Detached analysis, engaged nihilism

New British Philosophy
October 25, 2002

Philosophers may lack star appeal but they are influential, says Harry Gensler.

New British Philosophy paints a picture of the current scene by interviewing 16 young British philosophers. The big change from previous generations is the split between analytic and continental groups.

When I first saw this book, I expected something like Brian Magee's Men of Ideas , which, with companion BBC videotapes, has interviews that bring out the mature thinking of well-known philosophers such as A. J. Ayer, Bernard Williams, R. M. Hare and W. V. O. Quine. This current book has a different orientation; it interviews younger philosophers (whose thinking is often a work in progress) and focuses on how they got interested in their subject, how philosophy influences the world, or how they see the analytic-continental split.

The editors do not claim that their book gives a complete picture of British philosophy. They admit that some areas, such as philosophy of science and history of philosophy, are left out. Another neglected area is philosophical defences of belief in God, which is unfortunate since theistic philosophy of religion has increased remarkably among analytic types since the days of logical positivism - think of John Hick and Richard Swinburne in the UK and the Society of Christian Philosophers in the US.

The book starts in a confusing way. The inside cover says that philosophy has a big impact on popular culture: "From popular introductions to biographies and television programmes, philosophy is everywhere. Many people even want to be philosophers, usually in the café or the pub."

Later we are told that philosophy has little popular impact: "When the New Statesman published its Best of Young Britain edition in July 2001, philosophers were conspicuous by their absence. Philosophers are among those who rarely move into the spotlight of popular scrutiny... [P]hilosophy is largely pursued within academia, a world not exactly designed to stir the hearts of the fashion-conscious mass media."

So which is it? The real impact is probably somewhere in the middle. While few philosophers get much media coverage, it is not unusual to meet thinking people outside academia who read philosophy, are concerned with philosophical issues, and are influenced by what they have read. Philosophy does have some influence, but not in a flashy way.

Many interviewees were asked how philosophy influences the world. They typically answered that philosophy influences students and these students later influence the world. Philosophy teaches people to reflect on their beliefs, be critical of conventional views, and think and write clearly. It also exposes them to new ideas. Students are different because of this, just as they are different because of their study of literature or history. Most philosophers are content with this influence and do not aspire to have a Spice-Girls impact on popular culture.

How does British philosophy today differ from that of previous generations? We can observe many changes. There are more women philosophers today. There are more centres of influence besides Oxford, Cambridge and London. There is more specialisation and more interdisciplinary and popular work. Above all, there is more diversity in approach. Most young philosophers today were educated in departments with a substantial minority of faculty representing the continental tradition.

US philosophy is following similar patterns. The interviews could, with minor changes, have come from Americans. I was impressed by the many references to American experiences (such as segregation and Vietnam) and thinkers; interviews with Americans would similarly refer to British experiences and thinkers. In many ways, including analytic-continental diversity, there is just one big Anglo-American philosophical community (which extends to Canada and Australia).

Unfortunately, more confusion arises in the way the analytic-continental distinction is introduced. We are told that "continental philosophy" generally means "20th-century French and German philosophy." But "continental philosophy" more commonly refers to style and tradition, rather than geography. Despite their geographical origins, Frege, Wittgenstein, Carnap and Tarski would not be included in a continental philosophy reader; and many British thinkers, including several interviewees, are clearly continental philosophers. Admittedly, the historical tendency has been for continental philosophy to dominate on the continent while analytic philosophy dominates in Britain and America; but things are getting less geographical - with more analytic on the continent and more continental in Britain and America.

How do the two traditions differ and interact? The interviewees and two editors express many different ideas on this.

Analytic and continental differ in tradition and style. By "tradition", I mean which authors tend to be studied. The analytic tradition studies thinkers such as Russell and Wittgenstein; these model for younger analytic thinkers what issues are important and how to deal with them. In contrast, the continental tradition emphasises thinkers such as Nietzsche and Heidegger; these give quite different models. Younger philosophers in one tradition generally have read some in the other tradition, but not in depth. This is understandable, since, as one interviewee notes, it takes half a lifetime to have serious knowledge of either group.

The reading lists converge as we go further back. Both sides read Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Kant and so on; but they tend to read them differently. To bring this out, it would have been useful to have included a younger philosopher on either side whose main interest is history of philosophy.

How do analytic and continental differ in style? Analytic philosophers describe themselves as doing philosophy in a clear, down-to-earth manner that emphasises careful reasoning. Their foes describe them as being dry and technical - and as pursuing detached intellectual puzzles that have little relevance to larger issues of life. Continental philosophers describe themselves as addressing the real issues of human life such as political engagement and the meaninglessness of life. Their foes describe them as making a game out of being obscure, as appealing to empty rhetoric instead of reasoning, and as promoting an "anything goes" nihilism.

These descriptions, while overstated, contain some truth. While much analytic philosophy does deal with larger issues of life, much does not; and analytic writing is often irrelevant and overly technical. Many analytic interviewees recognise this problem.

Some continental interviewees recognise problems in their tradition, especially the tendency toward obscurity and nihilism. Yet again, we should not overly generalise. One of the clearest interviews is with Christina Howells, who is continental. And two continentals insist that not all of their tradition is nihilistic - and that Derrida, of all people, holds that justice is an objective standard that cannot be relativised or deconstructed.

Several interviewees point out that "analytic" and "continental" are broad terms that cover many different ways to do philosophy. Several claim that, while they are firmly in one tradition, they have been influenced by thinkers in the other; two people claim to be in both traditions. And still others claim that the difference between the traditions is not philosophically significant.

How can we build bridges between the traditions? Following the example of several interviewees, we can study a thinker or two who works on issues that interest us from the other tradition. We can look for strong and weak points in both traditions. We can resist stereotypes. When in mixed company, we can try to communicate more clearly on topics relevant to both sides. And we can engage in common projects. I am editing an ethics reader with an analytic colleague and a continental one; we are discovering connections between the traditions (for example, similarities between Habermas and Frankena).

This book claims to be designed for a general audience, but only those with a background in philosophy will appreciate the biggest value of the book - how it contributes to the analytic-continental discussion.

The philosophers interviewed are: Tim Crane, Roger Crisp, Simon Critchley, Miranda Fricker, Simon Glendinning, Christina Howells, Rae Langton, Robin Le Poidevin, Michael Martin, Ray Monk, Stephen Mulhall, Keith Ansell Pearson, Aaron Ridley, Nigel Warburton, Timothy Williamson and Jonathan Wolff.

Harry Gensler is professor of philosophy, John Carroll University, Cleveland, US.

New British Philosophy

Editor - Julian Baggini and Jeremy Stangroom
ISBN - 0 415 24345 9and 24346 7
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £45.00 and £9.99
Pages - 303

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