Meteors, Craters, and the Continental-Analytical Divide

On discussing topics “negatively” by “tracing around them,” and some differences between Analytical and Continental philosophy.

Photo by Dave Herring

It’s strange to think a theologian may help us understand differences between Analytical and Continental philosophy, but I find myself always going back to this section from Karl Barth, where he describes the coming of Christ in the following way:

The effulgence, or, rather, the crater made at the percussion point of an exploding shell, the void by which the point on the line of intersection makes itself known in the concrete world of history, is not — even though it be named the Life of Jesus — that other world which touches our world in Him. In so far as our world is touched in Jesus by the other world, it ceases to be capable of direct observation as history, time, or thing.’¹

This passage has provided me with one of the most useful metaphors I ever found for understanding the different epistemologies and methods between Continental and Analytical philosophers. This is because the passage helped me outline a difference between “knowing by absence” and “knowing by presence,” knowing by “tracing around” and knowing by “studying directly.” To cut to the chase, Continental Philosophy is mostly in the business of “knowing by absence and tracing,” whereas Analytical Philosophy is mostly in the business of “knowing by presence and directly.”

Over the years, in my head, I started remembering Barth’s ‘crater […] of an exploding shell’ as the crater left over by a meteorite, and I erroneously spoke as such in conversations (where those listening may have smiled in pity at my misattribution). Fortunately, even with the mistake, I think the point still stands, and I believe using the metaphor of a meteor/meteorite might be better for making the points I want to make than the crater left over by an exploding shell. Ultimately, I don’t think it matters (or so I may tell myself to feel better about my mistake).

“Analytical Philosophy” is the work of thinkers like Bertrand Russel and the early Wittgenstein, while “Continental Philosophy” is the work of those like Martin Heidegger and Jacques Derrida. Analytical philosophy stresses precision, clarity, and elevates science, while Continental thinking often attempts to get behind language and discuss fundamental problems of ontology. To be very general, for me, Analytical thinking is “sharper but less prone to take on big questions,” while Continental thinking is “fuzzier but more likely to tackle big subjects.” Personally, I think people should engage in a dialectical between both, but that’s just me.

Analytical and Continental philosophy have never gotten along very well, but I do think Analytical philosophy tends to hold more disdain toward Continental thinkers than the other way around. And for a little bit, it did seem like Analytical Philosophy was going to do away with the need for Continental thinking entirely, but then Kurt Gödel came along with his “Incompleteness Theorem” and messed everything up. Analytical philosophy needed a “complete model” to finish off Continentalism (as I’ll call it here), but Gödel proved that this was impossible, and as a result, we’re still having to wrestle with questions of ontology and ethics, despite how much we may wish we could just hand over the big questions to science and/or push them across the noumenon once and for all. Alas, we still have work to do…

This is a broad generality, and Gödel wasn’t the only force at work that made it clear Continentalism would always be with us, though focusing on him will do for our purposes here. And, in all transparency, I wish Continentalism would learn a few lessons from Analytical thinking, and try to stress clarity, epistemology, and so on. But that point aside, the main idea is that both Analytical and Continental thought are still around (with both claiming Kant as a member of their camp, strangely), and so the question is how will Analytical philosophy and Continentalism live together? Can they?

Personally, my hope has always been to help Analytical and Continental thought relate dialectically (as opposed to fighting), but achieving that goal requires understanding the key differences between the schools of thought. To help trace that out, I’ll use Barth’s thinking and the metaphor of a meteor:

A. “Analytical talk” are discussions about a meteor directly, based on sights of it in the sky.

B. “Continental talk” are discussions about the meteor based on the crater it left after striking the planet (at which point the “meteor” becomes a “meteorite,” a transformation which could have philosophical significance).

A. “Analytical thinking” believes we cannot discuss a meteor by discussing its crater, that they are two entirely different things and that any conclusions we draw about the one based on the other will ultimately prove meaningless. If all we have is the crater, then we must remain silent about the meteor; if all we have is the meteor, then we need to stay quiet about craters. Wittgenstein’s famous line is useful here — ‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent’ — and for Analytical thinking, we cannot meaningfully speak about what we cannot directly experience.

B. “Continental thinking” believes there are real and consequential entities (like “being,” “mind,” “beauty,” etc.) which cannot be discussed directly yet nevertheless exist and matter. These “absences” or “lacks” are not nothings and they do impact our lives; ignoring them would be intellectually inadequate if not downright dishonest. However, this means we need to understand a meteor(ite) when all we have is a crater, and craters aren’t very similar to meteor(ites). Bits and pieces of the meteor might be found in the crater, but how could we possibly figure out from a crater the ways that the bits go together? And if we need to understand meteors, now that the meteor has hit, it’s a meteorite (something different), so how can we be sure that any conclusions we draw will apply to our main subject versus something just “like it?” The effort seems impossible, and yet Continentalism believes we have no choice but to try and do our best.

A. “Analytical thinking” does not believe it is epistemologically immoral to ignore “lacks” because it is actually epistemologically moral and responsible to disregard questions that cannot be answered.

B. “Continental thinking” believes we are surrounded by “craters,” and that means there is “reason to think” meteors exist. Since these “craters” are observable, denying them would be intellectually dishonest. Additionally, Continentalism believes there are reasons to think these “craters” impact us psychologically and existentially, so ignoring them could destroy our mental health (as an example).

A. “Analytical philosophy” basically believes these craters “practically” don’t exist or can be explained by “non-meteor means.” If this is true, the concerns of Continentalism vanish: we don’t have to worry about understanding meteors from craters, because there are no “real craters” (just appearances of them) (for example, it “appears like” the mind is something different from the brain, but ultimately it turns out they are the same thing, a topic Cadell Last discusses brilliantly). The Analytical philosopher may think that “making these craters vanish” is our best hope for saving our mental health.

B. Continentalism believes the existence of craters is undeniable, but since craters are “outlines,” it just seems like they’re not there (“holes”). The problem is that our epistemology is inadequate: it “brackets out” parts of reality we need to face.

And so on. Basically, Analytical philosophy denies the possibility or need for (“meaningful”) “negative knowledge” (“knowledge known by tracing out”), while Continentalism believes an over-zealous investment in “positive knowledge” or “knowledge about presence/being” leaves us ill-equipped to address the most pressing questions in our lives (which tend to involve “lacks”).

Critically, if “lacks” and “absences” exist (as discussed throughout the works of O.G. Rose), then “Analytical Philosophy” must ultimately prove incomplete (even if still incredibly useful). If there is something to my idea of “without B” (as discussed in “On ‘A is A’ ”), then we can never do away with Continentalism.

Continental Philosophers, do you feel like celebrating? Don’t be so quick: if we could do away with Continentalism, then it might make certainty possible and relieve us of incredible existential anxiety. If Analytical philosophy achieved its ends, the problems outlined in “Belonging Again” by O.G. Rose might not be a problem (such as the loss of “givens” under Pluralism and resulting appeal of totalitarianism). If science could actually function as a unifying foundation for diverse people groups (if “pure observation” was possible), then we could perhaps create “new givens” out of science and overcome the radical challenges we now face under Pluralism. Alas, Analytical Philosophy failed…

Considering the payout, I can understand where Analytical thinkers were coming from to attack Continentalism, but again, after Gödel, it would seem the dream of “Analytical Completeness” is over. Now, we are stuck in Continentalism using Continental methods, and how exactly we are to draw conclusions we can believe in about meteors from their craters is still being worked out (do note we must succeed multiple times at this incredibly difficult task). But if we fail, the problems listed in “Belonging Again” will intensify and perhaps destroy us all.

We must solve the problems of Continentalism. We must learn how to understand meteors from walking around craters and digging in the dirt, and we must find conclusions we can believe in through a process that seems hopeless, for otherwise we will find no existential relief. Without existential stability, totalitarianism will likely prevail.





¹Barth, Karl. Epistle to the Romans. Oxford University Press, 1968: 29.




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