Essay: The philosopher's dilemma: Oh yes we can, oh no we Kant

Why do the ancient Greeks always top the philosophy hit parade? Because they got there first.
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A poll published this week once again portrays a euro-sceptic Britain aligning itself with America against malign influences across the channel. The difference this time is that the great divide is not political, but philosophical. It is not Brussels and eurocrats which are the target of Anglo-Saxon wrath, but writers and intellectuals such as Derrida, Marx and Nietzsche.

The evidence of this continental divide comes from a poll we conducted at the Philosophers' Magazine, which asked academics, students and enthusiasts of the subject whom they thought had made the greatest contribution to philosophy, and whose contributions had been most overrated (with Marx, astonishingly, coming second). As the magazine is an English-language publication you might well expect to get an Anglo-Saxon bias in the results, but you wouldn't automatically expect such a hostile reaction to the modern European thinkers such as Derrida, Marx and Nietzsche who came first, second and third respectively in the overrated category.

Clearly, it wasn't merely because they were foreign; rather, it was because they are modern. In the poll to find the most admired philosophers, modern Anglo-Saxon thinkers also made a very poor showing (Hume was our best performer, in sixth place). The top spots went to Aristotle and Plato, both dead over two millennia ago, while third place went to Kant, from the 18th century.

Put the two results together and a not-particularly flattering portrait of contemporary Anglo-Saxon philosophical priorities emerges. Is ours really a discipline obsessed with past masters and hostile to thinkers who speak in strange ways? Can philosophy really be so parochial and traditionalist? The truth is a little more complex. To understand the divide between Anglo-Saxon and continental philosophy you have to look beyond the recent European-Community-inspired squabbles and go right back to Immanuel Kant.

Kant proposed a grandiosely titled "Copernican revolution in metaphysics". Just as Copernicus had turned the old view of the world being at the centre of the universe on its head, so Kant hoped to achieve an equally stunning transformation in philosophy. Kant argued that the distinction between the world and our knowledge of it which had underpinned philosophy for centuries was untenable. The very way in which we perceive and experience the world fashions the way the world is. If there is a world independent of our experience of it, it is unknowable and hidden. So philosophers can only concern themselves with the world as it appears. The fundamental distinction between appearance and reality is thus undermined.

The difference in the response to Kant in the English-speaking world vis-a-vis continental Europe lies at the root of the divisions in the subject today. In Europe, the lesson drawn from Kant was that the starting point of philosophy had to be perceptual experience. In time, this fostered an introspective style which in turn encouraged a more literary approach to philosophy. In Anglo-Saxon circles, however, the reaction was quite different. They proceeded almost as if Kant had never happened. Even the philosophers who took on board the lessons of Kant strove to maintain their generally analytic and detached approach. It should be said, in their favour, that there is no philosopher more analytic than Kant, so the wholesale rejection of analytic method by Kant's continental admirers was an exaggerated misreading. But there is no doubt that many in the Anglo-Saxon world simply did not - and do not - buy into Kant's arguments, and so do not see the need for a radically different approach to philosophy.

Two hundred years on from this first split, two quite different beasts have evolved. Anglo-Saxon philosophy is more rigorous and analytic than ever, while some strands of continental philosophy read more like exercises in metaphor and poetry. The result is that very few philosophers from either tradition really understand those from the other. Even when a continental philosopher such as Kierkegaard is studied in Britain, he is often refashioned into our own image, his poetry played down and the logic of his arguments carefully reconstructed. But instead of celebrating the difference, Anglo-Saxon philosophers react with hostility to their continental cousins.

"This just isn't philosophy" they complain, and in a sense, they're right. It's not philosophy as we know it. But that doesn't mean it's not philosophy at all. The poll findings show the old divisions persist, even though there are signs of a rapprochement, in academia at least.

Part of the problem is that continental writers such as Derrida are extremely hard to understand. Critics complain that the incomprehensibility is precisely because it is a logical mess of paradoxes and contradictions. Advocates simply say critics don't understand. In the increasingly specialised world of academia, both camps can hold their ground, knowing that they alone are the guardians of their respective intellectual standards. Very few are schooled enough in both traditions to judge who is right. What everyone seems to agree on, however, is that we are dealing with two, not one, subjects.

The bad showing of continental philosophers is thus quite predictable. But what explains the plaudits for the ancients? You have to remember that the question asked in the poll was who made the greatest contribution to philosophy. Aristotle is the obvious choice because he virtually founded the subject. He wrote on what we would now call aesthetics, ethics, political philosophy, epistemology (the theory of knowledge), biology, physics, metaphysics - the list could go on. What is more, his texts were the basis of the study of philosophy for centuries afterwards.

This is certainly impressive, but it was the very youth of philosophy which made an Aristotle or a Plato possible. No-one could do the same today because - believe it or not - philosophy really has progressed. Under the banner of philosophy are a host of specialised sub-disciplines, and anyone hoping to make a contribution to any one of them has to dedicate themselves to a mere handful. Take one of the most influential works of the 20th century, Quine's Two Dogmas of Empiricism. The title says it all. This is not a grand new theory but an attempt to question two - just two - basic principles in the empirical tradition of philosophy. In fact, one thing which makes the paper so impressive is that it deals with two dogmas, not just one.

So it is not surprising that the Ancients are credited with making the greatest contributions - they invented the subject. With two thousand years of work behind them, contemporary philosophers find that if they have an idea, more often than not, someone, somewhere has had it before. The scope for a truly great individual contribution is therefore rather limited.

Modern Anglo-Saxon philosophy is thus not so much xenophobic and traditionalist as a highly specialised discipline which looks to its founding fathers with thanks and respect, but which has advanced so far that their broad sweep is no longer possible. Nevertheless, critics may detect a certain irony in the fact that, given philosophy is supposed to be concerned with universal truths, there is any regional or national division at all.

It's all very well praising the rigour of Anglo-Saxon philosophy, but isn't the whole idea of a local philosophy absurd? Philosophers ask, "What is truth?" not "What is British truth?" This is where defenders of Anglo- Saxon philosophy have a hard time. Either they have to say that philosophy is universal, it's just that only Anglo-Saxon philosophy is really objective enough to be universal, or they have to accept that philosophy means different things to different cultures, which seems to let in a creeping relativism. The choice is between arrogance and giving up the main raison d'etre of the discipline. The irony is compounded by the fact that the debate over the Anglo-Saxon-continental divide ignores whole continents with different philosophical traditions, such as Africa, India and Asia. At this year's World Congress of Philosophy in Boston, there was much talk of a new internationalism in philosophy. Meanwhile, in Western Europe and North America, where there is a certain amount of cultural homogeneity, old divisions die hard. What hope is there for world philosophy when philosophers in Paris and London can't even understand each other?

Dr Julian Baggini is the editor of the 'Philosophers' Magazine'