Brian Leiter’s New Philosophical Categories

Brian Leiter

A really good interview with Nietzsche scholar and opinionator Brian Leiter appears in 3:AM Magazine, where he drops pithy quotes on Obama, Nietzsche, Marx, and Foucault.

But he also appears to have a new argument to sell. Leiter advocates a new way to divide the philosophical canon, not into "contintentals" or "analytics," but rather into "naturalists" and "anti-naturalists". You can also listen to Leiter's argument on the latest Philosophy Bites episode, where Nigel Warburton thankfully pushed back a bit.

It seems to me that Leiter focuses too much on outlier examples to deny the boundaries of the "continental" and "analytic" camps. Sure, perhaps Marx wouldn't have thought much of Derrida (though who can say, and what kind of an argument is that, really?). But that doesn't mean they weren't both united as students of Hegel, and therefore assignable to a certain intellectual camp. I mean, Heidegger didn't think much of Sartre, either, but that doesn't mean they weren't more similar than different when compared to Frege and Russell. Not all Republicans agree on all points with their fellow Republicans, but they can still sense when a Democrat has entered the room; there's a reason these camps evolved in the first place.

And perhaps the discourse of analytic philosophers can also be criticized as impenetrable, just as so-called "continental" philosophers are accused of using obscurantist language. But that's not the same phenomenon at work. As Warburton pointed out, logical language and technical jargon is often required to maintain an argument within the analytic tradition. And such language is certainly clear within that group, in the same way that mathematicians converse in a clear and readily understandable language amongst themselves. Anyway, Leiter's description of the language of analytic philosophy is only apt when describing analytic philosophy journals, where these professionals are only talking to each other, and not to the public at large. So of course professional jargon would predominate; a lay audience reading a medical journal would also become overwhelmed by the medical jargon. But that doesn't prove that the language of analytical philosophers isn't more rigorous than, say, Lacan or Deleuze.

I agree with Leiter that these kinds of Venn diagrams have limited utility. But for Leiter to suggest that the traditional distinctions have naught but "sociological value", whereas only his championed categories have genuine explanatory value, strikes me as unpersuasive. I'm sure Leiter's naturalist/anti-naturalist categories have explanatory value, yes, but only in that they organize these thinkers according to criteria which Leiter himself deems important. If you look at any set of cars in a parking lot, you can organize them by color, engine size, chassis, country of manufacture, etc. Any particular categorization might be useful, depending upon what you were trying to accomplish with your grouping. His proposed criteria may catch on, or they may not, but that he must take the time to even argue for them bodes ill for their future adoption, and indeed their utility. I think the real "sociological" insight of these categories is not why people go with "continental/analytic" for their distinctions, but why any such divisions, including Leiter's, are made at all. The history seems clear that the "analytic/continental" divide was first created (if not explicitly named) by the post-Russell logical positivists, who wanted to separate those they would take seriously from those they wouldn't. In that sense, it served, and to a similar degree still serves, a useful function.

Finally, adopting new philosophical definitions using the word root "natural-" seems to me unhelpful, as earlier definitions already appear to have been claimed for terms like "naturalism" or "naturalists," even as alternatives to "analytic"/"continental". Exercising "eminent domain" over the existing nomenclature will lead to more confusion, not less.

Unlearned and unearned quibbles aside, Leiter's forceful approach makes him a great interview, so check it out:

There are real dividing lines in the history of philosophy, but the one between the “analytic” and the “Continental” isn’t one of them, though it’s interesting today from a sociological point of view, since it allows graduate programs in philosophy to define spheres of permissible ignorance for their students. A real dividing line, by contrast, one that matters for substantive philosophical questions, is between “naturalists” and “anti-naturalists.” The naturalists, very roughly, are those who think human beings are just certain kinds of animals, that one understands these animals through the same empirical methods one uses to understand other animals, and that philosophy has no proprietary methods for figuring out what there is, what we know, and, in particular, what humans are like. The anti-naturalists, by contrast, are (again, roughly) those who think human beings are different not just in degree but in kind from the other animals, and that this difference demands certain proprietary philosophical methods - perhaps a priori knowledge or philosophical ways of exploring the distinctively “normative” realm in which humans live.

So on the naturalist side you get, more or less, David HumeLudwig Feuerbach, Karl Marx, Ludwig Büchner, Friedrich Nietzsche, Rudolf CarnapW.V.O. QuineJerry FodorStephen Stich, and Alex Rosenberg and on the anti-naturalist side you get, more or less, Gottfried LeibnizImmanuel KantG.W.F. HegelEdmund HusserlGottlob Frege, Jean-Paul Sartre, G.E.M. AnscombeWilfrid Sellars (at least for part of his career), the older Hilary PutnamAlvin Plantinga, and John McDowell, among many others. This disagreement - a disagreement, very roughly, about the relationship of philosophy to the sciences - isn’t one that tracks the alleged analytic/Continental distinction. Indeed, the founders of the 20th-century traditions of “analytic” and “Continental” philosophy (Frege and Husserl, respectively) are both on the anti-naturalist side, and both are reacting against hardcore naturalist positions in philosophy that had become dominant on the European Continent in the late 19th-century. And the first explosion of what anti-naturalists would derisively call “scientism” came in Germany in the 1840s and 1850s, as a reaction to Hegel’s obscurantist idealism. Naturalism and anti-naturalism mark a profound dividing line in modern philosophy, but it has nothing to do with “analytic” vs. “Continental’ philosophy....

-Daniel Horne


  1. Geoff says

    Thanks Daniel

    I haven’t checked out the links yet so I will just go with my “yuck” faculty for the moment.

    “Leiter advocates a new way to divide the philosophical canon”

    I admit I am a l novice and have only two formal Philosophy units on my transcript but…

    This sort of thing puzzles me. It is almost as if Philosophers are admitting that the field is now merely one of historical interest. That doing Philosophy is simply a descriptive exercise – not describing the world and experience, but describing other Philosophers.

    If Leiter is concerned that the current distinction simply “allows graduate programs in philosophy to define spheres of permissible ignorance for their students.” What purpose then is a new distinction? Won’t it just have the same function?

    Anyway: Might I suggest a few of my own categories?


    Thank you.

    Right and Wrong: This would seem the most desirable distinction but the empty set on the left is of some concern.

    Dumb and Dumber: I am sure most would admit that there are moments when we have yelled at a text: “That’s just stupid!” And the same ‘most’ would probably have had moments where the are rendered mute by something even more stupid.

    Me Like and Me Not-like: Which seems to cover many non-specialists like myself. You find a philosophy that works for you, say the new school of Schizophrenic Behaviourism, and run with it. Ain’t no Philosophy quite like Self-Serve(ing) Philosophy.

    Enjoyable Ranters and Tiresome Cranks: This is probably not as useful (read: not at all) but my favourite bits are when Philosophers start ripping on other Philosophers. I sometimes think that is the only reason I keep reading.

  2. JKE says

    Having read this entry and listened to the audio interview (but not read the text interview yet), I have to admit that I’m sympathetic to Leiter’s argument. It would probably be going too far to say that there’s no analytic/continental divide at all (and Leiter does admit that there’s certainly a sociological one), but it seems like a reasonable question to ask if it’s a philosophically interesting one. Now, questions of style aside–I’ve had my own moments of frustration trying to read some continental authors–I can’t help but think that there is something parochial about the battle lines as they’re currently drawn (you could maybe make the case that the analytic/continental divide runs along the realist/relativist schism, but then Quine was basically a relativist at points, and Husserl was anything but). I have to agree that the debate between naturalists and non-naturalists is more interesting that the gap between the English and the French, and different in that the two sides probably have to engage one another. Moreover, it strikes me as more perennial. In fact, reading this entry immediately reminded me of Plato’s battle between gods and giants:

    “STRANGER: What we shall see is something like a Battle of Gods and Giants going on between them over their quarrel about reality.

    THEAETETUS: How so?

    STRANGER: One party is trying to drag everything down to earth out of heaven and the unseen, literally grasping rocks and trees in their hands; for they lay hold upon ever stock and stone and strenuously affirm that real existence belong only to that which can be handled and offer resistance to the touch. They define reality as the same thing as body, and as soon as one of the opposite party assets that anything without a body is real they are utterly contemptuous and will not listen to another word.

    THEAETETUS: The people you describe are certainly a formidable crew. I have met quite a number of them before now.

    STRANGER: Yes, and accordingly their adversaries are very wary in defending their position somewhere in the heights of the unseen, maintaining with all their force that true reality consists in certain intelligible and bodiless Forms. In the clash of argument they shatter and pulverize those bodies which their opponents wield, and what those other allege to be true reality they call, not real being, but a sort of moving process of becoming. On this issue an interminable battle is always going on between the two camps.”
    (Sophist, 246a-c)

    • Daniel Horne says

      Hi JKE,

      All good points, and I like your Plato quote. You’ve hit on the crux of (what I believe to be) the issue, when you state that “the debate between naturalists and non-naturalists is more interesting….”

      Yes, it’s more interesting to you (and no less valid for that), and therefore you’re well within rights to re-divide the canon (and even re-define who belongs within the canon, as Leiter has done) as you deem fit. But that doesn’t make it an objectively better dividing line for “substantive philosophical questions,” because what constitutes a substantive philosophical question inherently requires a subjective judgment.

      In other words, my point isn’t that Leiter’s paradigm is any less valid, but rather that it’s no more valid. The utility of either grouping method depends upon what you’re trying to accomplish with it. For Leiter to argue that his paradigm alone addresses substantive philosophical questions, while the other doesn’t, would require a more detailed and persuasive argument.

      Much of what separates the “analytic tradition” from the “continental tradition” is indeed that they attempt to address different philosophical questions, and they indubitably adopt a different method. Sure, there can be outliers, but it’s not like you couldn’t find outliers within Leiter’s paradigm as well.

  3. Ethan Gach says

    I don’t know Dan. There does seem to be something of interest in restructuring philosophy around a different dichotamy.

    And perhaps it’s not really even a strictly new one, but just more deeply rooted. The naturalist/anti-naturalist split that Leiter posits seems to be aimed at differentiating philopshers based on what is grounding their methodology, rather than just the methodology itself.

    At the very least, the I think his following quip is reason enough to do away with the strict separation, even if we don’t replace it with another one:

    “since it allows graduate programs in philosophy to define spheres of permissible ignorance for their students.”

    • Daniel Horne says

      Sure, and I have no problem with dividing and re-dividing the canon along different lines. But they all involve a certain degree of arbitrary line-drawing. Leiter’s proposed alternative is only one of several potentially useful approaches. But for Leiter to suggest that he has now corrected a fundamental failing in the traditional approach is to also suggest that the entire world of academic philosophers have just been “doing it wrong” for almost a century. That’s a pretty bold claim to make, and I think his criticisms of the traditional approach aren’t particularly compelling.

      What unites both Leiter’s and the “traditionally” proposed divisions is that they present only binary divisions. Yet a choice between two camps is like being stuck with Democrats and Republicans. Many if not most of us are left feeling somewhat dissatisfied. I wonder if more explanatory value might not come from a division of the canon into three camps, or four, etc. Or, as you suggest, we could do away with camps altogether.

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