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.