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  • The "Analytic"/"Continental" Divide and the Question of Philosophy's Relation to Literature
  • Andreas Vrahimis

The history of the writing of philosophy could be seen as divided between two tendencies. One tendency involves a constant reconfiguration of the literary and stylistic elements involved in the way philosophy is written. Examples include most texts in the philosophical canon, from Plato's dialogues, or Aristotle's lecture notes, to Marcus Aurelius's diary, Augustine's confessions, the pseudepigrapha of the Areopagite, Anselm's prayer, Montaigne's essays, Descartes's meditations, Kierkegaard's play with pseudonymy, or Wittgenstein's "remarks."1 In such texts, we find a self-reflective attitude toward the writing of philosophy, where the medium and the message become intriguingly interconnected. On the other hand, a large number of texts throughout the history of philosophy have adopted common writing norms, setting aside the question of how to write philosophy in order to work on other philosophical issues. Examples of the above are easier to find in those cases where philosophers have organized into schools, arguably epitomized by some medieval scholastic disciplines of writing.2

It has not always been true that the academic journal article or monograph, with its customarily very literal expression of thoughts, [End Page 253] and its identification between the thoughts expressed and the thinker expressing them, has been the one and only literary form used in writing philosophy. For this to become the norm has taken many centuries in which philosophers have involved the question of style into conceptions of their discipline.

Mainstream academic philosophy today is, with few exceptions, no longer faced with the option of addressing this question by using literary innovations. The majority of philosophers in what goes under the name of "analytic" philosophy, as well as its "continental" counterpart, have almost unanimously adopted the current norms of academic writing. Contemporary academic philosophy contains only very few deviations from the norm on either side. The prominent adoption of the particular norms that prevail in today's academic writing in the field of philosophy signals a partial abandonment of radical stylistic innovation. Like most of their academic colleagues, the mainstream of philosophers has adopted the range of stylistic norms dictated by the customary media of academic writing, among which the most prominent are scholarly journals.3 Despite this adoption, however, a particular misconception still survives, related to the issue of style, which is connected to the idea that a kind of divide exists between "analytic" and "continental" philosophy.4

"Analytic philosophy" and "continental philosophy" are two terms that have commonly been used to point to loosely defined twentieth-century traditions, purportedly in opposition.5 In the last three decades, a debate has grown as to what exactly these terms might designate.6 This article will not directly concern itself with addressing the complicated issue of defining "analytic" or "continental" philosophy.7 Rather, I will take for granted that the philosophers dealt with in this article are widely considered to be leading figures in each camp.

This paper is primarily concerned with the question of what role conceptions of the relation between philosophy and literature have played in the development of the idea that there exists a divide between "analytic" and "continental" philosophy. Thus, this paper investigates the connections between two questionable relations: first, that between philosophy and literature, and second, that between "analytic" and "continental" philosophy. More specifically, I examine the ways in which the question of the relation between literature and philosophy has figured prominently in some of the nodal encounters between "analytic" and "continental" philosophers. In the context of engaging in a critique of some of the leading figures in "continental philosophy," a number of early "analytic" philosophers attacked the traditional association [End Page 254] between philosophy and some particular types of literary style. The "analytic" engagements with "continental" philosophers that I shall discuss include J. S. Mill's comments on Samuel Taylor Coleridge (and Jeremy Bentham), Bertrand Russell's critique of Henri Bergson, Rudolf Carnap's use of Martin Heidegger's sentences as examples of metaphysical nonsense, and Jacques Derrida's controversy with John Searle over the interpretation of Austin.

"Analytic" philosophers have stereotypically (and mistakenly) been thought to conceive...


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