Continental philosophers interested in communicating with their analytic analytic counterparts sometimes express frustration: why should they have to do all the work? It sometimes seems as if, in such situations, continental philosophers have to completely translate someone like Heidegger into analytic-speak and then relate the translation to clear, current problems in the analytic literature. That’s a lot of work! And for what? To get people who refuse to read Heidegger—obstinately, it seems—to accept that yes, maybe Heidegger had one good idea somewhere? At least, that’s what it can look like, and in light of this it isn’t surprising that so many continental philosophers want to retreat into an echo chamber of textual exegesis. Why bother to explain something, one might ask, to people who seem to have no interest in what you’re explaining, and who certainly won’t meet you halfway, but expect you to come to them? This isn’t helped by the fact that some analytic philosophers—though I think significantly fewer than one might expect—are actively hostile to continental thought. Consider, for example, this missive on Heidegger by Simon Blackburn, who seems to have skimmed Heidegger for the explicit purpose of criticizing him (to balance things, it may be worth noting that Blackburn did something similar with regard to Donald Davidson, though I’m not sure how comparable that hatchet job is). Or, perhaps even worse, Paul Edwards’s seemingly intentional misreading of Heidegger (there are few authors one can’t perversely misread if one sets one’s mind to it and if one’s colleagues will praise—rather than condemn—one for doing so). Ugliest of all, perhaps, a blurb from J.J.C. Smart on the back of the Edwards book claims that Edwards “explains clearly why those of us who are repelled by Heidegger’s style of philosophizing are right not to read him.” With garbage like this in the air, a Heidegger scholar might be excused for thinking that these here analytic fellows just aren’t worth talking to.
Thankfully, much of that is old news, and my sense—though I could be wrong—is that the sort of hostility evidenced by Blackburn, Edwards, and Smart, is significantly less common. Far more commonly, I’ve run into indifference, incomprehension, and even interest coupled with uncertainty about just how—even if this stuff is interesting—one could say something philosophical about it. These attitudes are far more reasonable. But so what? Why, continental philosophers might ask, is it worth doing all the work for these people? Well, it is pretty common for continental philosophers to complain about being marginalized, and consequently many will insist that the analytic/continental divide—a condition if not the only source of the marginalization—needs to be done away with. (Of course there is also another tendency: a tendency to complain that analytics aren’t doing real, deep, profound philosophy; that sort of garbage exists on both sides of the divide, and is usually backed up by a complete ignorance of what the other side has been doing for the past 10-100 years.) The divide, clearly, will not go away unless continental philosophers take analytic work seriously and vice versa. Now, those on the continental side clearly have it in their power to start reading analytic work, but just how would they get those on the analytic side to start reading continental work? What, short of complaining about how analytics are all closed-minded throwbacks, are they to do? Or, to put it another way: if you are a continental philosopher, and you think analytic philosophers ought to be reading work from the continent, just how do you imagine this might happen?
Well, it won’t happen magically, and it won’t happen through attempts to “shame” analytic philosophers into wanting to learn more continental philosophy, and the reason is simple: the incentives to do so are very small. Given the way academic philosophy is structured, and given that continental writing has a tendency to be impermeable without the proper background, analytic philosophers—even those who are not hostile to continental thought—just have no real incentive to delve into it. (This isn’t helped by the fact that, if you are used to reading 20 page papers that make very clear points, reading 400 page tomes that make rather nebulous points, which are hard to pick out or explain in concrete terms, is likely to be a hard sell. Several exceptionally good philosophers have told me, with no condescension or hostility, that they just can’t make sense of Heidegger.) If that situation is to change at all, how? That is, how can the incentive structure be changed? I doubt it can be changed first at the institutional level—i.e., by restructuring departments to train students more broadly—because that would require first changing the incentives of the people responsible for structuring departments. So, how to do that?
Well, one incentive to read work is that reading it and writing about it gets one published; but that's not an incentive continental philosophers have much control over, and it would take a sea-change for this to become a relevant incentive—writing on continental philosophy is among the surest ways, at the moment, to exclude oneself from publishing in most highly ranked journals. Another incentive is to convince people that they need to understand something because it can contribute to their work. Many philosophers are, I think (or like to think), intellectually curious and intellectually honest (at least to an extent), and if they are convinced that reading something will help them think through a problem they are working on, this will give them an incentive to read it. Think, for example, about what Rawls and his students did for Kant: virtually nobody was reading Kant, at least in anything but an absurdly superficial way, until Rawls and his students showed that everyone, even committed Humeans, simply has to read Kant in order to make any sense of normativity and the special status of morality (if there is such) among other normative claims. Similarly, telling people, "Hey, you should really read Heidegger because he's soooooo deep" isn't going to get them to read him (it is more common for people to believe that this might work than you’d expect; especially, I think, among grad students, and especially among grad students who are very into Heidegger—and this isn’t meant as a condescending jab at all; I certainly used to think like this). Even if they believe you, they have a lot of other crap to read, arranged in not so neat piles all over their desks, floors, and perhaps beds. But if you show them how Heidegger can speak to their own interests, in their own words (or at least words they can understand), you have a shot at getting them to read him.
This is all pretty obvious, I think. So what’s the point of bringing it up? Well, the main point is simply this: complaints that analytic philosophers need to just stop being mean to continental philosophy and start reading it are off the mark. Given existing incentive structures, analytic philosophers are, for the most part, perfectly rational in not reading continental philosophy. (There are cautionary tales about going back and forth: I jumped from largely continental to largely analytic reading at the dissertation stage… and that’s how I spent nine years in grad school, boys and girls.) So railing at analytic philosophers and calling them names because they aren’t running out to get a copy of Being and Time, Difference and Repetition, or Oneself as Another isn’t just unproductive—it’s completely mistaken. It assumes that, if people aren’t reading something you find important, those people must be intentionally obstinate jerks, determined to remain in the dark ages and perversely persecuting you and your favorite philosophers for being so enlightened. But that’s not it at all. Nobody can read every book out there, and most people are going to read what they need to in order to make sense of the projects they are working on. So why not try to explain to them why they should be working the projects you are interested in? And if they don’t understand a word coming out of your mouth, instead of taking this as further proof of their inferior philosophical acumen, why not take it as a sign that maybe you’re not being quite as clear as an expert like yourself ought to be, and that maybe that’s something to work on?