By Jon Cogburn
Friend of the blog Chris Bateman recently hosted a two part (Part One HERE and Part Two HERE) interview with Babette Babich about the fate of continental philosophy. As with many interventions by Babich, (1) readers are not unlikely to find it equally exhilarating and infuriating, and (2) Joe Bob says check it out.
The occasion of the interview is remarks by people like Brian Leiter and Barry Smith to the effect that there is no longer a distinction between analytic and continental philosophy, just one between good and bad philosophy.* Not surprisingly, good philosophy is the type done by friends of Leiter and Smith. Bad philosophy tends to be that which takes seriously the French post-structuralist tradition. When friends of friends of Leiter and Smith (e.g. Richard Rorty, Samuel Wheeler, Lee Braver. . .) take seriously the post-structuralists one either maintains a respectful silence or makes excuses in the way one later makes excuses for an embarrassing in-law at Thanksgiving Dinner.
In the United States it used to be easy to make the distinction. Continental philosophy was a triangle with three legs: German idealism, critical theory, and phenomenology (initially thought about broadly enough to include existentialism, later to include hermeneutics, and later post-structuralists like Derrida). Every department had one or two people working in the intersection of these areas and if you worked in one of them were kind of grouped with the pragmatists, Thomists, and transcendental idealists who were displaced by the growing hegemony of analytic philosophy in the post War period. But two things happened. First, the Baby Boomer star system in academia (so effectively described in the novels of David Lodge) infected both analytic and continental philosophy. The result of this was that the organization devoted to continental philosophy (SPEP) in many ways replicated the hierarchy of analytic philosophy through a set of schools primarily devoted to Continental philosophy, which are not officially ranked, but nonetheless loosely ranked in the minds of all continental philosophers, as are the scholars who teach there. This was almost certainly unavoidable, given the wretched exigencies of our (well, the Baby Boomers') age. Second, the analytic/continental divide became implicated in the culture wars of the 1980s. Continental philosophers were much better at working with other humanities professors and so when the humanities came in for a sustained assault during the Reagan administration, analytic philosophers were able to protest that what was wrong with the humanities wasn't wrong with them, and many were willing to throw their continental colleagues under the bus. These two things ended the era where each department had one or two people working in continental department. Some still do, but the norm became two sets of institutions occupied by people hostile to one another. There are notable exceptions (increasingly so) such as Memphis, the University of New Mexico, and Vanderbilt but for the most part PhD students go through their graduate careers either taking no classes in analytic philosophy or no classes in continental philosophy.
Recently, a third thing has happened. People trained in analytic philosophy have started taking note of figures that constituted the initial three legs of the continental stool, canonically Brandom, McDowell, and Beiser and their students on German Idealism, analytic Marxists and assorted Nietzsche scholars on critical theory, and Dreyfus and his students on phenomenology (though, Sam Wheeler and Paul Livingston's brilliant and heroic endeavors notwithstanding, this doesn't encompass post-structuralism as a mainstream endeavor yet). This has led to the absurd situation where Leiter Reports ranks (at least the last time I checked, maybe it's changed) "continental philosophy" with no input from specialists in French philosophy! Or the kind of thing where people who have been working in the continental tradition for years are briskly condemned as "bad philosophy" by the Leiters of the world.** And journals which are suddenly open to writing on continental figures reject articles by noted philosophers (such as Babich) who have long worked in that tradition. This third development is the context for Bateman's and Babich's conversation. It's great stuff. Again, Joe Bob says check it out.
I do have one quibble with Babich's characterization of analytic and continental philosophy. I think that in characterizing continental philosophy she tends to characterize what the Mighty Dead of that tradition have done and in characterizing analytic philosophy she tends to characterize what standard academic philosophers get up to. But if you do this, then of course analytic philosophy ends up looking stupid when contrasted to continental philosophy. It's dangerous too as we might lose sight of the fact that philosophy is egregiously difficult, so much so that most of it is going to be mediocre. The problem with analytic philosophy isn't that the overwhelming majority of it is mediocre, but that the self appointed (though widely recognized) mandarins of analytic philosophy don't have enough humility to recognize this. I would hate to see Babich unwittingly recapitulate this vice.
Consider her first pass at characterizing continental philosophy:
Continental philosophy includes a historical sense, a sense of historical context which it does not name ‘the history of philosophy.’ If Heidegger writes about Anaximander he is not reflecting on philosophy’s history as if this were a thing once done, passé, whereas we now, today, do some other sort of thing when we ‘do’ philosophy. At the same time the continental tradition also emphasizes everything that has to do with context, with interpretation, as a difference that makes all the difference.
The problem is that in both traditions it's very, very hard for academics to publish work that genuinely engages in dialogue with historical thinkers in the way Babich characterizes Heidegger's engagement with Anaximander. Unless you have a very big name in continental philosophy most of what you do is either write book reports or slavishly apply one of the Mighty Dead's thinking about x (say Husserl on perception of time) to some passing phenomena y (e.g. solitary confinement). For analytic academics doing history, it's very hard to engage in dialogue for characteristically different reasons. Your task is to take into account all of the context yet still come up with a charitable argumentative reconstruction of some bit of the historical figures text. "Charity" here is such that it is more charitable to attribute trivial truths than interesting falsehoods.*
It's only if we turn to the idiosyncratic figures in both traditions that we find people who are both attentive to context and skilled at entering into dialogue with the Mighty Dead. Perhaps Babich can be read as only claiming that the norms of continental philosophy render such figures are slightly less idiosyncratic. That seems fair to me, but I'm not sure what follows from that. Babich also characterizes continental philosophy in this manner:
Continental philosophy is thinking, it is questioning, elaborating questions, making them more comprehensive, deeper, making them worse, proliferating these same questions and adding more and other associated questions. It includes reflection, musing, quandaries, provocations, sometimes it includes comparisons. . .
Again, I do think this might characterize the Mighty Dead and some of the idiosyncratic thinkers in both traditions. But I don't think it characterizes a generic paper you are going to hear at SPEP any more than it characterizes a generic paper you are going to hear at the APA. One might take it to characterize SPEP keynotes and not APA keynotes, but not in my experience. The European philosophers I have seen at three SPEP conferences didn't stand out in this way in their talks and the continental keynotes I've seen at specialty conferences haven't done this any more than analytic keynotes.
Nonetheless, I think Babich is on to something. One of the things that is weird and distinctive about analytic philosophy is the way in which we tell stories where the main character of the story is not a person but a thesis. For us, it is entirely normal to organize a philosophy of religion class in terms of the various peregrinations of the thesis that God exists. The thesis gets attacked, defended, and morphs and changes (e.g. "what is meant by 'God' here?") as a result. I don't think that this leads to the ignorance of context so much as an eye for a different kind of context. We teach, many, many, classes like this, organized around a central concept or thesis.
Continental philosophers tend, on the other hand, to tell their stories in terms of individual philosophers' attempts to make sense of the world. One is a candidate for the Mighty Dead because one's attempts at sense making leaves a perspective from which it is useful for others to share. Thinking this way is helpful because the inability to divorce particular theses from the other commitments and questions raised by the thinker helps keep to the forefront both the holistic nature of content and the broader stakes at issue with respect to that thesis. The negative is that it can inculcate too much deference to the Mighty Dead.
Ironically, this difference makes analytic philosophy much more Hegelian than continental philosophy. A well taught class in analytic philosophy is always to some extent doing the kind of thing Hegel invented in Phenomenology. Continental thinkers are more likely to teach that book, but far less likely to instantiate it. Equally ironic is the fact that post-humanism comes out of continental philosophy. Once again, continental philosophers are much more likely to teach it, but much less likely to instantiate it. What could be more post-human than taking the key dramatis personae in philosophy to not be humans?
I don't think the distinction between whether to organize narratives around positions or people is the only difference, but I think it's an important one. With Graham Harman, I think we would be much impoverished if we were to lose either tradition in this respect or in the others I haven't considered. As such, I do not want the divide to be "overcome." I'd rather instead that we respect, learn from, and sometimes write about one another. This cannot be done without to some extent putting one anothers' texts in Procrustean beds of our own disciplines' design. But, pace Leiter and Smith, and with Babich and Bateman, we can do this without distorting one another.
[*Who are they to judge? I mean, really.
In the concluding passage of The Problems of Philosophy Bertrand Russell argues that the main function of philosophy is to give us an expanded sense of possibility and to help inculcate epistemic modesty. He was correct about this, and as a result, wholly independent of Babich and Bateman's interesting interventions, we ought to conclude that something has gone dreadfully wrong in academic philosophy.
**I know what I'm talking about here. I used to be a Leiterite about this stuff until I actually took the time to read the "bad philosophy" in question. It's taken about a decade to get acculturated to the point where I can publish on both traditions. To be clear, I am an analytic philosopher writing about continental philosophy (of the sort Leiter mocks). This is not the best way to make friends and influence people. Leiterites usually think that you've become stupid and continental philosophers usually don't want or need the help. Bon Scott actually sang about this kind of thing (with respect to the French reception of Speculative Realism in particular).
***Analytic work on "the affection argument" is a prime example of this. On contemporary interpretations, Kant is not making an error because he specifically talks about noumenal causation. No matter that on this interpretation Kant neither has much of anything worthwhile to say to Hume nor could be a motor of German idealism in the way understood by the German idealists. The tradition from the idealists through Jonathan Bennett, P.F. Strawson, Wilfrid Sellars (and McDowell and Brandom, who continue this) all interpreted Kant as saying philosophically interesting and important falsehoods. I can't for the life of me see how it's more charitable to save Kant from this rich tradition by systematically denuding his texts of philosophical interest. Of course contemporary Kant scholars don't for a second think that this is what they are doing. But this is only possible because of the typical analytic construal of philosophical problem space in a way that doesn't take seriously the German idealists added to a lack of appreciation for how the kind of radical semantic indeterminacy that yields equally supportable mutually inconsistent readings is characteristic of great philosophical texts.]