People concerned with the big questions of philosophy, or with cross-cultural philosophy, often reach a quick disillusionment with analytic philosophy – the standard approach of academic philosophy departments. The name is apt, as the approach is typically more concerned with analysis than synthesis; the characteristic method is to divide our fuzzy, vague everyday concepts into ever more precise and specific concepts, referring more and more exactly to smaller and smaller things. Analytic philosophers have typically seen the history of philosophy (Western or otherwise) as interesting but not important. The analytic philosopher W.V.O. Quine once quipped that there are two kinds of philosophers: those who do philosophy, and those who do the history of philosophy.

There is value in the analytic approach, best seen when compared to its main opponent, the French “continental” tradition (especially postmodernism). A “continental” philosophy department typically pays much more attention to the great questions, to the history of philosophy, and even to non-Western traditions. (Full disclosure: continental philosophy departments have generally shown considerably more interest in hiring me than analytic ones have.)

What you will find far less of in “continental” philosophy, however, is any discussion of truth. Continental philosophers’ writings tend to work in an exegetical mode: Heidegger said this, Lévinas said that, Foucault said the other thing. But was Heidegger or Foucault right? Much Continental work seems to shy away from such questions, sometimes acting merely as a mouthpiece for the philosopher being explained. Often the reasoning given, based on thinkers like Jacques Derrida, is that truth doesn’t exist in the first place; all that’s left is text and more text. But such an approach makes one see why Quine made his quip.

My own quip: analytic philosophy is truth without significance, continental philosophy is significance without truth. I would like to look for both.