Richard Rorty used to say that every decade or so someone would grandly announce a position or approach that goes beyond the distinction between realism and idealism. As was his wont, Rorty would excitedly digest the new book for a few weeks. But in the end it always slowly dawned on him that the exciting new position beyond realism and idealism was. . . (wait for it) idealism!
Something similar should be said about the history of pronouncements concerning overcoming or going beyond the distinction between analytic and continental philosophy. While such thoughts typically occur in the wake of genuinely important work that brings together aspects of both traditions (Rorty, Margolis, Dreyfus, Wheeler, Shusterman, etc.), it is slowly dawning on me that this promised exciting new paradigm beyond analytic and continental philosophy somehow always ends up being. . . (wait for it) analytic philosophy!
In a related context, Hermanne Phillipse writes of “applicative” readings of Heidegger, where insights an author gleams from her own conversations with Heidegger are “applied” to some set of on-going concerns in analytic philosophy. This is fine as far as it goes, and certainly not unique to analytic philosophy. For example, Habermas defends something like the same thing in the introduction to The Philosophical Discourses of Modernity, saying that he intends to enter into conversations with the Mighty Dead, discerning what they might have to say to him, given his own presuppositions and projects.
This would be a good place to digress about the distinction between history of philosophy and philosophy and how this distinction is marked and contested (!!!) in characteristically different ways by analytic and continental philosophers. But instead, let me just note three differences in training between continental philosophers and analytic philosophers: (1) Continental philosophers tend to learn far more history, (2) Continental philosophers are vastly more likely to have deeper knowledge of certain important parts of history such as German Idealism and the long history of Phenomenology through Germany and France at least (any reader of Beiser or Moran will argue that this is the greatest deficiency in analytic philosophy, since so much of this material is highly relevant to analytic philosophers' on-going concerns), (3) (more complicated, because there are important counterexamples, movements, and indeed countries in both camps) Continental philosophers are less likely to absolutely segregate history of philosophy (which tries to figure out what the philosopher believed) from philosophy (which tries to discern the truth). It should be clear that, contra Brian Leiter’s usage, by “continental philosophers” I include American members of SPEP and most academic philosophers on the continent, and moreover that this is perfectly reasonable, given the three relevant properties I have isolated.
With all this on the table we are in a position to note that something very different is happening now.
During all past bouts of supposed convergences between analytic and continental philosophy, you had (very good) analytic philosophers learning from continental philosophers and then applying those thoughts to their on-going concerns. This is certainly true of Rortians and the Dreyfusarians. But today we’re seeing just the reverse of this, very good continental philosophers (meaning people trained as described above) are helping themselves to figures and debates in analytic philosophy and applying analytic philosophy to their on-going concerns (of course in doing so we find out that many of the on-going concerns are deeply related).
This is part of why Lee Braver’s A Thing of This World: A History of Continental Anti-Realism is such dynamite. You have a specialist in late Heidegger digging deeply into the realism/anti-realism literature and then using this to make sense of a number of issues in continental philosophy (see his new article on continental realism in Continental Philosophy Review).
This is part of what makes Speculative Realism is such an interesting development, we see the same fearlessness by everyone involved, whether it’s Brassier on the Churchlands, Harman on Kripke, Bryant on Bhaskar, Garcia on Frege, or Meillassoux (and of course his teacher Badiou) on Wittgenstein, set theory, etc. Again, all people who are continental in the sense above, but who have no fear reading analytic philosophy applicatively in just the sense in which Phillipse takes Taylor Carman to read Heidegger.
And finally, this is part of why the Atelier de métaphysique et d'ontologie contemporaines (see especially the talks) at the École Normale Supérieure is so important in terms of the evolution of the relation between analytic and continental philosophy. With this we are finally seeing the inversion of Rorty and Dreyfus as an on-going intellectual project, a continental-metaphysical analogue to “Heideggerian philosophy of mind” but in fact with far greater scope. The Atelier is a group of graduate students and professors meeting at one of the holy places of continental philosophy. And, again, they are just fearless about incorporating figures and results from analytic philosophy to address deep debates central to both continental and analytic philosophy.
I don’t know if we are ever going to “overcome the distinction between analytic and continental philosophy” and indeed if that would even be a good thing. But, as an analytic philosopher who continues to learn from continental philosophy,** it’s hugely refreshing to see cross-over work that doesn’t reduce continental philosophers to their applicability to “hot” areas in analytic philosophy. To the extent that such reduction is unavaoidable, a big part of the solution is to learn as much as possible from those who invert it. And I don't think it's crazy to take this inversion to be the decisive next step in expanding the dialectical space opened up by great philosophers such as Rorty, Dreyfus, and Wheeler.
*The consequent is rhetorical! Anyone who does not see it as being so is hereby banished to read Samual Wheeler's Deconstruction as Analytic Philosophy, Paul Livingston's The Politics of Logic, and indeed Rorty's own extended engagement with Derrida. Actually those of us who do see it as rhetorical could do far worse than this as summer reading.
**And who is periodically shocked to witness in his own soul periodic eructations of the anti-continental prejudice instilled during his own philosophical training, which on one notable occasion involved the professor of record reading random passages from Being and Time and then making faces while the whole class laughed. As someone who grew up in Alabama during the end days of the Civil Rights Movement (after which desegregation was largely undermined by huge growth in private education, mass movement by whites to more expensive further out suburbs, and the war on drugs) I know in my bones that all prejudice is like this. It is a life's work to overcome it. This is not sad though, because it's good work at least.]