Philosophical fact-checking

So my mom mentioned to me that she heard somewhere that the new Neal Stephenson book, Anathem, is about the divide between Continental and analytic philosophy. My interest was piqued, despite a bad experience with Stephenson's Cryptonomicon (pages and pages of technology description and geek self-congratulation - bleah).

I read several book reviews, trying to get a feel for it. I couldn't really find much in the plot that resembled the divide between analytic and Continental philosophy. It seemed like the main philosophical debate in the book, so far as I could gather from reviews, was about Platonism in philosophy of math and intuitionism. Yet several reviews mentioned that the book depicted the debate between analytic and Continental philosophy.

Then one review said this:
On his acknowledgments page, Stephenson describes "Anathem" as "a fictional framework for exploring ideas that have sprung from the minds of great thinkers of Earth's past and present." At the heart of this exploration is a conflict between two major strands of Western thought that, in recent years, correspond to analytic and continental philosophy. Is philosophy primarily a matter of language and the working out of a consistent structure of reasoning about data that we experience directly, with our senses? Or are there fundamental truths accessible only through philosophy and the highest modes of thought?

Is the number 2, in other words, no more than a conceptual tool, a product of the human mind? Or is the 2 we know merely the shadow of an ideal reality that we perceive through a glass, and darkly? To judge by "Anathem," Stephenson comes down on the side of the latter, which makes him something of a Platonist, a believer in a transcendent reality, and an adherent to a position intellectually out of fashion in the humanities departments of most Western universities.

Do people not fact check statements about philosophy? Can people just write whatever twaddle they want in reviews?

For the record: analytic philosophy is strongly concerned with language. Yes. But it has not been solely about language and empirical data for the past, oh, I don't know, 50 years? There are plenty of analytic philosophers who are Platonists about math, or who believe that there exist fundamental truths that are not empirically verifiable or falsifiable. Analytic philosophy is about method, not subject matter. Analytic philosophers are more incined to adhere to rules of logic, and see themselves as problem-solvers, a la scientists, as opposed to grand theorists. See the best summation here.

Her last statement makes no sense. As my specialty is not philosophy of math, I have no idea whether Platonism or intuitionism is more in fashion. Since the topic is still debated, I doubt either one is totally out of fashion. So I guess she means that Stephenson is sympathetic to Continental philosophy as opposed to analytic. However, as I said, analytic philosophy is compatible with "transcendant reality." Actually, I would seriously doubt Stephenson is sympathetic to Continental philosophy, given his science-love and techno-fixation.

Also, most universities don't simply have "humanities" departments. In fact, while analytic philosophy is indeed dominant in philosophy departments (although there is a strong and vocal Continental minority), much of the rest of the humanities (English, film studies, cultural studies, etc) adheres to Continental. So if you look at the humanities as a whole, Continental is in fashion.

Anyhow. This is the LA Times. Big newspaper. Start fact-checking!


  1. When I finally finish "Ulysses," (heaven hasten the day), and then whatever bit of accessible and enjoyable fiction I read next as my reward, I may tackle "Anathem," which sits on my bookshelf alongside many other weighty tomes. If I perceive a "Continental vs. analytical" aspect, I'll let you know.

  2. for what's worth, here is my anathem review (and bonus cryptonomicon rant). to summarize: I found his crazy philosophical/science fictiony device to be more convincing as a neat setting for a story than as reasonable philosophy or science fiction. it falls apart if you look too closely. that said, and my other stephenson pet peeves aside, I mostly like his storytelling.

  3. Optic, I agree with your Cryptonomicon review totally (except it seemed to leavbe a worse tate in my mouth than yours). Thanks for the link!

  4. I'm not a fan of Cryptonomicon and don't really like Stephenson's pseudo-philosophical crap, but some of the sentences in Snow Crash are genuinely delightful. That's about the level at which I enjoy his machinations. That said, even Vonnegut rubs me the wrong way lately.
    *sigh* Continental philosophy. There are so many ways for lit types to bastardize your theories to our purposes. That's why we cleave unto you.