On Philosophy

December 23, 2006

Truth in Philosophy (or: Why I Am Not A Continental Philosopher)

Filed under: Metaphilosophy — Peter @ 6:00 pm

There are some who think of philosophy not as a search for truth in some unique range of topics (distinguishing it from various sciences and math, which have their own topics). Some of these people see philosophy as an art form, or as entertainment, or as guidance in life. It is hard to see how one could even begin to refute such a view (what would you say if someone said the same thing about math or science?), but I will do my best.

Let us consider the existence of absolute ethical facts. If we were working with a classical logical system we could say that the claim that there are absolute ethical facts or there are no absolute ethical facts must be true, but to satisfy certain alternate views on the subject I will instead say that the claim that that there are absolute ethical facts or there are no absolute ethical facts or to speak of absolute ethical facts is meaningless is always true. But if that claim is true then one of the following possibilities must be true: there are absolute ethical facts, or there are no absolute ethical facts, or to speak of absolute ethical facts is meaningless, or that the disjunction is somehow true without any of the individual claims being true (a very odd possibility), or it cannot be discovered which possibility is true. What then is the discipline that investigates which of these possibilities is true (and one of them surely must be)? Neither math nor science can, even though, as I have shown above, there is some fact of the matter. And certainly these topics fall under what is usually considered philosophy (ethics and epistemology). So it seems logical to conclude that philosophy is the discipline that searches for the truth in certain areas that are outside the scope of science and mathematics, since there exist truths in these areas to be discovered.

Of course it could be the case that philosophy is an attempt to discover certain truths as well as fulfill some other function (such as being art). However, we already have disciplines that cover that ground, namely art, entertainment, and religion. Thus to require that philosophy do those things would be redundant, not to mention interfere with its function of discovering certain truths. In contrast there is no other discipline that investigates quite the same topics as philosophy does, and certainly there are some truths to be found there (as demonstrated above), so it seems logical to conclude that philosophy should be the discipline that investigates them, and that this is the only thing philosophy should do. (If it isn’t sign me up for the discipline that does.)

But some would still object to this, arguing that philosophy can’t be concerned with discovering truths since it doesn’t have a specific area of investigation. I don’t see how not having a specially designated area affects the issue, but it is easy to delimit such an area if it makes you feel more comfortable. Simply take the set of all areas in which truths can be discovered. Then subtract out the areas covered by science and mathematics, and what you have left is the area of study for philosophy. Admittedly this region changes over time, as science expands there is less and less that is considered the domain of philosophy, but, as shown by the fact that it can expand, the area that is the domain of science isn’t fixed either.

It is because I view philosophy in this way (as a search for truth in a unique subject area) that I am not a continental philosopher. The difference between analytic and continental philosophy can be seen as primarily one of method. Analytic philosophers focus on making progress by argument about the issues. Continental philosophers make “progress” by reinterpreting philosophical texts. The method of continental philosophy is often “philosophy via oracle”, where a work of philosophy is considered good because it says things that seem plausible, and not because its theses are well supported by argument and evidence. This is unlikely to lead to the truth, because what seems plausible depends more on out intuition than what is really the case. And certainly one cannot expect to proceed by pronouncements and get closer to the truth. And thus I consider myself to be an analytic philosopher, and am continually amazed that anyone can consider the continental tradition, which produces people such as Heidegger, good philosophy.


  1. Interesting proposal for delimiting philosophy. …”SIMPLY take the set of all areas in which truths can be discovered. Then subtract the areas covered by math and science…” Well, at least you admit that this area changes over time. But I still want to know WHAT those areas are in which truths can be discovered. Can truths be discovered about truth itself? Or about philosophy itself? Or how about truths about method? Do analytic philosophers question their own method? I think the good ones do. But what are the areas in which NO truths can be discovered?

    Maybe it would be a good idea, however, that we allow the area of truth itself to be one in which no truth about it can be discovered, so that we can work with a consistent, unquestioned notion of truth. That is, let there be no “truth about truth” If we maintain such a stable and unquestioned notion of truth, then perhaps philosophy can make progress? Thus, let us NOT question the nature of truth.

    Well, there will always be people who question the nature of truth, and they will happen to call themselves philosophers. However, maybe they shouldn’t call themselves philosophers? Perhaps they should call themselves entertainers?

    This is a matter of foundations. In order for philosophy to make the kind of progress you have in mind, it seems that certain unquestionable foundations have to be set. So I suppose analytic philosophers’ foundations in argument and evidence is absolutely fixed and unquestionable? That there are absolutely fixed premises which do not have to appeal to any kind of intuition, appearance, or common opinion? Amazing that there can be a philosophy so immaculate that it would not even have to question its basic premises or presuppositions. …but I have my doubts…

    I would like to see the author give a definition of progress in philosophy that doesn’t depend on an overwrought and inexorably questionable use of the word “truth”, then perhaps us skeptics may find your meta-philosophical views more plausible. …or at least give me a non-circular explanation of the nature of truth…

    By the way, I do not associate myself with the continental tradition. I’m mostly a student of the classical american pragmatists. But my studies are cross-traditional. I have a ton of respect for people in both traditions. And I have to say that, despite the flaws in Heidegger, he at least has a view of human nature that isn’t as impoverished as some like Donald Davidson. There is so much in both traditions that I am surprised people call good philosophy. …But I study it anyway, because I am never really certain what does count as “good philosophy” — a result of being open-minded and not dogmatic…

    Comment by Aaron Wilson — December 27, 2006 @ 12:27 am

  2. I have already said all that I think needs to be said about truth previously. And of course there are truths to be discovered about what truth is (one cannot hope to have a coherent investigation otherwise), but just because we don’t know with final certainty everything there is to know about truth and method doesn’t mean we can’t begin our investigations. Ideally as one progresses the method becomes better defined, and past investigations are re-evaluated, including the reasoning that lead to the method itself.

    Comment by Peter — December 27, 2006 @ 1:47 am

  3. Peter,

    I do not understand your point about analytic philosophy. Neither, you claim, does it need to re-examine its own premises, nor does it need to interpret the philosophers of the past.

    Perhaps then the only reason why analytic philosophy appears coherent, (as you construe it) is that it does not look at any arguments that could possibly challenge its narrow logical constructions.

    People used to call interpreting older philosophers “learning.” The reason why it is important to learn is because we are not the first people to examine the questions that occur to us. The advantage of ignorance is that it is blissful. A very convenient thing for a utilitarian age.

    Comment by Secret — December 31, 2006 @ 7:21 am

  4. I believe there is a tendency in analytic philosophy as well as science to confuse methodological rigor with authoritative grounding (e.g. “evidence”). Analytic philosophy tends to aspire to have the same authority and credibility as science by mimicking the sources of science’s success while at the same time ignoring science’s limits.

    We cannot escape the problems of knowledge and consciousness itself. No matter how anyone tries, we cannot see the world as if our head were cut off. We cannot understand the world without subjecting it to the structures of understanding itself. Humility in philosophy comes from denying that the universe is human-centered, while also avoiding recourse to the material world that we give a human face by making it an authority for a topic only humans care about. For the universe itself and its “concerns” (i.e. it has none), there are no falsities.

    Here, it would be worth examining the process of philosophizing in context of Heidegger’s concepts of care and being-in-the-world. Both analytic philosophy and science sometimes tend to avoid self-reflection of their own disciplines. Although being objective requires removing the observer from the equation, it’s important to also remember that some truths only exist with the observer.

    It’s worthwhile to study Taoism and Zen Buddhism’s views of metaphysics, especially concerning topics of nothingness and time. I believe you have another blog about computer programming? If you’ve ever experienced an epiphany when trying out a new language very different from your old favorite, you’ll experience a similar sort of experience if you study Eastern metaphysics with any seriousness. It pays to diversify one’s repertoire of concepts.

    Comment by Rob — February 2, 2007 @ 3:59 am

  5. Yes, heaven forbid we model ourselves after the most sucessful discipline. As for the problems of knowledge and consciousness, see my Thesis draft. And don’t even get me started on Heidegger, who I have read and found to be one of the most confused and useless philosophers.

    Comment by Peter — February 2, 2007 @ 12:14 pm

  6. No one interested in the continental tradition would ever claim that philosophy is meant to do anything other than consider truth – certainly not “entertain” (although some might claim that something can be artistic and truth un-covering at the same time; your assumed hard distinction between these two is unproven). So the basis for your argument is a straw-person; that’s the first problem.

    The second is that you don’t point out the real difference at play between these two traditions, which hinges upon the conception of truth. You are saying that the justifying call for the analytic method lies in the fact that, in every discipline, there lie these “truths” that we have to go out and dig up, as if truths were some shiny bit of buried treasure (perhaps buried by some pirates with continental leanings?). It is in questioning this basis of approaching the notion of truth that continental philosophy finds its imperative.

    For instance, as Heidegger puts forth in the difficult – but not confusing – “On the Essence of Truth” – the common assumption that truth is the simple matter of a statement’s (objectifiable) accordance with a representation…is a warping of the origins of alethia, the Greek notion of truth. And it goes on from there. Not that I would say that Heidegger is correct about everything, but he at least opens the door to questions that need to be raised; for all the analytic talk of uncovering truths, they don’t *really* know what truth, or even un-covering, actually is!

    So I would counter with the following: the reason why one such as yourself finds continental philosophy distasteful, is because following the logos of truth takes one on a muddy path, which is, perhaps, distasteful to one who wants truth to be a tidy affair.

    Comment by Brian — April 15, 2007 @ 9:08 pm

  7. I would claim that the muddy path the continental philosophers take actually gets them nowhere. Certainly the continental philosophers think they are going after the truth, but for the most of them their method prevents them from actually getting there.

    Comment by Peter — April 15, 2007 @ 9:27 pm

  8. But why do you think that is, Peter? Certainly you can’t say that all continental philosophers have a more privledged access to truth, no more than you would analytic philosophers. Lots of philosophers just spin their wheels. But folks in the phenomenological tradition have come up with crucial observations that have been of such importance that all forms of philosophy have recognized they must be grappled with. Heidegger’s insights on the ontological importance of moods, Husserl’s inroads into the intersubjective nature of our condition, Levinas’s recogition that alterity places an ethical call on us, Derrida’s realization of how truth depends just as much on absence as presence (the trace) – how can you just blanketly dismiss these fundamental observations? They might not all fit easily into the pre-determined notion of what truth is supposed to be…but when a square peg won’t fit in a round hole, shouldn’t you try to reshape both?

    Comment by Brian — April 16, 2007 @ 11:54 am

  9. It’s all about method. If you don’t follow a rigorous method, and if you don’t systematically build on the work of previous philosophers, if you write poorly, if you are any sort of post-modernist, then you are unlikely to make a true claim except by coincidence. I arrive at this conclusion simply by observation as to what works and what doesn’t as an investigation of the world. Science works. Analytic philosophy works sometimes. Conninental philosophy works very rarely. The observations of the continental philosophers that you mention are really quite obvious, or obviously absurd, when you strip out the fancy language. Fort example, all Levinas is saying is that the wellfare of other people is the source of at least some ethical obligations. That is extremely trivial, and only seems momentous because he uses the word “alterity” instead of something clearer. Such intentional obscurity makes continental philosophy just that much worse.

    Comment by Peter — April 16, 2007 @ 12:05 pm

  10. I don’t want to beat this into the ground (because it is obvious that accordance isn’t near!), but I think there’s some things to be analyzed here.

    Your criteria for weighing the value of philosophy is based on utility – what works. Specifically, starting from the template of the natural sciences. I assume what you mean by “science works” is that the results of science can be repeated via experiment. Then you say “analytic philosophy works sometimes” – what does that mean? Are the conclusions of analytic thinking repeatable by experiments? (And if so, do you have an example of this?). Interesting that you qualify this with “sometimes” – science doesn’t work “sometimes” – if the science is unsound, then it is immediately apparent. But that isn’t the case with analytic philosophy (which is a good reason why your demand that philosophy must always be a “systematic building” on prior work is misplaced).

    The question that must be PROVEN (don’t scientists like proof?) is: are the subjects of philosophical truth the kinds of things that scientific methods are properly meant to work with? Or are you making a grevious category error? Where is the justification behind applying scientific principles to questions of truth with regard to ethics, aesthetics, and epistemology?

    I gave 4 instances as to how a phenomenological method “worked” insofar as they uncovered a fundamental part of the human relationship to the world. You critiqued one of those by saying that Levinas “only” says that ethics is kind of related to welfare of others – which is not at all true. Levinas says that our very relationship to ourselves is grounded in the call to responsibility…that it de-centralizes the subject, and not just ethics, but ontology, epistemology, and so on are all grounded in that de-centering. I don’t think the story is nearly that simple, but Levinas has definately had a crucial insight into the way in which alterity impacts the formation of the subject (picked up by Derrida, Caputo, Butler, etc.).

    You object to the “unclear” word alterity, and suggest that continental thinkers are bad writers. Certainly there are bad writers who try to mimic other thinkers and end up saying nothing…but there are just as many bad analytic thinkers. What is the clearer word that means “alterity”? Alterity refers to the unassimilatable difference and unknowableness posed by another human. What is the clearer word for that that I’m forgetting? Is it more important for language to adapt to try and accomodate the myriad realizations of the infinitely complex human mind – or should we limit our concepts to the list of words that exist right now? If you’re trying to chase fundamental truths, you’re going to have to bend language, grammar, and meaning in order to have a “clear” description of what is going on. I guess we wouldn’t have this problem if reality was as simplistic as the analytic conception of truth; but we can’t always get what we want.

    Comment by Brian — April 16, 2007 @ 8:00 pm

  11. By “science works” I mean that we can build planes using it. And by “analytic philosophy works” I mean that we can use it to clarity what we mean, and occasionally change a mind. And moreover that it can be refuted by pointing out a faulty assumption or an error in the argument.

    You realize I hope that “unassimilatable difference and unknowableness posed by another human” isn’t a clear explanation either. This is a problem with continental thought, I don’t think the authors themselves know what they mean sometimes. Nor do they present arguments typically, they just present claims, and then explain their claims, obliquely. But that is besides the point; I’m sure you think that it is completely clear.

    Here’s the thing. Reality is complex, I agree. Because of that we tackle it as clearly and as logically as we can in order to avoid error, both in sucessful science and in sucessful philosophy. We start with simple concepts, simple observations and build complex theories from them. Creating a confused concept from whole cloth is extremely unhelpful. Not only does its abiguity tend to lead to errors in reasoning, but it also creates the need to demonstrate that something corresponding to that complex concept actually exists, which is rarely done. (is there really such a thing as “unassimilatable difference and unknowableness posed by another human”, if so, prove it).

    Continental philosophy is like doing logic in words and analytic philosophy is like using first order logic. We use words to get started, but when you tackle a difficult problem, or want to be absoultely sure that you are reasoning validly you use first order logic.

    Comment by Peter — April 16, 2007 @ 10:48 pm

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