Given the recent discussions over at the New Apps blog, I want to briefly comment on a question in some ways at the heart of things: why is so much continental philosophy so bad?
I think there are at least two reasons. The first is sociological. Given the professional rift between analytic and continental philosophers, and given that the dominant side of that rift has little interest in talking to the other, often enough bashing it openly, there is little incentive for continental philosophers to talk across the divide or to try to engage with the “other side.” This is a shame. It rests on the idea that philosophy consists of “figures,” owned by “sides,” so that the “figures” studied by the “other side” don’t need to be read (this is particularly ironic, given the continental trope of emphasizing the significance of the Other!). The refusal to speak across traditions undermines the idea of philosophy as universal, instead seeing it as consisting of parochial local traditions. I am still old-school enough to think that, although obviously much of what philosophers do addresses local, parochial concerns, good philosophy must aim to speak with a universal import. When philosophers cannot make themselves understandable by other philosophers, there is a breakdown. When philosophers do not care about making themselves understandable by other philosophers, they are no longer doing philosophy. The sociological effect of the analytic/continental divide is thus two-fold. On the one hand, it leads analytic philosophers to ignore, and feel fully content and justified in ignoring, much of the philosophy produced on the continent over the last century or more. On the other hand, it lowers the quality of much work on that philosophy by eliminating the need to approach it clearly, rigorously, and critically. The last part is especially important. Being critical means not simply finding the limits of someone’s thought (oh, look, there’s an aporia! How profound!), but also clearing away the chaff covering over the kernel of truth, and bringing that kernel to fruition: criticism involves a certain amount of disrespect, a willingness to challenge some of a thinker’s ideas as obvious bullshit in order to salvage what has genuine value. I believe Nietzsche once ridiculed philosophers for thinking that their systems would survive the test of time, when in fact only the building bricks of those systems had any chance of making it. It is crucial for thinkers immersed in, say, Derrida to be able to find the core worth preserving and to be willing to ruthlessly excise the rest.
This leads to the second reason. The 20th Century saw a deep skepticism about the system-building of the (early) 19th Century. But a key component of that system-building remained in place to some extent, and came back with a vengeance in Heidegger and, more importantly, in the French philosophy of the ‘60s. Take Kant: it is now widely alleged that he invented the empiricist/rationalist distinction, cleaving philosophers with similar concerns and orientations into two distinct camps. As a result of this reading of the history of philosophy, Kant could reconcile the two sides. (I am not, of course, implying that Kant only solved—or attempted to solve—a problem of his own making. But the reading of history was instrumental to framing the problem in the particular way that Kant did.) Thus, idiosyncratically interpreting the history of philosophy became a centerpiece of system-building, with pernicious effects. Giving one’s own interpretation of a history allows one to set one’s own rules for doing philosophy: to set up certain problems as central, to invent a specialized terminology for addressing them, to provide a foundation for further investigation. Kant clearly succeeded: his vision of history, and consequently his view of the central problems and his terminology (if not his actual system) pervaded Western philosophy and became inextricable from it. Heidegger attempted something similar—a reinterpretation of history that highlighted the question of being—with somewhat more mixed results: his terminology was adopted on much of the European continent, but rejected by Anglophone philosophers as excessive and nonsensical. But the adoption in Europe had serious effects: in the ‘60s and after, it began to seem as if every French philosopher was compelled to invent his or her own reading of history, view of central problems, and specialized vocabulary. Take a look, for just one admirably clear example, at Latour’s 1991 We Have Never Been Modern, where he bolsters his network theory by—you guessed it—giving a selective reading of the history of Western philosophy!
What is the result? Keep in mind that the entire point of giving one’s own version of the history of philosophy is to foreground particular problems and to (attempt to) standardize a particular terminology. Two people from different traditions are unlikely to share a vocabulary or common views of key problems. But the result of the French appropriation of (especially later) Heidegger was just to create a distinct tradition as a bubble around every philosopher. In a 2005 interview, Baudrillard said that, “There are no more French intellectuals. What you call French intellectuals have been destroyed by the media. They talk on television, they talk to the press and they are no longer talking among themselves.” His view is no doubt clearer than mine, but it is an interesting development. To my mind, we cannot overlook the importance of the following fact: the vast majority of French intellectuals, philosophers in particular, attended a single institution of higher learning: the École normale supérieure. Imagine if the only people for whom you wrote, to whom you hoped to make your thinking clear, had virtually the same education as you, the same teachers, the same readings of history of philosophy. The result would be that you would belong to a group that had its own tradition, separated by terminological (and other) gulfs from other traditions that, nevertheless, shared the same “history,” in the sense of the same objective set of historical references. But then imagine if part of this tradition was that each member of it were to go their own way by reinterpreting the history in their own, idiosyncratic way, against an already idiosyncratic background! Each would construct, in effect, their own tradition. It is not only the media, in other words, that is responsible for French intellectuals not talking to each other, as Baudrillard suggested. It is the fact that, in a real sense, when a group of individuals each have their own sense of tradition, their own terminology, and their own “central” concerns, there is a sense in which they cannot talk to each other (though of course their readings of history, their “traditions,” are likely to have enough of a family resemblance to allow for a fair bit of communication at times)—and talking to anyone outside the group becomes virtually impossible!
A result of this was that philosophers who wanted to study the French philosophy of the ‘60s had no choice but to immerse themselves in a new terminology, a new reading of history, a new understanding of central problems. To understand someone like Derrida, there is a sense that one must immerse themselves in his “world” or “tradition” to such an extent that one’s new understanding has little in common with anything outside that tradition. Bridge-building becomes exceptionally difficult, and can be overtaken in the first place only by someone who sees the value of interacting with other traditions, thus, someone who respects and recognizes the value of those other traditions themselves. (You will have no incentive to make yourself understood to analytic philosophers if you haven’t bothered to understand any of the analytic core issues or why they are interesting—and in fact we do find, in continental circles, some typical primitive misunderstandings of analytic philosophy as retrograde, simplistic, and “subjectivist”, without a clear understanding of what one is so opposed to and why, aside from the fact that some of the assumptions of this tradition still make sense, and thus seem to be conservative, not up to date with the great shifts of the ‘60s; the irony, of course, is that so much “continental” philosophy these days is immensely retrograde, focusing entirely on interpretation of texts that are 40 years old, with little by way of progress! This in addition to the aforementioned irony that people so frequently interested in the Other should be so unwilling to actually encounter and address the Other.) Continental philosophy, under current sociological divides, and given the interest in making sense of the primary sources in such a way that almost precludes making sense of them to others outside the tradition, is thus almost fated to be, for the most part, quite bad. Even when it strives for clarity—and I want to commend here Gary Gutting’s spectacular history of French Philosophy in the Twentieth Century—massive problems remain in terms of making sense of how these thinkers or anything they say could be made relevant to analytic philosophy today. This is the problem. People like Gutting, Lee Braver, Linda Alcoff, and many others have tried seriously to undertake such tasks. This is the kind of “continental” philosophy worth supporting, with the hope that it will transcend the parochial divides and challenge the self-enclosed continental establishment in order to make it better, to force it to do philosophy rather than focusing too exclusively on how others have done philosophy, and to bring it to the fold of the universal.