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Sunday, May 31, 2020


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Honestly, my real concern is not this particular debate, but my lack of ability to understand a very large and important class of philosophical writing that all looks to me like one category error after another. I keep asking you about this because you are the only person I know who is familiar with Continental philosophy and can speak in that language but can also speak in a language that I understand, so I intuit that you have grasped some insight into the difference between these two languages and I'm trying to worm that insight out of you.

Not fair of me, I suppose. If you aren't interested in the broader topic of why analytical thinkers fail to appreciate Continental philosophy, I should leave you be and resign myself to the situation.


I took the time to answer two of your questions, and I refuted your accusations of category mistake. You can't just ignore that. It's rude. Why should I waste my time with you if you give no indication of whether I have gotten through to you?

As for what you say above, it is too vague to evaluate. I need a concrete example. You say you don't understand Husserl? What's not to understand?

Do you understand what a category mistake is? Give me a a clear, not a controversial, example of one so that I can determine whether you understand the concept.

Bill, I didn't intend to be rude; in a following comment I will address your above argument directly.

However, in my defense, the reason I did not address the argument is that it does not seem to answer the question I asked. My question about category errors was not meant as a counter to your original argument; it was a complaint that I do not understand the language you used. Perhaps you meant the above to answer that complaint, but if so, I failed to see it. Since (as I perceived it) you defended the argument rather than answering my real questions, I thought I was being polite in acknowledging your lack of interest in the my question and letting it go.

The real questions I asked (from my email) were:

Did you understand [the Continental philosophers] immediately upon reading them as I did upon reading Berkeley or was it a process of having to immerse yourself in the literature until understanding began to dawn?

Alternatively, am I simply making a mistake in thinking that such language is meant to be understood in the same way that analytical philosophy is understood? Am I expected to suspend my critical faculties and simply take in the literary language?

Finally, since you expressed doubt that I know what a category error is, here are some examples of what I mean by the term: the mass of a thought, the color of a number, the sum of five and the pacific ocean. Uncontroversial category errors of the form "X is Y" are hard to come up with because they all sound like metaphors (such as "God is justice"). In fact, maybe that would be a better way to express myself--not that Continental philosophy looks like it is full of category errors but that it looks like it is full of metaphors whose purpose I do not get.

Bill, you write:

It therefore makes sense to say that God, a person, is the standard, exemplar, measure of justice.

I understand this in a non-literal sense. For example, "George Washington is the measure of honesty" means that Washington demonstrates the very highest levels of honesty as measured against an external standard.
However the non-literal sense does not work for what you wrote: "God is not measured by Justice, a standard external to him; God is the measure of Justice".

If I understand the last clause metaphorically, then it essentially contradicts what comes before. Unwrapped into literal language it means "God is not measured by justice, a standard external to him; God demonstrates the very highest levels of justice as measured against a standard external to him."

Charity then compels me to assume that this apparently metaphorical language is meant literally (you do not dispute that, I assume). Now, I take justice as a quality of an event, where for these purposes, an event is any series of actions and circumstances extended in time and related as to parties and interests. A measure of justice then must be something that can be compared to such an event like a yard stick can be compared to a football field. How can one literally compare God to an event?

Now, extending my attempt at charity, I might take your talk of a measure to mean something more like "judge": "God is not measured by Justice, a standard external to him; God is the one who judges what justice is." But as I'm sure you will agree, this does not work because it implies that God is judging according to some standard that is external to him.

(going to lunch--I'll come back to this later)

Allow me to do a substitution on part of your B argument. I am substituting logic for justice:

You must also grant that for God to be God he cannot be dependent on anything external to himself for his nature (essence). So he can't be logical in virtue of instantiating your quality, logic. God sets the standard by being the standard: there is no standard of logic outside of God that he needs to conform to.

You have said that God cannot do the logically impossible, so I take it that you would reject the above argument. Logic is something that God must conform to, something that is a standard outside of and independent from God. How is this more problematic for justice than for logic?


Can I make a suggestion? The analytic-Continental distinction, if real, is mucky. It might be better to talk about the analytic tradition, the German idealist tradition, the British idealist tradition, the existentialist tradition, the phenomenologist tradition, and so on; or, better yet, to list specific philosophers and give specific examples. Name names!

I transferred from mathematics to philosophy. I started under a hardnosed analytic faculty (full of Quineans) on the East Coast. Once I decided to pursue philosophy full time I transferred to a continental faculty. (I felt I had already learned what analytic faculties had to offer that continental faculties didn't.) I consider myself amphibious between both traditions. I've also had the benefit of contact with a lot of scholastic philosophers and spent a lot of time studying scholastic philosophy. So, arguably I'm amphibious between three tradition (if “Continental philosophy” is considered a tradition).

Analytic work is often clever, and clear, and rigorous, and so piddling in aspiration that who cares? Continental and scholastic philosophers need metaphors because they're groping at the very heights and limits of reality. (This is most clearly the case with scholastics.) It's also often detached from the existential situation in a way that continental and scholastic work typically isn't. That said, some continental philosophers and continentally-inclined scholastic philosophers are needlessly murky, and could stand to spend some time under an analytic faculty.


You have said that God cannot do the logically impossible, so I take it that you would reject the above argument. Logic is something that God must conform to, something that is a standard outside of and independent from God. How is this more problematic for justice than for logic?

The standard reply to this (and, in more general form, all Euthyphro-like problems) is that the laws of logic are neither outside God nor dictated by his arbitrary will. Rather, they flow from and are a reflection of his essentially rational nature.

To put it another way, God isn't subject to Platonic Forms outside him. Rather, he is to be identified with those Forms. He is the Forms.

David and Bill,

A better example of an apparent category error in this instance might be the traditional claim (which follows from the doctrine of the convertability of the transcendentals and the claim that God is Being Itself) that God is Truth. The first time I heard that, I thought, “What? God is a property of propositions?”

Postscript. I'm now inclined to take "Truth" in this instance as referring to something like Bonaventure's ontological truth, i.e. something is true in as much as it actualizes its nature's perfections, and false in as much as it doesn't. But on the face of it "God is Truth" is a crazy claim.)

Thank you, Cyrus. I'm using analytic/Continental to refer loosely to a stylistic difference rather than to a philosophical difference. I'm not sure how to characterize the differences, but to my mind, the following are analytic: Descartes, Berkeley, Hume, Kant, Frege, Russel, Carnap, Wittgenstein, Popper, Putnam, Quine. Note that several of these are from the Continent.

I generally put someone in the Continental tradition if he reminds me of Hegel, or to a lesser extent if he reminds me of Aquinas or Aristotle (I'm aware of the gulf there, but there seems to be a continuity of style that is not shared by the analytic tradition). This includes Leibniz, Fichte, Marx, Kierkegaard, Heidegger, and Sartre.

Besides the difference in content, the differences that are apparent to me as a reader are that Aristotle and Scholastic writers tend toward arguments that look to me like non sequiturs, Continental writers tend to base arguments on what look to me like metaphors or analogies and are invalid on that basis, while analytical authors tend to do neither.

It's unlikely that generations of intelligent people have been misled by such simple logical problems, so I am inclined to think that I'm just failing to understand--at least in some cases.


I really liked your 7:17 comment. We are pretty much on the same page. See https://maverickphilosopher.typepad.com/maverick_philosopher/2015/04/carnap-and-clarity.html


Do you class Husserl as an analytic philosopher, or a continental philosopher? If an analytic philosopher (because of his rigour), you're classing one of the founding figures of Continental philosophy as analytic. If continental philosopher, why is Descartes analytic?

I'm inclined to think that even the stylistic differences break down more helpfully along tradition-based lines. For example, most idealists write in a very distinctive style. It's grand, but abstract. I used to dislike it, but now I find it absolutely intoxicating.* But it's part of why so few people read them. Compare this to the vivid, exciting, sometimes startlingly clear style of empiricists like Hume, Berkeley, D. C. Williams, or Keith Campbell. (Brand Blanshard's On Philosophical Style is worth reading on this.)

The existentialists also have a distinctive prose style. They tend to use lots of aphorisms and metaphors. They ooze sophistication. But they're not always very clear, or big on argument. (Nietzsche, though technically a “proto-existentialist”, scorns argument.) I suspect part of what you're noticing is the great influence existentialists have had on French and German philosophical prose (as well as the prose of Anglo philosophers following them).

(But it's not all the existentialists' fault. Searle has blamed murky French philosophical prose on the Germans, but France is the land of Montaigne. It's the land of Voltaire and all the other French philosophical novelists. It's the land of aphorisms passed around salons. It may be true that the French used to say, “Ce qui n'est pas clair n'est pas Français”, but that saying is itself an example of the French penchant for generalization.)

As for the medievals, as P. V. Spade used to say, “They're damn martians.” Unlike, say, Nietzsche, they value and strive for clarity. But they're culturally, temporally, linguistically, and so on, so far removed from us that sometimes what must have seemed clear to them seems murky and strange to us. For instance, res respectivae, which are accidents that inherently point towards other entities (the medievals sometimes called them “ad aliud”) and take the place of relations in medieval philosophy. Other times, they're, like I said, groping at the Divine as best they can.

Anyway, I'm not sure if that provides any insight. Lots of different reasons for the differences and difficulties. Some are probably political or careerist. But some have to do with different views about what should be emphasized, different goals, temporal distance, cultural distance, different philosophical systems, different technical terminology, etc. (as well as trying to grasp things hard for frail human intellects to grasp). It takes effort to think oneself into a new tradition, but it's effort worth making.

*Learning to read at a more leisurely, “Victorian” pace also helped. The rhythms of the idealist style “sound” better when you take a bit more time to roll them out. Learning German also helped.


Those are really good posts.

I don't, by the way, mean to imply that the idealists lack rigour when I call their general style "grand" and "intoxicating".

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