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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.]

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….

Donald Philip Verene: Knowledge of Things Actual And Divine

I would feel a lot better about this book if it lost its subtitle. The full title is Knowledge of Things Actual And Divine: Vico’s New Science and Finnegans Wake, but this book is an exegesis on Vico with some Joycean flavoring. To the best of my knowledge, an extensive investigation into Vico’s presence in Finnegans Wake and its parallels with Vico’s philosophy has yet to be written. (Atherton’s book is the best treatment I know of. Campbell and Robinson give it a go but their analysis is tenuous.) Indeed, Verene complains that Joyce scholars know little of Vico. Since I know little of Vico, I thought I would apply what I learned from the book to the Wake. As for Vico himself, Verene only strengthens my conviction that Vico was an esoteric genius far ahead of his time, and had he been German, he would have stolen a good deal of thunder from Hegel. And I have great respect for the historicist thinkers that followed and paid tribute to him last century: Croce, Cassirer, Collingwood, and so on.

Verene does make some observations on the Wake, but these fall prey to the problems of making any decisive interpretation of Finnegans Wake. Early on he says, “Vico is the protagonist of Finnegans Wake. He is Earwicker.” The problem is not so much that this statement is wrong is that it is incomplete. Verene marshals many textual references conflating Vico with male archetype HCE, but Vico is no more the protagonist than Adam, Humpty Dumpty, Dublin, Finn MacCool, or some Irish pub owner. Verene analyzes Vico’s life in terms of a series of “falls,” and here he is on solid ground in equating Vico’s clap of thunder with the thunderwords of the fall that occur periodically in the Wake, but the problem is that the Wake always outsizes any interpretation because there is always such a huge remainder, and so declaring Vico the protagonist is ultimately, I think, wrongheaded. And I take issue with Verene’s claim that “Shem, like a forger, moves around a lot, but Shaun, like a post, occupies set positions and talks of past and future.” While Shem is a more slippery character than Shaun, it is Shaun who sets out on the quest in the third book of the Wake, and it is he who is the deliverer of ALP’s letter which Shem has transcribed. Again, it is not so much that such claims are wrong as much as that they need far more elaboration. So it’s best to see the book as using Joyce as a tool to conceptualize Vico’s life and work.

And on Vico, there is much of interest to Wake scholars. I’ll enumerate a few points that gave me insight into the structure of Joyce’s nightmare book. Two cycles are commonly cited as the basis for the Wake’s structure: Vico and the Egyptian Book of the Dead. But the three large books of the Wake do not clearly map onto the three ages of Vico’s New Science (divine, heroic, and human), though the final, short section does read as a recorso, restarting the book. Without elaborating on these matters, Verene still gives much evidence to contribute to the parallel. In particular, I was fascinated by the elaboration on Vico’s three languages, from the mute language of the divine to the verbal language of humanity:

The verb introduces time, and things can no longer be what they
are; their meanings can no longer just be mute. What is mute has being. It is
not transposed in time. The mute meaning is the denial of time. Like the ritual,
it takes us to the origin and stops time. The mute gesture is a ritual in brief. We
are back where the gods were.

Mapping the ages onto the Wake, this strongly parallels the curiously static character of the first book, which spends more time making lists and describing history than it does having anything actually happen. If the divine is a state of pure mute ritual language, then the non-narrative descriptions of the first book of the Wake fit well with Vico’s divine age.

Likewise, there is much to connect the second book with Vico’s seventh oration, which discusses education its goal of producing “the heroic mind:”

The ideal of ‘‘heroic mind’’ for Vico involves three things: all branches of
knowledge must be studied and put together; the human mind is divine and in
its activity of learning reaches God the creator in an attempt to make itself
whole; and the acquisition of knowledge, when rightly practiced, leads the
individual toward virtue and the good.

One crux of the second book of the Wake is the children learning about adult sexuality via the fall of man and forbidden knowledge. Joyce perverts the idea of education significantly, but it is still this education, and this very fall, that enables the maturation of the children and the eventual overthrow of the parents (who could be likened to gods themselves). That, in turn, leads to this passage of Vico’s:

Knowledge of the corrupt nature of man invites the
study of the entire universe of liberal arts and sciences, and sets forth the
correct method by which to learn them (125).

Which is to say, the fall is that which engenders knowledge and progress, and following on from that, the flowing of time itself. Joyce is perhaps more fatalistic than Vico in that he sees nothing but the endless battle of son against father and brother against brother, and little to be learned from it, but more significantly, Joyce renders this knowledge wholly physical and bodily, downplaying if not eliminating theology, philosophy, and eschatology. See also the mysterious fight between Berkeley and Patrick in Book IV, which may suggest that Joyce is neither a materialist nor an idealist, but merely a monist (or a this-ist, focused wholly on the world at hand). The exact relation of Joyce’s stance to Vico’s emphasis on the irreducibility of the real/mythic to abstraction is something I’m still puzzling over.

This is only the barest start. I haven’t even touched on how Vico’s conceptualization of language might relate to the linguistic apparatus of the Wake, as it’s simply too huge a topic to chance saying anything about. Verene’s book reminds me that I really do need to read The New Science from cover to cover, so that I can come back and say more insightful things about Verene’s book and Vico. And it reminds me how fantastic Finnegans Wake is underneath all the verbal impenetrability, as one of the greatest portrayals of human history in literature.

Cassirer on Gobineau, etc.

In order to grasp the purport of Gobineau’s book, too, we must not read into it these later political tendencies. They are quite alien to the meaning of the author. Gobineau did not intend to write a political pamphlet but rather a historical and philosophical treatise. He never thought of applying his principles to a reconstruction or revolution of the political and social order. His was not an active philosophy. His view of history was fatalistic. History follows a definite and inexorable law.

History is no science; it is only a conglomerate of subjective thoughts; a wishful thinking rather than a coherent and systematic theory. Gobineau boasted of having made an end to this state of affairs. “It is a question of making history join the family of the natural sciences, of giving it…all the precision of this kind of knowledge, finally of removing it from the biased jurisdiction whose arbitrariness the political factions impose upon it up to this day.” Gobineau did not speak as an advocate of a definite political program but as a scientist, and he thought his deductions were infallible. He was convinced that history, after innumerable vain efforts, had at last come to maturity and virility in his work. He looked upon himself as a second Copernicus, the Copernicus of the historical world. Once we have found the true center of this world, everything is changed. We are no longer concerned with mere opinions about things, we live and move in the things themselves; our eyes are able to see, our ears to hear, our hands to touch.

Myth of the State, XVI

I hear the heavy hand of Kant in Cassirer’s attack on Gobineau, even before Cassirer cites the individual stupidities that make Gobineau’s work garbage. The hubris of purporting to move into the noumenal sphere is enough to doom him already. (Note that this is an inversion of the “Enlightenment thinking” that is usually associated with Kant and used to damn him on the same grounds that Cassirer is attacking Gobineau on here.)

I thought of this point when reading Walter Pincus’s attack on journalism today (Pincus was the old-timer Washington Post reporter who wrote story after story questioning the administration’s Iraq WMD claims in 2002, only to see all of them shunted to the back page.)

Today’s mainstream print and electronic media want to be neutral, unbiased and objective, presenting both or all sides as if they were on the sidelines refereeing a game in which only the players—the government and its opponents—can participate. They have increasingly become common carriers, transmitters of other people’s ideas and thoughts, irrespective of import, relevance and at times even accuracy.

At a time when it is most needed, the media, and particularly newspapers, have dropped the idea of having
experienced reporters provide analysis and context and turned instead to retired public figures or so-called
experts to provide commentary. It was not always this way.

Well, we can debate which of so many problems makes the current state of mainstream journalism so wretched, but the obsession with neutrality and apparent lack of bias is certainly one of them, and I wonder if it too is the same mentality at work that Cassirer attacks: that despite there being points of view, there is only one absolute News that presents them all equally, and that’s what to strive for.

I do hear that same absolutist arrogance in this little speech too:

“[The government] will not be satisfied for long with the knowledge that it has 52 per cent behind it while terrorising the other 48 per cent but will, by contrast, see its next task as winning over that other 48 per cent for itself…It is not enough to reconcile people more or less to our regime, to move them towards a position of neutrality towards us, we want rather to work on people until they have become addicted to us…”

Goebbels, March 15, 1933 (taken from Evans, 396)

As with Gobineau, that’s when purported objectivity turns into propaganda.

Hermann Broch: Geist und Zeitgeist

This essay was written in 1934: Broch is in Austria and Germany, the world is falling apart around him, and he places the blame on positivism? (He means it in the secularist sense, and he reserves special praise for the “unique sensitivity” of the Catholic Church.) I’m fond of Broch’s The Death of Virgil, but when it comes to ideas, his moral conservatism is limp and useless next to the work of Musil and Cassirer.

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