People often think some very strange and interesting things about philosophy – I mean here people who are not philosophers. It seems that people have ideas of what philosophy is which go unchecked by the real thing – people allow their imaginations to indulge in brief speculations about philosophy, thinking it to be the discipline of asking deep and trivial questions such as the meaning of life. Of course, such questions are never trivial, and indeed it is the job of philosophy, if anywhere, to attempt to answer those questions. However, philosophy is often seen as a speculative and impractical. It never ceases to amaze me how people get the impression of philosophy that it is impractical – it seems to me that it should be clear, upon the least amount of sober reflection, that philosophy is possibly the most practical human endeavour, not to mention the widest discipline of the knowledge-enterprise. I suspect that people who have this ‘impractical’ impression of philosophy have been exposed to what is called continental philosophy. Alternatively, when I meet people who reveal to me that they take philosophy to be word-chopping, argumentative, arrogant, led by science, anti-poetic and so on, I take it they have been exposed to (and apparently disliked) analytic philosophy.
The distinction between Continental philosophy and Analytic philosophy is one which is often overdrawn today, and the rhetoric on either side is particularly unhelpful. Continental philosophy is typically concerned to make philosophy a discipline in its own right, not subservient to others but having ‘precedence’ (in the sense that it truly precedes) all other knowledge-enterprises. Thus, for continental philosophers like Heidegger, it was important that philosophy involve one in an endless stream of questioning. This is part of the reason Heidegger was so deeply opposed to faith:
Philosophy is radical questioning, but to really question – to push one’s questioning to the brink of the abyss – one must be an atheist, for faith gives answers too soon. … Faith and philosophy are mortal enemies; in fact, ‘faith is so absolutely the mortal enemy that philosophy does not even begin to want in any way to do battle with it.’ ‘the philosopher does not believe’ – she or he cannot believe, because faith is in radical opposition to the very nature of philosophy as questioning.”
~The Fall of Interpretation, p.108
In general continental philosophy is self-consciously done in such a way that it takes into consideration the whole philosophical conversation in the western world up to and including the present, and it then attempts to add to that conversation, pushing it onwards in the direction it is already snowballing. Interestingly I think Heidegger may be taken to be something of a ‘fatalist’ or at least a determinist with respect to the direction of the western conversation, as he views his own contributions as being inevitable given what has gone before him; he submits his contributions in tandem with the evolution of a community, or a ‘Volk‘. More importantly, Heidegger is self-consciously trying to save philosophy from science, which is an enterprise that the west is confusing for an ultimate means of knowing rather than a technology:
“However, this kind of seeing is in the right only under the presupposition that in general the whole of beings can be made accessible originally by way of the sciences. This conception is an error. In philosophy, if anywhere, this error must be avoided. Philosophy searches for a knowing that, at the same time, is before all science and goes beyond all science; it searches for a knowing that is not necessarily bound to the sciences.”
~Heidegger, Logic as the Question Concerning the Essence of Language, p.13
Continental philosophy is generally unabashedly interested in the questions which cannot be asked elsewhere, the questions which, it is thought, are properly philosophical (such as ‘what is the meaning of life’, or ‘what is the essence of language’, etc).
The alternative stream of philosophy today, popular in the Anglo-American world, is called analytic philosophy. In order to provide a little bit of a historical sketch, it may be useful to look to the ‘logical positivists’.
The ‘logical positivists’, contrary to Heidegger and other continental philosophers, wanted to salvage Philosophy from Metaphysics; it wanted philosophy to become a technology. In short, where the Medievals had hailed science as the handmaid of theology, the Positivists aimed to procure philosophy as the handmaid of the Natural Sciences. Philosophy, thus, was reduced to methodology; it was collapsed into science. Now, of course not all analytic philosophy is Natural science, and indeed as a method it has been found so helpful that even theologians have adopted it (thus the movement of ‘analytic theology’). The positivists intended to be self consciously A-historical, since they presumed that much of the ‘conversation’ in western philosophy had been infected with confusion due to a lack of careful attention to philosophy of language, models and semantics.
Now, while I think that the distinction is sometimes loaded (perhaps over-loaded), I do think that it is a generally useful one. It is interesting to me that continental philosophers and analytic philosophers often inhabit such radically different worlds of discourse that one has hardly more to do with the other than either have to do with esoteric eastern philosophies. Thus, the insights of one are almost always alien to the other, and perhaps in some way inaccessible to the other.
While both streams of philosophy have at one time been dominated by anti-religious sentiment, that is no longer the case today. Analytic philosophy has seen the resurrection of Natural Theology in an absolutely unprecedented way since the 1970’s, and Continental philosophy has experienced something of a reversion towards religious philosophy as well. I myself prefer analytic philosophy, not only because I am more conversant with it, but also because I think that the whole enterprise is fantastically useful for theology. However, I am often guilty of dismissing continental philosophy too quickly out of hand, and it seems to me there may be truly legitimate insights among continental philosophers which I would be better off with than without. One of the reasons for this is that I feel people characterize philosophy as endless questioning and useless ruminating, and I suspect that this is the impression which continental philosophy gives. However, I should know better than to try to win people’s respect by trying to overturn their prejudices while implicitly adopting them. I think philosophers should be unconcerned with how those who know little to nothing about philosophy perceive philosophy. One of the reasons philosophers in the analytic tradition might have this fear is that they don’t want to be associated with the likes of Derrida or Heidegger, but the deeper reason is that people who think of philosophy as a useless endeavour might push to remove philosophy from higher education. In some ways this fear is already en route to being realized, as some physicists and others have argued that “Philosophy is dead” (Stephen Hawkings) or at least that it is impotent (Krauss). Krauss in particular has argued that philosophy departments should no longer be tolerated at Universities. Now, of course, there is no good philosophical reason why we ought to heed the word of a physicist when it comes to philosophy, but in many ways physicists, along with chemists, biologists, and all cognate fields, have become the priestly authorities of the secular world. Generally they are recognized to be the arbiters of special or privileged knowledge, and it is unfortunate that far too often they do not have the philosophical training to make elementary conceptual distinctions without which their ‘knowledge’ is always confused. Notwithstanding the immense respect which the common man has for the scientific authorities, I think the Hubris of physicists like Krauss is obvious even to a lay person. Regardless, such attempts to remove philosophy from higher education by arguing that it is useless shouldn’t cause too much concern; after all, who is better equipped by their own profession to argue convincingly for the legitimacy of their own profession than philosophers, whose discipline it is to argue persuasively? Moreover, if philosophy is to be turned out of Universities, then so will a number of other disciplines which cannot justify their existence except with appeal to philosophy (such as the study of art). All the while, those who wish to see philosophy departments annihilated at the university level will need to adopt a philosophy of education in order to decide which fields are legitimate and which are not, and such a move is bound to be naive if such a philosophy of education cannot ever be criticized (and it can only be criticized properly by philosophers).
I take it that philosophy is a legitimate discipline which cannot either be collapsed into the natural sciences (which used to be called ‘Natural Philosophy’ by an older and wiser generation of thinkers), nor can it be construed as exclusively involved with matters of ultimate meaning which have no bearing on other sciences, and which close themselves off from the correctives of scientific discovery.
In the end, I would want to construe philosophy as the Medievals did: as the handmaid of Theology, and moreover I would want to see theology be recognized as a science (and to see its dignity as ‘the chief science’, restored). That is of course a pipe-dream in one sense, since Theology isn’t likely to be taken to be the principle science in the western world any time soon. However, I think that Theology and Philosophy are not only compatible, but deeply consonant. I take it that the final end of theology, which as Bonaventure says is to ‘be good’, or to attain to the beatific vision, is also the final end (the telos) of Philosophy. Philosophy, after all, is first and foremost the love of wisdom, and a philosopher is always in pursuit of the knowledge of the highest good. The philosopher is in love with truth, and in pursuit thereof (as Aristotle argues at the beginning of his ‘Metaphysics’, since all men have a natural love of knowledge). On Theism, Philosophy is oriented to the same telos as Theology, and perhaps philosophy just is ‘theology absent revelation’.