Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Belated Note on Gutting on the Analytic-Continental Divide

I'm guessing everyone who might read this blog caught Gutting's piece on Bridging the Analytic-Continental Divide when it first appeared in The Stone way back. I'm a fan of Gutting, generally, but have to say that something about this piece didn't quite work for me: if Gutting is right about what continental philosophy is about, in any case, it seems like it can't be written more clearly. That's upsetting.

The problem is this. If, as Gutting says, there is a powerful current of continental philosophy that tries "to think what is impossible" (and, for that matter, if the aim of phenomenology is to get beneath the concepts of common sense and find their conditions of possibility), it seems to follow that much continental philosophy cannot be written clearly. What is impossible to think in principle cannot be thought clearly. And whatever involves expanding, or getting beneath our concepts, cannot be clearly thought until it has become common sense--that is, until our conceptual apparatus has managed to absorb it. (Incidentally, this is why I'm a bit confused by Gutting's suggestion that the phenomenological and post-phenomenological approaches, the philosophies of experience and imagination, as he terms them, are in tension with each other.)

So if one takes these continental tasks to be worthwhile, then one cannot simply say that continental thinkers need to write more clearly so analytic thinkers can understand them. Rather, if these tasks really are worthwhile, then analytic philosophers must get better at understanding them on their own terms, or at least they must meet halfway. For that matter, what are we to make of the claim that not "much of serious philosophical value is lost in the clarity of analytic commentaries on Heidegger, Derrida, et al."? I can't speak about Derrida, et al., but quite a bit is lost in most analytic commentaries on Heidegger that I've read--temporality, for example! Of course continental commentaries have their own serious problems (why would you need a commentary on Heidegger that is even more opaque than the original?). This is exactly why it's generally important to read original sources. Of course I applaud Gutting's pragmatic streak here--it's better for analytic philosophers to read analytic commentaries on the continentals than not to read them at all. The problem is that we can't tell what is lost without checking for ourselves.

But the more significant problem remains this: that if Gutting is right about what is truly valuable in continental philosophy, I can't see how it could be made clear. And while I agree with his insistence that continental philosophy could and should be more clearly written, I can't see how that could be possible given his characterization of it.

And speaking of The Stone, our most recent disaster is Julian Friedland making a mockery of the pretty obvious--from a semantic standpoint, anyway--claim that philosophy is not a science. Another one of Critchley's friends? Who still thinks that psychologists can work from armchairs with their eyes closed? Post 19th Century? Really?

Ending on a more positive note, Iskra Fileva's recent piece on Character and its Discontents was good, though I worry slightly that she might be conflating two senses of character that really should be sharply distinguished--the sense in which having a character means resisting external influences (or, more felicitously, maintaining one's way of behaving despite external incentives to deviate), and the sense in which having a character just means being disposed to respond to external influences (otherwise known as motives). I hope she gets that essay prize!

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