Vol. 43 No. 6 · 18 March 2021

Search by issue:

Analytic v. Continental

Kieran Setiya refers to Bernard Williams’s remark that contrasting analytic and Continental philosophy is like dividing cars into ‘front-wheel drive and Japanese’, since it involves opposing a method or approach to a geographical region (LRB, 18 February). Unfortunately, this has become the go-to formula for philosophers who want to contest the idea that there are two sub-traditions of contemporary Western philosophy, differing considerably in their ethos, their typical strategies, and their sense of the responsibilities of the discipline. Presumably one is supposed to gather that since millions of vehicles can be both front-wheel drive and Japanese there is no meaningful distinction to be drawn between two basic styles of doing philosophy. But Williams’s remark is no more persuasive than the claim that a Danish pastry can’t be distinguished from a croissant, since croissants are also produced in Copenhagen. One cannot help wondering what the repeated trundling out of the comparison is supposed to achieve.

My guess is that the aim is usually to deny that there is anything that in principle falls outside the purview of analytic philosophy – any alternative mindset that could open up different perspectives. Setiya seems also to want to deny that there is any coherence to the notion of analytic philosophy, a term he says is ‘misleading’, since it conflates different circles and schools. The upshot, then, is that there is just philosophy in its multiple forms.

Against this, I’d suggest that there is something distinctively ‘analytical’ about the idea that one can somehow dissolve a historically and culturally entrenched distinction between philosophical styles by suggesting that the contrast is an illusion based on a semantic glitch – or on what British philosophers, not so long ago, were fond of calling a ‘howler’. Indeed, if there is one fundamental difference between the sub-traditions, it is that Continental European philosophy – heir to Hegel and Marx, even when it rejects them – regards reflection on its own historical and cultural location as an integral part of its activity. It’s also worth noting that although Setiya mobilises Williams to challenge the coherence of the distinction between analytic and Continental philosophy, he is quite happy to caricature the latter as ‘epitomised by the likes of Martin Heidegger and Jacques Derrida’. So the pluralism he stresses when characterising the Anglo-American mainstream in the 20th century is not extended to its opposite number. But Continental philosophy can no more be summed up in the thought of Heidegger and Derrida than in the social theory of the Frankfurt School, the hermeneutic tradition of Gadamer and Ricoeur, or the explorations of self-consciousness carried out by such figures as Dieter Henrich and Manfred Frank, to mention only some prominent currents.

Personally, I think we can have it both ways. Both sub-traditions are internally complex. But that is no reason to question their existence, or to deny that they have deep roots, and that their differences of motivation and outlook continue to generate intellectual friction and to have real-world – including institutional – effects.

Peter Dews
University of Essex

The Last Train Home

Andrew O’Hagan writes that, in the opinion of a high-up at British Rail, the ‘most frightening journey in the UK’ is, or was, Aberdeen to Glasgow on a Friday night, via Dundee (LRB, 21 January). In my opinion, the honours should go to the last train from Newcastle to Darlington on a Saturday night. A few years ago, in a bid to reduce the intensity of the experience for all concerned, it was decided that the last train should leave Newcastle before 10.30 p.m. – but this had a concertina effect on the drinking of out-of-towners, encouraging everyone to hang on until the last possible moment before crushing into the carriages all at once. The results were frequently spectacular. O’Hagan describes how Tabitha Lasley became friendly with a man who got on her train at Darlington, before discovering that he had murdered somebody. I’ve never met a murderer at Darlington Station, though I did once get a lift home from a convicted one. (I don’t think he had ever worked on an oil rig.) But I don’t want to put anyone off. Darlington has a very nice station, worth braving the journey from Newcastle for – it won Large Station of the Year in 2005.

Amanda Leach
Darlington, County Durham

‘Take his call’

Abigail Green omits one notable act of Rothschild philanthropy: the resettlement of East European Jewish children orphaned by the influenza epidemic after the First World War (LRB, 18 February). Both of my parents were, separately, taken in by the orphanage in Pinsk (then in Poland, now in Belarus) before being shipped, years apart, to London, where East End Jewish families adopted them on the quayside. They did not meet again for many years.

My mother’s siblings and friends were scattered far and wide, usually courtesy of the Rothschilds. Her closest sister ended up in Porto Alegre, Brazil, and her closest friend in Haifa. She corresponded with both, in Yiddish, for more than fifty years. There are ‘Pinsker’ communities as far away as South Africa and Australia.

Recently, the publisher Richard Desmond telephoned me to say that the orphanage in Pinsk was now being run by a rabbi from Manchester, and that he had donated £150,000 and persuaded two congregants at his synagogue to do the same. ‘David, I gave the rabbi your number. Take his call.’ The rabbi duly phoned the next day, explained the work of the orphanage, and promised to send me a brochure. In return, I pledged – having calibrated my net worth against Richard Desmond’s – a cheque for £150. I heard no more, either from the rabbi or from Richard, but the offer still stands.

David Elstein
London SW15

As If

David Trotter quotes John Mullan as saying that Dickens’s fiction ‘is full of as ifs’, with 266 in Great Expectations alone (LRB, 17 December 2020). That sort of statistic begs comparison with other works. Checking a few texts in the CD-ROM corpus of Die Digitale Bibliothek, I found that Tess of the d'Urbervilles, Portrait of a Lady, The American and Mary Barton include fewer instances of ‘as if’ proportional to their lengths. But the frequency in Middlemarch is not much lower, while Nostromo, The Secret Agent and Sons and Lovers are roughly comparable to Great Expectations, which (according to my search) has 265 ‘as ifs’ in 810 digital pages. Women in Love beats that, with 340 in 853 pages.

James Fanning
University of Greifswald, Germany

One Night in Miami

Michael Wood writes about One Night in Miami, which dramatises the night in 1964 when Muhammad Ali (then Cassius Clay) celebrated with Malcolm X, Sam Cooke and Jim Brown after winning the world heavyweight title (LRB, 18 February). Kemp Powers, who wrote the screenplay, generously credited Mike Marqusee (my late partner) with the revelation that the four men spent that evening eating ice cream in Malcolm’s motel room. He wrote about it in Redemption Song: Muhammad Ali and the Spirit of the Sixties (1999). I remember that Mike worked out that the meeting must have happened from the separate accounts given by Malcolm, Cooke and Brown of their relationships with Ali. He would have enjoyed Powers’s imagined political discussion between the four men. He believed that Cooke was partly inspired and partly shamed into writing ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ by the release of Bob Dylan’s ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’, but whether that was because Malcolm berated Cooke, as the film suggests, for allowing a white man to capture the emotion of the civil rights movement, is something we cannot now know.

Liz Davies
Woodgreen, Hampshire

The Country without Music

Nicholas Spice describes Hans Keller arriving in Britain in 1938 and finding it ‘on the cusp of a musical awakening’ (LRB, 4 February). For Keller, the country had been ‘Das Land ohne Musik’, estranged from Continental developments and waiting to be rescued by Benjamin Britten. True, leading composers such as Ralph Vaughan Williams and Arnold Bax were largely dismissive of atonality and serialism, but British interwar music cannot be characterised as entirely insular and neoromantic. Established figures such as William Walton, Arthur Bliss and Constant Lambert were suspicious of British provincialism and, at least initially, heavily influenced by jazz and European modernists. International contemporary music had been championed by Edward Clark at the BBC since 1924, and Clark’s wife, Elisabeth Lutyens, spent the 1930s slowly developing her serialist technique.

Spice notes that ‘Herbert Howells and Ralph Vaughan Williams tried their best to dissuade the young William Glock from going to Berlin to study with Artur Schnabel.’ But Vaughan Williams’s correspondence shows him hunting behind the scenes for a grant to fund Glock’s lessons. He was keen for his pupil Elizabeth Maconchy to study abroad, either with Ravel (his own teacher) or with Bartók (whom he admired, as he did Stravinsky and Janáček). It is thought to have been Vaughan Williams who, in 1941, recommended that Keller be released from an internment camp.

Oliver Soden
London W4

Balls and Strikes

Randall Kennedy’s reference to Justice Roberts’s absurd analogy between judging and baseball umpiring brings to mind a long ago interview with the umpire Bill Klem (LRB, 21 January). When asked if he had ever called a pitch a ball when it was really a strike, or vice versa, Klem replied briskly: ‘It ain’t nothin’ till I call it.’

Scott Herrick
Rio Rancho, New Mexico

Buy some records

If Andy Beckett had listened to Californian rap artists such as NWA, 2Pac, Kendrick Lamar or Childish Gambino he might see that, rather than being a place where ‘fun and culture happen but politics doesn’t’, the Los Angeles of rap music is inherently political (LRB, 18 February). This LA is a place where inequality, racism, violence and police brutality are rife, and at the forefront of the way the city is represented in hip hop.

The continued global success of Californian and LA-based rap music suggests that the black cultural renaissance which Beckett argues ‘lasted until the early 1970s’ continues today. Indeed, if we are interested in the ‘ongoing radical tradition’ of LA as evidenced by the Black Lives Matter protests of last year, we should look towards the significance of hip hop rather than the ‘pastel melodies of the Beach Boys’ or the ‘dark anthems of the Doors’. It is time for Beckett to buy some new records.

Rhys Crilley
University of Glasgow

Goodbye to Europe

Perry Anderson doesn’t respond on the substance to my letter of 4 February but opts instead to distract with inaccurate and irrelevant personal insinuations (Letters, 4 March). A full account of the leadup to, and conduct of, the Iraq War is available in the Chilcot Report. Contrary to Anderson’s absurd claim, it was not led by me.

Ian Lee
Skipton, North Yorkshire

Luuk van Middelaar amiably invites Perry Anderson for lunch so that he can ‘judge for himself’, but Anderson declares only that ‘over a glass of wine, the Bildungslücke is easily remedied.’ What are we readers to make of all this? Will they have lunch? Or does Anderson prefer to meet up in a wine bar?

Martin Westlake

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences