The Binary of American Philosophy: On Jonathan Strassfeld’s “Inventing Philosophy’s Other”

By Erik HmielMay 13, 2023

The Binary of American Philosophy: On Jonathan Strassfeld’s “Inventing Philosophy’s Other”

Inventing Philosophy’s Other: Phenomenology in America by Jonathan Strassfeld

SOMETIME IN THE MID-1950s, the American philosopher Stanley Cavell, a new professor at the University of California, Berkeley, encountered an elderly colleague given over to resignation. The senior scholar, having recently retired from teaching, recalled to Cavell the moment when he realized the seeming limitations of his philosophical prowess. The occasion was the visiting appointment, during the 1930s, of the Austrian philosopher and convener of the Vienna Circle, Moritz Schlick. Schlick’s semester-long professorship at Berkeley, he recounted to Cavell, had left him philosophically shaken.

The Vienna Circle was a group of philosophers, scientists, mathematicians, and logicians who convened during the 1920s and ’30s to reformulate the basis of thought along the lines suggested by the scientific, philosophical, and mathematical revolutions of Albert Einstein, Ernst Mach, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Henri Poincaré, and Kurt Gödel. Chastened by the destructive nationalism of Germany that had culminated in World War I, the Circle’s members sought to counter the Prussian foundations of idealism and metaphysics with the transparent ordering of logic and scientific rigor.

Many members of this group found refuge in the United States during the 1930s. Indeed, they were part of a broader migration of Jewish intellectuals and artists seeking haven from Hitler’s fast-encroaching menace. Their presence in American philosophy departments, along with changes to the structure of higher education, the embrace of a broad sensibility of liberalism during the postwar years, and the imperative of academic professionalization, fundamentally altered the philosophical landscape in the United States during and after World War II. Increasingly opposed to the perceived obscurantism, irrationality, and mysticism of the philosophical traditions associated with the “old world,” the United States’ leading universities now embraced a style of philosophy based on the Vienna Circle’s imperatives of clarity and intellectual rigor. By the mid-1950s, these imperatives came to define a mainstream in the field of philosophy: what would be called “analytic philosophy.”

Jonathan Strassfeld’s Inventing Philosophy’s Other: Phenomenology in America (2022) tells the history of the formation of this mainstream. Indeed, he offers the fullest account yet of how the hegemony of analytic philosophy coalesced via the marginalization of the European tradition of phenomenology associated with Edmund Husserl, along with Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. While by no means unified in method or subject matter, phenomenology, as Strassfeld presents it, is a philosophy of experience. It takes the “given” worlds of immediate perception, cultural traditions, and historical inheritances as the primary foundation of philosophy. Whether in Husserl’s noema, in which presuppositions are “bracketed” to account for the world given to immediate apprehension; in the “readiness-to-hand” of Heidegger’s ontology; in the radical subjectivity and freedom of Sartre’s existential call to action; or in Merleau-Ponty’s emphasis on embodiment, phenomenology offers its followers a way of making sense of the world that focuses on the situated experience of culture, history, and subjectivity.

These were the philosophical emphases of a significant contingent of American philosophers who studied with Husserl and Heidegger during the first half of the 20th century. From the turn of the century to the 1940s, there was no philosophical “mainstream” to speak of in the United States, marked as its study was by a pluralism of philosophical approaches ranging from realism and neorealism to idealism and pragmatic naturalism. Phenomenology was considered an important part of the broader transatlantic landscape of philosophical thinking during these decades. Its earliest American acolytes, including Walter Pitkin and William Ernest Hocking, learned from the movement’s figureheads during the interwar period as graduate students and young instructors. Traveling to Germany to study with Husserl, they returned to the United States impressed and inspired by the depth and seriousness of the phenomenological project.

By the 1930s, these networks proved crucial in the effort to secure positions for many refugee phenomenologists in the broader intellectual migration from Hitler’s Europe to the United States, which also included the Vienna Circle. What eventually helped to collectively galvanize these refugee scholars was the establishment of the International Phenomenological Society in 1939 along with its journal Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, which was part of an international network of phenomenological scholarship that emerged in the wake of Husserl’s death in 1938. Moreover, in publishing across philosophical traditions and styles, the journal represented a moment before the entrenchment of the analytic-continental divide in American philosophy in which shared spaces for philosophical work were arguably more common.

By the 1950s, however, an invidious distinction between Anglo-American and so-called continental philosophy—by this time a shorthand for work in the phenomenological tradition—began to take hold. While intellectual historians have traced this bifurcation to the infamous 1929 debate between the Neo-Kantian Ernst Cassirer and Martin Heidegger in Davos, Switzerland, Strassfeld calls this chronology into question, noting that the records of the debate were not made available until the 1960s. Rather, the first major invocations of continental philosophy as a philosophical “other” appeared at the 1953 International Congress of Philosophy in Brussels. The event, meant to contribute to international understanding among different philosophical traditions on both sides of the Atlantic, was covered for American audiences by the émigré philosophers Max Rieser and Walter Cerf in The Journal of Philosophy and The Philosophical Review, respectively. Rieser and Cerf portrayed “continental philosophers” as speculative mystics who stood at a deep cultural and political remove from the sober-minded rationalism and realistic naturalism of Anglo-American analysts.

The recruiting practices in philosophy departments at elite universities during the postwar hiring boom only reinforced this perception. As Strassfeld shows with painstaking quantitative analysis and archival records of faculty meetings, correspondence, and administrative deliberations, the nation’s elite institutions came largely to hire graduates of their own departments, where “analytic” philosophy was held up as the new philosophical mainstream (Harvard looms particularly large in this narrative). This created the conditions, by the 1970s, of a reified category of “continental” philosophy that existed largely at the margins of the discipline’s mainstream. By this point, those margins not only included “inferior” continental departments but had also extended to departments of literature, rhetoric, religious studies, and gender and women’s studies, where the study of continental philosophy became arguably most dynamic, if somewhat more haphazard. Indeed, there is a sense in the narrative arc of 20th-century American philosophy that continental philosophy was chased off.

Inventing Philosophy’s Other leans heavily into the tradition of the sociology of knowledge, a welcome corrective to the largely internalist and often tendentious histories of American philosophy written by its own members. But the creation of an analytic mainstream at elite US universities during the postwar period, as a phenomenon tied to the hiring practices of these institutions alone, seems up for debate. The foundations of the research university and academic disciplinarity, by virtue of the norms of professionalization and peer review, are necessarily hierarchical. These norms reinforce prejudices and biases—they encourage cores and peripheries. For both better and worse, this is often what modern disciplinarity looks like.

But might there be more at work in explaining phenomenology’s marginalization and analytic philosophy’s dominance by the 1960s? Something broader at stake? The burden of Strassfeld’s argument relies on showing the types of everyday disciplinary practices that reinforce the boundaries of knowledge, an approach indebted to the pioneering work of historians of science like Peter Galison and Lorraine Daston. One wonders, however, whether this argument says something more broadly about disciplinarity as such, as opposed to the history of American philosophy itself. If the patterns of boundary-policing as disciplinary practice could be shown of, say, the fields of history or literature, then understanding the phenomena of disciplinary content in American philosophy seems to require further historical explanation.

If we take the story of postwar American philosophy as one embedded in larger patterns of academic knowledge production, particularly the embrace of science and skepticism as both epistemic and professional virtues, then philosophy’s relationship to postwar American thought seems to become more salient. As others have noted and as Strassfeld might concede, the early aims of clarity and the avoidance of obscurantism characteristic of early analytic philosophers were broadly amenable to an academy that privileged skepticism, rigor, and a modest brand of empiricism. To be sure, these were virtues that subtly renewed and reinforced American visions of exceptionalism and liberalism. But if we undercut the epistemological complexity of the postwar human sciences more broadly, including American philosophy’s relationship to a longer history of naturalist thought, then we end up with slightly different versions of the same story about knowledge production during the period after World War II: “scientism” triumphs over “humanism”; “positivism” prevails over “subjectivity”; “logic” eclipses “experience.” Continental philosophy may have been marginalized among many American philosophers by the 1970s, but one could argue that Strassfeld creates a somewhat homogeneous “other” out of analytic philosophy by reiterating this narrative.

Nevertheless, Inventing Philosophy’s Other is an ambitious, important, and exceptional study. It points to the need to treat the history of American philosophy as a larger part of the contingent world of transatlantic intellectual history writ large. It works in an important historical register that shows us how abstract arguments and ideas are inextricably linked to the concrete messiness of bias, politics, and institutions, a frame of reference that philosophers in the English-speaking world often treat as irrelevant to the foundations of their work.

More significantly, Jonathan Strassfeld has given us a first-rate history of American philosophy that reminds us that the “best” ideas don’t simply win out on their merits. Rather, they often come to be labeled as such after their influence is established through the vagaries of institutional contingency. At a time when the line dividing the continental and analytic traditions appears to be wearing thin, we would do well to heed this injunction for historical reflection.


Erik Hmiel is an assistant professor of instruction at Temple University, where he teaches in the Intellectual Heritage program.

LARB Contributor

Erik Hmiel is an assistant professor of instruction at Temple University, where he teaches in the Intellectual Heritage program. He is currently writing a book about the influence of the post–World War II human sciences on the decline of modernist cultural authority in the United States.


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