Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Teaching Contemporary Philosophy and the Continental/Analytic Distinction

Every spring I teach the Contemporary Philosophy course that concludes our four-part history sequence (Ancient, Medieval, Early Modern, Contemporary) here at UPR/M. I've been struggling with it for a couple of years, having trouble finding a text, organizing a coherent narrative and so on. Two big problems are 1) if "Contemporary" is philosophy since Kant, or since 1800, there's just too much to cover, and 2) modern philosophy diverges and branches into several different narratives; the question emerges as to what "philosophy" even is. Adding to my frustration was my conviction that the distinction between "Analytic" and "Continental" was overstated, divisive and misleading (and further complications such as doubts about whether anything like "Analytic" philosophy really exists any more. The Spanish-speaking academics around me, with all due respect, simply use the blanket term "positivism" and haven't paid any attention since, say, A. J. Ayer). I try to get my students to see the reductive limitations of dividing things up ideologically between "Rationalist" and "Empiricist" or "Continental" and "Analytic." This taxonomy mostly just closes minds I think. Still and all, I have some very bright students here and some of them are curious enough to ask me to explain what "Analytic" philosophy is.
This semester I have developed a curriculum that covers the 19th and 20th centuries in "two movements," with the goal of uncovering and examining the roots of what I call "so-called Continental" and "so-called Analytic." What is happening for me (a good professor is always Student #1 in the class) is that I'm seeing that there is indeed a fundamental parting of the ways, and it does indeed have its roots in the arguments of Hume and Kant. I know that to some this will seem like a banality, perhaps it is, but the project here is to introduce, explain and interpret both of these strains. The main distinction textually speaking is between German-language philosophy and English-language philosophy, with an appreciation of the achievement of French-language philosophers of commuting between the two. Many important philosophers and topics are left out, but this is due to the fact that this is the outline of a one-semester class, after all, and we're blazing along as it is. Also the material at the very end reflects my own interest in philosophy of mind; there are any number of other directions one could take for the late 20th century.
Here is my outline of this semester's Contemporary Philosophy course:

Anderson Brown, Contemporary Philosophy, Spring 2009

I. So-called “Continental”: From German Idealism to Deconstruction

A. Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), Critique of Pure Reason, 1781-1787

B. German Idealism: J. G. Fichte (1762-1814); G. W. F. Hegel (1770-1831), Phenomenology of Spirit, 1807; Friedrich Schelling (1775-1854)

C. The Metaphysics of Politics: Hegel, Karl Marx (1818-1883), Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1848; Friedrich Engels (1820-1895)

D. Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), The World as Will and Representation, 1819-1844

E. The Invention of the Unconscious: Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), Thus Spoke Zarathustra, 1883, Beyond Good and Evil, 1886; Sigmund Freud (1856-1939)

F. Phenomenology and Existentialism, The Germans: Edmund Husserl (1859-1938); Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), Being and Time, 1927

G. Phenomenology and Existentialism, The French: Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980), Being and Nothingness, 1943; Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908-1961), Phenomenology of Perception, 1945; Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986), The Second Sex, 1949

H. Critical Theory (The Frankfurt School): Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979), One-Dimensional Man, 1964; Jurgen Habermas (b. 1929), Knowledge and Human Interests, 1968

I. Structuralism: Michel Foucault (1926-1984), Archaeology of Knowledge, 1969; Jacques Lacan (1901-1981)

J. Deconstruction: Jacques Derrida (1930-2004), Of Grammatology, 1967

II. So-called “Analytic”: From Enlightenment Liberalism to the New Metaphysics

A. David Hume (1711-1776), A Treatise of Human Nature, 1739

B. The Law of Effect: Adam Smith (1723-1790), The Wealth of Nations, 1776

C. The Revolution in Systems Dynamics: Charles Darwin (1809-1882), The Origin of Species, 1859

D. Empiricist Ethical Theory: John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), Utilitarianism, 1861

E. The Pragmatists: Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914); William James (1842-1910), The Will to Believe, 1897; John Dewey (1859-1952)

F. The New Logic: Gottlob Frege (1848-1925); Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947); Bertrand Russell (1872-1970), Principia Mathematica, 1910-1913

G. Logical Positivism: A. J. Ayer (1910-1989), Language, Truth and Logic, 1936

H. “Ordinary Language” Philosophy: J. L. Austin (1911-1960), Sense and sensibilia, 1959

I. Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 1921, Philosophical Investigations, 1951

J. The New Philosophy of Mind: Hilary Putnam (b. 1926); John Searle (b. 1932), Minds, Brains and Science, 1984; Jerry Fodor (b. 1935), The Language of Thought, 1975; Daniel Dennett (b. 1942)

K. The New Metaphysics: Alvin Plantinga (b. 1932); David Lewis (1941-2001), On the Plurality of Worlds, 1986


  1. If Philosophy is defined as "love of wisdom," you should spend most of your time on Kant and Hume and ignore the mad Sophistry of Hegel and Marx.

    And maybe you should teach them how Kant borrowed his ideas from Maupertuis, Leibniz, Descartes, and Aristotle.

    Once people realize that place, space, void, and vacuum, are not physical material objects, they will be able to understand that universal gravitation and general relativity are myths and that the theomachy described by Homer and Virgil actually took place. For me, the poets of mythology are Newton, Laplace, Einstein, and Hawking, whereas the true scientists are Homer, Virgil, Moses, and Joshua.

    The best philosopher of the 20th Century is Immanuel Velikovsky.

  2. If you're not familiar with it, you might like to have a look at Simon Critchley's A Very Short Introduction to Continental Philosophy to see if you like his approach to the analytic/continental divide issue.

  3. I agree that the German Idealists are batty (frankly), but I'm trying to show the rationalist, Romantic and idealist roots of "so-called Continental." Marx I think is an exception who straddles the post-Kantian "dialectics" of the Germans and the empiricism of 19th century Anglophone thought (trying to develop social science).

  4. just passing by... I took almost all my classes with you... it sound to me very interesting the way you are going to dictate this one... any possibilities to be a there just to hear? it is a shame I read the post to late...


  5. I applaud your commitment to bridging the analytic-continental divide. Paul Ricoeur was known for addressing and drawing from both traditions. Richard Rorty’s work on Heidegger also struck a blow for cosmopolitanism. You are in good company, Sir. My own modest efforts drawn on both traditions and include an interdisciplinary curriculum on empathyInTheContextofPhilosophy.com at the web site of the same name. Thanks!