Rickety Dichotomies

The Radio 4 programme In Our Time discussed the philosophical continental-analytical split this week. The speakers all offered massive disclaimers at the start: there is no clear-cut distinction, continental philosophy isn’t a coherent body of thought, the geographical distinction is nonsense, and no philosopher’s work can be reduced to one of two camps. When I’m asked about different approaches to studying English or what the differences between English departments at Oxford and Cambridge are, my explanation sometimes uses the same terms ‘continental’ and ‘analytical’ in passing, and with similar caution.

I endorse the same disclaimers, since I believe that each person holds an inter-locking set of beliefs and unspoken assumptions that can’t be guessed by assigning them to a particular creed or label. I believe that you don’t begin to know people until you’ve encountered them, in person or through what they’ve produced. Still, I find it instructive to think generally about larger differences in approach to difficult questions, so here’s my take on how the continental-analytical divide, as explained through the following garbled summary, could be applied to literary study. In particular, I’ll use it to answer another question I’m sometimes asked: hasn’t most of what’s been written about Shakespeare just been made up by critics?

Breezy summaries first. Analytical philosophy (Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein are among its notable proponents) seeks to establish what it is that we can know through reason and logic. It pursues objective analysis to cut through all that is unproven to locate irrefutable propositions about reality that must be true. It’s unified by a method that emphasizes precision and thoroughness, and has tended to dwell on the philosophy of language: how well does language describe the world? It currently prevails in academic philosophy today, the programme told us.

Beatrice Han-Pile’s excellent introduction to continental philosophy emphasized that its concerns are existential, arising from humans having a limited understanding of the world and being aware of this. Consequently, this provokes questions unique to humans, such as ‘how do I lead a good life?’, ‘what is beauty?’ or ‘do I have I soul?’ Answers to these questions cannot be established through reason alone, but require us to draw on subjective experiences and feelings to be able to answer them. These questions demand us to confront how we can come to understanding of the world as humans, through perception (phenomenology worries about this) or interpretation (hermeneutics is the theory of interpretation). It seeks to understand how we interact with the world as whole beings, and often speaks readily to political and social concerns.

Now—and here I start to add even more planks to this rickety rope-bridge—English studies had two different origins that could be perceived as corresponding approximately (and anachronistically) from this divide. English studies, as I understand it, began in nineteenth-century London. University College (UCL) initially promoted a more utilitarian approach to English language and literature (think Jeremy Bentham), emphasising composition skills, and the factual and historical study of language. King’s College, meanwhile, was more evangelical and taught sound moral principles based on the classics: it saw religion and education as intertwined. The University of Oxford established English as a professional discipline nudged, as I’ve been told, by a renewed need to train colonial civil servants (need to check this): it promoted philology (i.e. history of language) and historical studies of literature. In twentieth-century Cambridge a different type of degree course was set up, one more socially aware and which combined ‘life, literature and thought’. In particular, ‘Practical criticism’ was a skill of close reading conceived by I. A. Richards to have psychological benefits for students, and is still associated with Cambridge though most degree courses in Britain teach close reading. Just one more creaky paragraph to come….

As literature departments developed in the UK, then, one side tends to regard English language and literature as a discipline that can inform us about history, about language, and other objective matters. This is the more analytical approach, and is closer to what I’ve encountered during my time at Oxford (disclaimer with alarm-bells etc.). The other side takes literature as a social phenomenon that presents ideal ground from which to consider how humans describe, interpret and communicate about the world around them through language. This approach is more continental, and more attuned to work I saw and worked on in Cambridge. Both sides—and it’s wearying for me to keep on with these withdrawals, but we’re almost there—have great strengths, and I doubt either exists in a pure form: they can combine and correct each other. It happens that the more analytical approach is also more dominant, I would say, in continental European, British and American literature departments right now, and if so this is probably connected, among other things, to increased specialization as we accumulate more knowledge.

So in answer to the question whether critics are just making it up about Shakespeare, there are two answers. One: no, because academic Shakespeare studies establish what we can know about his dramas and poems using primary sources and analysis. Academics provide the context and historical basis to help others read and enjoy his works. Two: no, because from our contemporary perspective we can ask important questions that aren’t less important because Shakespeare wouldn’t have asked them, such as how he represented women or colonies, or held broad views about humanity. Academics open up these questions for others to pursue. Regardless of approach, very few critics would dare to explain exactly what Shakespeare was trying to tell us in his plays, that don’t just echoes through history.

If we want to run away with this split further we could start speculating a basic neurological foundation for all this, the much-skewered left- and right-brain distinction (Jonathan Sacks criticized here for this; Iain McGilchrist here, for example). And just to tip the tension into ridicule, we could imagine a humanistic theory of everything which also include thought/ feeling and science/ religion. The sheer adaptability of this same continental-analytical split into virtually every sphere of human endeavour makes me think that it is worthwhile as a tool for thinking (because it keeps on recurring), if not for describing reality.

More importantly, it reminds me once again that no individual mind or artifact can be slotted in one of two categories. In fact, such gross simplification goes against the basic nature of humanistic study as I and others pursue it. We learn this once we start analysing a text in all its historical complexity, and as we start posing theoretical questions. In fact, English studies ought to be superb at such self-scrutiny because language, the medium through which all these ideas are communicated, is its basic subject of study. It ought to be the first to resist the shackles of such dichotomies, even though individuals will naturally incline towards approaches similar to those previously adopted by others.