Sunday, February 05, 2006

Incontinental Philosophy

>> Ah, and when you were 30 the intellectual hills rose
>> steeply in all directions. Sisyphus, help me with this stone. :)

> in hindsight, what seemed mountains of circumstance
> was me jumping around too much. i thank the lord for
> tired legs and shuffling gait :-)

Yes; everything seems more orderly when time is measured
by the dripping of one's colostomy bag: incontinental philosophy.
(personal correspondence with the resident philosopher of science, November 2002)
As a phenomenologist who reads a lot of Heidegger, I find my scholarly work described too often as falling within the rubric of 'continental philosophy'. As is widely known, a century-old divide is purported to exist between continental and analytic philosophy. Continental philosophy is described as including phenomenological and existential thinkers (Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Husserl, Heidegger), the Frankfurt School and its forerunners and adherents (Hegel, Marx, Benjamin, Habermas), and most variants of post-structural thought (Foucault, Derrida, Barthes). Analytic philosophy includes philosophies of logic and language advanced by Wittgenstein, Popper, Godel, Kripke (and a sizable list of others), and has extended into domains including law and metaphysics. Continentalists, according to some, fixate on the inescapable (if contradictory and shifting) realities of experience, while analytic philosophers obsess over bloodless and formulaic theories. The twain are never permitted to meet.

I cannot be the only one who considers this mapping rather crude, who is dissatisfied with the rude rupture slashed across the terrain of philosophy, the uncrossable divide. It produces caricatures of both continental and analytic philosophy. I, for one, am tired of shouting across the gap. And I am not the only one. Richard Rorty has expended considerable effort in exploring the differences and commonalities between finding and making truth (see Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature 1981, Princeton University Press), and C.G. Prado's recent anthology A House Divided: Comparing Analytic and Continental Philosophy (2003, Humanity) explores how analytic and continental philosophy overlap as well as differ. At this point it is too late for analytic philosophers to resume the tedious task of constructing philosophy through formulae, and for continental thinkers to peer again through the wrong end of the telescope. It is past time to begin thinking both critically and creatively with and about philosophy.

My own efforts to bridge this gap began with my encounter with philosopher John Compton. In a 2004 paper I wrote on the origins and concerns of ecophenomenology (click here to access this paper in its entirety), I noted the following:

To Compton, a philosophy of nature undertaken as a phenomenological project contributes to understandings that cannot be achieved through natural science (or even the philosophy of science) alone. A philosophy of nature requires a reversal of the conventional epistemological order in which facts determined by science precede reflections on their meaning and implications. A (phenomenological) philosophy of nature begins not with (derived) facts but with the encounter that precedes and engenders them. Accordingly to Compton, a phenomenological philosophy of nature acknowledges the pre-scientific encounter of self with world as

a field extended in a horizon of space and time, revealing re-identifiable
events, relations of events, processes, and things, open to exploration and
determination, but always transcending any of its presented aspects, and
constituting the referent and inclusive situation of all our embodied,
intersubjective praxis. (74)

In doing so, a phenomenological philosophy of nature not only deepens our appreciation of nature; it simultaneously defines and enlarges the program of the natural sciences. Perhaps above all, it provides a paradigm in which scientific explanations may not only correspond to (in a referential sense) but cohere with (in an inferential -- or perhaps reverential -- sense) pre-scientific experiences of nature. As Compton points out (with reference to philosopher of science Dudley Shapere's list of existence claims in physics) , the criteria for existence in scientific and pre-scientific (or primordial) experience are remarkably similar:

Now the criteria indicated here are strangely familiar. ... as we earlier
saw, one of the essential structures of the pre-scientifically experienced
world is precisely that it is peopled with entities and processes which
(i) act on us and on which we act, which (ii) constitute "inexhaustible"
sources of perspectives or properties that ever surprise us, and which
(iii) remain constant or have some unity through and transcending
different perspectives - that is, under different transformations. Reality,
as we experience it, is always this perspectival unity; that which is
more than we see, which has another side, an inside, and as yet
unexpressed capacities; that which relates to and interacts with
other things. (79)

To Compton it is not at all surprising that the 'existence claims' of science and the pre-scientific experience of nature are similar: this is because the "operative criteria of existence in physical enquiry .... presuppose reference to the lived perceptual world." To the extent that scientific enquiry "misdescribes" or ignores the primordial encounter, as (according to Compton) classical empiricism and operationalism do, it remains partial and risks denying whole avenues of existence, experience, enquiry, and understanding. To Compton, a "continuing, critical, and constructive interplay between philosophical reflection, on the one hand, and concrete scientific theorizing on the other" will foster a "dialectic of interpretation" and enrich both scientific and philosophical enquiry. (79)

It is this encounter with the "strangely familiar" and an active engagement with a "dialectic of interpretation" that characterizes almost all of my scholarly and creative work. I will admit to having a great affinity with the continentalists' habit of looking through the wrong end of the telescope -- but at the same time I am concerned with where it is pointing, and have only limited patience for gazing deeply into my own navel or nether regions (something I think is the principal limitation of continental philosophy). And while I agree that how we construct meaning is dialectical, I don't think that truth itself is subjective or that it reduces only to power, privilege, or perspective. Nor do I think, as too many analytics do, that truth is ultimately monolithic, nor that logical formulae can provide an adequately meaningful measure of it. I think of truth as varied and complex and even shifting. But if we cannot grasp truth for very long, we can follow its traces. We can map it, approach it, and seek to bask in its brilliant light. If truth is living -- and I believe it is -- we must approach it organically, not with a chainsaw.

The philosopher of science Karl Popper toyed privately throughout much of his celebrated career with at least one idea located well beyond the ordinary boundaries of analytic philosophy: his notion of World 3. Somewhat after Bolzano and Frege, Popper suggested that there are three worlds of truths: the world of things and physical objects (the first world), the world of subjective experiences (the second world), and the world of theories, problems, and arguments (world 3). Of greatest interest to those in the 'continental' tradition is Popper's declaration that world 3 can only act upon world 1 with world 2 as an intermediary. Popper suggested, further, that world 3 is "essentially the product of the human mind." (2002: 217) One problem with Popper's formulation (never fully developed or subject to complete scrutiny) is its recursiveness. One tremendous advantage of Popper's formulation is the possibility that world 3 might include not only scientific theories but also art, stories, and myths, in the sense that world 3 "is the history of our ideas ... how we made them, and how they reacted upon us, and how we, in our turn, reacted to them." (ibid.: 218) I read this as an admission that scientific theories are cultural narratives like any other, and that rather than reducing scientific theories, this provides an opportunity to elevate our stories and myths by exposing them to the same processes of refutation we apply to scientific hypotheses. And while Popper's world 3 has not, as such, found expression in a way that may be usefully applied in philosophy or science, it is indicative of a needed open-mindedness about the non-monistic character of truth that might be.

More recent -- and in my admittedly partial opinion, more foundational -- is Peter Fruchter's elucidation of three modalities of truth (or discourse about truth): the definitive (the inferential, or realm of principle), the descriptive (the referential, or realm of experience), and the imperative (the deferential, which incorporates the realms of the authority of reason as well as reason of authority). I have written about Peter's modalities previously; portions of his in-progress manuscript, Truth and Integrity, are available for reading and comment here.

While I find Peter's construct useful in a variety of realms, it is his answer to the postmodern dilemma that I find most instructive. It is my view that all of postmodernity may be tossed on the horns of the century-long dilemma between analytic and continental philosophy -- and the sooner the better. The first group relied upon a relatively narrow truth perhaps overly dependent upon enlightenment idealism; the second group rewrote truth as too deeply rooted in the material. A third group (a group of people I call the incontinental philosophers) concealed themselves under the postmodern umbrella, lurched into this rupture, and proceeded to dismantle truth. It wouldn't be hard, though, to toss postmodernity aside entirely by encouraging a new conception of truth that acknowledges both analytical and continental approaches, and in doing so, solidly reaffirms the existence of truth. It is a necessary task: we cannot remain trapped in a philosophical epoch that denies the precedence of any truth, that buries the possibility of communication across modalities, that simultaneously decries and relies upon privilege (particularly the privilege arising from alleged repression).

How might this work? The three modalities Peter Fruchter proposes might seem to find their most direct application in analytical approaches, particularly in terms of the vector between the definitive (which might be seen as incorporating our theories and hypotheses about the world) and the descriptive (the realm where theories are subject to testing and refutation). And yet, phenomenological approaches rely just as solidly on interpreting the relationship between the definitive and the descriptive (and vice versa). The imperative modality provides a venue for exposing power-based claims, particularly where imperative statements designed to force something in the world masquerade as objective theories about the world, or where evidence is selectively harnessed to support a particular theory. And this is where postmodernity is exposed, not only in its strengths (the critique of positivism, for example) but in its weaknesses (the unadmitted effort to replace logical positivism with a new and equally repressive orthodoxy).

It seems to me that the great strength of analytic philosophy is its ability to measure and characterize truth, and that the equal power of continental (or at least phenomenological) approaches lies in their recognition of consciousness and their openness to the expanding cosmos of ideas and experiences. What both philosophical traditions have in common, though, is their recognition and search for a transcendent truth.

Suggested reading:

Compton, John J., 1988. Phenomenology and the philosophy of nature. Man and World, 21, 65-89.

Fruchter, Peter. Truth and Integrity. Manuscript in-progress; portions available at

Harris, Amy Lavender, 2004. Ecological Phenomenology. A comprehensive paper originally submitted in support of PhD work in the Faculty of Environmental Studies, York University. Paper available electronically (copy and paste link) at

Popper, Karl, 1994; 2002. Unended Quest. London; New York: Routledge.


Doc Nagel said...

Another way to think about the division in academic philosophy is as a legacy of McCarthyism (John McCumber wrote something on this a couple years ago). Philosophers steeped in the so-called continental tradition had the nasty habit of speaking about political matters and their rootedness in the material production of life, society, and the world. Made more purely linguistic or logic-oriented, philosophy was rendered safe for the paranoid political times. (One might note how "continental" philosophers are found with such frequency in non-philosophy departments, in the US and Canada at least.)

Another way to think about postmodern thought, that I find helpful, is through Lyotard's The Postmodern Condition, where the issue is about what legitimates discourses of knowledge. From that standpoint, postmodern thought doesn't look like either of the two terms a pal of mine uses for it - "lyrical barbarism" or "nihilist hedonism."

The only incontinental philosophers I've come across have been that weird species of text-worshippers who have turned away from phenomenology or critical theory as practices of philosophical inquiry, and instead spend their time on un-worldly contemplations of, for instance, "thinking." Personally, I think navels are much more interesting and important in the lived world.

Muse said...

Thank you for your comment, Doc Nagel. As a phenomenologist, I am somewhat shielded from the enmity (largely deservingly) directed at much of what goes on under the postmodern umbrella, if only because both analytic philosophers and most deconstructivists think phenomenologists are flakes or secret fascists.

I haven't read Lyotard, although he keeps coming up as a suggested reference. Will take a look.

In the environmental tradition, a decent critique of the excesses of postmodern thought is provided in Michael E. Soule and Gary Lease's edited collection, Reinventing Nature: Responses to Posmodern Deconstruction (1995, Island Press). The essays in the collection don't so much question deconstruction as warn of the dangers of chopping down all the trees instead of only doing away with the idea of the forest.

As for continentalists outside of philosophy departments, I've noticed the same thing. A less kindly explanation might invoke the suggestion that many continentalists lack the intellectual rigour to make it in most philosophy departments unless able to seize power by attaching themselves to particular Zeitgeists (as one radical feminist epistemologist did in the philosophy department where my husband once studied). I think most continentalists have all the rigour required, but too many fail to engage with the long philosophical tradition and thus lack (or wish to cut off) the ability to communicate across disciplines. At the same time, many philosophy departments have become fossils, suspicious of anything more recent than Kant or Voltaire or Hume.

And I agree entirely with your comment about navels. A single navel floating in a vat doesn't make much of a navy.

Anonymous said...

Well, "that weird species of text-worshippers who have turned away from phenomenology or critical theory as practices of philosophical inquiry" are best represented by the so-called ontologists in computer science.

Like those who'd attempt to divide some kind of syntactic inference from semantic reference from perhaps a pragmatic deference, they attempt to organize reality into stacks. Ignoring that what they are told to ignore is what stacks the stack. Too often their metaphysics resembles that of bunkers or brains in a box "thinking about thinking". While scorning those who might ask for instance why they always assume that there is a fixed concept of sameness, a priori scoping or framing of even the most volatile concepts, little regard for the fragility of axioms (paradox) nor the great dangers of aggregates (especially in economics). What makes the continental or even the phenomenological distance themselves from the analytic, may well be the latter's dishonesty in disdaining transcendentalism while embracing it in an abusive way - as an agenda of sorting assertions.

The great horrors may arise from this kind of automated Necronomicon than from a proposal to carve up truth with a three-toed primordial claw, but that does not let the latter off the proverbial meat hook. A model that assumes that there is a body of "information given" and that the investigation of its veracity or relevance, its active testing, questioning its terms of reference deeply enough to require it to be remade, also assumes a white-collar class taking reports from the field and giving orders to be carried out by each other or the reporter. Does the mind act like this with respect to the body? Perhaps not. If ordered, the hand reaches out to the hot stove, but it does not remain there. There's a feedback loop that causes, at a time undetermined by deference of a "higher" (more abstract) sort, a re-examination of the assumptions of the information given. If this is not scheduled or triggered then the entire map is redrawn based on some factor that is not included at some time that is not determined. Like debt relations, such models try to hold the body in the field to commitments made by the minds in the market. As fragile as a AAA bond rating these days.

Transcendence be damned, just find a model that isn't so petit-bourgeois and disdainful of on-the-job learning and negotiation of goals or limits. These aren't modes of reason so much as modes of bullying.