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Who Is a Continental Philosopher?

In the debate over continental philosophy a few posts back, there was some question as to which philosophers fell under the rubric of continental philosophy. In the eyes of many observers, indeed, a certain strain of French thought has come to stand for the entire field. Both positive and negative attention have been focused around Derrida, Lacan, Foucault, etc., to the exclusion of many, many others.

So I was glancing through the Blackwell Companion to Continental Philosophy (1998) on Google Books tonight, edited by Levinas evangelist and Leiter nemesis Simon Critchley. Even Critchley and co-editor William Schroeder relegate that French strain to just one corner of a large tradition, and most of the names are far less contentious. Rather than trying to answer what continental philosophy is, I think it’s better just to look at these names to get a sense of what the field encompasses.

Part I: The Kantian Legacy:.

1. The Context and Problematic of Post Kantian Philosophy: Frederick C. Beiser (University of Indiana, Bloomington).

2. Kant: Robert B. Pippin (University of Chicago).

3. Fichte: Ludwig Siep (Universitat Munster).

4. Early German Romanticism: Friedrich Schlegel and Novalis: Ernst Behler (University of Washington, Seattle).

5. Schelling: Jean Francois Courtine (Ecole Normale Superieure, Paris).

6. Hegel: Stephen Houlgate (University of Warwick).

Part II: Overturning The Tradition: .

7. Feuerbach and the Young Hegelians: Lawrence S. Stepelevich (Villanova University).

8. Marx: Michel Henry (University of Montpellier III).

9. Kierkegaard: Merold Westphal (Fordham University).

10. Schopenhauer: Robert Rethy (Xavier University).

11. Nietzsche: Charles E. Scott (Pennsylvania State University).

12. Freud: John Deigh (Northwestern University).

13. Bergson: Pete A. Y. Gunter (North Texas State University).

Part III: The Phenomenological Breakthrough:.

14. Neo Kantianism: Steven Galt Crowell (Rice University).

15. Husserl: Rudolf Bernet (Louvain Catholic University).

16. Scheler: Manfred S. Frings (The Max Scheler Archives, Des Plaimes).

17. Jaspers: Kurt Salamun (University of Graz).

18. Heidegger: John D. Caputo (Villanova University).

Part IV: Phenomenology, Hegelianism and Anti Hegelianism in France:.

19. Kojeve: Stanley Rosen (Boston University).

20. Levinas: Hent De Vries (University of Amsterdam).

21. Sartre: Thomas R. Flynn (Emory University).

22. De Beauvoir: Kate Fullbrook (University of the West of England) and Edward Fullbrook (freelance writer).

23. Merleau Ponty: Bernhard Waldenfelds (Ruhr Universitat Bochum).

24. Bataille: Robert Sasso (University of Nice).

25. Blanchot: Paul Davies (University of Sussex).

Part V: Religion Without The Limits of Reason:.

26. Franz Rosenzweig: Paul Mendes Flohr (Hebrew University).

27. Martin Buber: Maurice Friedman (San Diego State University).

28. Marcel: Philip Stratton Lake (Keele University).

Part VI: Three Generations of Critical Theory:.

29. Benjamin: Rebecca Comay (University of Toronto).

30. Horkheimer: Gunzelin Schmidt Noerr (Frankfurt am Main).

31. Adorno: Hauke Brunkhorst (Frankfurt am Main).

32. Bloch: Hans Dieter Bahr (University of Vienna).

33. Marcuse: Douglas Kellner (University of Texas at Austin).

34. Habermas: Thomas McCarthy (Northwestern University).

35. Third Generation Critical Theory: Max Pensky. (SUNY, Binghampton).

Part VII: Hermeneutics:.

36. Schleiermacher: Ben Vedder (University of Tilburg).

37. Dilthey: Rudolf A. Makkreel (Emory University).

38. Gadamer: Dennis J. Schmidt (Villanova University).

39. Ricoeur: Richard Kearney (University College, Dublin).

Part VIII: Continental Political Philosophy:.

40. Lukacs: Gyorgy Markus (University of Sydney).

41. Gramsci: Ernesto Laclau (University of Essex).

42. Schmitt: G. L. Ulmen (Telos Press Ltd).

43. Arendt: Robert Bernasconi (Memphis State University).

44. Lefort: Bernard Flynn (Empire State College, SUNY).

45. Castoriadis: Fabio Ciaramelli (University of Naples).

Part IX: Structuralism and After:

46. Levi-Strauss: Marcel Henaff (UCSD, California).

47. Lacan: William J. Richardson (Boston College).

48. Althusser: Jacques Ranciere (University of Paris VIII).

49. Foucault: Paul Patton (University of Sydney).

50. Derrida: Geoffrey Bennington (University of Sussex).

51. Deleuze: Brian Massumi (McGill University).

52. Lyotard: Jacob Rogozinski (University of Paris VIII).

53. Baudrillard: Mike Gane (Loughborough University).

54. Irigaray: Tina Chanter (Memphis State University).

55. Kristeva: Kelly Oliver (University of Texas at Austin).

56. Le Doeuff: Moira Gatens (University of Sydney).

A reasonable list. It definitely has a French bias, but it’s not too bad. If compiled today, it would probably include Agamben, Badiou, and Negri too.

The unforgivable omission is Ernst Cassirer, who is only mentioned twice in the Neo-Kantianism article and once in passing by Beiser (whose work I very much like). Schlegel, Schiller, Saussure, Bourdieu, and Barthes also seem rather important.

Given the inclusion of a bunch of cultural and sociological thinkers, sociologists Max Weber, Emile Durkheim, and Georg Simmel should definitely be on this list.

Other worthy omissions: Humboldt, Brentano, Croce, Mauss, Lowith, Valery, Fanon, Bachelard, Blumenberg, Apel, Eco, Bouveresse, and Virilio. (Not that I like all of them.)

Also notable is how much of a catch-all Part II is for pretty much anything influential that was going on in the 19th century that wasn’t Frege or Comte. To some extent, the whole book is a catch-all! Do Rosenzweig and Levi-Strauss have anything in common? This is why it’s better to look at lists than definitions. Continental philosophy as it is today is very much an ex post facto definition, unlike analytic philosophy, which Bertrand Russell and the Vienna Circle very much constructed as a systematic tradition that has had a fairly strong continuity. This is an important point.

At any rate, it’s not until the final section of the table of contents that you get into seriously disputed territory. So I think it is completely feasible that one could completely trash most or all of the people in the last section and still be an enthusiastic proponent of “continental philosophy,” whatever it is.

[Here is an attempt at embedding the iframe from Google Books. Not sure how long this will work given the recent overturning of the opt-out settlement with publishers. No, I’m not planning to read the book.]

Habermas on Derrida

Last one, I promise. This is just a great passage  that identifies a more general gnostic/transcendent tendency among Derrida and a certain stream of predecessors who all tend to attract fervent, single-minded followings:

As a participant in the philosophical discourse of modernity, Derrida inherits the weaknesses of a critique of metaphysics that does not shake loose of the intentions of first philosophy. Despite his transformed gestures, in the end he, too, promotes only a mystification of palpable social pathologies; he, too, disconnects essential (namely, deconstructive) thinking from scientific analysis; and he, too, lands at an empty, formulalike avowal of some indeterminate authority. It is, however, not the authority of a Being that has being that has been distorted by beings [i.e., Heidegger], but the authority of a no longer holy scripture, of a scripture that is in exile, wandering about, estranged from its own meaning, a scripture that testamentarily documents the absence of the holy.

Habermas, The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity VII

Habermas’ larger argument here is more abstruse and a bit more suspect (his strategy of accusing Derrida of recidivist foundationalism is probably accurate, but I’m not sure if his particular methods are accurate), and I won’t try to summarize it here. What I want to remark on is the part in bold, the appeal to empty, indeterminate authority. It’s not that “science” (that vague term that has so many pejorative associations in either direction) is its opposite; a better term would be public and discursive. The notion of the authority is that of a gnostic one to which access cannot be rationally assessed. So I agree with Habermas that it is fundamentally religious, and so the affinity between Derrida and Levinas is not surprising at all. (Habermas discusses that as well.) The line of thinkers appealing to this sort of authority goes back to the beginning of time. Here are some figures that I find indisputably in this corner: Parmenides, Pythagoras, Plotinus, al-Ghazali, Malebranche, Jacobi, Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Schmitt, Strauss, Levinas, and Derrida.

There is something of a conservative tilt to many of these figures; I attribute it to the general desire to want to bow down to something otherworldly. That old grouch Schopenhauer complained of Malebranche’s tactic of “explaining something unknown by something even more unknown.” As a certain well-known continental philosopher (one who was very fond of Derrida, Kristeva, Adorno, and Butler but disliked Heidegger and loathed Levinas) said, “Watch out for those Levinasians. They always want to bend at the knee.”

Jacques Derrida on Husserl: Speech and Phenomena

This passage comes from one of Derrida’s earlier works, a short treatise dismissing Husserl’s phenomenology as hopeless due to the nature of language. Ultimately I don’t think it has much to do with Husserl; Derrida is just looking for a place on which to hang his theory of différance, deferrals of meaning, and traces. This is not to say that language doesn’t pose a problem for Husserl, but Derrida’s argument is far more tenuous than it needs to be if you are actually interested in how Husserl’s phenomenology relates to language.

The ideal form of a written signifier, for example, is not in the world, and the distinction between the grapheme and the empirical body of the corresponding graphic sign separates an inside from an outside, phenomenological consciousness from the world. And this is true for every visual or spatial signifier. And yet every non-phonic signifier involves a spatial reference in its very “phenomenon,” in the phenomenological (nonworldly) sphere of experience in which it is given. The sense of being “outside,” “in the world,” is an essential component of its phenomenon. Apparently there is nothing like this in the phenomenon of speech. In phenomenological interiority, hearing oneself and seeing oneself are two radically different orders of self-relation. Even before a description of this difference is sketched out, we can understand why the hypothesis of the “monologue” could have sanctioned the distinction between indication and expression only by presupposing an essential tie between expression and phone. Between the phonic element (in the phenomenological sense and not that of a real sound) and expression, taken as the logical character of a signifier that is animatedin view of the ideal presence of a Bedeutung (itself related to an object), there must be a necessary bond. Husserl is unable to bracket what in glossamatics is called the “substance of expression” without menacing his whole enterprise. The appeal to this substance thus plays a major philosophical role.

Speech and Phenomena VI, “The Voice that Keeps Silence”

Derrida is talking about two aspects of language that Husserl identifies: expression (Ausdruck) and indication (Anzeichen). Expression denotes the aspect of meaning that we give to a linguistic sign. Indication denotes the way in which it empirically points to something else, as well as any contextual and conventional role it may have. When I speak to others, words serve as an indication of my meaning. Husserl believes that within the realm of thought and phenomenology, indication does not have a role to play, and so phenomenology only needs to deal with expression. For me, the meaning is prior to the words, and so I don’t need to worry about what my words indicate. This approach renders language “transparent,” and indeed, Husserl doesn’t talk much about language.

Derrida starts by discussing how, since the mind uses signs that have an indicative role, indication and expression cannot be separated. This is not a new point (Wittgenstein, amongst others, had spent much time here). But he then says, in passages such as the above, that in fact, expression is dependent on indication and in fact expression is nothing more than indication. (The arguments here are fairly arcane and I will not go into them because I’m prepared to grant this point for the sake of my greater argument.) We now have a problem, because indication is incomplete: a sign points to something else, rather than containing any sort of meaning in itself. In other words, all mental relations must also be ones of indication and not of any other type. And since indication can only point to something else rather than contain innate meaning, that meaning is endlessly deferred. Cue Derrida’s larger project and the attack on what Derrida terms “presence,” which seems to be whatever may lie underneath the endless map of signs pointing to one another. And of course Husserl’s project is invalid because the sort of phenomenological bracketing of meaning that Husserl wants is impossible.

But Derrida has cheated. He’s gone from an atomic relation of sign to sign and assumed that because a single signification is bereft of meaning, the entire system must be. This is a negative claim–that no meaning is possible–and he’s achieved it by narrowing the gap on both sides. First, he’s abandoned consideration of the holistic view in which a system of significations could have a meaning which is not contained in isolation in any single signification. (This is basically Quine’s argument in “Two Dogmas of Empiricism“: “The unit of empirical significance is the whole of science.”) Second, he’s insisted that a particular type of meaning, Husserl’s, is the only one possible, so any problem with Husserl’s admittedly naive theory extends to language in general.

So Derrida silently assumes logical atomism and a naive theory of reference, then posits that position as one side of a dichotomy and his endless deferral of meaning as the other, with no middle ground. That tons of philosophers had already discussed exactly that middle ground seems to be of little concern to him. He has used Husserl as a straw man, he has ignored stronger arguments against his position, and he has employed false dichotomies so as to prove himself correct by contradiction. Anything other than pure indication is suddenly “presence” and is automatically invalid. This is pretty lame, especially when it later becomes a trapdoor to transcendence in which you can only get past the endless deferral through “radical” means of some form or another.

There are other problems in his thinking here, but these particular flaws stand out because they seem so representative of Derrida’s entire project and its tactics. He is not the first and will not be the last to commit these fallacies, but as houses of sand go, his is particularly egregious.

(For a more thorough examination of these issues, see Kevin Mulligan’s “How Not to Read.”)

Postscript: I read Martin Hagglund’s chapter on Derrida and Husserl in Radical Atheism, which is indeed a reasonably-written book. He says: “The decisive question for Derrida, however, is whether the structure of re-presentation is a condition for consciousness as such.” Hagglund ignores, however, the question of whether, even if it is a condition, it has the implications for meaning that Derrida claims it does. All this stuff about fundamental presence and ideality remains a strawman.

Update: In addition to NN’s helpful comment below examining a section of “Signature Event Context,” I just found that Jon Cogburn made a similar point in passing last year in the context of a much larger discussion of Derrida, Levinas, and Critchley:

[Derrida’s arguments] seem to constitutively involve the fallacy of false dichotomy at every stage of his career, starting with the ur-false dichotomy between some kind of radical holism and an Augustinian philosophy of language/mind, a false dichotomy no reader of Wittgenstein would make.

That about sums it up. Cogburn also cites the Kevin Mulligan article above while discussing Derrida’s responses to the sort of critique I give here:

A number of years Man and World (now Continental Philosophy Review) published an article where the author criticized Derrida’s interpretation of Husserl (note that every serious Husserl scholar I know agrees that Derrida is a terrible reader of Husserl, e.g. http://www.unige.ch/lettres/philo/enseignants/km/doc/HowNotRead1.pdf ). They invited a response from Derrida, but he just wrote a short note saying he disapproved of the spirit in which the author wrote the critique of Derrida. And this is a maneuver Derrida did again and again. Attacking the motives and personality of people much less powerful than him who had the audacity to suggest that he might be mistaken. And this is what bothers me the most.

Michael Rosen on Derrida

From Leiter’s blog, Michael Rosen (who wrote the excellent On Voluntary Servitude, a book I would write about if it weren’t so dense that it’d require a huge amount of time to treat it) talks about academic strategies:

Ephraim Kishon has a story called “Jewish Poker”. Jewish poker is played without cards so all you can do is bluff – and you have to bluff high. I think that this is the secret of Derridean post-modernism as currently practised in U.S. humanities departments: in the end, it’s all competitive hyperbole – who can be more radical?

Someone starts off with a huge unsupported generalization. For example, they write a book saying that the whole of Western thought is under the hegemony (good word) of (say) “logocentrism”, that its genealogy has to be exposed and deconstructed to reveal the Other that it “covers over and disavows”.

That’s a high bid, but you can top that. Why not write a review saying that this is to give “the Other” a “hegemonic status”, that this too needs to be deconstructed and given a genealogy? Say that the re-valuation of values hasn’t been radical enough, that “the Nietzschean trans-valuation is far from being complete: in its second stage, at the threshold of which we find ourselves today, it will necessitate a de-hierarchization of the already inverted values, so that alterity, too, would lose its newly acquired transcendental status, just as sameness and identity did in twentieth-century thought.”

Of course, tone and style matter. Although you’ve left banalities like “sameness and identity” (and hence, presumably, essence, cause and logical inference) far behind, don’t hesitate to use terms like “necessitate” for the ideas you are advocating, or (although you don’t believe in such fetishes as truth in interpretation) to describe others’ interpretations as “deeply flawed”. To think that once you’ve toppled the idols of objectivity you can’t write as if they were still standing is a sign of hopeless logocentrism.

It’s good too to write as if your native language isn’t English, or that, at least, your English has been saturated by what you’ve absorbed in your many years on the *rive gauche*. A nice Derridean-Althusserian touch here (see Judith Butler, *passim*) is the spurious use of the term “precisely” when you make an especially vague assertion (“The promise of deconstruction lies, precisely, in its ability to inspire this post-metaphysical thrust ‘beyond the same and the other.’”) Introducing your sentences with pompous phrases like “Let us note that …” may not add anything of substance to them but it does convey the impression that you are addressing your audience from a position of authority (a podium at the École Normale?). Above all, the secret is to convince people that you are further up the mountain than everyone else and looking down on them. Writing in this condescending way won’t make you popular, no doubt, but what the hell – oderint dum metuant!

Where will it all end? Presumably, this too can be out-bid – perhaps someone else will come along and offer a genealogy of deconstruction or a deconstruction of genealogy. There doesn’t seem to be any limit to how many iterations the transvaluation of valuations can go through. Yet there must – surely – come a point where the whole thing vanishes up its own …

But what to do until that happy day? Certainly, it is heart-breaking for those of us who would like Continental philosophy to be taken more seriously, but how do you argue with people for whom “reason” and “argument” (like “sameness” and “identity”) are simply terms in a “hegemonic discourse” they have left behind? And, if they can shrug off the Sokal hoax and take Alain Badiou seriously, they are obviously past being laughed back into sanity by a sense of the absurd. So I think that all the rest of us can do is to keep out of their way and leave them to patronize one another to their hearts’ content.

Michael Rosen

Rosen and Leiter edited the Oxford Handbook of Continental Philosophy, and seem to be part of a vague movement afoot among Anglo philosophers to write about Continental theorists in comparatively clear and methodical ways. I have a fair bit of sympathy with this movement. One of the ongoing debates, though, is which of the theorists are irredeemable. Here’s how the categories seem to be shaking out, from my perspective. (I could be wrong about any of these; this is just a general impression and not reflective of the views of any single person.)

Solid: Herder, Hegel, Marx, Peirce, Dilthey, Nietzsche, Husserl, Adorno, Merleau-Ponty, Sartre, Habermas

Sketchy: Heidegger, Gadamer, Foucault, Kuhn, Deleuze

Fraudulent: Derrida, Levinas, Althusser, Badiou, Zizek

Given this arrangement, I’m surprised there hasn’t been more attention paid to Vico, Cassirer, Ricoeur, and Apel, but perhaps in time, just as Herder seems just now to be having a renaissance.

I’ll have my own say on Derrida and phenomenology shortly….

Blumenberg and Husserl

Durkheim (not that one) wrote about my account of Blumenberg:

I think that Blumenberg is much more positive about the modern age than you suggest. Indeed, one might even compare his remarks on science – particularly its institutionalisation of method – with those of Popper. Popper of course would have no time for myth, but Blumenberg’s genius was to have shown that myth too can be defended in a similar way to science. The never ending variation that is the history of myth’s rewriting is comparable to the infinite progress that is the fate – and the triumph – of modern science.

I agree with this and I didn’t mean to give the impression that Blumenberg is a pessimist. In fact, Blumenberg’s ire seems reserved for those conservative pessimists like Schmitt, Loewith, or even Voltaire, who define the present moment as a crisis and look back to the past to try to find some point where we went wrong. He has even less patience for those, from Epicurus to the Gnostics to Kierkegaard, who ask that we should turn our back on the world and seek some private, otherworldly transcendence. And I do believe that Blumenberg’s endorsement of curiosity, science, and a secular interest in improving the world amounts to a prescription for a pragmatic progress: the right for humanity to explore, experiment, err, and positively evolve.

It is so optimistic, in fact, that it is difficult for me to accept enthusiastically. If I believe that a humanistic science offers the best way forward for the people on this planet, it’s only because I can’t think of any better ideas, not because I am filled with hope that things will work out. Blumenberg is more of a believer, and the faith he holds seems best portrayed in Blumenberg’s touching portrait of Husserl:

Scarcely a decade after theory, as mere gaping at what is ‘present at hand,’ had been, if not yet despised, still portrayed as a stale recapitulation of the content of living involvements, it was the greatness of the solitary, aged Edmund Husserl, academically exiled and silenced, that he held fast to the resolution to engage in theory as the initial act of European humanity and as a corrective for its most terrible deviation, and that he required of it a rigorous consistency, which is still, or once again, felt to be objectionable. Hermann Lübbe has described as the characteristic mark of this philosophizing, especially in the late works, the “rationalism of theory’s interest in what is without interest”: The existential problem of a scholar who in his old age was forbidden to set foot in the place where he carried on his research and teaching never shows through, and even the back of the official notice that informed him of this prohibition was covered by Husserl with philosophical notes. That is a case of ‘carrying on’ whose dignity equals that of the sentence, ‘Noli turbare circulos meos’ [Don’t disturb my circles].”

The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, III.Introduction

Let’s leave aside that Archimedes, in addition to being killed while working on theoretical math, had also designed warships and this claw:

The ideal here is that of a scholar who can retain his absorption in theory even as the surrounding chaos nearly envelops him. Here, for Blumenberg, it is theory that acts as the linking and growing mechanism of humanity. (And as commenter Durkheim suggests, theory is something of a halfway point between myth and science.) The danger is, of course, that theory turn into something as private as Gnosticism. What is it that gives Blumenberg and Husserl the assurance that they have not disappeared into a private fount of knowledge irrelevant to the greater world? This is a crucial question for Blumenberg to answer in the context of the book. I think that the answer, which is hinted at above, is that there needs to remain some sort of firm method, that “rigorous consistency” that Blumenberg mentions: the placing of the external world as authority and arbiter rather than one’s own self-certainty. (Here, Blumenberg separates from Hegel and moves back to Kant.) Again, I see this as a pragmatic methodology more than anything else, except that there was no such named tradition in Germany.

The other somewhat orthogonal point is how Blumenberg contrasts Husserl with Heidegger, who goes unnamed but is sniped at as the person who attacks Husserl’s theory as “gaping at what is ‘present at hand'”. Blumenberg implicitly connects Heidegger’s political beliefs with Heidegger’s priority of the “at hand” and activity over cognition and observation. Heidegger’s political associates bar Husserl from the library at which he studied. Heidegger removes the dedication to Husserl from Being and Time. Husserl stands back. He keeps working. And Husserl remains one of the least alluring, least sexy philosophers ever. He never cheats, he is never cheap, he is never glamorous. (Even his glamorous successors–Derrida and Sartre–did not put a shine on him.) He just keeps working things out.

I don’t want to enter that eternal debate on Heidegger, but I do sympathize with the emphasis Blumenberg places on detached observation, on the classical act of thinking and theorizing that still seems to have gone missing amidst unending talk of politics, subversion, performativity, and so on. (To those who say that detached observation is a luxury, the subsequent activities are no less luxuries.)

When I quoted Satie the other day (apparently an appropriate quote, thank you Dennis), it was this contrast between theory and action that I was thinking of: youth in action, old age in reflection. As every development in culture and technology (hello, the web) rushes to celebrate and analyze itself before it has barely begun to be anything at all, the nonstop circle of activity exhausts me, and I want to be the rigorous, consistent theorist myself:

Deeply lost in the night. Just as one sometimes lowers one’s head to reflect, thus to be utterly lost in the night. All around people are asleep. It’s just play acting, and innocent self-deception, that they sleep in houses, in safe beds, under a safe roof, stretched out or curled up on mattresses, in sheets, under blankets; in reality they have flocked together as they had once upon a time and again later in a deserted region, a camp in the open, a countless number of men, an army, a people, under a cold sky on cold earth, collapsed where once they had stood, forehead pressed on the arm, face to the ground, breathing quietly. And you are watching, are one of the watchmen, you find the next one by brandishing a burning stick from the brushwood pile beside you. Why are you watching? Someone must watch, it is said. Someone must be there.

Kafka, “At Night”

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