Monday, November 30, 2009

More on "Nietzsche Source"

Here, a presentation recorded at the FNS meeting at Oxford this past September. (Thanks to Rob Sica for the link.) The keynote addresses were also recorded, and should be on-line before too long. I'll post a link when they are.

Monday, November 9, 2009

The Continental Traditions in Philosophy vs. "Party Line Continentalists"

A brave, anonymous soul posted the following nonsense on the thread about "Myths about Nietzsche," but it represents such a pernicious and widespread bit of self-deception that it warrants its own post. Our commenter begins:

This was an interesting talk, but I was saddned to hear Leiter take a snipe at the Postmodernists.

I did not take a "snipe" at postmodernism, I expressed a scholarly opinion, namely, that many postmodernist readers of Nietzsche (like Derrida and in a different way Foucault) misunderstand his views on truth and knowledge, in part because they rely too much on material Nietzsche did not publish, which expresses views it appears he rejected over time. This is, if anything, the consensus view in the scholarly community. But it is not a snipe. The anonymous author does not even address the scholarly issue. This is minor (though revealing), since the really good stuff is coming:

Like many Analytics, Leiter's attitude towards the Continentals (and especially towards the Postmodernists) is of barely concealed contempt. With few exceptions, Analytics tend to reduce the thought of their Continental/Postmodernist foes to easily dismissed, facile generalizations, instead of sincerely engaging in dialogue. Of course, the same could be said of many Continentals and Postmodernists, in regards to their attitude towards the Analytics. Much of the time the Analytics and Continentals really seem to be talking past one another.

I am not an "analytic." I do not even know what that means. I can certainly tell you the basics of Quine and Kripke, though I've read relatively little David Lewis; I think metaethics deals with important philosophical problems, but find most Anglophone normative theory embarrassing; I could give you a short lecture on the Gettier problem and the responses to it, but I think "analytic metaphysics" is a seriously wrong turn in the field and ignore it. I can also tell you the basics about Habermas, though I am not a fan and much prefer Adorno, Horkheimer, and Marcuse; I think Derrida is a charlatan, and am sorry to see Foucault, whom I think is the most interesting diagnostician of the 'iron cage' of modernity since Weber, associated with him so often; I agree with Deleuze that phenomenology is our "modern scholasticism," but have a soft spot for Sartre. I enjoy Hume and Nietzsche, Spinoza and Marx, but haven't much affection for Leibniz or Hegel.

I am interested in philosophy and philosophical problems that crop up in various traditions, but often have an interest and existence that transcends them. But why is it so important to cabin me off as an "analytic" in contrast to the "Continentals" (who are then, wholly bizarrely, equated with Postmodernists by our commenter)? Who are these "Continentals"? If I have written extensively on Nietzsche, occasionally on Marx and Foucault; if I have taught Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Foucault, Adorno, and Horkheimer with some frequency; if I have co-edited The Oxford Handbook of Continental Philosophy, and I am not a "Continental," then who is?

As I have noted before--and as The Oxford Handbook, I think, reflects--we are living in a Golden Age for scholarship on European philosophy after Kant. Someone who thinks there is a lot of "talking past one another" going on can't, obviously, be talking about the current state of scholarship on figures like Hegel, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Husserl, and Merleau-Ponty--so what is the commenter talking about? Who are these mysterious "Continentals" since they are not me, Michael Rosen, Taylor Carman, Frederick Beiser, Peter Poellner, Sebastian Gardner, Julian Young, Raymond Geuss, Michael Forster, or any of the others working on and in various Continental traditions of philosophy?

As any actual scholar knows, there is no such thing as a "Continental tradition" in philosophy; rather, as Rosen and I noted in the introduction to The Oxford Handbook,

[P]hilosophy in Continental Europe in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is best understood as a connected weave of traditions, some of which overlap, but no one of which dominates all the others. So, for example, German Idealism marks the immediate reception and criticism of Kant's philosophy in figures like Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel, who use a comprehensive conception of reason to provide connected answers to a broad range of questions of metaphysics, epistemology, and the theory of value. The breakdown of the German Idealist view was, in turn, of central importance in motivating Marx, Kierkegaard, Schopenhauer, and, more indirectly, Nietzsche. The reactions against Hegel's Idealism in the decades after his death in 1831 were, in fact, manifold; they included: (1) the German Materialism of the 1850s and 1860s in writers like Buchner, Moleschott, Czolbe, and Vogt (though with resonances in better-known philosophical figures like Feuerbach, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche), who took seriously the development of modern physiology, and advocated...the replacement of philosophy by science; (2) Marx's own repuditation of the domain of philosophy as the attempt to establish doctrines in metaphysics and
epistemology in favor of a political, critical and scientistic conception of philosophical method; and (3) the emergence of neo-Kantian thought in the latter years of the nineteenth century (e.g., Lotze, Helmholtz, Fischer, Cohen, Windelband, and Rickert) as a response to the emergence of psychology as a scientific discipline ...

Most of the major twentieth-century developments in "Continental" philosophy can, in turn, be seen as responses to one or more of the nineteenth-century philosophical currents. Inasmuch as there is a Marxist tradition in philosophy, for example, it is marked by a dissatisfication with Marx's professed ideal of a scientific, historical approach to the study of society from which all philosophical questions have been purged, a dissatisfaction expressed in figures like Lukacs, Gramsci, Adorno, Horkheimer, Marcuse, and, finally, Habermas, who returns Kantian-style questions about justification to center stage. (The analytical Marxists in Anglophone philosophy end up, arguably, with a similar dissatisfaction.) Modern Phenomenology arose, like neo-Kantianism, in reaction to the development of modern psychology, in particular the attempt to reduce issues regarding the nature of thought, meaning, and logic to questions to be answered by an empirical scientific investigation of the facts of mental life....In the hands of Heidegger, however, the tradition is importantly transformed, with a new emphasis on the relationship between structures of meaning and the lived experience of particular individuals that inspired the French Existentialists (like Camus and Sartre) in their belief in the priority of 'existrence' over 'essence.'

Other important developments associated with Continental Europe in the twentieth-century do not map neatly on to the story sketched so far. The philosophical tradition we associate with 'Hermeneutics,' for example, which asserts the centrality and distinctiveness of interpretation for any understanding of language (and, hence, of human beings in whose lives language plays a constitutive role), intersects with both the German Idealist and the Phenomenological traditions and brings to them a distinctive set of issues regarding the relationship between language and thought, the nature of historical and social understanding, and the essential finitude of human
understanding, issues that are manifest in hermeneutically minded writers from the eighteenth through the twentieth centuries, including, Herder, Schleiermacher, Dilthey, and Gadamer.

So, too, 'Structuralism' was a movement initially not in philosophy, but in linguistics and the social sciences--associated with figures like Saussure, Levi-Strauss, Barthes, Althusser, and others--which placed emphasis on the explanatory autonomy of systems in contrast to psychological, historical, or teleological explanations. But once this idea was imported into philosophy and psychology itself (for instance, by Lacan and Foucault) the consequence took the form of the so-called 'death of the subject' out of which in turn the tendencies known as 'post-structuralism' and 'post-modernism' emerged (in figures like Derrida, Deleuze, and Foucault again). In its most radical forms--informed by Heidegger and one (contentious) reading of Nietzsche--post-structurlism is best understood as a modern form of skepticism,
calling into question not just the possibility of objective truth but of determinate understanding.

This brief, introductory survey of positions, doctrines, and thinkers found on the European Continent after Kant should make clear that any unqualified talk of "Continental" as a kind of philosophy (a doctrine, a method, a set of problems) is ludicrous.

So what's really going on here when people, like the anonymous commenter (but many others, of course), speak of "Continental" or "Continentalists"? For sake of clarity and accuracy, we should really call this sociological phenomenon "Party Line Continentalism" since what it actually picks out is a political effort to enforce a certain philosophical orthodoxy, namely, that which arises from a conception of philosophy and its methods that is largely fixed by Heideggerian phenomenology and developments in mostly French philosophy that involve reactions to Heidegger (such as Derrida, but not only him). Since phenomenology, as it began with Husserl, has much in common with the origins of mid-20th-century analytic philosophy in Frege, there is, shall we say, a certain irony in demarcating the philosophical terrain this way, but it is especially ludicrous to denominate phenomenology-plus-poststructuralism "Continental" given that it effectively excludes the Frankfurt School, Marxism, German Idealism, and Nietzsche from the Continentalist camp. (Of course, that is not how the Party Line Continentalists understand what's going on here, but this is at least partly because their command of the history of European philosophy after Kant is often quite weak and idiosyncratic.)

Party Line Continentalists are very exercised about the fact that there are philosophical scholars of the Continental traditions who treat the figures of post-Kantian European philosophy as philosophers, without reading them through the lens and the methods of Heidegger and/or post-structuralism. Heidegger and (most) of the post-structuralists (Deleuze is an exception) were not, however, very good scholars or philosophical expositors, so it is not surprising that those with real training in philosophy and its history would not read the great figures of the Continental traditions in accord with the Party Line.

Now back to our anonymous commenter, who clearly is in the grips of Party Line Continentalists:

It's good that some of the Analytics are finally starting to get exposed to and grapple with some of the early Continentals, like Neitzsche and Heidegger. But, unfortunately, I think many of those Analytics either completely miss the point that the early Continentals are trying to make, or (worse) try to co-opt them in to the Analytic fold. I think the former is the case with Leiter, when he dismisses Thus Spoke Zarathustra as a mere parody.

It is indicative of the intellectual level of too many Party Line Continentals that they are such careless readers and listeners. I did not, in the interview, dismiss Zarathustra as a parody; I pointed out, rather, that Zarathustra is a parody of the Christ-figure (how could this not be obvious?), and the book a parody of The New Testament, with Zarathustra "preaching" an anti-Christian doctrine. I then pointed out that any careful interpretation of Zarathustra has to be alert to the parodic form, and thus careful in attributing what Zarathustra says to Nietzsche--a hermeneutic consideration especially relevant to appraising the meaning and significance of the image of the Overman.

"Analytic" philosophy as a substantive research program has been moribund for forty years or more, yet Party Line Continentalists know so little about the history of even recent philosophy, that they continue to think that there must be Party Line Analytics lined up against them. In fact, it is the entire history of philosophy and almost every major philosophical tradition prior to that launched by Heideggerian phenomenology that is lined up "against them," which is no doubt why Party Line Continentalists are so intent on misappropriating the term "Continental" for their sect and excluding other philosophers and scholars engaged with the Continental traditions from the Party.

Like most philosophers engaged with the Continental traditions in this Golden Age of philosophical scholarship, I am happy to be excluded from the Party. But I am not happy to see the Party Line discredit the philosophical figures I care about by associating them with their sectarian Party Line. But Party Line Continentalism has no business appropriating the name of a place that is the home to such a rich and philosophically interesting array of thinkers, most of whom do not have the all-too-common vices of the Party Line, such as obscurantism, careless reading, dialectical feebleness, and often ignornance of the history of philosophy.

The good news here is that Party Line Continentalism is, ironically enough, increasingly just an Anglophone phenomenon, confined to a handful of departments in the U.S. (e.g., Penn State, Stony Brook, DePaul, Memphis, Vanderbilt, the New School, Dusquesne), the U.K. (e.g., Middlesex and Dundee), and Australia (e.g., New South Wales). (Even these Party Line Continentalist departments are increasingly diverse, which is a welcome development!) On the European Continent itself, Party Line Continentalism is in retreat almost everywhere, as rigorous historical scholarship, that transcends national boundaries, and Anglophone-style philosophical work is increasingly dominant.

I am genuinely hopeful that over the next generation Party Line Continentalists will be exiled entirely to literature departments, where lack of real depth in philosophy and its history does not matter. If, in addition, some of the unfortunate "fads" in Anglophone philosophy--and the trivial intellectual parochialism that often accompanies them--do not intervene, then we may really enter a period of philosophical scholarship in the Anglophone world in which "analytic" and "Continental" as terms of partisan battle are largely uintelligible to those drawn to the problems of philosophy.

UPDATE: Needless to say, comments are more likely to appear if signed.