Response to Leiter’s Response to Hoekema's Review of Wilshire
Or: Some Notes on the "Analytic/Continental Divide"


James K.A. Smith, Calvin College


[My colleague, David Hoekema, recently reviewed Bruce Wilshire's Fashionalbe Nihilism: A Critique of Analytic Philosophy (SUNY, 2002) in Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews 2002.10.04. Brian Leiter, editor of the Philosophical Gourmet Report then wrote a response, also published in NDPR 2002.10.08. What follows here is my own response to Leiter's response, in which I point out some problems with his claims, as well as correct some factual errors regarding SPEP. Text in black is Leiter's (© Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews); text in red is my response, inserted as a gloss within Leiter's text.]


Brian Leiter
University of Texas, Austin


David Hoekema’s review of Bruce Wilshire’s latest tiresome tirade against anyone who doesn’t do philosophy his way spends rather too much time repeating canards and slanders about me and the Philosophical Gourmet Report (hereafter “PGR”), a report which I have produced, with the assistance of hundreds of philosophers, for many years now. I am grateful to Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews for an opportunity to reply to these charges.


(1) Professor Hoekema endorses Professor Wilshire’s complaint that the PGR “is biased strongly toward analytic approaches” and that analytic philosophy is my “own camp” of philosophy. On its face, this charge is very puzzling. I am the author of one book on Nietzsche – a typical “Continental” figure I would have imagined – and the co-editor of two others; I am the author of articles on Schopenhauer, Marx, and Heidegger; I am a teacher of courses covering Hegel and Foucault. I am presently even one of two editors of The Oxford Handbook of Continental Philosophy. Professor Hoekema himself ends up quoting my own criticisms of “analytic” philosophy; even The New York Times has quoted me to the same effect. The PGR itself gives substantial coverage to Continental philosophy, and the Advisory Board and evaluators for the PGR include many of the most distinguished scholars of Continental philosophy. Why don’t these obvious facts give Professor Hoekema pause before accusing me and the PGR of a “bias” towards “analytic” philosophy?


Leiter seems to think that “Continental philosophy” is defined by its “topic” or “target,” such that if one is working on a philosopher who hails from the Continent (Nietzsche, Heidegger, Foucault, etc.), then one is “doing” Continental philosophy. There are several problems with this: (a) How would one then define “analytic” philosophy? Philosophy done in English? I would be curious to hear Leiter’s definition of analytic philosophy [see below]. (b) Would this mean that when Derrida writes on Searle, Austin, or Quine that he is doing “analytic” philosophy? If I teach a course on Plantinga, does that make me an “analytic” philosopher? Or that Plantinga’s excurses on Kant or “postmodernism” are actually his own forays into “Continental philosophy?” (c) Who are the professors that Leiter names the “most distinguished scholars of Continental philosophy?” Is there not likely a circular argument going on here—that those who qualify as the “most distinguished” will be those scholars who read European philosophers the way that Leiter does? Isn’t it a bit of self-fulfilling prophecy to say that the “most distinguished” Continental philosophers are advisors to PGR, when it is the rankings of PGR which grant them that “distinction?”

At root, the problem is the assumption that Continental philosophy and analytic philosophy are distinguished by their “topic.” As Hoekema notes in his review and response (and Leiter will later on), it is a question of style here; or even more strongly, each is a certain “method” of doing philosophy which is undergirded by certain prephilosophical commitments regarding human nature, ontology, etc. In fact, we might say that what distinguishes Continental from analytic philosophy is precisely the fact that the former recognizes the formative power of prephilosophical commitments and the contextuality of philosophizing, whereas analytic philosophy (largely) proceeds on an assumption regarding the ahistoricity of propositions. Just consider the difference between the way Gilson reads Aquinas, and what an analytic philosopher such as John Haldane does with the same.


(2) Professor Hoekema complains that “one of the most troublesome examples of...misuse” of the PGR was the fact that the first edition of Lingua Franca’s Real Guide to Grad School “relied far too heavily on Leiter’s often idiosyncratic ratings but failed to acknowledge their slant.” Of course, the fact that Lingua Franca relied heavily on the PGR in both the first and second editions of its Real Guide to Grad School might, in rational discourse, be taken as evidence that the PGR is not at all idiosyncratic. Indeed, the recently released second edition of the Real Guide (New York: Academic Partners, 2001) spends two pages rehearsing criticisms of the PGR only to undercut them all by concluding: “The majority of professors the Real Guide contacted said that they believe the Gourmet Report is substantially accurate and valuable” (p. 273).


A lovely bit of pollster-ish fallacy: Just who constitutes this “majority?” Would we find them in the departments which PGR ranks with favor? No majority has any significance without some knowledge of the sample.

Lingua Franca, with its close connection to the Modern Language Association and the Stony Brook Philosophy Department, hardly had any reason to be charitable on this score, yet even they could find no grounds for deeming the PGR “idiosyncratic.”


(3) Perhaps these misunderstandings of the PGR should not be surprising given that Professors Hoekema and Wilshire appear not to know what it is “analytic” philosophers do or believe. Professor Wilshire thinks analytic philosophers, as a class, “divide the emotive from the cognitive, and the moral from the factual,” and that analytic philosophers now “embrace ‘phenomenalism.’” Professor Hoekema reports these charges without editorial comment. An exemplary professional service like Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews should not permit such a gross misrepresentation of analytic philosophy to stand. Hardly any analytic philosophers are phenomenalists, and analytic philosophers hold a myriad of views about the relationship between reason and emotion, and facts and values, with many questioning these very distinctions. One might reasonably worry that Professor Wilshire’s sophomoric misunderstanding of what he attacks may vitiate his criticisms.


(4) Professor Hoekema quotes my own assessment that “analytic” philosophy is mostly a stylistic category: “analytic” philosophy as a substantive philosophical program is long dead. (In this sense only do I plead guilty to a “bias” in favor of “analytic” philosophy – though it might more accurately be called a “bias” [sic] in favor of clear and rigorous scholarship.) We are now living in a “golden age” of scholarship on Continental philosophy, almost all of which is produced by philosophers who are – again, in the stylistic sense – “analytic.”


So does Leiter agree that “analytic” philosophy is a style? It’s not clear. In any case, Leiter continues to import assumptions that are ungrounded when he claims that almost all of the scholarship in this “golden age” (?) of Continental philosophy is produced by scholars who are “analytic.” How is this not begging the question? Further, since “analytic” is not positively defined by Leiter, this claim is without meaning.


Even those who are avowedly skeptical of “analytic” history of philosophy – like Frederick Beiser, one of the greatest scholars writing in English about classical German philosophy – are really critical of a paradigm of philosophy that died in Oxford in the 1970s; they, too, share the characteristically “analytic” commitment to argumentative clarity and precision.


So does Leiter mean to suggest that what defines “analytic” philosophy is a commitment to “argumentative clarity and precision?” A couple of problems follow from this: (a) It would seem that Leiter would then suggest the converse claim, viz., that “Continental” philosophy is committed to obscurity and confusion (which I suspect he intends). (b) Just who determines the criteria for “clarity and precision?” Is not clarity determined by a communal context? In this sense, wouldn’t it be the case, for instance, that “analytic” philosophy of science is incredibly obscure to those outside of that community of scholars, but “clear” to those within the community? I would be curious to know: would Leiter consider, for example, Jean-Luc Marion’s Étant donné [Being Given] to be a work of “rigorous” scholarship committed to “argumentative clarity and precision?” If not, could it perhaps be that it is because he lacks the tools to make the judgment? Or more to the point: since Leiter himself claims that Nietzsche is an important aspect of his work, would Leiter think that Nietzsche is “committed to argumentative clarity and precision?” Or finally, with respect to Heidegger (“clarity and precision?”): how would Freiburg in the 1920s and 30s have fared in PGR? (c) Finally, it seems that Leiter uses very different criteria to define “analytic” and “Continental” philosophy. “Continental” philosophy is defined by its topic (European philosophers), whereas analytic philosophy is defined by its “style.” This effectively allows Leiter to colonize the entire field: if I work on Heidegger, to measure up to Leiter’s ratings I am also required to adopt an analytic style.


There are, to be sure, narrow-minded philosophers, with parochial views of the discipline, but being “analytic” philosophers simply isn’t what they have in common.


(5) Professor Hoekema claims the misnamed “pluralist” movement, with which Professor Wilshire is allied, “succeeded.” But what is the evidence – beyond the dilution in quality of one of the three annual meetings of the APA – for this extraordinary claim? “Today,” says Professor Hoekema, “the annual meeting of the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy [SPEP] is one of the largest philosophical gatherings in the country.” But the roughly 300 participants who attend a typical SPEP annual meeting include a significant contingent (judging from recent programs, perhaps as much as a third) who don’t teach in philosophy departments, while the philosophers come overwhelmingly from less than 20 departments in the entire United States.


Just a few points regarding Leiter’s claims about SPEP: (a) I am puzzled at how, “judging from recent programs,” Leiter is able to make claims about the departments that participants call home, since SPEP programs only list institutional affiliations, not departmental affiliations. (b) As Hoekema notes in his response, it’s not clear what Leiter means when he says that the philosophers on a SPEP program come “from less than 20 departments in the entire United States.” Does he mean as products of graduate programs? How would he be able to divine that from a program (I’ve not yet bumped into Leiter at a SPEP meeting)? Did he conduct interviews or a survey of participants? For the record, at the 2002 meeting, presenters came from over 100 different institutions, with global representation, and including schools which make the PGR ranking (such as McGill, Notre Dame, Cornell, Northwestern, Virginia, Syracuse, UC Irvine, Pitt, Harvard, and the Sorbonne). If, in response, Leiter retorts that he was making a claim about their graduate program filiations, I would again ask just how he divined such information.


Professor Wilshire, like SPEP, speaks for that small minority of academic philosophers who have been bypassed by the collapse of a substantive dispute between analytic and Continental philosophy, and the concomitant and dramatic improvement in scholarly and intellectual standards for serious work on Continental philosophy that has resulted. Mediocre academics can no longer hide behind the fig leaf of “Continental philosophy” to explain why “analytic” philosophers don’t take them seriously – certainly not when the bastions of “analytic” philosophy like Princeton, Oxford, Cambridge, London, Pittsburgh, Stanford, Michigan, etc. all now hire scholars of Continental philosophy.


Which, as established above, simply means that they work on European figures in an analytic style.

(None of these programs hired “pluralists” or SPEP members, by the way.)

(6) As Professor Hoekema notes, Professor Wilshire “attributes great influence [to the PGR] among administrators as well as prospective students....” This, I believe, is what really has Wilshire and his “pluralist” colleagues agitated. A Continental philosophy scholar has produced a report on graduate study in philosophy, with the help of hundreds of philosophers, many of them also scholars of Continental philosophy. That report now gets 10,000 hits per month on the Web, and has had a significant impact on the decisions made by prospective students and administrators.


See my comments above regarding Leiter’s rhetorical employment of numbers without any indication of sample.


This has been a catastrophe for the self-anointed bastions of “pluralism,” which do not fare well in the PGR, but which also have depended on the bogeyman of “analytic” philosophy for so long to explain their marginal status. (The “pluralists” now account for nearly half the signatories of the on-line letter protesting the PGR, a letter which after nearly a year has garnered a mere 2% of the entire profession as signatories.)


What percentage are ‘signatories’ or advisors to PGR? Are these names going to be published?


It turns out, however, that the bogeyman is dead, and that the “pluralists” are actually just marginal to philosophy, “analytic” or “Continental”. When Professor Wilshire recommends, as he did in his last book on The Primal Roots of American Philosophy (2000), that philosophers need to appreciate shaman healing practices, he is not a philosophical pluralist, but simply a philosophical outlier, with no connection or relevance to any of the many glorious traditions in philosophy, from Aristotle to Nietzsche, from Descartes to Quine, from Hume to Husserl.


Is there an argument for this claim which I am missing somewhere? If “shaman healing practices” are ruled incompatible with “the many glorious traditions of philosophy,” I’d be curious to know how other religions would fare in Leiter’s comparison. In this select list of representatives of this “great tradition,” I notice no reference to a medieval philosopher, nor to any “religious” philosopher. Would Aquinas make the cut? Augustine? How would the University of Paris of the 1200s have ranked in the PGR?


Those who suffer from their powerlessness and marginalization, Nietzsche understood, also typically suffer from a peculiar emotion, which Nietzsche called ressentiment. That emotion, I fear, is now on furious display in the reckless polemics of Professor Wilshire.


Thus spake Zarathustra?