Yesterday, I wrote a brief piece about Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, and Foucault’s interpretation of the Panopticon as a physical representation of a social ‘power machine’ where the watched and the waters are equally prisoners.
Foucault, writing in the ’70s, introduced the Panopticon, and even Jeremy Bentham for that matter, to a wider audience through his critique and analysis of the design. Writing about deep social and psychological assumptions and ideas that the Panopticon inaugurated and embodied, Foucault’s work attracted the ire of Bentham scholars, intent on rescuing Bentham’s reputation and refuting the idea of the Panopticon as the ultimate Big Brother facility.
We have tumbled head long into a ongoing, venerable, and surprisingly bitter academic feud: the “analytic philosophy vs. continental philosophy” debate.
And strait-away, there is a problem. ‘Analytic’ is a methodological term, while ‘continental’ is a geographical or breakfast buffet term. This should put our mental radars on full alert: this like comparing “sailboats” to “Russian boats” ; the categories are mix-mached and can’t really be compared equally. The reason is that the phrase “analytic philosophy vs. continental philosophy” belongs to analytic philosophy, which is generally associated with the English speaking world. It is wrong, and inaccurate to think of these philosophies in geographic terms (I admit there is some profit to thinking of them in linguistic terms though).
At heart, there this is a culture clash, as much of a philosophic one. Analytic philosophy defends from English philosophers like Bentham, Locke, and Hume. It is concerned with the scientific method; and follows the process of hypothesis-test-analysis-repeat. This is a strength. But there are some serious drawbacks, and in practical terms, analytic philosophy finds itself limited to assistant/handmaiden work for the hard sciences and technology. It tends to prefer questions like: “How does consciousness work?”
To an analytic philosopher, ‘continental’ philosophy reeks of foreign sounding names like “Nietzsche” or “Foucault”, ranting Germans, babbling Frenchmen, sweaty, moody, gesturing Italians, and pagan-like Russians with bloodshot eyes who smell of onions and vodka. This is the philosophic tradition which talks about “Ubermench” or “the world-spirit in history” or “dialectical materialism”. An analytic philosopher asks of the ‘continental’ philosopher: “How can you test or prove your hypothesis? What actual proof do you have? How can you explain or gurentee that you are not talking nonsense?” These are good questions, nearly damning questions, in fact.
The ‘continental’ philosopher, who would never call himself a ‘continental’ philosopher, rarely thinks about or considerers analytic philosophy. In response to the charges of the analytic philosopher, the ‘continental’ philosopher would probably respond like this: “Analytic philosophy, implicitly makes several huge metaphysical assumptions, assumptions about metaphysical questions that are by no means closed or answered.” A ‘continental’ philosopher finds the work of the analytic philosopher boring. But even worse, and nearly damning, is that analytic philosophy has effectively abandoned tackling the big questions of human existence, and in every day terms, is socially and politically naive. ‘Continental’ philosophy asks: “How should humanity be organized for maximum freedom?” In this sense, you might even call them a bit utopian.
Foucault, as you have probably guessed, works in the ‘continental’ tradition. This tradition often speaks in metaphorical, even esoteric terms, the reason being is that they often work well beyond the real physically verifiable facts, and in the realm of deep human psychology. This tradition also places value on writing in terms of a valued canon of philosophers; one describes one’s philosophy in terms or in response to or in critique of a venerable predecessor.
So to return, finally, to the Panopticon, Foucault’s analysis of it takes place at a level, not in physical or textual facts, but a realm of psychology, and complex human interaction and sociology. Analytic, or maybe ‘anglo-saxon’ writers look at Bentham, and look at Bentham’s Panopticon and are baffled as to Foucault’s analysis, which they feel, is taking liberties and making grandiose assumptions, to say the least. For the analytic tradition, the Panopticon represents a architectural advance for clinical institutes; for the continental philosopher, a microcosm for human society.