Despite recent loud claims to the contrary, there is a significant difference between two modern styles of doing philosophy: so-called analytic philosophy tends to be structured around rigorous arguments, is often dry, and concerns itself mostly (though not always) with matters that are rather arcane and of little social significance. “Continental” philosophy, by contrast, is frequently written in a more engaging, essay-type style, and its practitioners tend to be interested in pressing political and social matters. Unfortunately, it is also often (though not always) rather obfuscatory in language, and occasionally downright nonsensical.
Despite feeling more comfortable with the analytic approach, I do think this split in modern philosophy (which, roughly, originated with Kant, often considered the point of bifurcation) is highly unfortunate. I think philosophy is the sort of thing the ancient Greeks were doing (I mean, they did come up with the name!), it is rooted in the use of reason to arrive at understanding, and it concerns itself with pretty much any subject matter.
Another way to put this is that I think it would be good if analytic philosophers learned how to write in a less rigid and formal manner, as well as to concern themselves more with matters of practical import. By the same token, it would be nice if continentalists were to strive to be less obscure and more rigorous. There are weak sign of progress on both counts, but I’m not holding my breath.
A particular microcosm of the analytic / continental divide is represented by the difference between philosophy of science (analytic) and “science studies” (continental). Just like in the case of the macrocosm described above, this one has unfortunate consequences: in an ideal world, it would be nice if philosophers of science expanded their concern to issues of scientific ethics, for instance, and where a bit more critical of science and its practices, when required. Conversely, it would be good if science studies scholars were a bit more cognizant of what scientists actually do, and showed less of an anti-science reaction as part of their general anti-establishment ethos.
In a recent column for The Philosophers’ Magazine I presented in detail one particular instance of the problem, based on a strange paper by Babette Babich, published in the International Studies in the Philosophy of Science, and entitled “Calling Science Pseudoscience: Fleck’s Archaeologies of Fact and Latour’s ‘Biography of an Investigation’ in AIDS Denialism and Homeopathy.”
It is hard to tell what the main thesis of Babich’s paper actually is, though there is an underlying current of distrust in the authority of science and a great deal of criticism of philosophers of science who are — in the author’s mind — a bit too servile in their cheerleading attitude toward science. The interesting, and a bit maddening, thing is that Babich, like many Continentalists, does have a point: we do live in an era where science is held to be the savior of mankind, despite having brought on us as many disasters as good things.
She is also right that philosophers of science have historically rarely been critical of scientific research or of the scientists that engage in it, though this has began to change in the right direction since the times of logical positivism at the beginning of the 20th century.
The problem is that Babich’s attempt will simply give more excuses to both philosophers of science and scientists to keep ignoring the entire area of science studies and rehearsing instead the infamous “science wars” of the 1990s. She mixes up legitimate criticism of scientific practices and science’s power structure with a defense of decidedly pseudoscientific or highly debatable notions, like HIV-AIDS denialism, homeopathy, cold fusion and climate change denial.
Babich’s paper clearly demonstrates the problem with a number of works coming out of science studies programs: the concern with science’s power structures, as well as with the more or less hidden agendas of governments, corporations and individual researchers is well placed and absolutely deserves close scrutiny. But such scrutiny is undermined by a facile criticism that is founded on a significant lack of understanding of the underlying science and that insists in putting in the same basket good science, bad science, and pseudoscience. The consensus in the field of philosophy of science is that there is never going to be a way to cleanly separate the good stuff from the bad stuff. But the existence of gradations and borderline cases doesn’t mean there are no distinctions to be made, and making those distinctions is both intellectually necessary and socially useful.