Types of Philosophy: A Serioues Jest?

I’m no philosopher, and I am happy to proclaim my philosophical ignorance to any who will listen (although, truth be told, I’m slowly trying to remedy this and, as it turns out, I can claim the pedigree of Socrates for such proclamations). But, one of the joys of being involved in teaching introductory courses on theology is that one often gets asked questions that one does not expect and has not prepared for, and that force one to do one’s best to give answers, which in turn forces one to organize whole heaps of information on the fly, the result of which is to produce gross overgeneralizations like the following. So, I present to you my gentle readers, four types of philosophy. Once-upon-a-time I presented some types of systematic theology, in case you are interested.
Type 1

The British are, by history and – perhaps – by natural inclination (whatever that means), mercantile in orientation. Thus, their philosophy bears a striking resemblance to accounting: ledgers must be balanced, sums figured, and columns put neatly in order. There is a place for everything, and everything ought to be in its place. They have given us analytic philosophy.

Type 2

Americans are the great achievers. They build large bridges and buildings, and sometimes it seems that they (alright, “we”) do it just for the fun of it. Scratch that, I know we sometimes do it just for the fun of it: exhibit A, Las Vegas! In any case, what matters here is weight supported, office space provided, and financial return garnered. Our philosophical gift to the world is pragmatism.

Type 3

Crossing the pond once again, we return to Europe and cast our eye across Germany. The Germans are, paradoxically, great poets and scientists. As poets they are fascinated by stories, mythologies, and big, sweeping ideas; as scientists, they tend to work out these mythologies and ideas in a very comprehensive and precise way. In essence, their poetic side dreams up ways to explain the world, and their scientific side goes to work making those ideas make sense. Quintessential German philosophy is speculative idealism.

Type 4

Finally, the French. Ah, the French! France is the land of sommeliers and chefs. They enjoy producing and consuming the finer things in life in a relaxed, convivial environment. Given that environment, they tend to be in great moods when they philosophize, and seldom alone. French philosophy is characterized by two thinkers sitting in a Paris café with lattes and cigarettes, bandying about big ideas in an effort to pull one over on their companion. Conversely, it is an exercise in dismantling these big ideas. Thus, the French have given us structuralism and deconstruction.
So, there you have it – the secret to understanding philosophy is out of the bag! I expect comments from British folks aimed at trying to tighten up my arguments by putting them into syllogistic form, from Americans trying to get me to explain why this typology matters in concrete terms, from Germans presenting alternate typologies, and from the French explaining to me why language is too full of slippage for this sort of typology to be helpful. ;-)


Kevin Davis said…
I like it. Type 3 is the most attractive, which is probably why Barth is so wonderful to read (even as he was arguing against this Idealist heritage).
Matthew Frost said…
Awesome! Usable teaching-tool generalities.

The genuine French philosopher really doesn't care if you understood. Because you clearly did not, which demonstrates their superior argument. Which they're not going to run by you again. Only the other three bother to explain again and again and again in the hopes that someone else will understand.
(Jim has been trying to get this in the right thread, so I'm posting it here for him. Enjoy his ebullience! - WTM)

This is fun. I like your types.

A little to learn from everyone. A good job.

I want to propose a single place-name (like an indexical) to characterize the French.

They will object. The French object to any single characterization. Which is why the phrase – “the French” – says just about everything by saying nothing. I think the French themselves had a role in inventing this very appellation. To castigate one of their own and best philosophers. Which is why I say that we turn this name back on them.


French philosophers are crypto-theologians. They call what they do, philosophy. Because they don’t want the social disgrace of openly admitting they are deep-down theologians. Ricœur first of all suffered this accusation. Mercilessly. I say it’s true of Ricœur. Ricœur was simultaneously accused in France for being too conservative and too liberal. There you go. So he fled to the University of Chicago. Where he got along famously. And he was fun too.

I’m doing some peer review right now. I have permission to say this little bit. I’m peer reviewing a very technical-legal and hifalutin article about legal hermeneutics. Pre-publication peer review for a law review journal. Where this good article will die on the dusty shelves of philosophy. Alongside much of the rest of philosophical literature. The article sings the praises of Ricœur. Because Ricœur intervened constructively in one of the most famous philosophical disputes of our generation - the big, bad fuss between Gadamer and Habermas. Blah, blah, blah. This kind of hermeneutical article has been done before with various twists. The making of such books and articles will never end.

One of my responses in peer review is to say that Ricœur’s contribution both to philosophy and legal hermeneutics will not work – and cannot work – not unless there is a God in the process. And not unless theology can be empirically derived in the first place. And then applied to legal hermeneutics. When I said so to Ricœur to his face some years before he died, then he smiled back. A very sarcastic and knowing grin. A French grin. One of those absurdist-literature French knowing grins. I hate those grins. I love those grins.

The highly respected American law-philosophy-religion scholar, Harold Berman (Harvard), has tried and tried to argue American philosophical jurisprudence toward a similar conclusion about involving God (or, at least theology) back toward an incorporation into philosophical jurisprudence.

Alas. Nobody is listening anymore. Not to Ricœur. Not to Berman. Not to any other theologian in the public arena. Okay, this is a little overstatement. But not too much. "God?", yawn. "Theology?", snore.

And since so extremely few theologians get a public audience anymore in philosophy, in law, and in science ...

... it’s no wonder that Ricœur may have had the prescience to lead the French on the rightful way, to be ....

... crypto-theologians!

That’s what I would call the French – whether they like it or not.

Well, that was fun.

My two-cents.

Cryptotheologically speaking.


Tyler Wittman said…
this is pretty funny. Reminds me a little of the "Plato and a Platypus" book . . .
It was all amusing, but the signifier slipped from the signified, so I'm afraid my comment is endlessly deferred.
Sabio Lantz said…
That is hilarious. But you left out huge landmasses of thinkers:

Indian Philosophy: Always be sure to include the Big One while passing the chillum.

Chinese Philosophy: Say what you will, but remember the social order.

You caught me focusing on Western philosophy. :-)

In the Eastern category, I'm partial to the Tao Te Ching.

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