January 31, 2023

A Defence of Philosophy: Reason and Imagination

In his essay, ‘A Defence of Poetry’, Shelley distinguishes reason from imagination in the following way: “Reason respects the differences, and imagination the similitudes of things. Reason is to imagination as the instrument to the agent, as the body to the spirit, as the shadow to the substance.” Although Shelley had poetry in mind when he wrote these lines, it struck me that they’re very illuminating as to the nature of philosophy: although it’s often thought to be all about reason and argument, philosophy has an imaginative side as well.

It’s often said that there’s a great divide between ‘analytic’ and ‘Continental’ styles of philosophising and there’s a growing scholarly literature on the questions surrounding the existence, origins, nature and extent of this divide. When I read those lines of Shelley’s my first thought was that reason and imagination, as he describes them, pair off, respectively, with ‘analytic’ and ‘Continental’ styles of philosophising. The ‘analytic’ tradition is, as the name suggests, about analysis. It’s about breaking ideas up into their component parts, discriminating between them and drawing ever more finely-grained distinctions. An ‘analytic’ philosopher might compare the concepts of knowledge and certainty, thinking about whether and how they’re different, whether one concept involves a commitment to something that the other does not. She would ask whether there’s anything implied by a state of certainty, over and above a psychological characteristic, that might make it substantially different from a state of knowledge. The ‘Continental’ philosopher, on the other hand (as I continued to reflect) loves imaginatively discovering new continuities between ideas, highlighting ways in which they resemble one another. His method is synthetic, rather than analytic, focusing not so much on formal, discursive argument as narrative, mythology, metaphor and symbol. Many of Heidegger’s insights contentiously derive some of their weight from etymological connexions between words: the affinity between ‘Denken (thinking)’ and ‘Danken (thanking), for example. That  is why the ‘Continental’ philosopher is often accused by the analyst of being not a philosopher but a ‘mere poet’: because he has the audacity to use his imagination! In Shelley’s terms  ‘Continental’ philosophy has to do with imagination or ‘substance’, while its ‘analytic’ counterpart has to do with reason, the imagination’s mere ‘shadow’.

Since I started with Shelley, and given the direction of my thoughts, the reader may think it obvious where my own sympathies lie. But my reflections were interrupted by the memory that, rather than wanting to take sides, I actually find the ‘analytic’ / ‘Contintental’ division crude and unhelpful, which is why I put the terms in scare quotes when I write them down. I find the division crude because, absurdly, it implicitly compares the stylistic characteristics of one philosophical tradition with the geographical origin and location of another. To make matters worse, there are notable philosophers who were (and some who still are) living counterexamples. Wittgenstein’s early work shares many of the characteristics of ‘analytic’ philosophy but he was born and brought up on the Continent and his later work, some of which was conceived while he lived in England, has more in common with most ‘Continental’ philosophers than it does with most ‘analytic’ ones. Philosophers of both ilks claim Wittgenstein for their own. To take a more recent example, my own former teacher, David E. Cooper, began his career as a dyed-in-the wool ‘analytic’ philosopher. But, as he recounts in an autobiographical essay, he had an epiphany during which he realised that the obscure topics that he spent his days considering had very little connexion to the rest of his life and what he thought really mattered. He found initial solace in The Portable Nietzsche, Nietzsche having been dismissed by his own teachers as ‘merely’ a good psychologist. But that does not mean, he insists, that he became a ‘Continental’ philosopher. Rather, he claims to find inspiration in both ways of thinking, all the while making sure that the results of his cogitations, reasonable and imaginative, are or relevance to real life.

So much for its crudity. But the ‘analytic’ / ‘Continental’ division is unhelpful because it feeds into a partisan attitude that one often finds expressed by members of each camp. There’s an element of in-group out-group thinking by which, I’m convinced, a social psychologist would be fascinated. If the division is crude to the point that it can’t accommodate as important and influential a philosopher as Wittgenstein, there must be less inaccurate ways of categorising philosophers, if we must categorise them at all. But the continued use of the terms ‘analytic’ and ‘Continental’ will only reinforce this partisan attitude by giving the false impression that these terms are justified because each of them corresponds to something in reality. Wittgenstein and Cooper testify, by their lives and by their writing, that reality begs to be more complex.

I’ve been arguing against a prevalent division in philosophy towards a more synthetic vision in which rational and imaginative styles would be integrated. In an ideal world, I think, we wouldn’t replace the division with another, perhaps more finely-grained one, but would abandon it altogether. Philosophy is a diverse discipline with a history of thousands of years: of course distinctions of this kind are going to be crude and unhelpful. Good philosophy uses both reason and the imagination: she shouldn’t be asked to choose, gun to her head, between these equally valuable resources. But isn’t my argument just the reverse of one in a more analytic vein? It’s precisely because of the diversity of philosophy, we can imagine my opponent arguing, that we need to distinguish between its different types. For what could be worse than misconstruing some philosopher’s aims and methods and unfairly attacking her on the wrong grounds? Even if we don’t stick with the terms of the existing dichotomy, my opponent will conclude, we need some dichotomies at least to help us orientate ourselves.

There’s no easy way of settling this debate but it is worth noting that the ‘analytic’ / ‘Continental’ dichotomy in terms of which philosophy is very often described is, like all such dichotomies, a product of the rational, analytical thinking which predominates in ‘analytic’ philosophy. Conversely, of course, you could explain my suggestion to completely dissolve the distinction in terms of my sympathies with the ‘Continental’ style, in which imaginative synthesis is the order of the day. For the time being then, philosophy is being described in the terms dictated by the analyst. Should those who, like me, disagree with the accuracy and usefulness of these terms demand that they be thrown out? Would such a demand be taken seriously?

I suggest not. I suggest that perhaps those who think, as I do, that good philosophy cannot be driven either by reason alone or the imagination alone, analysis alone or synthesis alone, but by both, should continue to use the dominant terms, as I have been doing here. But perhaps they should use them with a certain irony, perhaps insisting on putting them in quotation marks. It seems to me that such ironising (a typical ‘Continental’ philosophical practice, by the way) might draw attention to the fact that these terms, in which the whole of philosophy is often described, are the product of just one of the two styles into which the terms themselves divide it. They’re simply the product of the philosophical style which happens, presently, to be in fashion. And perhaps this fact would in turn draw attention to the dichotomy’s limitations. It may be useful to distinguish, as Shelley does, between shadow and substance. But we must not forget that the distinction is only useful because there’s substance behind every shadow.

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