Bias in Higher Education

By Mana Shimamura

“It’s really like gang warfare, and the analytical people are winning since the 50s,” says Eric Gerlach.

From his tone, you would think he was talking about some ongoing violence that citizens have conveniently overlooked.

But Gerlach, a professor at Berkeley City College, is referring to academia, and more specifically, American philosophy departments giving preference to analytic philosophy over continental philosophy.

Generally speaking, Western philosophy is separated into two groups, analytic and continental, and they differ in their methodologies and the type of questions they deal with.

Analytic philosophers are reminiscent of the pre-Grimes Elon Musk: rational, pragmatic and focused on finding answers in a clear and concise manner. They treat philosophical questions almost like a math problem and behave like scientists by showing the step-by-step in their logic. The questions they deal with, even if they’re relevant to people, tend to be removed from the human experience, and they believe the answers can be found through reasoning alone (e.g. are there correct answers to moral questions?).

Continental philosophers, on the other hand, echo Kafka: emotional, artistic and more concerned with exploring many possibilities, rather than arriving at a concrete answer. They face philosophical questions as a spiritual investigation. For them, philosophy is very much infused in the human experience, so they lean toward questions that deal more with the meaning of life or social issues. (eg., What are the functions of morality within a society?)

In the philosophy department at UC Berkeley, there are only two undergraduate classes out of 17 dedicated to continental philosophy. Furthermore, only three out of 15 faculty members who teach in the undergraduate department this semester have backgrounds that are not strictly analytic philosophy.

Given the progressive nature of the Bay Area and the avant-garde nature of continental thought, Gerlach was surprised there were not more classes that taught French or German continental philosophy when he first studied the subject at Cal during his undergraduate days.

Gerlach, whose interest resides in continental and Asian philosophy, thinks one possibility for this is the anti-Marxist sentiments that permeate the American landscape, stemming from the McCarthy era. Continental thinkers such as Hegel, Sartre or Foucault have been associated with or advocates of communism and socialism.

Given the history the U.S. has with that branch of politics, it’s feasible the antipathy from previous generations is still ingrained in our culture, which then manifests as favoritism at higher institutions.

Each semester, Gerlach has to submit his class syllabus to a committee for review by fellow professors in the state, which is not an uncommon practice. While this is usually a simple process, on more than one occasion, he has been told that certain thinkers he covers for his Greek and Modern European Philosophy classes are “irrelevant.”

Interestingly enough, most, if not all, of those historical figures that they ask him to exclude display characteristics of continental philosophy.

Ari Krupnick, another professor at BCC who is more acquainted with analytic philosophy, speculates the reason why there are more people in his field is because it answers similar questions and approaches matters that follow the philosophical traditions.

While Plato’s works were written in dialogue, his attempt to plainly state his position is similar to analytic methodology whereas continental thinkers have a tendency to use ambiguous language, making their objectives unclear.

However, other academics have noted that continental philosophy actually did not deviate from their predecessors. Although the inexplicable concentration of analytic philosophy for generations in higher institutions, gives the impression that it did. The approaches and questions idiosyncratic to continental philosophy have existed for centuries and can be seen in Greek philosophers such as Heraclitus.

Despite the lack of courses offered for continental philosophy, Krupnick stressed that while it did not align with his interests, it does not mean that continental philosophy is not valuable.

It’s not that these courses are unavailable on campus, they are just placed in other departments such as Anthropology or English. In the Fall 2019 curriculum, there is a course called “Literature and Philosophy” in the English department at Cal. Even though more than half of the readings are going to be philosophers and the class is going to deal with a quintessential philosophical question, “What is the self?” it’s not taught in the philosophy department.

This creates a lack of accessibility that might cause potential students to be unaware that a whole separate philosophical framework exists, and it would also suggests that continental thought is somehow not “real” philosophy because it is not given the recognition afforded to analytic thought.

This is not to advocate one approach over the other but that they each impart a different set of skills and open students up to more perspectives.

Continental philosophy can help students understand themselves within the world they live in while analytical philosophy can help them to systematize and articulate those thoughts to others.

Emphasizing one category is like teaching kids only the sun exists and forgetting about the moon.

Not only that, when you dive deeper, each group has different opinions on certain fundamental premises for understanding human thought. They are equally important, and without both, it creates a false narrative.

The friction felt in the philosophical community can be due to “some analytic philosophers being too picky about certain things and not doing a good enough job trying to understand what the other person meant,” says Krupnick. “You should give someone the benefit of the doubt. I think if you’re trained well in analytic philosophy that is what you will be told to do and your job is to provide the most charitable interpretation possible.”

While colleges might not be the best at facilitating the integration of both branches, those who are interested in philosophy should take classes with Krupnick and Gerlach to get a comprehensive view of what the subject has to offer.


At the top: Various philosophy books next to a bust of communist leader Mao Zedong. Photo Credit: Mana Shimamura

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