Philosophies, Past and Phuture: A Pheature Story

I heard a story recently. Maybe it was a joke. A philosophy joke. [Are those a thing? A man walks into a cave … ]

“Asking what ‘kind’ or ‘brand’ of philosophy is taught at Yale is like asking the Coca-Cola Company a question about making Coke. They would say, ‘We don’t make Coke. We make money.’”

Somewhere along the way, the study of philosophy at Yale broadened its scope to include much more than the canonical questions, and began training professional thinkers.

I’ll start at the beginning.


Professor Michael Della Rocca, former chairman of the Philosophy Department, refers without irony to the “dark days” of the department at Yale, from the 1970s through the 1990s. During this era, a poisonous atmosphere infiltrated Connecticut Hall, the result of “a lethal combination of personal and philosophical differences,” he explains, delivering the bleak lines with his signature good-natured humor. With equal sunniness, he assures me, “That’s all behind us now.”

Part of the catalyst for the conflict was “a perceived split between analytic and continental philosophy,” which ended in the flight of most continental thinkers to other universities, Della Rocca continues. This is as dramatic as philosophy gets — shifting college loyalties. This is also the part where you stop reading because the terms “analytic” and “continental” mean nothing to you, and “philosophy” generally conjures an image of jargon-speaking, ivory-tower-dwelling navel-gazers. [“Mixed metaphors!” the English major protests. The philosophy major absentmindedly takes note, moves on.]

The more emotional of the two styles, continental philosophy includes French and German idealism, existentialism and phenomenology. It looks to the human experience for its foundation.

Analytic philosophy, the mainstream, dominant style of philosophy in America today, is concerned with philosophy of language, logical clarification of thoughts, and rational argumentation. This style also encompasses metaphysics, semantics and epistemology.

Professor Sun-Joo Shin, the interim Director of Undergraduate Studies of Philosophy, calls analytic thought a kind of “meta-layer of philosophy, a step removed from the questions continental philosophy seeks to answer.” [Those would be little, unimportant questions, like “What is the right way to live?” and “What’s it all for?”]

Says Shin, “Analytic philosophers — we’re not talking about the world. We’re talking about the talk about the world.”


In the eyes of Professor Karsten Harries, which go slightly cloudy as he speaks to me across a table in his top-floor Connecticut Hall office, analytic philosophy sometimes concerns itself with dry, “silly questions” and loses itself in technical language.

An institution in the field of continental philosophy, Harries is the only other professor in the department besides Della Rocca who remembers the dark days firsthand. He claims the storied troubles arose primarily from clashing outsize personalities, rather than irreconcilable philosophies.

Today, continental philosophy is undeniably much better represented at Yale than it was directly after the rifts first came about. But Harries maintains that the department is “still weak” in the more emotional branch.

“The undergraduate demand is still inadequately met in this area,” he intones somberly. “Too much of philosophy today concerns narrowly circumscribed problems in a way that leaves serious presuppositions unquestioned.”


Under Della Rocca’s stewardship as chairman, the department rebuilt and rehabilitated itself over the past decade, hiring experts to fill in continental gaps and reaching out to other disciplines.

Says current chair Tamar Gendler, “Of the current faculty members, nine or ten have come in the last five years. Everyone who’s come is similar in the sense that they are well-grounded in a particular tradition, but really open-minded in the way they’re conversant about others.”

To wit: Joshua Knobe and Gendler have joint appointments in psychology and cognitive science; Verity Harte, Barbara Sattler and Suzanne Bobzien have affiliations with the Classics Department, while Harries sometimes serves on dissertation committees at the School of Architecture. Jonathan Gilmore is co-teaching a course with an evolutionary biologist this semester.

Apparently, “continental” and “analytic” are outdated labels, no longer the substance of disagreement or source of conflict among impassioned professors.

“The dichotomy of continental and analytic isn’t the ideal way to capture the diversity of strengths in the department,” says Gendler. Or the diversity of thought.

Next year, four new faces will debut in the department. Professor Paul Franks, who works at the intersection of continental and analytic philosophy, will begin teaching. Three post-doctoral fellows will also join the faculty, one of whom is teaching existentialism, another of whom is teaching Kantian ethics. The third will have a joint appointment with cognitive science.

Harries said he applauds the way the department has built bridges with other disciplines, such as the sciences, but he wishes it would reach out with equal strength to the Literature and Art History Departments — the more humanistic, “continental” sides of academia.


“Asking what ‘kind’ or ‘brand’ of philosophy is taught at Yale is like asking the Coca-Cola Company a question about making Coke. They would say, ‘We don’t make Coke. We make money.’”

Naturally, the Yale Philosophy Department isn’t concerned with making money — but it is concerned with much more than merely teaching undergraduates. Professors pursue their own interests in other fields, do their own research, publishing or perishing as the case may be, and lecture at conferences across oceans in various languages. When it comes down to it, the department does not have an agenda or seek to promote a particular style of philosophy among undergrads — analytic, continental, or what have you.

In an illuminating, decade-old essay, “Philosophy in Search of Itself,” Professor Harries writes, “Must we not distinguish between the philosophy teacher and the genuine philosopher?” [Because, in philosophy: Why make a declarative statement, when you could ask a rhetorical question?]

He goes on, “A Ph.D in philosophy [is] a kind of plumber’s license that allows us to ply our trade … all of us are in the business of philosophy,” and quotes Schopenhauer:

“How could philosophy degraded to become a means of earning one’s bread, generally fail to degenerate into sophistry? Just because this is bound to happen, and the rule ‘I sing the song of him whose bread I eat’ has held good at all times, the making of money by philosophy was among the ancients the characteristic of the sophist.”

I am by no means calling philosophy professors sophists. [That was Schopenhauer.] It is a boon and not a loss for the department that professors now get along with one another and teach side by side in harmony, rather than breathing down one another’s necks or leaving in a collective huff. Currently, students may pick and choose which philosophical attitudes suit their temperaments and pursue them as they see fit. The department also requires that all majors take courses in key areas of the field — metaphysics, ethics and history — to keep us well-rounded and well-trained plumbers, with the right tools in our boxes should we wish to ply the trade.

But I propose that something has been lost in overcoming the analytic and continental divide — by moving into the new millennium less concerned with ancient disagreements over the appropriate places of feeling or logic. Before I leave Harries’s office, he raises questions of humanity’s place in the age of technology and our societal responsibility to confront climate change. In addressing these issues, philosophy must engage with computer and environmental science, he said — modern subjects, still forming, still in need of ethical, contemplative oversight.

The fear, then, for this student at least, is that philosophy will come to be treated as any other subject — with dispassionate objectivity and detached dryness — rather than in the spirit in which it was originally conceived — as the search for truth. By bringing in so many other subjects and focuses, our concentration is constantly diverted from the most essential questions, the essence is diluted.

The stakes no longer seem so high; the debate has lost its urgency.

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