Philosophy is Not Philosophy
April 20, 2007 8:25 PM   Subscribe

The familiar story of 20th century philosophy is one of analytic versus continental philosophies. In spite of this, behind the exaggerated differences is the common history that these two traditions often forget. In failing to remember this common history, it's easy to forget that for all its supposed universality, philosophy is so distinctly western. It's naive to think that this narrow-mindedness is due to western intellectuals being unable to hear the wisdoms of the world over the din of their own arguments. Rather, it is only that these wordly traditions don’t have that flavour – that hardness of crystal. [more inside]
posted by Alex404 (20 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Founded by Nishida Kitaro, the Kyoto school was a philosophical school – formed by the momentum of the Meiji restoration – that sought, broadly speaking, to integrate Zen Buddhism with Existentialism. Tanabe Hajime wrote the first scholarly article on Heidegger, and Nishida’s foremost student, Nishitani Keiji, studied with the tormented German for two years. Instead of facing nihilism with terror and desperately seeking Being, the Kyoto school sought refuge in the absolute Nothingness, seeking to render it the centre and source.

Maybe learning a bit too much from Heidegger, the Kyoto school also had a tortured relationship with the Japanese government during World War II, but that's another story.
posted by Alex404 at 8:27 PM on April 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

So, what is supposed about the universality of philosophy? (Or why is its universality merely supposed?)
posted by oddman at 8:57 PM on April 20, 2007

Heidegger, it should be noted, was a big fan of D.T. Suzuki's work on Zen Buddhism. Apparently he thought samadhi was pretty much what he was trying to get to with his work on Gelassenheit. Or so the apocryphal story goes.

Anyway, that being said, I'm not sure I understand how forgetting the common history that unites analytical and continental philosophy also means we forget that philosophy as we know it is really Western. I mean are there a lot of people who are thinking: shit, who was that guy that wrote about the cogito? I bet he was Chinese! And seriously, is there a philosophy department anywhere in the West that has forgotten Descartes and Kant? I can think of reasons we might want to, but I sure don't know any folks studying philosophy who just go all blank when it comes to those two.
posted by hank_14 at 9:15 PM on April 20, 2007

Everybody's dancing in a ring around the sum
posted by longsleeves at 9:18 PM on April 20, 2007

Interesting post. Marvelous Kitaro link. wow. Thanks Alex404.

Best Western style reading I found on comprehending non-inherently existing being (Buddhist Madhyamaka) is Herbert V. Guenther's Philosophy and Psychology in the Abhidharma and Dasgupta's History of Indian Philosophy.
posted by nickyskye at 9:30 PM on April 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

Great post. Thanks, Alex404.
posted by homunculus at 9:38 PM on April 20, 2007


No need to apologize. There'll be enough time for that when you wake with my hands around your throat.

More Wittgenstein inspired music.
posted by Alex404 at 10:10 PM on April 20, 2007

I'm not sure I understand what you're after with the first part of this post (the above the fold part, and the title). It's really not true, in any sense, that contemporary western philosophy has forgotten about past western philosophy.

It's true that contemporary western philosophy hasn't been much influenced by Asian philosophy, and hasn't spent much time studying Asian interpretations of Western figures. Is that what you mainly meant by the first part?

The second part seems interesting on its own, though.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:30 PM on April 20, 2007

Philosophy and science tangle in many ways, and their influence is reciprocal. Some recent work in Cognitive Science has taken a distinctly Eastern turn, in Scott Kelso's The Complementary Nature (though to appreciate that, you really have to read its predecessor), in the Extended Mind hypothesis of Clark and Chalmers, and others .
posted by fcummins at 2:26 AM on April 21, 2007

I don't entirely get what it is you're going after in this post except for a championing of late western philosophy as unique.

It's interesting that you point to Wittgenstein's _Philosophical Investigations_ in a paragraph that distinguishes philosophy as something essentially western. The later Wittgenstein thought that the whole idea of philosophy, as its own kind of special subject, and particularly its place in the academy was something of a mistake. He saw philosophy as the mind having slipped into confusion because of a mistaken notion of language that philosophy itself presupposes. That being, that a word equals a meaning, and this meaning has an essence. In other words, what Plato was getting at in speaking of Forms. If I remember right, Wittgenstein, who was no scholar, thought Plato significant as the place, or perhaps the clearest example, of where philosophy stepped into error. Wittgenstein says this whole view of language is a mistake. There is no essence in language, rather the meaning of a word is its use. Language develops like a spiral out of our social behavior, it doesn't have an abstract external existence. His project in philosophy was to end it, to show that the 'problems' are frequently inherent in their articulation. In general he was a bit hostile to philosophy as an academic subject and recommended that his students pursue other paths instead of academia.

Interestingly enough, the other philosopher who is associated with the end of philosophy, Heidegger, had a very different approach to Plato. He, and a few others, Schleiermacher before him, some of his students, Klein and Strauss, insisted on the importance of the dramatic character of Plato's work. In some of their interpretations the Theory of the Forms, which had been interpreted as the heart of Plato's worldview, is considered as simply a rhetorical device that Plato uses to discuss his real concerns.

If this is true, it leads to a rather amusing conclusion. A misinterpretation of Plato, one that Plato himself might have considered a simplistic misreading, underlies much of the Western tradition. This arguing over abstractions as though they were real continues with the idea that some progress is being made. I don't want to make it sound like it's all worthless. It certainly isn't; very real tensions can be described and distinctions noted in philosophy. But it's very easy to get fooled by the language into thinking it's possible to make ultimate definitions and determinations. In my opinion, many of the best works have a strong literary character.

It is the separateness and specialization of philosophy, its reduction in the western university to examining the logical entailments of certain nominalizations rather than exploring suggestively asked questions which have real implications for everyone's life, that I have the greatest issue with. I don't think the above treatment versus different expressions of perennial philosophy in other cultures is a mark in favor of the west. Is there really great profit in the exchange of journal articles above and beyond the contemplation of aphorisms or allegories?

And that seems to go directly against your post.

By the way, I liked the second half after the fold. Interesting group of links.
posted by BigSky at 7:50 AM on April 21, 2007 [2 favorites]

I realize that I garbled the first part of the post a fair bit, so it's fair for people to read into it a bit much.

I brought up analytic vs. continental only to contextualize it when I brought it up later.

I didn't mean to call philosophers stupid, it's only that it's easy to become sucked in by your own discipline. When they have this idea that what they're talking about are the most fundamental things, it's funny that (supposedly) no other cultures really do this. So what fundamentality are they after?

That's what I was trying to do (rather obtusely) with the vague Wittgenstein reference at the end. The 'hardness of crystal' thing alluded to a section where he said that philosophers were seduced by a desire to find something in language has hard as crystal.

The whole thing though was meant to be somewhat coy and ironical. Oops.
posted by Alex404 at 8:32 AM on April 21, 2007

Oops is my favorite 4-letter word.

Enjoying the visual poetry and humor of your second set of links Alex404. Fun. Loved that your complex post made me think. Occasionally that can be a good thing. :)

Poignant that Nishida Kitaro died June 7 1945, two months before the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima, August 6, 1945, and three days later on Nagasaki, August 9, 1945. Some heartbreaking East meets West for an existential showdown: nihilism and Being (from your links) there.
posted by nickyskye at 8:54 AM on April 21, 2007

I sort of wish I hadn't even posted the first half now, but since I made someone smile, I'm happy for it. Thanks nickyskye.
posted by Alex404 at 12:03 PM on April 21, 2007


Maybe not too coy and ironical in the original but I appreciate your later explanatory note. For what it's worth I largely agree. I didn't recognize the Wittgenstein reference, but that is a great one. It really conveys his discontent with philosophy and speaks to what he thought was possible, or rather, not possible.
posted by BigSky at 2:12 PM on April 21, 2007

Nice to hear your points of view BigSky, enjoyed both your comments and agreed with what you said.
posted by nickyskye at 2:23 PM on April 21, 2007

This is a great post, thanks Alex. A few thoughts:

From the "exaggerated" link: "While an analytic philosopher might give certain arguments for relativism about truth, or the social dimension of rationality, she will do so in such a way as to make vivid her commitment to an inter-subjective standard of rationality or truth according to which her arguments can be judged. In contrast, perhaps continental philosophers (as Marcus suggested to me last night) intend the literary style in which they make their arguments to underscore their view that there is only a spurious distinction between allegedly epistemically pure, truth-tracking disciplines, on the one hand, and literature, on the other."

This seems basically right, but it doesn't support "exaggerated." If Stanley is doing anything here, he's explicating a basic methodological difference between the analytic and continental traditions--not suggesting that their differences are exaggerated. Eastern philosophies seem to line up with the continental folks on Stanley's line.

And then Fodor exercises his copious talent for grandly missing the point in the "differences" link: it's an instant classic piece of analytic metaphilosophy, the conclusion of which is supposed to be that the methodogy of analytic philosophy remains deeply flawed. If I believe the conclusion I doubt the way in which I was led to believe it. Thanks, Jerry!
posted by Kwine at 5:54 PM on April 21, 2007

Again with me being obtuse, the exaggerated differences links were meant to show two intelligent people trying to diffuse these differences. I'm inclined to think (like many philosophers these days, it seems) that the whole 'analytic/continental divide' was largely melodrama.

And I like Fodor :)

He does, like any good philosopher, have is failings though. The LRB article at least displays his sharp sense of humour.
posted by Alex404 at 6:00 PM on April 21, 2007

posted by goisher at 12:14 AM on April 23, 2007

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