Ralph McInerny, on Continental and Analytic Philosophy

From Ralph McInerney’s Students Guide To Philosophy (Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 1999) — a hilarious accounting of the development of philosophy, and how we got into the mess we are in today. Suffice to say he doesn’t mince any words, and I’m sure he had as much fun writing it as I did reading it).

From its beginning, medieval education sought to establish a modus vivendi between faith and reason. This remained true in the thirteenth century. The recovery of philosophy had to be accommodated to the theology based on Scripture. For one brief shining century everything cohered. Faith and reason fully complemented one another. The range of reason was what Plato and Aristotle thought it was. The human mind could know the divine and know that the soul was immortal. Christianity had an ally in the life of reason, and vice versa. It did not last.

Soon thinkers in the name of faith began to devalue reason and eventually the mind had only language to play with. Nominalism and the Reformation effectively dismantled the medieval synthesis, paving the way for modernity. Descartes spoke of a tree of knowledge and the quest for method sought a new systematic integration of the different sciences, but philosophy became progressively more isolated from the natural sciences and mathematics. The turn from the world to the mind as the primary concern of the philosopher led to a succession of theories purporting to establish the a priori conditions for thinking. But the distinction between being and being known blurred to the point where to be and to be thought were identical. What would unify the enterprise of human thought was no longer a connection among the sciences, but an understanding of why we think as we do.

The last great effort of idealism is phenomenology.
The return “to the things themselves” disappointingly became a concern with the constituting acts whereby
objects become objects (i.e., the conditions of presence), and what had seemed a realism became one more effort
to tease from the structure of our mind the character of its objects, to anticipate experience, to turn thinking into
a kind of thing-ing that generates its own object. This alteration of the program of phenomenology caused the
recently canonized Edith Stein to part company with Edmund Husserl.

Phenomenology, like drugs, is addictive. Imagine finding sentences like the following meaningful: “In fact,
after Nietzsche had brought to an end and completed all the possibilities—even inverted—of metaphysics, phenomenology,
more than any other theoretical initiative, undertook a new beginning.” (Jean-Luc Marion) It would be more accurate to say that philosophy, both Continental and analytic, succumbed to Teutonic gurus who uttered gnomic pronunciamentos. The influence of a Heidegger and a Wittgenstein can be difficult to comprehend, yet these are the two most influential philosophers of our century. Each proclaimed himself to be a new beginning. Ezra Pound, in his Cantos, sought to produce lines like the uneven ones in the remnants of Sappho’s verse. Some modern philosophers aspired to write pre-Socratic fragments. The style was aphoristic, arguments were scarce to nonexistent, a mood was induced or an attitude produced which ruled out questioning. Nietzsche was tolerable because the madness
had no method. In Heidegger, Nietzsche is given credit for having brought metaphysics to an end, whatever that might mean. Heidegger is the first post-metaphysical thinker. He must be; he tells us so. Wittgenstein sought to redefine philosophy, yet boasted in old age that he was a professor of philosophy who had never read Aristotle. One would have bet on it.

There is little sign that the influence of Heideggerian and Wittgensteinian gnosticism is abating. Like a fever,
it will have to work itself out. Meanwhile, academic philosophy is in the doldrums, light-years distant from the questions that alone can justify it. If one could make sense of the claim that all — all! — the possibilities, inverted or not, of metaphysics had been brought to an end and completed by mad Nietzsche, one might agree or disagree. But what would either mean? It is best to heed Jeeves’s remark to Bertie Wooster. “You would not like Nietzsche, sir. He is fundamentally unsound.”

It may seem a relief to turn to analytic philosophy from the polysyllabic breathlessness of Continental philosophy. But this is to turn from Heidegger to Wittgenstein, the one as enigmatic as the other. The linguistic turn, like the transcendental turn, aims at putting philosophy /in any traditional sense out of business. The seemingly straightforward desire to establish the meaning of meaning has not met with success. So we are back at the beginning; philosophy in the twentieth century, like philosophy in the sixteenth, is still trying to get started.

Its present state is obscure, its past nonexistent, and its future nothing worth waiting for. To say that modern philosophy has abandoned classical and medieval philosophy is simply to accept its self-description. Since this has still not led to anything, perhaps it is time to question the wisdom of the abandonment.


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