The insistence we often hear in recent years that there is no longer any divide between analytic and continental philosophers always sounds to me like a paradigm case of protesting-too-much. There is at the very least something the existence of which it makes sense to deny, call it what you will, even though we agree that the positive research program of analytic philosophy has been dead for at least 40 years, and that 'continental' philosophy is in fact overwhelmingly états-unienne.
Brian Leiter thinks that this something is really just a difference of quality, with 'analytic' standing in for 'high quality' and 'continental' for 'low'. [Note: The irony of writing sous rature at such a moment is not lost on me, but Brian has been in touch to express disagreement with my characterization of his view, so I would like to try again to give a more adequate account of it. What he does believe, I hope I can say, is that the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy, the principal organization committed to promoting what is generally called 'continental philosophy' in North America, is an organization committed to the promotion of bad philosophy (a relevant quotation from Brian: "There's an entire professional organization, SPEP, which champions bad work on and inspired by the Continental traditions in philosophy." However, Brian also holds to the view I mentioned in the first paragraph, that the distinction between the two schools is a meaningless one, and that much good work is done on Continental traditions in philosophy, just not, generally, by those working under the umbrella of SPEP. These views taken together do not seem all that different from the view I initially attributed to Brian: that the people who --rightly or wrongly-- organize themselves under the banner of 'Continental' philosophy tend to be doing bad philosophy, quite apart from any consideration of whether they ought to be organizing themselves in this way or claiming this label for themselves. Whatever they are called, Brian thinks they are doing bad philosophy. Moreover, most people call them 'continental' philosophers. Brian evidently thinks it's regrettable that this is how they are called, and on this we are in agreement.]
Now back to the scheduled programming. At times I've maintained that the distinction is entirely institutional and sociological, and that it is getting things backwards to focus on internal doctrinal differences as the cause of the rift. But on further reflection it now seems to me most just to return to Thomas Nagel's old characterization (and I do not recall precisely where this occurs) of the difference as resulting from the typical orientation of the pre-philosophical educations of analytic and continental philosophers-in-the-making, with analytic philosophers frequently coming from a background in the natural sciences (or at least from a background that inculcated appreciation of the natural sciences), and continental philosophers coming from a background in the more poetic or expressive corners of the humanities.
If this account is correct, it follows that the rift needs to be understood as a symptom of a much more general problem, that it is just one instance of the famous two-cultures problem, rather than an internal affair of philosophy departments alone. If the local rift is to be closed, then, perhaps this might best be brought about not by the definitive triumph of the science-oriented philosophers over the literature-oriented ones (which is to say of the good over the bad, or, which amounts the same, of the high-status over the low-status), but rather by a vastly more significant reconciliation of the natural and the human sciences, one that takes seriously the old conception of the humanities as sciences (or Wissenschaften in the broad sense), and thus that accepts that the humanities and the natural sciences are two different but often overlapping branches of the same general project.
The scientific character of the humanities is something, it seems to me, that remained clear until the middle of the 20th century, at which point numerous factors --from the math-and-physics elitism of scientifically oriented analytic philosophers to the suspicion of 'grand narratives' characteristic of poststructuralism and deconstruction-- began to hasten a split. As a lucid transdepartmental thinker such as Immanuel Wallerstein is able to recognize, this is a split that would not have made any sense not only to Aristotle, but even to Kant, as late as the end of the 18th century. In Wallerstein's view, the split is an artefact of the triumph of classical liberalism, which artificially divides the natural from the human, as well as subdividing the human into the political, the economic, and the socio-cultural. Given that the era of the dominance of liberal thought appears to be drawing to a close, Wallerstein thinks --and I very much concur--, perhaps it is time to hasten a new Streit der Facultäten that will issue in a new way of organizing the study of humanity and its place in nature.
I believe that in setting about this task, we would do well to pay close attention to the way the artificial split between the natural and the human impacts the organization of the various branches of the study of the past. This is not just because I myself am professionally interested in the past, but also because I believe that it is in large part a remnant of skeptical worries about the non-scientific character of the study of any non-repeatable past events or even of any uniformitarian processes, the same skepticism that led Popper to call evolutionary theory a 'metaphysical research programme', that has led to the bracketing as hopelessly non-scientific of the humanities in general, lean heavily on the past, as they do, to the extent that the study of human culture is inescapably the study of human tradition.
It has been a long time since Popper put forth such a hard line for philosophers of science, and discriminators of non-science, to toe. Since then (and even at that time, to be fair), much work has been done to secure for the study of past, non-repeatable events the status, more than honorary, of science. Mutatis mutandis, much of what has been argued in the case of evolutionary biology applies equally well to the study of deep human history: prehistoric migration patterns and so on. There is a rich consilience of inductions, as well as rigorous models tested both by computer and in real-world case studies, of how, say, the New World was first populated. Yet in matters pertaining to the development of aspects of culture we often find members of the academy taking up the very same position creationists take relative to evolution: dismissing it as 'just a theory' or, to use their slightly more elevated language, dismissing the attempts of people in centers of power to explain this or that aspect of an indigenous culture, even a culture that has been extinct for millennia, as just more of the 'hegemonic discourse'. This is the humanities effectively declining to be taken seriously, the humanities refusing to be the human sciences.
Foucault spoke metaphorically of an 'archaeology of knowledge', but it seems to me that what this misses is that archaeology already was itself the archaeology of knowledge, which consisted in the digging up, analyzing, and interpreting of fragments of material cultures past, some of which had writing on them (e.g., Greek columns) and some of which did not (e.g., Neanderthal burial mounds). Through sophisticated modelling and induction I do not see why from fragments of material culture one should not be able to construct hypotheses about the beliefs, the 'epistemologies', of people far removed in time. Writing makes this task a great deal easier, but even there it is often very hard, and much of what might controversially be described as proto-writing (Babylonian clay tablets, Mayan pictographs, etc.) stands at least as much in need of interpretation as, say, the layout of a village ruin.
No one has done a more thorough job of spelling out the scientific epistemology of archaeology than Alison Wylie (see in particular her Thinking from Things: Essays in the Philosophy of Archaeology, University of California Press, 2002). She reveals an endeavor that is thoroughly scientific, even if it does not conform to all the standards of paradigmatic scientificity set by physics and revered by early analytic philosophers. It studies something non-repeatable (so do evolutionary biology and big-bang cosmology), though it is nonetheless falsifiable in just the same way the other sciences of the past are (as a fossil rabbit from the Pre-Cambrian would have caused J. B. S. Haldane, so he said, to abandon his commitment to evolution), and also built upon countless domains of inquiry whose status as science are perfectly secure (e.g., the chemical analysis of soil).
In its indifference to the distinction between textuality and non-textuality --it digs things up and 'reads' them, whether they have letters written on them or not-- archaeology provides a model of the sort of approach to the human sciences that I believe could greatly help to overcome their estrangement from the natural sciences. Archaeology as traditionally conceived --before post-processualism came in and destroyed its scientific aspirations in exactly the same way that post-structuralism destroyed the aspirations of anthropology, and deconstruction the aspirations of textual studies-- cannot fail to see human culture as a particular kind of natural excrescence, one that eventually sinks back into the earth and intermingles again with the stuff of nature against which it set itself up in opposition for a short while. In this sense, unlike the academic discipline of history as currently conceived, archaeology cannot set up a buffer zone out of the non-textual human past ('prehistory') that preserves a distance between the proper domain of the humanists, on the one hand, and on the other hand the natural world studied by 'scientists'. If we abandon the prejudice that textual traces are a uniquely special sort of vestige of the human past, then palaeography may be conceived in turn as as a particular branch of archaeology: the kind that deals with inscriptions on paper and in similar media.
This sort of palaeography --the study, through weighing, comparing, analyzing, and interpreting of a certain kind of cultural trace, one that requires a special sort of expertise, even if it is not fundamentally different in character from the study of burial mounds or architectural ruins-- should, I think, be the basis of what we call broadly 'textual studies'. In this connection I applaud Franco Moretti, and I see at least glimmers of real reason for optimism in the more popular attempts at bringing natural science to bear on the study of art and literature (e.g., Denis Dutton), as well as in some of the current enthusiasm about a digital revolution in the humanities. Literature should be anchored in quantitative analysis and in palaeography, which should in turn be seen as a branch of archaeology, which should, finally, be seen as a scientific discipline that seeks at bottom to place human culture in the natural world. Scholars in this field should be ever on the look-out for their equivalent of a Pre-Cambrian rabbit fossil: a shred of physical evidence from the past that would disconfirm our received understanding of how some idea or style developed and was transmitted.
The history of philosophy, on this approach, would be the archaeology of one small subset of one particular kind of material traces left from the past. This branch of study would require special training in order to develop the ability to recognize a certain kind of subtle thoughts from a certain sort of traces, but it would not be fundamentally different from the study of other such traces, and would be no less neglectful of the holistic and environmental forces that went into shaping them. That would be a real archaeology of knowledge, and it would take us a long way towards solving the two-cultures problem (of which the analytic-continental rift is a local symptom).