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.


  1. > 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.

    Couldn't have said it better myself! I really enjoyed this post.

  2. Thanks! I thought that part was a little crazy right after I wrote it, but I'm warming up to it now.

  3. Great post. I study continental philosophy myself and this articulates a lot of the frustration of doing so. It takes such a long time, and so much effort and dedication, to fully understand a contemporary continental philosopher that by the time you've done so you really need to call yourself 'a Levinasian' or 'a Heideggerian' just to make sure you don't feel like you've wasted the past few years of your life.

  4. I have to say that again, the dissolution of the divide has to happen for the right reasons. It is not so easy as to say that thinkers all invented their own engagement with history following Heidegger to the point that analytics may be right in dismissing it. First, it behooves us to question why exactly they start with history and not the discussion of a problem presented ahistorically. This the first meta-philosophical hurdle to be explained and the next is the content to those reasons specific to the thinker in question.

    Heidegger's alleged nonsensical language is an attempt to articulate insights that the standard language could not put into place (as well as the same criticism of the Other). Recall that the question of being had been forgotten. However, it was within the framework of phenomenology that the question could be stated again, or better framed phenomenology as fundamental ontology. This type of analysis required significant neologisms to express. Levinas' thought follows along similar lines. Thus, if someone had been critical of Heidegger, it is not to this internal dimension in which Heidegger's thought moves that animates being critical on the part of those dissmive of Heidegger, rather it is an insight that Heidegger has something to say even with the non-standard language. That's how a charitable reading of Heidegger would persist in this long debate. Yet, it will not receive such a reading from analytics because "Heideggerians don't bother to make themselves understandable".

    How about also declaring the inverse! Analytics do not study the core issues in phenomenology or post-Heideggerian philosohpy enough to really converse with it. Why is the burden not one of equal reciprocity? For example, do you know that Kearney and Caputo write philosophical texts that deconstruct themselves? The point of those texts is enact the performative "demonstration" of the philosophy in question. I find this frustrating to say the least, but I'll still read them. That fact changes something and if the analytic was open to experiencing wisdom beyond thinking that logic is ontologically binding not only for the object of study, but the language necessary to articulate something about objects. Heidegger's art essay is another. It uses very clear phenomenological language to articulate the stuctured experience of the work itself. Yet, it also uses such unique language to offset the fact that art objects were not taken as seriously as other areas of philosophical attention.

    Now, let me be clear. I am not against engagement with analytics, but I think the reverse needs to happen from what has largely been said here. I am convinced, say, that an existential-ontological account of agency better tracks the lived realities of other accounts of action and agency. Take Davidson for instance. He proposes a causal account of agency. If I start with either Heidegger or Gadamer, hermeneutic engagement would never seek to describe a causal account of agency. Instead, I'd offer an interpretation, but I would never pretend that I could posit ontological claims about what causes what. It is not as if these insights are done badly, sometimes there are larger strategies present in the presentation of the ideas than logical dialectic can allow for. A wholly charitable reading would attempt to understand those readings first before announcing them as the pernicious effects of parochial tradition.

    I think the story is a bit more complicated than you let on. I've also written about this over at The Chasm this past week and I've been vocal in my own way.

  5. I've responded to most of this over at your blog, and clearly I don't share your view of phenomenology as concerned with pointing to the unsayable; I'm happy to leave that to poetry and art, but I do want to preserve philosophy as dealing with understanding, or wisdom, which traditionally involves understanding rather than stopping at the unsayable. Philosophy *begins* in wonder; if it ended there, it would hardly be philosophy.

    I fully agree that problems should, when warranted, be presented historically. But I wonder about the extent to which continental philosophers bother to do this. Some do; some simply come up with their own history; some ignore it. For example, it's not exactly uncommon to hear that the whole free will debate is nonsense invented by analytic philosophers and made irrelevant by phenomenology. Well, uhm, Boethius, Augustine, Alexander of Aphrodisias, Anselm, Aquinas, Erasmus, Maimonides, and Hobbes must all be analytic types, eh? Incidentally, I think you are missing the point of my discussion of French thinkers inventing their own history: the claim is meant to explain why it is so difficult to work on these figures while also addressing philosophical concerns outside of these figures’ texts.

    But, my claim here is NOT that continental philosophy is all bad. Rather, it is that there is a lot of very good stuff there, that unfortunately gets buried by many of its practitioners. Nor is my claim that analytic philosophy is all good. That would be silly--it is unlikely that there is or has ever been a field of human thought where the work is all good! Rather, I think there is a worrying sociological situation: given the negative reputation and prohibitive nature of continental texts, many analytic philosophers (even those who are not hostile to them) avoid those texts for simple reasons: you move up by specializing and working on hot topics. Sitting around reading Derrida or Lyotard would be a waste of time, from this perspective. If this situation is to be changed, the people who work on Derrida and Lyotard, et al., will have to explain just why those people might be worth reading to someone with analytic concerns.

    Instead, we often find continentals running away from analytics, refusing to say anything coherent, and burying themselves in texts instead of trying to show the relevance of those texts to anything outside of them. That's just not helpful. But--and I want to stress this--it is often just lazy. A lot of continental obsession with texts is driven by exactly the same issues as above--not wanting to "waste" time on engaging with someone outside one's narrow purview, even if that includes actually figuring out what the hell your purview is supposed to be about.

    So what is my point, ultimately? It's that the analytic continental divide is harmful for analytic philosophy, but change--if it comes--will have to come from people who've engaged seriously with continental philosophy. The divide is also bad for continental philosophy, for its quality, for its ability to influence how philosophy in the dominant philosophical community is done, and for its practitioners' ability to engage with any problem unmediated by unintuitive translations from French.

    1. Analytic philosophers at least make an attempt to resolve issues and problems in philosophy whereas continental philosophers create problems
      and pseudo problems like the meaning of being.
      They do not even recognize the problems in
      philosophy as such. They just add to the confusing muddle. I was trained with doctorate in philosophy from a very continental department but I have reneged and
      become analytic, a true act of rebellion against the cultism in continental thought.

    2. That's just narrow minded. I'm sorry you didn't go to a very good continental department, but if you couldn't see the value in any of the continental philosophy you studied despite the bad teaching, that is entirely on you. Whether or not the meaning of being is a "pseudo problem" (I do suspect, given the problem's pedigree, that anyone who thinks it is a pseudo problem is just as mistaken as someone who thinks free will or the mind/body problem are pseudo problems--there are lots of theories on which these problems dissolve, but that doesn't make them pseudo problems), Heidegger's analyses of Da-sein easily surpass any analytic work I've seen on agency. Nor is it true that continental philosophers "do not even recognize the problems in philosophy as such." That may be true of many, but it's certainly false as a general claim. And, for that matter, a great deal of analytic philosophy just adds to the confusing muddle: when problems are defined too cleanly, what made them genuine philosophical problems often gets lost, and you end up with decades of publications that are essentially worthless because they respond to an improperly framed issue. There's a value in ambiguity: reality isn't crisp and clean. If philosophy aims at truth in any way, then it can't be crisp and clean either.

  6. I won't belabor the discussion anymore than you. I've actually had a great conversation. I don't know about you. You've given me some stuff to think about, and perhaps, my implicit biases match you more than you know. I tend to work on German thinkers more than French thinkers. There has been a real problem with the reception of Husserl's work as a Cartesian rather than the better reading from (Welton, Steinbock and Drummond). I just thought that when we engage in philosophy, we should be aware that understanding can have multiple sources, and we shouldn't delimit those sources of wisdom. I think this is especially true in analytic philosophy's general lack of tolerance for aesthetics. I can recall hearing a story of a group of philosophers at the APA when Nussbaum made the claim that we should educate people morally through the use of literature. The ethicists in the room did not like that very much.

    Ultimately, what is my point? Change will come from people who've seriously engaged in philosophy. Very true. I just worry that engaging in those thinkers seriously is to impose structures and categories that vitiate a philosopher's thought. So, this engagement must come from a revision of Davidson's principle of charity to include within it knowledge of context and history of a thinker in addition to the allowance that some strategies of presentation (not all) are legitimate. Not all aims of understanding must fall sway to logical dialectic as the assumed method of composing philosophy. Yet, the tool of logical dialectic does help when used effectively. This is why the original post you responded to suggested Glendinning's piece in the Chase and Reynold's anthology.

  7. Nice study.
    Personally I have even a more negative view on continental philosophy, especially its outcome in the liberal art in the United States.

    In certain way, the continental philosophy had launched a silent coup within the American liberal art, and built a circle that sounds tolerant in words, yet exclusive and dictatorial in practice. For instance, I once attempted to learn anthropology, but now American sociocultural anthropologists simply taught me very few things. They tried their best to exclude every element of biology, history and geography from the study of anthropology, and vilify pre-60s anthropologists as chauvinists, eugenicists, or agents of colonialism. Instead, they read books from those French "heroes" of continental philosophy, feminist activists, and other "ism" that doesn't want to be categorized. Today American anthropologists are a generation that will do fieldwork about a region that they can't even find it on map. They care nothing about the region they studied in except the things that fit their taste. The same thing happened across liberal art major.

    I really think liberal art's reaction toward our financial meltdown in 2009 proved the negative consequences of their obsession of continental philosophy. Those that were trained in the 60s, those that professed street protests and mass movements can provide neither anything insightful causes and consequences about our economic meltdown, nor any attempt of an alternative solution that might help us prevent the financial tsunami. They act like copycat; they plagiarize the words of Marx, some Anarchists, and a few avant-garde artists. They idolize mass-movements and slogans but has no interest in learning more about economic problems that does not fit their tastes.

    For me, I think Francois Revel's description is right decades ago. He said that philosophy, which once inspired humans from inventing new studies for solving our problems, now is degraded to arguments about different "schools" over purity of ideology. I consider this phenomenon more severe in Continental Philosophy. Furthermore, it is much more harmful than we think.

  8. What is "continental philosophy"? Not that I don't know what is meant to be covered by the term, but no one doing phenomenology, post-structuralism, existentialism or another kind of philosophy outside of the analytical tradition will call him or her self a continental philosopher.
    The term is only used in the analytic tradition to simplify and group a lot of different philosophical movements in the continental part of Europe. It is an Othering and thus dividing.

    And another comment: If philosophy came up with clear answers it would not be philosophy, it would be science. What philosophy should do is ask the right questions and come with suggestions. These might then lead to other questions and suggestions, but if a definitive answer would come up, it has turned to science, which is not bad at all, just do not call it philosophy then.


    1. Jacab, science doesn't have definitive answers. It has facts and if you understand what a fact really is.... it's not a definitive answer. Facts are refutable. Fact is not truth like too many people believe. Also, I believe there may be definitive answers in philosophy. The idea that a whole is made of parts is a definitive philosophical answer. However, depending on what one's philosophical skepticism is like, I think most who have studied philosophy will agree finding definitive answer is a serious problem. Science, considering the philosophy of science, may only have theories that can only become stronger... but they can't become definitive.

      To explain this better for people who might not see where I'm coming from... science relies on the senses and observation. However, the "brain in vat thought experiment" easily makes this method of making answers definitive... and now there's doubt and therefore you can't say with absolute assurance that science has definitive answers.

    2. Oh, anon, but the problem of philosophy is that is unable to produce clear answers where science may produce them. From the point where there is a clear answer it is not philosophy anymore. Ergo, philosophy is pretty much useless since a distintion between it and science was made. Finding a "definitive", not a definitive, but an useful answer for an issue just as it represents a problem currently is not half as difficult as you guys disguise and deceive people to think it is. Definitive, perfect, completely fullfiling answers do not exist. As it doesn't exist a sole truth or explanation. If they existed, philosophy, or the art of infinitely pandering an issue would have been dead for ages. Just as alchemy and other protosciences are.

      But oh, that's one of those bitter truths you guys can't deal with. Instead of identifying the problem you just resort to your word tricks, trying to bury the issue between fancy sounding concepts and ideas until you completely forget the point of all your thinking and discussion and confuse the shit out of your readers. This is what philosophy has been about for centuries for too many authors. In the end, no one understands anything on philosophy, and nothing is done. You did a lot of complicated stuff for nothing.

      Philosophy just became a substitute for religion, plain and simple.

    3. The only reason I approved this comment is as an example of incompetent trolling. Either learn how to troll well, or find something to say.

  9. Jacob, why does it matter, for my purposes here, that the term "continental philosophy" can be a kind of "Othering"? Surely there are works written in a variety of styles and approaches that we can all easily recognize as "continental." If I used some other word to refer to them, that word would be just as "Othering". May one not refer to these traditions as a whole? (Incidentally, it's misleading to say that the term refers to "movements in the continental part of Europe"; some of the most egregious of the kinds of cases I'm talking about are well outside the European continent.)

    And granted on the second point, but I didn't say anything about the desirability of coming up with clear answers (although I think philosophers can come up with clear answers, just not usually final or incontrovertible ones). It's certainly important to ask "the right questions", but those questions had better be clearly enough formulated to make sense.

  10. Thank you for the insightful article. I stumbled upon your post out of frustration of reading Jaspers : he continually talks about things like "absolute value," "good," and "bad" and uses phrases like "the more free a man becomes, the more he turns to God," without any qualifications, explanations or otherwise. I'm trying to, as you suggest, "salvage" important aspects from his ideas. However, comparing his writing with philosophers who write precisely, clearly and powerfully like Searle or Dennett does highlight Jasper's apparent inadequacies.

    1. I think such concepts often aren't precisely defined in continental writing, but their meaning is given by the context (I admit I haven't read Jaspers in a very long time). This is not always a bad thing. Defining terms clearly has a negative aspect as well. Let's say we want to understand something about "absolute value," "good" and "bad." We could begin by defining the terms clearly, but the problem is that the terms aren't clear; they're ambiguous and fuzzy, and what they mean will vary with context. Defining them has the effect of fixing them and thus stripping them of the fuzziness. But once we've defined a term in a way that eliminates fuzziness, we're no longer talking about "absolute value" but about some stripped down version of it. If the definition becomes widely accepted or, as often happens, the *discussion* based on the definition becomes widely accepted (thus bringing the definition covertly with it), philosophical consideration of the term becomes limited to this stripped-down version of that term, and in such a way that completely natural ways of thinking about it are closed off.