Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Why Bother Talking to Analytic Philosophers?

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?

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Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Why is so much Continental Philosophy so Bad?

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.

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