The analytic / continental divide was an invention of 20th century Anglo-American philosophy. And while analytic philosophy and the English language have become dominant in academia, continental philosophy is increasingly accepted within analytic circles. The hope is that a new configuration will eventually emerge, a universal philosophy beyond the strictures of any one tradition or language. The very question “what is philosophy?” is open to a variety of answers, beyond those any one model could give, writes Simon Glendinning.
In a lecture delivered at UNESCO in 1991, Jacques Derrida reflected on a situation in which “two competing models” had succeeded in becoming the “hegemonic references” for what we call philosophy right across “the entire world”. Derrida identified them as “the so-called continental tradition…and so-called analytic or Anglo-Saxon philosophy”. However, he was also sensitive to the fact that these two models were linked to “national and linguistic histories”, and that this had to be taken into account given the current “hegemonic extension” of English as “an almost all-powerful” world language. Derrida did not suggest that an acknowledgment of a historical link here meant that philosophical traditions were merely “effects of a nation or a language”. Moreover, he stressed that the global extension of English, anglobalisation, held out the chance for something radically nonparochial: “the universal penetration of the philosophical and of philosophical communication”. Nevertheless, he also wanted to acknowledge that it raised the threat that certain forms of “dogmatism and authority” that are linked to particularities of nation and history could impose “an axiomatic of philosophical discourse without any possible discussion”.
Running parallel to this extension of English, the model of philosophy that dominated the twentieth century is being reconfigured: from the model of two models of philosophy toward one where the worldwide extension of one language – English – carries both the welcome dissemination of philosophy beyond its currently hegemonic two-model formatting and a threatening tendency toward the imposition of a single philosophical model – the so-called analytic one. It is in the light of this complex chance and threat that I want to rethink two predictions I made back in 2006 about the future of these two models, and the possibility of moving beyond them.
I was never comfortable with the idea of the normalization of so-called continental philosophy. It is a process that, for now, masks rather than reduces competitive hostilities within the philosophical culture that still dominates philosophy in our time.
In the closing pages of my book The Idea of Continental Philosophy, I made two predictions. The first was to do with the emerging trend of what I called “the normalization of continental philosophy as a specialism in British philosophy”.[AP1] [ELM2It would appear that a growing number of departments in Britain want to be able to provide their students with some experience of what has been called continental philosophy, and are recruiting people with a research interest or specialism in this area or in some generally recognized sub-area thereof.
I predicted that this trend would continue, and I think it has. In university philosophy departments which had been more or less exclusively staffed by people who do what anglophone philosophers have called analytic philosophy, space is now quite often given for some provision of what anglophone philosophers have called continental philosophy. The normalization of so-called continental philosophy as a specialism in philosophy in Britain is becoming increasingly, erm, normal.[AP3]
However, my hopes went beyond this change, and I made a second prediction:
There is also the strong possibility that a new configuration is emerging: departments that are not readily identifiable as either analytic or continental, departments which cannot be happily captured by those labels and which, for the most part, do without them themselves. This new configuration does not reflect the fact that such departments have an “equal share” of analytic and continental philosophers but that the majority of faculty is not best understood in those terms at all.
I was never comfortable with the idea of the normalization of so-called continental philosophy. It is a process that, for now, masks rather than reduces competitive hostilities within the philosophical culture that still dominates philosophy in our time: that culture tends to tolerate work in so-called continental philosophy just insofar as it effectively becomes a sub-area of so-called analytic philosophy.
Nevertheless, with respect to the idea of a coming new configuration beyond the old divide, I remain hopeful. That being said, I now think the conditions for getting there are more complicated than I had supposed in 2006. I had supposed back then that its realization was just around the corner. It’s not. It is still promising though.
Without simply giving up on the idea of a universal right to philosophy, Derrida also insisted on recognizing a snare built into its formation.
A universal right to philosophy?
Derrida’s UNESCO lecture linked the international institution in which he was speaking to the (radically ambitious) idea of realizing a worldwide or “universal cosmopolitan state”. The very idea of such a cosmopolitical condition is, he reminded his audience, fundamentally bound to a distinctively “philosophical approach to universal history”, an approach famously championed by Kant in his writings on universal history at the end of the eighteenth century, writings that anticipated a worldwide cosmopolitan condition as the end of human historical development. Universal history is not the history of a particular nation or region but outlines a conception of human historical development in which humanity as a whole moves in stages from a “savage”, animal origin toward an ideally human, “civilized” end.
The internal connection between universal history and international institutions such as UNESCO was elucidated by Derrida with reference to certain texts by Kant “that can be described as announcing, that is to say, predicting, prefiguring and prescribing a certain number of international institutions” that explicitly carry a cosmopolitan hope. Despite Kant’s problematically teleological understanding of world history – the idea that history was aiming towards some final end – Derrida still found Kant’s announcements utterly remarkable: they really have been future-producing, conjuring institutions like UNESCO into existence, making it so there will have been “a philosophical (hi)story” [une histoire philosophique] inscribed in their charters and constitutions.
And from that moment on, Derrida added, such institutions are committed to making the culture that informs these institutions – the radically nonparochial, cosmopolitan, universal culture of philosophy – available universally, to all. Hence, the idea of advocating a right to philosophy for all that UNESCO is institutionally committed to is not just one way among others of furthering its cosmopolitan institutional goals; rather, it concerns a right of access to the very discipline that had related the (hi)story of the cosmopolitan destiny of all humanity in the first place.
Without simply giving up on the idea of a universal right to philosophy, Derrida also insisted on recognizing a snare built into to its formation: with its ground in Kant’s work, the very idea of such a right emanates from “the most strongly eurocentred text that can be”: a text that itself proclaims “the future hegemony of Europe”. As Kant ominously put it, the development of a worldwide federation of nations in a truly cosmopolitan condition will likely require that “our continent” will “legislate some day for all the others.”