unbelief and forgetfulness.” Socrates continues: this metaphor “is bordering pretty well on the absurd; but still it sets forth what I wish to impress upon you, if I somehow can, in order to induce you to make a change, and instead of a life of insatiate licentiousness to choose an orderly one that is set up and contented with what it happens to have got.”

**Aristotle, Nic. Eth. 1169b (Rackham trans.) “People say that the supremely happy are self-sufficing, and so have no need of friends: for they have the good things of life already, and therefore, being complete in themselves, require nothing further; whereas the function of a friend, who is a second self, is to supply things we cannot procure for ourselves.”

See also: the sublime and other people; the sublime is social–with notes on Wordsworth’s Lines Above Tintern Abbey.

joys and limitations of phenomenology

Very close descriptions of human experience can move us by provoking empathy for the person who offers the account and by reminding us of the complexity and richness of our own inner lives.

We are evolved animals, composed of things like cells and liquids and electrical charges, yet some of our experiences seem elusive and mysterious. I am thinking of phenomena like the passage of time, an awareness of another’s thought, or a free-seeming choice. Maybe it’s only due to our cognitive limitations that these experiences appear complex; another kind of creature could easily analyze and describe our condition.* Yet our halting efforts at self-understanding make the world seem elusive and mysterious.

My dog knows things I cannot, like the significance of the smells on all the tree trunks on our block. But he also has tangible experiences that point beyond his ken. For instance, that tag that jingles under his neck says the name of our town, which is why he is allowed to play off-leash in the local park; and our town’s authority derives from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. He is not wired to be able to understand much of that. In similar ways, when we investigate phenomena like our own consciousness and choice (no matter how skillfully and effectively), we are exploring the edges of things that we are not well designed to comprehend. I find this difficulty and mystery consoling. It helps to re-enchant the inner life.

It is one gift of certain fictional and poetic texts. Lately, I have also enjoyed works by the classic phenomenologists Husserl and Heidegger. Yet I am worried about two methodological limitations (which must be already discussed at length in secondary literature): social biases and the influence of socially constructed vocabulary.

For instance, Heidegger offers an 89-page-long analysis of boredom, presenting it as a door to fundamental truths about time and being and an opportunity to discover one’s existential freedom (Heidegger 1930/1995 §19-38; discussed by Slaby 2010).

(Yes, the idea of voluntarily reading many pages by Heidegger--about boredom!–invites parody, but the material is actually quite interesting.)

Heidegger builds his account on three successively “profound” examples of boredom. In the first, the narrator is bored while waiting for a train “in the tasteless station of some lonely minor railway.” Time, which is usually invisible, painfully drags. In the second, the narrator experiences a perfectly pleasant social evening, during which time passes normally. “We come home quite satisfied. We cast a quick glance at the work we interrupted that evening, make a rough assessment of things and look ahead to the next day—and then it comes: I was bored after all on this evening.” Here time does not perceptively drag, yet there is a retrospective appraisal that time was lost and wasted, which hints at insights about the person’s whole life. Third, one makes a judgment without actually going through the experience at all, as in the general statement: “‘it is boring for one’ to walk through the streets of a large city on a Sunday afternoon.” Close inspection of these examples poses the question “Has man in the end become boring to himself?” (Heidegger 1930/1995, §23a, §24b, §30).

Heidegger writes about the boring railway station in the first-person plural: “We are sitting [“Wir sitzen] … We look at the clock—only a quarter hour has gone by” (Heidegger 1930/1995 §23a, emphasis added). The grammar seems inclusive; the reader is expected to be part of the “we.” In fact, the test of the validity of a phenomenological analysis is whether it feels familiar.

However, the writer happens to be an increasingly famous philosophy professor whose experiences will become more engaging soon after the train ride is over. In short, he is privileged. His bias emerges in passages like this:

Is not every station boring, even though trains constantly arrive and depart and crowds of people throng? Perhaps it is not only all stations that are boring for us. Perhaps, even though trains constantly enter and leave, bringing people with them, there is still a peculiar sense of something more in these stations which anyone who passes tenement blocks in large cities has experienced. One could say that, while it may be like this for us, some peasant from the Black Forest will take enormous pleasure in it, and therefore boredom is a matter of taste

(Heidegger 1930/1995 §23d).

Evidently, neither the reader nor the author lives in a tenement house or identifies as a peasant.

Compare a type of experience that is prominent in early 20th century modernist literature by women (of whom Virginia Woolf is the most famous). Here, boredom “can appear as emptiness or deadness, a lack, or simply passive dissatisfaction.” In this feminist literature, the word “is used, sometimes interchangeably, with a number of other terms defining psychic, spiritual, moral, and physical states in which the self has difficulty accessing authenticity, productivity, and desire—all qualities attributed to one’s success as an individual” (Pease 2021, vii).

This kind of boredom involves long periods of time (months or years) in which not enough of perceived value occurs to make the individual feel satisfied with life. The hours may be filled with specific activities and events that make time pass so that it is not unpleasant or perceived to drag, but boredom is the subject’s appraisal of a whole period of life. It’s like never being able to leave Heidegger’s dinner party (which is not a problem that he encounters).

Since academic research is, almost by definition, conducted by people who hold currently bourgeois roles–albeit often precarious ones–it is crucial not to let first-person phenomenology supplant literary criticism and social science. Researchers and professors need to learn what an experience feels like to other kinds of people.

The other problem involves language. Phenomenology typically connects an inner experience to a word or phrase that names it. The word in question may have a history of being used in diverse ways. A feeling, such as boredom, that we experience as immediate and direct is socially constructed insofar as it has a name with well-known implications (Goodstein 2005, 4). Therefore, changes in the meaning of words may affect our experiences.

Classic phenomenologists sometimes tried to avoid the ambiguous and inconsistent connotations of existing words by coining new ones, which is one source of the difficulty of their texts. But one cannot write with neologisms alone. We need phenomenological accounts of widely used words, in order to reason about how best to use those words.

Heidegger emphasizes the literal root of the German word for boredom, Langeweile, or “long-while” (Heidegger 1930/1995, §19). This etymology will not influence an English-speaker who reflects on being “bored” or a French speaker who experiences ennui. The French word may suggest a degree of superiority, since it comes from the Latin odio, to hate, as in Horace’s famous “Odi profanum vulgus et arceo” (“I hate and shun the vulgar crowd”).

It is difficult to reconstruct the experience of boredom before the English word emerged (only ca. 1750), but it must have been different from today’s experience, if only because in those days it was unnamed and lacked conventional moral connotations. Today, a child who is taught that it is bad to be bored may experience boredom with guilt, resentment, or both.

Goodstein argues that “modern boredom” has loose connections with older ideas, such as melancholy and acedia (spiritual apathy), but “it can be identified with none of them. … Each of these forms of discontent is embedded in an historically and culturally specific way of understanding human experience—in which I call a rhetoric of reflection.” For instance, the pre-modern word “melancholy” assumed that humors could get out of balance: a disease model. Acedia implied that the sinner had become estranged from God. Modern boredom—“the experience without qualities”—is “the plague of the enlightened subject, whose skeptical distance from the certainties of faith, tradition, sensation renders the immediacy of quotidian meaning hollow or inaccessible.” Individuals suffering from modern boredom are out of harmony with society and alienated from their “own doing and being” (Goodstein 2005, 4, 10). Modern people who see themselves as bored are liable to be conscious of their individuality and alienation. They might perceive others as also bored: that is a common experience in school. Even so, all those individual students are alienated from the institution.

In short, Heidegger’s “we” is limited by both his social position and historical period. He has an idiosyncratic and not very empirical understanding of history, and virtually no awareness of his limited social perspective.

Like other works of phenomenology, Heidegger’s account can move us and inform us by resonating with our own experiences, but we must be careful to not to attend only to people who resemble ourselves.

*Heidegger explicitly disagrees that the “particular difficulties” of understanding Being are “grounded in any shortcomings of the cognitive powers with which we are endowed, or in the lack of a suitable way of conceiving—a lack which seemingly would not be hard to remedy” (Being and Time, H.16, Maquarrie & Robinson trans.). But he dismisses the validity of scientific research on human beings, and I think that’s a mistake.

Sources: Heidegger, M. 1930/1995.The fundamental concepts of metaphysics: world, finitude, solitude, trans. W. McNeil & N. Walker. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1995 Heidegger. 1930/1983. I also consulted some passages in Die Grundbegriffe der Metaphysik: Welt—Endlichkeit—Einsamkeit, in Gesamtausgabe (collected works) 1923-1944, vol 29/30, Frankfurt: Vittorio Klostermann, 1983. Also: Goodstein, E. S. 2005. Experience without qualities: boredom and modernity.  Stanford University Press; Pease, A. 2012. Modernism, feminism and the culture of boredom. Cambridge University Press; and Slaby, J. 2010. The other side of existence: Heidegger on boredom, in Jan Söffner, Sabine Flach, eds, Habitus in habitat II: other sides of cognition. Bern: Peter Lang, 101-120. See also: introspect to reenchant the inner life; nature includes our inner lives; and a Husserlian meditation.

Cuttings: A book about happiness

I began blogging on this site on Jan 8, 2003: twenty years ago. I’ve posted 4,114 short essays since then. To celebrate, I have selected 70 posts that I think retain some value, and all of which relate to one issue: happiness. What does it mean? Is it attainable? Is it the best objective? If we should pursue it, how?

I have edited, trimmed, and organized these 70 posts into a book, entitled Cuttings, that I’m making available here as a draft or version 1.0. I hope to revisit and expand this draft in the years ahead (which is one reason that I am not seeking a publisher for it).

You could download a PDF version of Cuttings, click to view an un-editable Google doc, or download an .epub version, which looks better in readers like iBook and Kindle. If you want an .epub version emailed to a regular email address or directly to a Kindle, please enter that address here.

Because Cuttings assembles short essays that address closely related topics without explicit connective arguments, it resembles–in its genre, although certainly not its quality–the aphoristic works of authors like Nietzsche and Wittgenstein. It fact, it begins with a mini-essay about why aphorisms are apt for describing the “unwedgeable and gnarled oak” of human nature.

Very few of the entries are original, and some could be described as advocating cliches. In numbers 27-29, I reflect on the moral pitfalls of striving to be original and the benefits of absorbing well-worn ideas.

Most of the entries wrestle with texts in some way. Michel de Montaigne gets the most frequent and positive attention. I am happy to see him play that role, although he is a better guide to individual happiness than political justice–a topic for other books. I also frequently address the Hellenistic schools (Stoicism, Epicureanism, and Skepticism) and classical Indian authors whom we classify as Buddhists or, in one case, possibly a Jain. These authors from the Mediterranean and India practiced what Pierre Hadot called “Philosophy as a Way of Life”: that is, philosophy as a set of meditative practices closely related to abstract arguments. I treat selected modern philosophers in a similar way–whether or not they would appreciate that treatment.

Many of the remaining entries comment on poems. Ovid, Keats, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Anne Carson are among the poets I consider at length.

As always, comments–including critical ones–are appreciated and are really the best reward.

(By the way, this 20th anniversary might be an appropriate moment to advertise that you can subscribe to this blog as a weekly email, just like a Substack, or follow it on Mastodon, Post or Twitter.)

there are tears of things

One of the most famous–and notoriously ambiguous–phrases in all of Latin literature is Virgil’s “sunt lacrimae rerum” (Aeneid 1, 462). In his response to the Covid pandemic, Pope Francis interprets the phrase in an environmentalist spirit:

If everything is connected, it is hard to imagine that this global disaster is unrelated to our way of approaching reality, our claim to be absolute masters of our own lives and of all that exists. I do not want to speak of divine retribution, nor would it be sufficient to say that the harm we do to nature is itself the punishment for our offences. The world is itself crying out in rebellion. We are reminded of the well-known verse of the poet Virgil that evokes the “tears of things”, the misfortunes of life and history

(Pope Francis, 2020, 33)

Others have equated the phrase with the Japanese motto mono no aware, which Dennis Washburn defines as “an intuitive sensitivity toward the sublime, sad beauty that inheres in mutable nature and transitory human existence” (Washburn, 2016). In turn, mono no aware can express the First Noble Truth of Buddhism–the essential pervasiveness of suffering (Saito 1997)–or it can be an alternative to that view, a way of collecting and relishing representations of impermanence and loss.

Very literally, Virgil’s three words mean “there are tears of things,” but that statement makes little sense in English and requires expansion–using other meanings of the Latin nouns and/or additional connectives. English translators have proposed phrases as various as “The world is a world of tears (Fagles) or “They weep here / For how the world goes” (Fitzgerald), or even “The universe has sympathy for us” (Stewart, 1971, p. 119).

Gawin Douglas was the first to translate The Aeneid into a relative of modern English (Renaissance Scots), producing a version that Ezra Pound particularly appreciated. Douglas wrote:

Thir lamentabyll takynnys [condition] passit befor
Our mortal myndis aucht to compassioun steir.

The context is important for understanding these words’ sense. The Aeneid begins in medias res with Aeneas, the sole important survivor of defeated Troy, trying to sail from there to Italy. The goddess Juno, who hates him and all Trojans, arranges for a terrible storm to scatter his ships and maroon him on the coast of Libya. Aeneas’ mother, Minerva, appears in the guise of a hunter and directs him to Carthage, which is under construction. He wanders into a temple of Juno, where the art illustrates the Trojan War, depicting Aeneas’ comrades, his enemies, and even himself in battle. Since this is Juno’s temple, we might guess that the paintings are supposed to celebrate Aeneas’ defeat. However, the sight gives him hope–the text says–and he blurts out:

"Sunt hic etiam sua praemia laudi;
sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt.
Solve metus; feret haec aliquam tibi fama salutem." 

"Even here praiseworthy deeds have their rewards;
There are tears of things, and mortal matters impress the mind.
Let fear go; this fame will also bring you some benefit." 

Aeneas sees his own story as depicted by human artists, provoking thoughts of loss and sorrow but also pride. He utters a concise but mystifying phrase that pairs the words for “tears” and “things.” I imagine a companion following up with questions:

Do you mean that things are intrinsically or fundamentally sad?

– Yes, that is what I feel right now.

Or that these paintings are objects that make people cry?

– That too.

Are you somehow happy to see these sad events depicted?

– I suppose so.

Yet they make you sad?

– That is what I am happy about.

Do you want people who hear about your suffering to be sad?

– Yes, but I want them to relish that sadness.

In the end, I don’t think the original poem really provides a basis for interpreting the phrase as a statement of existential wisdom, comparable to mono no aware or to modern environmentalism. I suspect Aeneas is mostly interested in being depicted heroically in art. “This fame will bring you benefit” is his main point. However, the words “sunt lacrimae rerum” jump out of their context and can translate ideas from remote traditions.

Sources: Pope Francis, Fratelli Tutti: Encyclical Letter on Fraternity and Social Friendship, English version (Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2020); Dennis Washburn, introduction to Murasaki Shikibu, The Tale of Genji (W. W. Norton & Company, 2016); Saito, Yuriko. “The Japanese Aesthetics of Imperfection and Insufficiency.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, vol. 55, no. 4, 1997, pp. 377–85; Douglas J. Stewart, “Sunt Lacrimae Rerum.” The Classical Journal, vol. 67, no. 2, 1971, pp. 116–22; Gawin Douglas, The Aeneid translated into Scottish Verse. See also David Wharton, “Sunt lacrimae rerum: an exploration in meaning.” Classical Journal 103.3 (2008): 259-279. And see: Nostalgia for Now; Arachne; The Wedding of Peleus and Thetis; The Laughter of the Gods; and compassion, not sympathy (on Seneca).