A defective analytical division

The Analytic vs. Continental divide of Philosophy is analytically imprecise (category conflation) and unilateral (the distinction is a product of the auto-entitled Analytic, not of the so called Continental philosophy).

The term “Continental” applied to a philosophical branch is found at least as early as 1840, in John Stuart Mill’s essay “On Bentham and Coleridge”, where he contrasts the Kantian-influenced thought of «Continental philosophers» with the English empiricism of Bentham:

«The father of English innovation both in doctrines and in institutions, is Bentham: he is the great subversive, or, in the language of continental philosophers, the great critical, thinker of his age and country. (…)» – Mill, John Stuart (1950), “On Bentham and Coleridge“, pp. 104, 133, 155.

In 1945, Bertrand Russell legitimates «two schools of philosophy, which may be broadly distinguished as the Continental and the British respectively», a division he saw as operative «from the time of Locke» [Bertrand Russell, “A History of Western Philosophy“, p. 643-647] .

Russell is, perhaps, the first to systematize the points of divergence between the these two types of philosophy – Continental vs. British:

(1) in method, deductive system-building vs. piecemeal induction;
(2) in metaphysics, rationalist theology vs. metaphysical agnosticism;
(3) in ethics, non-naturalist deontology vs. naturalist hedonism;
(4) in politics, authoritarianism vs. liberalism.

Several reviewers considered that book defective, full of simplifications, overgeneralizations and omissions, showing that Russell had no tolerance for systems of thought that do not conform to his preferences.

For instance, Russell carelessly misrepresents Nietzsche, who he labels (and libels) and dismisses as a proto-Nazi:

«I shall therefore assume that he [Nietzsche] regards conquering aristocracies and their descendants as biologically superior to their subjects, as men are superior to domestic animals, though in a lesser degree. What shall we mean by “biologically superior”? We shall mean when interpreting Nietzsche, that individuals of the superior race and their descendants are more likely to be “noble” in Nietzsche’s sense: they will have more strength of will, more courage, more impulse towards power, less sympathy, less fear, and less gentleness. (…) Suppose we wish—as I certainly do—to find arguments against Nietzsche’s ethics and politics, what arguments can we find? There are weighty practical arguments, showing that the attempt to secure his ends will in fact secure something quite different. Aristocracies of birth are nowadays discredited; the only practicable form of aristocracy is an organization like the Fascist or the Nazi party.» – Russell, “History of Western Philosophy“, chapter about Nietzsche.

Russell himself admits to not being an expert on any of the philosophers with the possible exception (he immodestly adds) of Leibniz; also, he sets for himself an individualistic and historicist purpose:

«A few words of apology and explanation are called for if this book is to escape even more severe censure than it doubtless deserves. Apology is due to the specialists on various schools and individual philosophers. With the possible exception of Leibniz, every philosopher of whom I treat is better known to some others than to me. If, however, books covering a wide field are to be written at all, it is inevitable, since we are not immortal, that those who write such books should spend less time on any one part than can be spent by a man who concentrates on a single author or a brief period. Some, whose scholarly austerity is unbending, will conclude that books covering a wide field should not be written at all, or, if written, should consist of monographs by a multitude of authors. There is, however, something lost when many authors co-operate. If there is any unity in the movement of history, if there is any intimate relation between what goes before and what comes later, it is necessary, for setting this forth, that earlier and later periods should be synthesized in a single mind. The student of Rousseau may have difficulty in doing justice to his connection with the Sparta of Plato and Plutarch; the historian of Sparta may not be prophetically conscious of Hobbes and Fichte and Lenin. To bring out such relations is one of the purposes of this book, and it is a purpose which only a wide survey can fulfil. There are many histories of philosophy, but none of them, so far as I know, has quite the purpose that I have set myself. Philosophers are both effects and causes: effects of their social circumstances and of the politics and institutions of their time; causes (if they are fortunate) of beliefs which mould the politics and institutions of later ages. In most histories of philosophy, each philosopher appears as in a vacuum; his opinions are set forth unrelated except, at most, to those of earlier philosophers. I have tried, on the contrary,  to exhibit each philosopher, as far as truth permits, as an outcome of his milieu, a man in whom were crystallized and concentrated thoughts and feelings which, in a vague and diffused form, were common to the community of which he was a part. This has required the insertion of certain chapters of purely social history. No one can understand the Stoics and Epicureans without some knowledge of the Hellenistic age, or the scholastics without a modicum of understanding of the growth of the Church from the fifth to the thirteenth centuries. I have therefore set forth briefly those parts of the main historical outlines that seemed to me to have had most influence on philosophical thought, and I have done this with most fullness where the history may be expected to be unfamiliar to some readers-for example, in regard to the early Middle Ages. But in these historical chapters I have rigidly excluded whatever seemed to have little or no bearing on contemporary or subsequent philosophy. The problem of selection, in such a book as the present, is very difficult. Without detail, a book becomes jejune and uninteresting; with detail, it is in danger of becoming intolerably lengthy. I have sought a compromise, by treating only those philosophers who seem to me to have considerable importance, and mentioning, in connection with them, such details as, even if not of fundamental importance, have value on account of some illustrative or vivifying quality. Philosophy, from the earliest times, has been not merely an affair of the schools, or of disputation between a handful of learned men. It has been an integral part of the life of the community, and as such I have tried to consider it. If there is any merit in this book, it is from this point of view that it is derived.» – Russell, “History of Western Philosophy”, foreword.

Later, in his autobiography, Russell described his “History of Western Philosophy” as a work of social history, asking that it be treated in such a manner.

In “Short History of Modern Philosophy “, Roger Scruton analyses it:

«Bertrand Russell’s “History of Western Philosophy” is amusing, but suffers from defects… First, it deals largely with ancient philosophy, and is curt and selective in its treatment of the post-Cartesian tradition. Secondly, it is dismissive towards all those philosophers with whom Russell felt no personal affinity. Thirdly, it shows no understanding of Kant and post-Kantian idealism.»

In spite of that, the statements of that book were taken too seriously by some followers and, nowadays, traces of such a russellian division remain truth or dogma for many philosophers…


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