Friday, February 8, 2008

Do Continental Philosophers Have Arguments?

It isn’t so uncommon to meet someone who thinks that continental philosophers don’t make arguments. I suspect that often this is the result of not having read much, if any, continental philosophy. But of course that isn’t the whole explanation. Perhaps some people have picked up the notion that continental philosophers don’t make arguments from others, but then those others, at some point, must have picked up the notion somewhere. So here I want to briefly say that the answer is: yes. Continental philosophers do make arguments. I am happy to refer anyone who doubts this to, e.g., sections 19-21 of Heidegger’s Being and Time, which feature his phenomenological critique of Descartes. Or to Badiou’s critique of Levinas in his Ethics (pp. 18-23 in Verso’s English translation). The real question is, why might it seem like continental philosophers do not employ arguments? The answer, I think, is that readers trained to recognize the analytic style of argument might often read a continental argument without noticing that it is an argument at all. I have already pointed out one reason for this in a previous post: continental philosophers have a tendency to embed their arguments within a wider conceptual scheme, in such a way that the arguments for the scheme and the arguments within the scheme are co-dependent.

But I think there is another reason why continental arguments often get missed, and this seems to me to reflect a general difference in the way analytic and continental philosophers understand the purpose of argument (an obvious but important point before I start: I am not describing a methodology common to all continental philosophers; nor am I describing a methodology that no analytic philosophers apply). Let me start this train of thought by saying something about arguments, which I hope will not come off as overly controversial or anti-rational: Knock-down arguments, at least against widely accepted positions, are exceedingly rare. Strong arguments, of course, are not all that uncommon. But strong arguments are not knock-down arguments; they are not, in other words, arguments the conclusion of which pretty much any reader must accept under pain of contradiction. Philosophers generally spend some time—a lifetime, or perhaps a week—thinking out a position, and they don’t abandon it lightly. If the position is at all cogent—or, sometimes, even if it isn’t but provides support for another position that many people want supported—it is unlikely to be dropped instantly in response to an argument.

The obvious point that philosophers generally tend to hold on to their positions has ramifications as well, ones that are familiar to anyone who opens an analytic journal. What typically happens when a strong argument is presented is not that the target of the argument rolls over, but that the target comes up with a defense, or a way of preserving her original position by either undermining the critique or avoiding its implications. This need not be understood as the product of simple ego inflation, though there is some of that, coupled with pressures to publish (I am, for example, somewhat at a loss for how else to explain the decades of literature about Frankfurt Examples). There are certainly solid philosophical reasons for maintaining an established position—it is, after all, established for a reason; presumably, it provides a particularly strong approach to some problem, or it lacks the deeper difficulties of its competitors. The point, though, is that a debate can often go back and forth indefinitely, and the waning of such a debate or the prominence of a position is often attributable to factors that have little to do with the rational force of particular arguments.

And here I want to suggest that one typical (though not universal) continental approach to arguments arises out of this recognition: arguments are viewed not so much as techniques used to demonstrate an opponent’s flaw, but rather as attempts to make intelligible underlying issues. An example (though not a continental one): Galen Strawson has argued that moral responsibility is impossible, because it requires of an agent that she be capable of self-creation. Certainly both compatibilists and libertarians have replies to this argument. But the strength of the argument seems to me to lie not in its point (since its point is, really, just the restatement of a very old problem and, as such, hardly worth restating again), but in its ability to make that old point—a point that, in its longevity, seems to reveal a deep underlying philosophical concern—intelligible within a different idiom and conceptual scheme. So while an analytic philosopher might take the arguments primarily as something to be defended or refuted, a continental philosopher may be more likely to look at the context of the arguments on both sides and to search for the deeper conceptual problems involved. Often this involves a method of looking for aporias (a method Ricoeur calls “aporetics”)—points at which both sides have been so thoroughly defended that the fruitful response is not to contribute to one side or the other, but instead to take the problem to be for all intents and purposes insoluble, and to seek the reason for this insolubility in the conceptual scheme common to both sides.

The goal of a continental argument, then, is often not to attempt to resolve a philosophical problem directly, but to try to make the problem itself clearer by providing an intelligible picture of why the problem appears so intractable in the first place. This may seem unphilosophical and, really, unsatisfying to those committed to solving the problem; but it involves the recognition that some problems cannot be solved, and they cannot be solved not because the terms of the problem are badly defined, or because a master argument has not yet been found, but because the problem itself arises out of a mistaken schema. One consequence is that this tends to make continental writing less contentious and more conciliatory—another reason that arguments might seem to be lacking. It is conciliatory in the sense that often continental writing proceeds not by attempting to show that a particular view is wrong, but instead by showing that it is inadequate to grasping a deeper problem. But instead of simply rejecting the view, the method often goes on to seek the truth of the position, roughly, what is right about the position in the sense that it can be used to make sense of the underlying issue. (An excellent example of this is Ricoeur’s writing in Oneself as Another—he begins by showing that P. F. Strawson’s account of persons in Individuals, according to which persons are the bearers of physical and mental properties, is insufficient for an account of selfhood, and yet throughout his argument in the book he returns to Strawson, reminding us that this dual attribution has to be kept in mind throughout.) I suppose this mode of argumentation comes from an assimilation of Hegel into the philosophical culture.

What may make this continental approach hard to recognize as argumentation, then, is that it lacks two features common to analytic argumentation:

1. Problems are often approached not by addressing them head-on, but instead by examining their context.

2. Positions shown to be “wrong” or inadequate are not simply rejected, but partially incorporated into a wider narrative.

This is, to be sure, a different way of doing philosophy, yet its credentials to legitimacy, especially as a form of argumentation, strike me as well-grounded.

Update: There's been some further discussion, and a very nice reading that makes my point sound much better than it is, over at Rough Theory.


  1. Do you think that Wittgenstein's notion of escaping oneself from the bewitchment of language is similar to your idea here? A philosophical problem has the form: I don't know my way about. Could we call this philosophical therapy?

  2. There is certainly some similarity here, but I'm suggesting something different from philosophical therapy. The goal of therapy as I understand it, roughly, is to explain the problem away; it is to show that, once some basic terms are understood, there isn't really a problem there at all. I am suggesting, on the other hand, an approach on which one doesn't explain the problem away, but finds it to be expressive of a deeper problem. This kind of therapy doesn't make the problem go away; it shows the problem to be a symptom of a deeper illness, one might say. This is an approach on which philosophy does not solve problems, and also doesn't do away with them. It places them within a wider context, a larger narrative.

  3. meh, I don't know who's saying that they don't make any arguments, but I know that people are saying that they make less of them, and the ones that they do make are much more muddled

  4. I have a radical suggestion:
    Both continental and analytical philosophers are chiefly interested in signaling that they are smart, or at least--whether they realize it or not—they spend a great deal of time laboring toward this effect. The difference in their styles is mainly a function of the fact that in America "smartness" is associated with a crisper, more explicit style of argumentation than in Europe, hence the differences in style.

    --M's Bro

  5. Shh! Don't give away our secret! (You forgot to mention that in Europe, smartness may also be associated with knowing a lot of names and even some of the work associated with those names, having at least some [literary] style to one's writing, and not repeating things that at least ten articles have already said in the same year...; in the US, smartness is associated with a more egalitarian attempt to write so that [supposedly] a wider audience can understand you, knowing lots of science [because science is Truth and the closer you come to it the more you partake of its essence], and maybe giving the impression that you are expounding a radical new thesis instead of expounding a radical new thesis [since people who do that might come off looking stupid].)


    yeah, that too. But I think different approaches to argument and to the function of philosophy in general can also account for the appearance of muddled arguments (and, of course, if a lot of the arguments don't look like arguments to you, you're more likely to think that there are fewer of them)

  6. I still think it is the case that there is one proper aim of argumentation, and I still believe that CPers are actually arguing for something. Take your example of Ricoeur's aporetics. Isn't it just that he is arguing definitively for the insolubility of the problem of free-will? It's either that or contextualizing an issue beyond the immediate dialectic in which the problem surfaces is just doing a history of philosophy.

    Secondly, I used to know a B. Rouss from If it be you, Brian, then hit me up, JediKnightTage aka Ed of

  7. Hi Vancouver,

    I don't think anything you say really suggests that there is "one proper aim of argumentation." You actually seem to just assume that in the rest of your remark, and then go on to say that either Ricoeur is making an argument, or he is just doing history of philosophy.

    Let me clarify a misunderstanding: Ricoeur doesn't apply his aporetics to the free will problem (unfortunately); that's just my pet project, so I used it as an example to demonstrate the style (Ricoeur uses it instead to show the insufficiency of various attempts to grasp personal identity).

    What I want to suggest, though, is that there really are two different ways of making an argument--whether these involve different aims of argumentation, I really don't know. If the aim of an argument is to convince, then yes. If the aim is to clarify the dispute itself, then I'm not sure the analytic mode is generally aimed there (although of course clarifying the problem is part and parcel of analytic writing, I don't think it is the aim of a typical analytic argument.

    Can you really argue that the problem of free will is insoluble? That depends. If there is one clear problem of free will, then one can't prove that it is insoluble. What one can do, however, is point out that the problem of free will, like any philosophical problem, is at least partly a conceptual problem. And the concepts involved are embedded within contexts of philosophical assumptions and premises and standards of intelligibility. And insofar as these undergo historical change, there problem itself will keep changing. In this sense, one can show that the problem of free will--if it is taken to be not a single problem, but a general term for a class of problems that are context-dependent in their expressions--is insoluble because it is not a single problem to solve.

    So, what one can do is point to the debate around the problem at a particular point in history, take the debate itself as indicative of the context involved in generating this form of the debate, and attempt to re-interpret the context, with the form of the debate as the guide according to which one makes the context itself intelligible.

    This is, in some sense, doing history of philosophy. But it is doing history of philosophy as a mode of philosophical argument.

  8. Hey Roman

    In one of your comments, you said that the approach you are talking about tries to express a deeper problem instead of explaining the problem away. This makes sense to me, but does it bottom out? Will there always be a deeper problem? You say that the approach places things in a wider context, but it seems like eventually you will either have to solve the problem or dissolve it. I don't see how you can just continually place things in a larger narrative because it eventually you will run out of space, so to speak. There has only been a finite amount of narrative, so it doesn't seem like you can keep going on and on expanding the context wider and wider. Perhaps I am missing something though.

  9. Hi Gary,

    This is definitely a problem I've wondered about. Does the process go on forever? How is that possible?

    Here's my thought, which is very open to change. I would simply deny the claim that the amount of narrative is finite. It's true that the amount of narrative that has already occurred (i.e., philosophy up to now) is finite. But, much as a story can undergo infinite variation in its telling and re-telling, so the finite narrative becomes infinite in our interpretations and re-interpretations of it. This follows, I think, if we do not assume that there is exactly one correct meaning to any text (and, frankly, I just don't think there's much going for that thesis any longer). This is one side of the issue: the narrative up to now, though finite, becomes infinite in our re-interpretation of it.

    And then there's the other side: the narrative is constantly growing, with no logical limit. Our re-interpretations of the narrative themselves contribute to a change in the existing narrative, and a further proliferation.

    So I would say that the narrative is not limited: it keeps changing, both because the way we understand the past of philosophy is open to infinite variation, and because the future of philosophy is infinitely open.

    My suggestion was that the goal is to find a deeper problem by finding the context in which the surface problem you start with becomes more intelligible; but intelligibility is always context-dependent, so if the context is infinite, then the process can, in principle, go on infinitely. (This involves seeing philosophy as something other than the search for truth, where truth is conceived as the final word on an issue. I don't have much of a problem with this. We can make progress in philosophy without thinking that there is a terminal point.)

  10. Hello Roman,

    I guess I did implicitly assume obnoxiously that either Ricoeur's aporetics is an example of an argument meant to convince someone on insolubility on a point, regardless of whether the issue is personal identity or free will.

    Could we say that the purpose of argumentation is still to convince, but think of convincingness in terms of degrees. In a sense, even in history of philosophy, there are still arguments. I argue for an interpretation I think most salient to Kant's notion of the imagination for instance. I am still making an argument, but the sphere of that argument is only directed to say someone influenced by Allison or Wood on Kant that doesn't follow the Heideggerian/Sallis line of thinking about Kant.

    When you make an argument to clarify the dispute itself, then what you are doing is showing a failure of a dialectic to take into account something that needs to be accounted for. You are still doing philosophy to convince interlocutors--in this case, it just is all sides not accounting for what's missing. I still think this is compatible with the analytic mode of making an argument.

    I wonder if we have just reached similar conclusions without realizing it.

  11. Dude, did you just lump Heidegger together with Sallis?

    I agree with most of this, and as I said before, yes, I do think all arguments aim to convince. (And there are definitely arguments, vicious ones, in the history of philosophy! Both about the plausibility of a certain interpretation, and about the plausibility of a certain view. And these are, of course, related.) But I'm a little confused about where you're going with this point.

    Are you saying that analytic and continental philosophers are just employing different styles of argument because they're speaking to different audiences? Or that the maximal degree of convincingness calls for an argument that attempts to find what both sides are missing?

    As for whether this is compatible with the analytic style, again, I think it is often done, but on the side, as part of developing a more direct argument for or against a position within the active debate. Maybe there are analytic philosophers who focus on the approach I have in mind. (Sometimes Nagel seems to go in that direction, for example.) But I can't really think of many, and I don't think it's a prominent analytic strategy. Any examples you're thinking of?

  12. Roman,

    Great post, well argued, fun issue.

    First off, am I missing something, or do you end up suggesting that most analytics use formal argumentation in what is actually a hermeneutic spirit. The aim is not really to convince in a single knock out or even TKO, but to clarify the crux of an issue or to recontextualize a less familiar topic into a more familiar idiom. If so, fine, I certainly agree. But can we conclude from this that they aren't so different after all? Could we not just as well conclude that, while the difference may not be between an argumentative and an interpretive approach, the difference is still large as ever, only within two very different approaches to interpretation?

    Secondly, I wonder if you let the continentals off the hook too easily. What you describe is certainly how most contintental philosophers would describe what ideally they are up to....but, so many in fact aren't. Much of continental philosophy might be compared to biblical interpretation, where one certainly finds arguments of sorts, but only of the severely question-begging sort. Finally, and leading off from this latter point, while analytic philosophers certainly spend a lot of time on the minutiae of fruitless and pointless arguments, at least they're making arguments, and are therefore less susceptible to outright sophistry.

  13. Hey Michael,

    I don't think I say anything to contradict your second paragraph. Sure, I think a lot of continental philosophy ends up being bad, precisely because there is not attention given to formal argument. Philosophical arguments, not just analytic ones, but arguments throughout the history of philosophy, often have a formal structure, and no hermeneutics can grasp them without a proper grasp of that formal structure. Additionally, I think that mediocre analytic philosophy at least makes clear points, while mediocre continental philosophy is just words arranged in peculiar ways. My point, though, is that continental philosophy (at least of the kind I am pointing to) can be done well, and when it is, its philosophical elements might still be missed by someone looking for a more direct form of argument.

    About the first paragraph: I don't think I am saying that most analytic philosophers work in a hermeneutic spirit. I would say, rather, that many end up doing some hermeneutics but without a hermeneutic spirit. One obvious reason for this is that philosophical problems and their proposed solutions are treated (at least implicitly) as trans-historical ideal objects, which is anathema to any real hermeneutics. So sure, there are different views of interpretation involved. But I also think the goals to which interpretation is put are very different. So I am actually trying to resist the view that analytic and continental approaches aren't so different after all, and the difference in argumentative and interpretive approaches is an even bigger difficulty for bridgebuilding work than the more obvious differences in language and substantive background assumptions. (By which I mean not assumptions about methodology and interpretation, but assumptions about the correctness of teleology, the threat posed by reductionism, etc.)

  14. How do you suppose this "Continental strategy" fairs against the oft flung accusation of committing the Genetic Fallacy? I suspect that in light of this "Continental strategy," if not many of the conclusions Continental philosophers (and American pragmatists) have made, the genetic fallacy loses some of its rhetorical oomph.

  15. Hi Joe,

    To be honest, I haven't seen the genetic fallacy accusation you mention leveled against continental philosophy, so I don't really know who you have in mind. Let me know. I sometimes suspect that Nietzsche can veer into the genetic fallacy (after all, the details of his genealogy could largely be turned into a story of the discovery of morality, rather than its invention). But phenomenology, critical theory, and (in a certain mode) hermeneutics seem to me to be committed (when done well) precisely to maintaining the validity of truth, meaning, normativity, aesthetic experience, etc. And on the other hand, the genetic fallacy--at least on some readings--is certainly not exclusive to the continental side of things, as the various behaviorist and reductionist programs of the analytic tradition show (my contention in the latest post is precisely that the experimental bent of recent philosophy can be taken in just this direction--holding normativity hostage to discoveries about its supposed origin in psychology).

    As for the strategy I am suggesting, I don't see how it could be accused of the genetic fallacy at all--the goal isn't to reduce a problem to a deeper problem, but instead to show the validity of the former problem as the expression of underlying philosophical tension. That is, the point of the strategy isn't to show that the problem is invalid, unfruitful, or completely misguided, but rather to bring its validity into clearer relief by showing the background against which the problem arises in the first place.

  16. another major difference could be attributable to being argumentative and defending/refuting arguments. i guess, the mistaken notion given to the continental philosophers is the former.
    yes, i do completely agree that there is always a flux in the schema constructed by the continental philosophers and hence this is the reason why i propose to call them argumentative.
    most of the times, the schema is inflationary and hence it becomes difficult to deeply comprehend the problem in easing it. this inflationary narrative might succeed in giving an extensive understanding, but i opine it often is at the cost of intensivity.
    it plainly becomes a play of centrical and circumferential shifts.
    maybe, this play is an event only and a possible recourse to escape the allegations made against continental philosophy.

    himanshu damle