Beyond the analytic / continental divide

The two models of philosophy

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.


Two Predictions

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.”

In what is Derrida’s only unqualified use of the expression “continental” in his lecture (using it without the “so-called”, if still with a smile), Derrida draws in Kant’s reference to the “model” of “our continent” for future global political institutions to remind us that, today, the hegemonic “model” of philosophy (the subject that we are supposing should be available to all human beings by right) still remains, fundamentally, “ours”: it is “the European, indeed continental, model of philosophy”. Of course, at this point in his lecture Derrida is not referring to so-called continental philosophy in the sense that anglophone philosophers had originally used it to designate the other of their own so-called analytic philosophy. No, the hegemonic “continental model” that Derrida has in view here is the model of two models: so-called continental philosophy and so-called analytic philosophy.

 The model of two models was originally a projection from analytic philosophy. Nevertheless, the reigning world-hegemony of what is given today as “philosophy” remains “continental”, “ours”: European. And hence the idea of a right to philosophy for all remains within this European hegemony – and, increasingly, in its so-called analytic formation. The right to philosophy for all remains, therefore, as much the heading of a problem as of a hope.[AP4]


Beyond the Two Models

Overcoming the problem is not merely a question of tagging something non-European onto the European model of two models – or of normalizing other models, just as so-called continental philosophy is now being normalized by so-called analytic philosophy. Rather, what is required is that philosophy learns to reaffirm for itself that there really are, as Derrida put it, “other ways for [what the Greeks called] philosophy” to be, and ways other, especially, than the ones that consist in either (Eurocentric) reaffirmations or (anti-Eurocentric) denials of its origins in a particular sequence of national or linguistic histories. And we can learn to reaffirm other ways for philosophy, Derrida argued, because it “already is” and “has always been the other way”. This is where the hope comes in.

Overcoming the problem is not merely a question of tagging something non-European onto the European model of two models – or of normalizing other models, just as so-called continental philosophy is now being normalized by so-called analytic philosophy.

The argument here is that precisely because (what the Greeks called) philosophy is from the start not “tradition-bound”, not tied to any particular cultural tradition or doxa or orthodoxy, precisely because it is not “bound to the soil” of any given human community, we should recognise that (what the Greeks called) philosophy is, in its concept, constitutively open to traditions and models other than those which have dominated its history. While it will always be tied to something particularistic, “the idiomaticity of languages”, and is never simply “abstractly universal”, (what the Greeks called) philosophy is nevertheless, and constitutively, not tied to “a unique language or to the place of a sole people”. In short, philosophy – and that means philosophy as that is understood “under its Greek name and in its European memory” – is not essentially Greek or European. From the start it “has always been the other way”: it is, as the tradition of critique as self-critique, constitutively open to “the other way”.

Philosophy conceived under its Greek name and European memory nowhere defines philosophy as a Greek or a European thing. Indeed, what philosophy is, and how to go about it, is itself given in that heritage as a philosophical question. In other words, the question “What is philosophy?” is given as something the answer to which is not given, and therefore not given as something that has only one way of being done . It does not have one legitimate heir only. It is, in fact and in principle, already, and right from the start, as Derrida happily put it, “bastard”.

[AThe idea of a universal right to philosophy may have emerged from the missionary and colonial culture of “our continent”, but the hope is that the idea of that right is not “dissociable from a movement of effective democratization underway”, and underway right inside the cosmopolitan heritage of that continental culture, which therefore retains the chance of carrying it beyond that continental culture and its history.

In a situation where two European models of philosophy have become virtually hegemonic across the world, Derrida takes up the question of the cosmopolitan right to philosophy in our time, and calls for “the deconstruction of this hegemony”, and for developments that would cultivate “the appropriation of but also the surpassing of languages which…are called foundational for philosophy, i.e. the Greek, Latin, German or Arab languages. Philosophy should be practiced, according to paths that are not simply anamnesic, in languages that are without filiational relation with these roots”.[AP

 The call for a universal right to philosophy is not over, and it consists in a call to challenge “what, in every cultural, linguistic, national and religious area” would want to limit making (what the Greeks called) philosophy accessible to all and calling for it to become accessible to all regardless of “class, age or gender”. The future of that right cannot and should not be confined to its European two-model formation, but it cannot and should not altogether do without that European memory either – and while we should resist Eurocentric efforts to limit philosophy to that memory, we should also defend, and defend “at any price” says Derrida, the maintenance of the ancient philosophical canons against anti-Eurocentric recoils that want simply to reject them. What we do not need to maintain is the hegemony of the old European model of two models, still less, in conditions of anglobalisation, the universal extension of just one of them. That hope in my second prediction from 2006, remains a hope.


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