Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Critchley and Leiter on Continental Origins

In a recent post on his blog, Brian Leiter takes issue with Simon Critchley. In the course of defending himself against some of Critchley’s remarks, Leiter adopts the strategy of attacking Critchley’s credentials as a philosopher, especially a continental one. He does this, partly, by taking issue with two of Critchley’s characterizations of continental philosophy:

1. The goal of philosophy in the continental tradition is emancipation, whether individual or societal.

2. “It was felt by post-Kantians like Maimon and Jacobi, and by the German idealists, that Kant had established a series of dualisms in the Third Critique—pure reason and practical reason, nature and freedom, epistemology and ethics—but had failed to provide a single unifying principle which would bring those dualisms together. German idealism, then, can be seen as a series of attempts to provide this principle.” (quoted by Leiter; similar claims can be find in Critchley’s Continental Philosophy) Critchley presents this goal as central not only to German Idealism (which it certainly is, as Dieter Henrich, Karl Ameriks, and numerous others have demonstrated), but as definitive of the continental tradition as such.

Leiter dismisses both claims as demonstrating an ignorance of the tradition and, I admit, they look odd at first. But let’s look at them more carefully.

1. Leiter dismisses this first claim as too simplistic, and as problematic for its exclusion of phenomenology. (He does, I think, unfairly overlook the general simplification of claims that takes place in the interview format.) Whether or not the claim excludes phenomenology is debatable (it certainly does not exclude all phenomenologists), but no one characterization is likely to capture everyone we call continental. While Husserl may not have been primarily concerned with emancipation, a number of his later followers (e.g., Levinas, Derrida, Sartre) clearly were. In French Philosophy in the Twentieth Century, Garry Gutting (a philosopher Leiter seems to respect) argued that philosophy in France during this period (a rather large chunk of continental philosophy) becomes a philosophy of freedom, which is suspiciously like emancipation. As for the Germans, I hope we can agree that emancipation was (and is) the major concern of Critical Theory. It is less clearly so in the case of German phenomenology and hermeneutics, but it is not obvious that all the thinkers in these traditions get left out (we’d have to do some work on figuring out the nuances of what “emancipation” could be—is Heidegger’s “authenticity,” for example, a kind of emancipation? What about Gadamer’s attempt to articulate our relationship to tradition through a merging of horizons?). Critchley’s claim, in any case, is by no means incredible overall.

2. What about the claim that continental philosophy largely comes out of problems raised by Kant’s Third Critique? I confess that, when I first read Critchley’s book, I found this claim somewhat odd (unfortunately Leiter does not mention Critchley’s other, quite cool, thesis there: that the analytic/continental distinction grows out of difference of sensibility historically present in the British mind, which Critchley illustrates through a look at Mill’s attitude to Bentham, on the one hand, and Coleridge, on the other). But it has grown on me, and I’d like to suggest that it is in fact quite plausible. Leiter remarks that,

Overcoming the dualisms of the Third Critique surely was an animating concern (among others) for some of the German Idealists, but it obviously was not for Nietzsche or for Marx. Hegel was a dead issue in German philosophy by the 1850s…and Schopenhauer's anti-Hegelian polemics informed a generation's perception of the mad system builder of Jena. What role "will to power" actually plays in Nietzsche's philosophy is, unbeknownst apparently to Critchley, actually a hotly debated scholarly topic, but there is no significant account of it on which it constitutes an "attempt" by Nietzsche to provide a "unifying principle" for the dualisms of the Third Critique. Assimilating Marx to this just-so story is even weirder, given Marx's spectacular hostility to the questions of metaphysics and epistemology that animated German Idealism

But this seems to miss the point. That German philosophers after 1850 may have rejected or lost interest in Hegel is neither here nor there—Critchley claims Kant, not Hegel, as the origin of the problem. Schopenhauer may have rejected Hegel, but he does identify the Will with the thing-in-itself, and I confess that I find it difficult to see how this might not be an attempt to resolve the dualisms we find in Kant. I would not wish to debate about Nietzsche with Leiter, who certainly knows the work much better than I do, but Nietzsche does seem to object to the idea of free will precisely because it creates a dualism, a separation of lightning from its flash. Leiter seems to think that Critchley means that continental philosophers in general adopted one particular approach to resolving Kantian dualisms; this, clearly, is false. Some attempted to assimilate practical norms to theoretical ones; others attempted the reverse (Henrich’s “The Concept of Moral Insight” gives a concise summary of these attempts in German Idealism). That is: the questions of whether the “unifying principle” must be theoretical or practical, and of whether the dualisms are genuine dualisms or false ones grounded on an underlying mistake, were part and parcel of the overall question of how the dualisms are to be unified.

Furthermore, Critchley certainly does not claim that all attempts to deal with the problems raised by Kant were metaphysical or epistemological attempts. As I just mentioned, some argued for the assimilation (in some way) of the theoretical to the practical. That Marx rejected all metaphysical and epistemological speculation that did not bear concretely on praxis does not mean that Marx belongs to an entirely different philosophical tradition from German Idealism, but that he develops a new notion of the practical in order to avoid the dualism. I do not believe that Critchley means that continental philosophers took Kant’s characterization of theoretical and practical knowledge at face value and then attempted to unify the two (that characterization would hardly be sufficient for any German Idealists, let alone 20th century thinkers). The search for a “unifying principle” may well have required both sides of the dualism to be redefined, or for the dualism to be rejected as an illusion. Any charitable reading of Critchley, or of German philosophy after Kant, seems to require such a recognition.

It should be clear, by now, that I have been interpreting the problem raised by Kant in a very general way as, essentially, a problem of the relation between the theoretical and the practical. This problem includes questions about which of these has priority, as well as questions about whether one might not simply be an expression of the other or, for that matter, whether both might not be expressions of some third category; any of these approaches would involve, in some way, producing a unifying principle of the sort Critchley refers to. Furthermore, it seems fairly clear that the relation between the theoretical and the practical does underlie a good deal of work in the continental tradition, including Heidegger (c.f. Gerold Prauss’s work on the topic), Gadamer, and a fair amount of Husserl’s later work. Moreover, the fact that in much of the tradition the practical has emerged victorious can be tied to the earlier claim about the concern with emancipation: the prioritizing of praxis over theory is a kind of emancipation, because what is in question is our praxis, our role in constructing theory and epistemology.

If we assume that Critchley meant that continental philosophers were concerned explicitly with the problems of Kant's Third Critique and in precisely the form in which Kant raised those problems, then he is of course wrong. But if he means that a major concern of much of the continental tradition was to address the division between theory and practice—a division that in Kant first became a fundamental problem for philosophy—we might wonder whether he is far off the mark.

Finally, let me add that I agree with Leiter on one point: there is no such thing as a continental tradition, but rather a range of different traditions, which I think ended up being lumped together when one tradition—that emanating from the Vienna Circle—became a dominant tradition against which all the others were defined. But this does not mean that the various thinkers in the various continental traditions might not have some similarities. We might recall that most French philosophers in the last century studied at the same place; those who were contemporaries often studied with the same people (particularly, some slightly idiosyncratic Hegel scholars) and knew each other well. Some continuity of thought among them therefore seems likely. As for Germany, most were influenced (positively or negatively) by Neo-Kantianism and, a little later, by Heidegger. Husserl, Hegel, and Marx were also major influences on large contingents. In any case, back on the Leiter/Critchley topic and the thought of Critchley's book that Leiter did not address: that the analytic/continental divide is not a "natural category," but an invention of the British mind. This, too, might suggest some need for charity in reading what Critchley has to say about the continental tradition (singular).


  1. Husserl's Crisis text seems to be very much concerned with emancipation. No?

  2. Seems that way. It would just be difficult, I think, to say that emancipation is really the central concern of Husserl's phenomenology, so I'll grant Leiter that much. But it is definitely a concern.

  3. This is certainly a charitable and not uninteresting attempt to make sense of Critchley's remarks. I very much doubt the charity is warranted, even if we were to look to the rest of Critchley's text on the subject. For reasons of time, I'll just comment on one point you make above. The reason Nietzsche's relative ignorance of German Idealism is pertinent in this context is precisely because it was the Idealists who treated "overcoming the dualisms" of the Third Critique as the central problematic, and much of Idealism can be, it seems to me, intelligibly reconstructed around that issue. But with post-Kantian Idealism moribund by mid-century, it would be quite surprising (and require some actual evidence, for which Critchley has none) to find someone like Nietzsche thinking of his philosophical work in these terms. To be sure, if one is willing to treat "overcoming the dualisms" quite loosely and metaphorically, and to abstract away entirely from the actual philosophical problem German Idealism took itself to confront, then one can probably force lots of philosophers (not only so-called Ccontinental ones) into that Procrustean bed. But the intellectual and philosophical point of such an exercise is hard to see.

  4. Dear Professor Leiter,

    I agree that "overcoming the dualisms" and "finding a unifying principle" may both need to be taken in a rather broad sense if we are to give a description that includes most of the thinkers in the continental traditions yet excludes most in the anglo-american tradition. Here is one very incomplete suggestion: we might attempt to think of the project as involving both aspects: overcoming the dualisms by finding a unifying principle. This would include recognizing the dualisms as involving separate principles and attempting to find an underlying source that can account for the richness of both. This would exclude reductionism, but also the sort of naturalism that seeks to reduce all truths (theoretical and moral) to the findings of science. (There are plenty in the anglo-american tradition to whom neither of these descriptions would apply especially well, so more tweaking would be needed, and there will be exceptions to any general description.)

    But let me here take up Nietzsche, with the disclaimer that I am certainly not a Nietzsche scholar and my knowledge of his work is rusty. First, I agree that the will to power does not seem a likely candidate for a unifying principle, nor does it strike me as the central notion of Nietzsche’s work, though it is connected to usefulness. Truths, whether theoretical (“On Truth and Lie”) or moral (“Genealogy”), are made true by their usefulness to a group. There is thus a principle, of a sort, through which theoretical and practical principles are united. The highest values, furthermore, are aimed at the flourishing, specifically the creative flourishing, of higher men. So here we find a sort of appeal to aesthetics as the highest criterion of usefulness (echoing, in some ways, the role played by beauty as a philosophical keystone from Kant to Heidegger and beyond).

    Furthermore, it is significant that Nietzsche does not simply reduce moral truths to truths of another kind. In fact, he explicitly criticizes utilitarianism for doing so. Instead, he offers a genealogy, which on the one hand gives the ground of moral principles in usefulness (to some group) while, on the other, refuses to simplify those principles by reducing them directly. He offers also a genealogy of responsibility. In this way, moral content is separated from responsibility through their alternative genealogies, though the richness of both is maintained. What is incompatible with usefulness, of course, is freedom, and so this principle has to go, but that is possible precisely because Nietzsche has already made the argument that neither morality nor responsibility require freedom. The connections between morality, responsibility, and freedom are of course found in many forms of moral philosophy, but they are at the forefront of Kant's approach; specifically, responsibility and the moral law serve Kant as a priori evidence for the existence of freedom. Nietzsche's strategy, then, can be read as a very direct attack on the Kantian system, in showing that a principle of freedom is not necessary: it is not necessary because we can account for both morality and responsibility in terms of nature without reducing either notion to a mere caricature.

    In other words, I wonder whether it is not fairly simple to see Nietzsche as attempting to overcome the Kantian dualisms without, at the same time, thinking of him as simply continuing the project of German Idealism.

  5. I wouldn't think of Nietzsche as a German Idealist - rather, he is a critic of idealism in all its forms. It's worth noting that Hegel is often considered to be the last of the German Idealists.

  6. Hi Robert,

    I am, of course, not claiming that Nietzsche is a German Idealist; my last comment, in fact, pretty clearly implies otherwise. This should not be taken to mean, however, that there can be no points of commonality between Nietzsche and German Idealism. I would even suggest that criticism of a position necessarily presupposes some shared assumptions. We spend a lot of time today classifying thinkers as belonging to this or that philosophical school; this should not blind us into thinking those categories represent absolute divisions, rather than merely interpretatively convenient categories.

    I also wonder whether it makes sense, in light of, say, "On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense", to speak of Nietzsche as being a critic of idealism in all its forms.

  7. I'm a bit baffled how members of a tradition could all happen to be concerned with emancipation if they don't agree (and surely they don't) on neither what we need emancipated from nor on the means by which we may be emancipated. Is it just passed down that there is something or other out there from which we need emancipated in some sense or other?