What Is “Continental Philosophy”?


In the comments to the last heap of links, dmf points to a post on Terence Blake’s blog, Agent Swarm, entitled “16 Traits of Continental Philosophy.” It’s a précis of a series of earlier posts defending the approach of Slavoj Žižek against critiques by Noam Chomsky. I think something like this list would be useful for overcoming certain philosophical prejudices, but I must admit I do not know enough to know whether it is accurate or comprehensive, and like many other analytically trained philosophers, I need help with phrases like: “deconstructing the question already includes constructing the subjacent problematic of the view one is responding to.” Those in the know, take a look and help us out.

UPDATE: Folks, let’s try to keep the conversation respectful and avoid assuming more about Blake’s views of Continental philosophy than is available to us at the linked post or elsewhere on his blog or in his comments here.

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terenceblake
7 years ago

Hello, thanks for linking to my attempt to characterise Continental philosophy. I think it is pretty accurate, but it is probably far from comprehensive. As to the phrase you cite , “deconstructing the question already includes constructing the subjacent problematic of the view one is responding to”, I am sorry for the jargon, but I think it corresponds to an easy to understand quality and to a familiar experience. A couple of years ago a French artist was talking to me about her difficulties in reading Bernard Stiegler. She showed me a long interview with him on the subject of belief in God, and told me that she could not understand why he took so long to get to the point. He talked for several pages about the history of religion and of philosophy, about the history of society and the economy in the 20th Century, and said many interesting things but she could not see the link with the initial question and with the rest of the interview. I explained to her that no French philosopher would be caught dead just directly answering a question. He would examine the presuppositions contained in the formulation of the question, and the concepts embodied in those presuppositions, and look at other ways of conceiving and of formulating the question, and probably replace the initial formulation as containing undue, perhaps unconscious, constraints on the type of answer that could be given. In short he would first “deconstruct” the question to give him greater freedom in the type of reply he could give. The idea is that a question may “look ok”, but most often presupposes a host of assumptions about the world and its understanding that belong to a paradigm that needs to be made explicit if we want to avoid being caught inside the blinkered view of that paradigm when what we want to say introduces a new point of view. The vartist was quite excited and told me that not only did this resolve her difficulties with this text, but that it illuminated a lot of other texts that she had read by Stiegler, whose thought she likes a lot, and others. I always remembered this conversation and so included the point as important for understanding Continental philosophy.

Note: the post you site is just a point summary of a series of posts, and they contain lengthy (but still a little jargony) explanations for each point. Deconstructing the question is covered here: http://terenceblake.wordpress.com/2013/07/28/9th-and-10th-traits-of-continental-philosophy-deconstructing-the-question-and-thinking-in-problematics/.Report

justinrweinberg
Reply to  terenceblake
7 years ago

Thanks for replying and explaining, Terrence. I think that one question analytically trained philosophers have is why some continental writers choose to write the way they do. The phrase I highlighted was “deconstructing the question already includes constructing the subjacent problematic of the view one is responding to.” Is anything lost if we “translate” this into something like: “analyzing a question includes identifying its assumptions”? If not, then why not put the point that way? Here’s one reason to put the point that way: it makes the idea more accessible to more readers, and so is less elitist. Here’s another reason: it shows that what continental philosophers are up to (at least in this regard) is no different from what analytic philosophers do.

(By the way, I refer to “analytic” and “continental” philosophers aware that there is great controversy over whether this is a substantive or helpful way of breaking up the terrain.)Report

Manolo Martínez
Manolo Martínez
Reply to  justinrweinberg
7 years ago

I read Terrence’s comment as suggesting that the “subjacent problematic” includes not just assumptions — which, I guess, could be put in propositional form for the most part — but also attitudes, stances, things like that, that could not be cancelled or disowned as easily as assumptions can?

If this is more or less correct, then the original formulation would be more precise and compact than yours. Also more obscure, but that’s always the case with jargon.

(Disclaimer: I’m just another analytic philosopher, and I don’t really know the first thing about subjacent problematics)Report

Daniel Nagase
Daniel Nagase
Reply to  justinrweinberg
7 years ago

One thing that one of my professors was always pointing out is that some writers (such as Adorno, Deleuze, Derrida) really cared about their style. If you read them, you’ll see that they are engaged in a project that, in many ways, tries to make us think outside of “common sense” (understood here as some kind of background presuppositions that we always bring to bear on our experience). They also think that language, in many ways, can be considered as a surreptitious way of bringing back “common sense”. So, in order to break through “common sense”, one must also employ a certain style that “breaks through” language itself. At it’s best, I think such an idea produces some really brilliant pieces. Unfortunately, it also easily lends itself to self-parody, so there is a fine line there between twisting common sense and simply being unintelligible.Report

Anon
Anon
Reply to  terenceblake
7 years ago

I agree that, as Daniel suggests, many continental philosophers’ difficult styles are attempts to free us from common sense assumptions imbedded in ordinary speech. Sometimes successful, sometimes not.

But the justified cases of difficult style, where it pays off in really insightful, novel, and lasting philosophical advances, are the exception. And so we are better off, as a rule, aiming for more accessible language whenever we can. Most of us are not Hegel or Heidegger. Our insights are not so great, or not yet proven great enough, to make such a demand on our audience, especially in verbal or online conversation.

For this reason, I share Justin’s worry about elitism. I believe that jargon and stylistic innovation are sometimes justified, but it is often used as a way for an in-group to identify and control its members. That’s true in continental philosophy, and I think it’s true in analytic philosophy and in most disciplines.

I am very suspicious of any philosophical interlocutor who, when I say, I’m not sure what you mean, I don’t share your style and language, can you put it differently, instead “schools” me in their language, forcing me to listen and speak in their way. This is, again, one of the hypocrisies of some contemporary continental philosophers. Despite their love of alterity, some will not allow you to really be another person, with a truly different method or view, in philosophical conversation.Report

terenceblake
Reply to  Anon
7 years ago

“I am very suspicious of any philosophical interlocutor who, when I say, I’m not sure what you mean, I don’t share your style and language, can you put it differently, instead “schools” me in their language, forcing me to listen and speak in their way”. This is what you should have said, but you didn’t.Report

Daniel Nagase
Daniel Nagase
Reply to  Anon
7 years ago

I actually share your suspicion; in fact, one of the reasons I decided to work in the analytical tradition is because I was a bit tired of reading papers that mimicked, say, Deleuze’s style, but without the substance. I was just pointing out, in answer to Justin’s question, that, indeed, there may be something lost when we translate a complicated sentence from, e.g., Adorno, into something more conventional.Report

Anon
Anon
Reply to  Anon
7 years ago

Terence, I agree. See my reply to your other post, where I admit that I should have taken a different tone.

Here I wasn’t referring to our exchange, but to your exchange with Justin. He translated your point into language that he could make sense of, which may not have perfectly captured your meaning, but was pretty servicable, allowing for fruitful discussion of the substance of the claim: namely, is this really a distinctive feature of continental philosophy?

But in your reply, while you admit it’s a fair rephrasing in some respects, you give close attention to it shortfalls. The effect of this is that it shifts the focus from the primary discussion (what is continental philosophy?) to what is the most accurate way of describing Terence’s view? I think this breaks down the proper reciprocity of philosophical conversation, because one person, the one with the technical language, gets more time, effort, and attention invested in their ideas than the rest. It’s a matter of degree, but it does have a degree of danger of elitism: some of us get to express ourselves however we like and its the job of others to put in the time and effort to understand our true meaning. After that, they can then critically respond or express their views.

The danger is that this can lead to something closer to the relation of a teacher to a student or a master to an initiate, not a philosophical discussion. Our primary efforts should be devoted to the subject at hand, not to understanding perfectly our interlocutor’s view. And I think that is best served by both sides seeking to be as accessible in their language to the other as they can, and accepting that the other person’s interpretation can be serviceable for the discussion without being perfect–and, thus, without needing to use or explain my more precise technical language.Report

Anon
Anon
7 years ago

Of course, it goes without saying that the linked post does not apply to the growing number of analytically trained philosophers with a primary interest in continental philosophy.

But as a continentally trained continental philosopher, I would like to emphasize it is not even remotely representative of the majority of continental philosophers, period. I say this as someone with experience and some sympathy with what Leiter condescendingly calls “party line continentalists” and the SPEP crowd. This doesn’t even represent them.

Short version of the following: Don’t look to the recent figures in the tradition to understand the whole. Better to start with the shared roots of the tradition: Kant, Hegel, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Marx, Husserl.

1) A. Zizek is referenced at every step. Many continental philosophers have no particular interest in or knowledge of Zizek. A significant number have a very low opinion of his work.

1) B. Creation of concepts is Deleuze’s view. Everything said in (1.A.) applies to Deleuze, as well. (Personally, I find Deleuze an interesting and important philosopher. But I don’t find his definition of philosophy as concept creation very illuminating.)

2-3) and 5) Many, probably most, continental philosophers will, like me, have no idea what these are talking about.

4) Immanence is Deleuze again. The Kantian tradition is important to the history of philosophy, and many of its continental descendents aren’t on board here.

6) I don’t think this is true of all continental philosophy (not of Husserl or Heidegger, e.g.). It may well be true of some non-continental philosophy, too.

7) This is Lyotard. Everything said in (1.A) applies to Lyotard. Times 10.

8) Not sure what this is. Probably a version of Adorno’s “constellations.” Adorno: see 1.A.

9) 1.A.

10) Oh, for crying out loud. Not even Nietzsche would agree with that. Maybe a really low-rent Foucault.

11) Many non-continentals will accept this.

12) http://www.mcsweeneys.net/articles/ten-reasons-were-not-going-to-grad-school

13) 1.A.

14) In contrast to paradigmatic analytic philosophers like, oh, I don’t, frikking Hegel?

15) Have you read Hegel?

16) Have you read anything before Foucault? That is, without reading it *through* Foucault, or Derrida, or Zizek, or whoever? Here’s a real continental trait: historical fidelity to individual thinkers and texts, attentive to their distinctive views and methods.Report

terenceblake
Reply to  Anon
7 years ago

I was trained in analytic philosophy in the 1970s and then branched out into Continental philosophy. I then came to live in Paris in 1980 and attended the seminars of Deleuze, Lyotard, Serres, and Foucault. In fact it was a very strong recommendation by Lyotard, who I met and showed my work to, that got me the original scholarship to come to Paris and study with him. I now live in Nice (France) but I still follow seminars both physically and on-line (in particular Bernard Stiegler’s). So much for the arrogant declination of the “right” to speak about Continental philosophy.

I do not like your tone nor your cavalier treatment of what amounts to quite a lot of work writing up that series of posts. So you will get no replies from me to your one-liners purporting to refute the relevance of my list and just ignoring all my explanations.

In the first post of the series that is being summarised I explain very clearly that I am reacting to Chomsky’s takedown of Continental philosophy by means of his critique of Zizek as a typical example of all that he finds wrong with it. That is why I constantly reference Zizek, who is not at all my cup of tea, and who I have criticised severely on my blog. So I consider Zizek only insofar as he “illustrates many traits of French poststructuralist philosophy”. But Lyotard illustrates these quite well too, and he enounces them in his writings, only he most often uses different words. By the way, I don’t use “creation of concepts” as a definition of philosophy, but as just one trait in an array of traits that characterise the style of Continental philosophy. This was Lyotard’s view too, and also Deleuze’s If one takes pains to to understand what Deleuze actually means by “creation of concepts” it spells out as pretty much the same as the list of 16 traits, so you bandy phrases about that you don’t seem to understand very well.

Hermeneutic pluralism, as explained at length on my blog, is the view of Bruno Latour and of Bernard Stiegler, two living philosophers who are producing very interesting and important work, but you seem to have mainly a historical approach and to be quite ignorant of recent work. Deleuze’s philosophy is one of “hermeneutic pluralism” as described by me (and Stiegler, and Latour) despite the fact that he is very critical of “hermeneutics”, but means something quite different by it. Knowing a lot of words and historical references is good for a beginner such as yourself, but even then you should try and understand what they mean.Report

Anon
Anon
Reply to  terenceblake
7 years ago

Sorry for the tone, it was meant to be funny. But it was probably too snarky, especially the insinuations that you weren’t well read in the earlier history, which weren’t meant seriously. As to why I was snarky, I think your delivery of your thoughts was rather arrogant. In reply to a “heap of links” on many topics that weren’t clearly related, you simply posted it, without introduction or explanation your view. Whether intended or not, that struck me as: “here’s the truth, the final word, no need for comment.”

We might reasonably disagree about which Continental philosophers are interesting or important, but wouldn’t you agree that your view of Continental philosophy is heavily based on a relatively narrow period and group of philosophers? So, it might be better seen as a list of traits of a specific sub-field of continental philosophy, like post-structuralism.

Even narrowed to post-structuralism, I’d probably object to the characterization, but it’s at least arguable and plausible. However, it’s completely implausible as a generalization about continental philosophy as a whole. Above all, because so much of continental philosophy is born out of Kant and Hegel, both of whom are, in spirit and letter, deeply against the direction recent continental philosophy goes. Of course, that doesn’t mean there are not continuities, only that there are deep differences, too. German idealism is continental philosophy if anything is, but it’s utterly at odds with your list.

I’d add that one of my own reasons for having more interest in continental philosophy prior to post-structuralism is not a disagreement in principle but in practice. Many in that area give lip service to “pluralism” and “the other,” but in practice they reduce everything to the same. They read Plato, Descartes, Hegel, or Nietzsche, but all they ever find is Derrida or Foucault.

I think your list does this in places. The German idealist tradition is, for example, all about rejecting alterity. That’s not just a substantial chunk of the history, but an important influence in later continental philosophy, where it takes the form of the critique of alienation in critical theory.

It’s true, as you say, that some continental philosophers take from Hegel’s dialectics a kind of pluralism and treatment of concepts as fluid, but to do so is precisely *reject* Hegel, for whom the truth is the whole, and the fluid movement of history one that has its truth and meaning in its completion. And so Hegel is allowed to appear only if he appears not only not as himself, but as his very opposite!

Anyway, here’s our key disagreement: can we helpfully characterize continental philosophy looking from the present to the past, or isn’t the opposite method of reading the present from the past better?

Ironically, I think the latter method is characteristically continental (Kant and Hegel on history, Nietzsche on genealogy, for example).Report

John Protevi
Reply to  terenceblake
7 years ago

Anon, I won’t enter the details of the discussion with TB, but just want to point that it’s not true that TB left only a link; that was “dmf.”Report

Anon
Anon
Reply to  terenceblake
7 years ago

John, thanks for pointing that out. Terence, my sincere apologies for assuming you’d posted that and for the snark: it was definitely undeserved.

John, you might consider joining the discussion, I’m sure many would be curious to hear your thoughts.

As a continental philosopher, I think this is an important instance of the old debate. DailyNous has many readers from different parts of the philosophy spectrum, and has made a charitable, sincere effort to increase understanding of continental philosophy. The discussion here could have real impact.

But I’m worried that this list gives a false impression, and could consequently do more harm than good, making people who would otherwise find much of value and interest in continental philosophy think it’s a much narrower, more homogenous area than it is and perhaps reinforcing negative stereotypes about both the style and the philosophical presuppositions of continental philosophy.Report

terenceblake
7 years ago

I think your proposed translation is moderately acceptable, but that something important is lost. The notion of “problematic” includes the idea that the implicit assumptions hold together in an underlying theoretical structure that generates the problems that can be posed in its terms, and that it is incommensurable with other such structures. “Problematic” also entails a historical approach, taking into account how these theoretical structures have evolved over time and could be made to evolve further. It may sound classy iand daunting in English, but “problematic” is not so elitist a word for the French. It is taught in high school as part of the way to plan an essay, not just in philosophy but in every other subject. Sometimes if you want to understand a different way of thinking about things you must get into the different vocabulary. “Elitist” often means “unfamiliar to me”. French philosophers don’t like having their ideas reformulated in different language if it means that important nuances are lost. One way they have of getting at these nuances is by using neologisms or just abstract words, often more or less deviated from their ordinary acception. Lastly, French vocabulary seems more highbrow to us than to them as they have a Latin based language and English is Germanic and Latin based. So in English we will often have a choice between a highbrow Latin-derived word and a Germanic-based synonym that seems more normal. As there is no such option in French latinate words seem perfectly normal to them. For example, in the phrase you cite I use “subjacent”, but it might be less elitist to say “underlying”. In French there is just “sous-jacent”. I can see no conceptual loss involved in transposing “sous-jacent” into “underlying”, so its OK by me. However, as I explained, replacing “problematic” by “assumptions” does involve a loss or reduction of meaning, so I do not accept that part of your proposition. Sometimes clarity requires adopting new words, and lexical elitism would be to insist on translating everything into a basic vocabulary that seems best only because we are used to it, because we have not got out and around enough in our reading.Report

Brian
Brian
7 years ago

The post-Kantian Continental traditions of philosophy are extremely diverse, and include German Idealism, German Materialism, NeoKantianism, phenomenology, Marxism and later Critical Theory, existentialism, hermeneutics, structuralism, and “post-modernism.” At best Mr. Blake’s description has something to do with the latter, and essentially nothing to do with all the others, and thus almost nothing to do with what is usually called “Continental philosophy.”Report

terenceblake
Reply to  Brian
7 years ago

I think Mr Brian should take into account the pragmatic context of my piece, which is explained at the beginning and at several times on this page. I thank him for his rather astonishing “shopping-list”, who would have thought of citing existentialism as a form of continental philosophy, let alone post-modernism? The man amazes me, in just 5 lines he manages with stylistic finesse, conceptual nuance, and dense argumentation, to reveal my piece for the ridiculous piece of fluff it is. I very much like his judicious use of “essentially” which shows his absolute purgation of “sloppiness” of thought.Report

Anonymous Until Tenured
Anonymous Until Tenured
7 years ago

An argument:

1. In order to do effective continental philosophy, the continental philosopher must utilize unfamiliar language and concepts.
2. It is only possible for a reader to understand someone’s writing if they use familiar language and concepts.
3. There are no important intellectual works that are (literally) impossible for readers to understand.
Therefore,
4. No work of effective continental philosophy is an important intellectual work.

I’m pretty sure that 2 and 3 are true, and, as an analytic philosopher, I don’t have much of a problem accepting 4. Continental philosophers will almost certainly reject 4. But if they do so, they need to stop defending their elitist obscurantism by appeal to 1. Unless any continental philosopher wants to give an argument against 2 or 3?Report

justinrweinberg
Reply to  Anonymous Until Tenured
7 years ago

2 is too vague. Once specified to be plausible, the argument will not work.Report

Anonymous Until Tenured
Anonymous Until Tenured
Reply to  justinrweinberg
7 years ago

Ok, perhaps. I’ll admit to being a little hesitant regarding 2 as I was writing the argument, but I couldn’t think of a way of being more precise about 2 that would make the argument fail, so I ignored the little voice in my head telling me to be more careful. I probably should have listened to it.

Could you spell out your concerns in a little more detail, so I can see if I can make the argument work in a satisfactory way?Report

justinrweinberg
Reply to  Anonymous Until Tenured
7 years ago

No time to respond fully at the moment but you need to make sure that 2 doesn’t preclude learning what new words (or foreign words for that matter) mean.Report

Anonymous Until Tenured
Anonymous Until Tenured
Reply to  justinrweinberg
7 years ago

Ok, I see where you’re coming from. That’s a good concern. Let me think and see if I can find a way to make this thought work. Until then, consider the above argument withdrawn.Report

Anon
Anon
Reply to  Anonymous Until Tenured
7 years ago

On (1):

A. This may be characteristic of continental philosophy, but only generally. Continental philosophy can, and is, often done with familiar language and concepts. Even stylistically eccentric philosophers often use familiar language: for example, Nietzsche’s wit, beauty, brashness, and emotionally provocative style is mostly accomplished in familiar language and concepts.

B. Continental philosophers often use familiar language and concepts in new ways, forcing us to either expand the boundaries concept or question its usefulness. An example: Heidegger describes human nature as In-the-world-being in order to get us to not think of humans primarily as physical objects with fixed properties and to instead focus on the ways in which our nature is shaped by our relations to people, practices, and things. He doesn’t need to teach us new language, but just put a different stress on old language.Report

always anonymous, never tenured
always anonymous, never tenured
Reply to  Anonymous Until Tenured
7 years ago

this is the sort of argument undergraduates make in class.
the word “familiar” is relational. what is familiar to me is very possibly not familiar to you, and vice versa.
the terminology you refer to as “unfamiliar” is, at the very least, *objectively* familiar to continental philosophers.
you might as well have said (and this is only a mild reordering of your words): “I’m not familiar with continental philosophy; therefore it is unimportant.”Report

Avi
Avi
7 years ago

As someone who is trained in Continental philosophy (in Europe) and conversant in both Continental and Analytic traditions, I have to agree with anon 11:34 and Brian. The so-called defining features of Continental Philosophy listed in the linked piece might apply to Zizek, but they do not apply to many other, more influential, Continental figures (e.g., Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Husserl, Gadamer, Habermas, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty). There are many contemporary Continental philosophers, particularly in phenomenology, but also in other areas, who strive to be comprehended rather than to create the illusion of profundity through the cheap trick of jargon-filled obscurity. The sad thing is that making Zizek into the exemplary Continental philosopher only serves to justify the bias many uninformed Analytic philosophers show towards Continental philosophy. In short, that list didn’t help.Report

justinrweinberg
Reply to  Avi
7 years ago

Avi, my sense of the dialectic here is that Blake is responding to Chomsky’s critique of Zizek, and so it made some sense to put the list in terms of Zizek’s ideas. We shouldn’t infer from that that Blake thinks Zizek is an “exemplary Continental philosopher.” Indeed, Blake says in a comment above that he has “criticized severely” Zizek in other posts on his blog.Report

terenceblake
7 years ago

As I have said a few times, Zizek is not “exemplary” for me, but he does exemplify many typical traits of contemporary Continental philosophy. My own exemplary figures are Lyotard, Deleuze, Serres, Foucault and amongst the living and still going strong Laruelle, Stiegler, Latour. I actually regretted that I had originally based my list around Zizek, but I found Chomsky’s dismissal so cheap, ignorant, stupid, and in bad faith that I wanted to show that even Zizek could be subsumed under a rational style that Chomsky affects not to be aware of. I have recently considered applying the same list to Bruno Latour’s recent AN INQUIRY INTO MODES OF EXISTENCE, which I consider to be one of the most important books of Continental philosophy that I have read since Deleuze’s demise. My categories have been also very much influenced by Bernard Stiegler’s on-line seminar that I have been following for the last 4 or 5 years.

I have given a sketch of an argument as to why certain types of jargon that may be initially “obscure” may be transforming our meanings and problematics, and so become clear later, after the transformation. As to obscurantism, if you read French you can see on my blog several recent posts defending Michel Onfray’s critiques of Heidegger, Levi-Strauss, Lacan, Foucault, Badiou for their “hyperconceptual” style and obscurantist jargon.Report

Anon
Anon
7 years ago

Terence, to what degree do you want this list to presuppose substantial philosophical commitments on matters of wide philosophical dispute? Because it seems to me that it if might describe continental philosophy not as a distinct tradition or even as a broadly distinct method, but as a set of philosophical positions. Not so much what CP is, but what you think it ought to be.

To take an example: “hermeneutic pluralism: Continental Philosophy supposes not just a plurality of interpretations, but of “régimes of truth” and of modes of existence.” Let’s assume for the sake of argument that it’s true that there’s a plurality of “régimes of truth.” Even if that’s the case, must a philosopher agree that it’s true to be a “continental philosopher”?

There are two worries I have about making such commitments part of our characterization of continental philosophy. First, I think it arguably excludes canonical figures and movements that everyone already agrees are “continental.” Second, I think it downplays the amount of healthy disagreement continental philosophers have with each other, even about core philosophical commitments. That not only does injustice to philosophers, whose unique contributions are overlooked, but I think it harms continental philosophy, by implying their are some “continental” positions that we shouldn’t critically examine at the risk of losing our club membership.Report

John Protevi
7 years ago

I did ask for a comment, written in haste and anger, to be withdrawn. I’ll put it this way: Anon until Tenured’s premise 1 is as faulty as the premise 2 criticized by Justin, and for the same reason: it assumes that what is unfamiliar at time t1 will always remain so. Thank goodness that is not true.

My plea is for greater nominalism: there is no such thing as “continental philosophy” (something on which, along with the danger the Salaita poses to all of us academics, Brian Leiter and I agree). I would go further and ask — and here I think Brian might agree as well — that we recall that there is no such thing as “phenomenology” (for instance, along with “German Idealism,” “feminism,” “post-structuralism,” and their permutations. Further — at perhaps here I part ways with Brian, based on my reading of his Nietzsche book, though I don’t want to be too decisive here — I don’t even believe there is such a thing as “Deleuze” or “Foucault” or “Nietzsche” or “Irigaray” or “Butler.” That is, I don’t think there is a unifying intentional structure spanning all of an author’s work; there is a cultural habit of using one name your whole life. So I much prefer talking about “Subjects of Desire” and “Precarious Life” and not about “Butler,” or “Birth of the Clinic” and “History of Sexuality, volume 3” and not about “Foucault,” etc.

Similarly, moving from the sublime not to the ridiculous (I hope) but to the ordinary, there is no “Protevi,” there is “Time and Exteriority” of 1994 and “Life, War, Earth” of 2013. Which brings me to my final plea. I wish that when folks want to criticize “continental philosophy” they instead slow their roll and pick out a particular book. That’s what I publish my books for, so that they are out in the public domain, and able to be picked up in their meatspace incarnations or downloaded in the pdfs that float about the net. I’m not hiding my stuff; I put it out there. So if you want to engage a real life continental philosopher, I’ll volunteer for the job, and would be happy to talk with you.

Now since the internet would cease to exist without self-promotion, let me say that the APA Eastern is doing an Author Meets Critics session on LWE, with Mary Beth Mader and Joe Rouse (Nah, I ain’t scared, ma! Honest!) as the critics. Come one, come all, and you can see real live continental philosophers (Mader and me) in action with a real live philosopher of science (Rouse).

Okay, I’m feeling self-indulgent, and, as I dearly love snark, are we really sure Anonymous until Tenured’s “argument” isn’t a false flag operation by a continental designed to mock analytics? I mean Poe’s Law can be generalized, can’t it?Report

terenceblake
Reply to  John Protevi
7 years ago

I think I can now add “nominalism” in the sense of “anti-essentialism ” to my list as a 17th trait, as I think it it implicit in all the other traits taken together. I certainly have no intention of providing an objective criterion of demarcation between continentals and analytics.

In AUT’s argument premise 2 (It is only possible for a reader to understand someone’s writing if they use familiar language and concepts). is that of meaning invariance and must be discarded in any domain including philosophy if progress is to be possible; Premise 1 ( In order to do effective continental philosophy, the continental philosopher must utilize unfamiliar language and concepts) presupposes that unfamiliarity is a stable property and not a relational predicate predicate containing both geographical and temporal aspects, as my example of “problematic” being a familiar concept in French lycées since the 70s shows.Report

Anon
Anon
Reply to  John Protevi
7 years ago

Thanks, John. I’d love it if critics would follow your advice about criticizing a particular book instead of continental philosophy generally, but I’m not getting my hopes up.

While I agree that, at the end of the day, there really fixed, identifiable thing captured by “continental philosophy” or “German idealism” or “Protevi,” it’s still sometimes helpful to speak as if there were. So it needn’t be a waste of time or misleading to try to capture general features in a rough and ready sort of way. I think especially given the context here: Justin wants to help those unfamiliar with some of the texts and thinkers we call continental to have a better understanding. The goal is to make people more open and charitable to some of these thinkers.

So, since one of the things that prevents people from being open and charitable and curious about some of these thinkers and texts is that they believe that continental philosophy not only clearly picks out some kind, but that it’s a kind that’s deeply flawed or unintelligible, etc. Given that hurdle, I don’t think telling them it doesn’t exist will help. Instead, we can play along and show that those flaws aren’t universal or characteristic and that, say, among the family resemblances of continental philosophers and works, we can find many virtues.Report

Colin
Colin
7 years ago

For any analytically trained philosophers out there, it’s worth keeping in mind that the continental tradition is as rich and diverse as the analytic tradition (I’m confining myself to 20th Century CP). I haven’t seen a historically apt definition of analytic philosophy that could easily make sense of placing even Russell, Wittgenstein, and Moore in the same philosophical box, let alone placing them with Austin, Quine or Kripke. Similarly, Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, and De Beauvoir all self-identified as doing phenomenology at some point in their careers. However, it’s pretty obvious that they all think of phenomenology really differently. And phenomenology is only one of several philosophical strands in 20thC CP.

It may be helpful to think of 20thC CP along the lines of (at best) family resemblance. Husserl (like Russell), in order to resist psychologism (and come up with something for philosophers to do) gave birth to phenomenology: the study of intentionality, the essence of consciousness. Heidegger studies with Husserl and thinks that we should do phenomenology, with the small caveats that he doesn’t think we should study consciousness (instead: Dasein), doesn’t think that intentionality (as Husserl conceived it) is the right way to understand meaning or normativity (instead: transcendence), and thinks that we should put essences back into existence (i.e., being-in-the-world). Merleau-Ponty loves the idea of being-in-the-world AND the idea of consciousness, and so he tries to combine them in his account of perception as the dynamic interplay of (pre-personal) subject and lived world.

In my little potted history, we have three philosophers who all do phenomenology, but it’s not clear how the phenomenology they did should be defined. Anything too specific would leave someone out (e.g., Heidegger would deny that phenomenology is the study of consciousness); anything too broad would probably include radically different philosophers (e.g., phenomenology is the study of intentionality (construed broadly enough include Heidegger) would probably also need to include some philosophy of cog sci.).

Another way to see the breadth of the differences even within phenomenology might be to consider the relationship between Wittgenstein and Russell as an object of comparison for the relationship between Husserl and Heidegger. Husserl and Heidegger both do phenomenology; Wittgenstein and Russell both do analysis. Both Heidegger and Wittgenstein’s major works can plausibly read as trying to undo everything their teacher’s advocated for. Heidegger’s phenomenology is about as similar to Husserl’s as Wittgenstein analysis is to Russell’s. As a bonus, it’s even plausible that both Heidegger and Wittgenstein react against the SAME idea: that philosophy (whether phenomenology or analysis) should be a science. (There are a lot of weird parallels between Heidegger and Wittgenstein, )

Lastly, on obscurantism. I hate that so much (primary) 20thC CP is so hard to read. I don’t understand why contemporary continental philosophers defend writing that (in my opinion) could be clearer without sacrificing anything in style. I keep a list of frustrating/irritating/WTF writing tics. For example, I love Merleau-Ponty’s prose when it’s evocative of perceptual experience, but his footnoting practices suck, he’s cagey about who he is criticizing, he’s really bad at explaining the positions he’s criticizing, and he should have regimented his terminology. I don’t see how any of these are important to his philosophical style. But, I’m willing to put up with (some) shitty writing, if I think the ideas are interesting/exciting enough. Also, for what it’s worth, the phenomenological terms are as familiar to people who study/do phenomenology as the standard analytic terms are to analytic philosophers (e.g., rigid designator, supervenience, anomalous monism, etc.), and so don’t count as obscurantist to me.

On the other hand, I think the fact that so much secondary lit on CP is hard to read is intellectually irresponsible. I take it that at least two goals of secondary lit are to illuminate (or elucidate) the primary texts and make them relevant for contemporary audiences. Both goals require writing that is accessible to contemporary audiences. And that requires NOT relying on technical terminology without first illuminating it. The more one writes solely for one’s fellow specialists, the less any non-specialist will care, and the more isolated the specialty will be.

Obviously there’s a lot I have to say on this topic. I hope it’s moderately interesting.Report

Noelle McAfee
Reply to  Colin
7 years ago

Colin’s points are beautifully put. I think of myself as a continental philosopher though often the family resemblance is hazy. I write very clearly. I’m not all that keen on hermeneutical interpretation. But I do find that the family known as “continental philosophy” tends largely to think outside the box, to be open to radically new ways of thinking and formulating questions. The work is usually deeply connected with real life, politics, and ethics.

I like going to meetings and talking with people who think of themselves as doing continental philosophy. Same goes with people who do publicly engaged philosophy. I did have some training in analytic philosophy and, frankly, I found it dead dull: both the subject matter and the people doing it. (I would be happy to be proven wrong.) Continental philosophers throw better parties and conferences, at least to my taste.

That said, I often wish that a main prominent continental philosopher I often engage would just come out and say what she means rather than leaving me guessing and having to engage in hermeneutic interpretation.

Finally, I wish that we could all do away with trying to come up with lists to define what X is. The moment a list is definitive, we should immediately set about blowing it up.Report

Rebecca Copenhaver
Rebecca Copenhaver
7 years ago

I don’t know what continental philosophy is in the sense of being able to give conditions by which we could adjudicate what is and is not continental. I’m so pleased by how philosophy of mind as practiced in anglophone countries has incorporated the works of thinkers like Merleau-Ponty and Husserl.

For my part, I like to think that we should take philosophy where we can find it. And I like to think that it’s OK if there are huge swaths of philosophy that we, as individuals, can’t attend to given our research projects and our teaching obligations. Sometimes we avoid those areas because the technical knowledge required simply outstrips the time available we have. For me, that includes huge portions of so-called analytic philosophy that I would love to get immersed in, e.g., formal epistemology. For me, it also includes almost all so-called continental philosophy for precisely the same reasons: I take it as valuable on its face and expect that it will take quite a bit of work to learn the technical language used to practice it. If I had the time and an infinite library, oh man, it would be awesome.

Here’s what I can say: I had an almost exclusively continental undergraduate education. Of course, I had no idea at the time. I am so grateful to have had that education. It was rich, welcoming, fascinating, and just plain awesome. Obviously, in the end I did not go that route. But having that education made me the philosopher and person I am now and I think that any good department should have a robust program in continental philosophy, for both undergraduates and graduate students. It’s time to end the divide by simply doing both so-called analytic and so-called continental in the top departments and letting our students – future philosophers – figure out what they are going to do with that kind of education.Report

terenceblake
7 years ago

I do not defend “shitty” style, such as bad use of footnotes or unfair summaries of others’ ideas (I now feel very indignant about that) but much of Continental philosophy is called “obscurantist” because it has a different approach to style. A transformative approach is not the same as an informative approach. I have discussed the matter a little: http://terenceblake.wordpress.com/2014/09/04/clarity-depends-on-ontology-foucault-and-searle-critics-of-derrida/, http://terenceblake.wordpress.com/2013/07/27/chomskys-conversation-argument-non-conversational-non-cognitive/ and http://terenceblake.wordpress.com/2013/07/17/was-foucault-a-closet-gricean-notes-on-the-obscurity-of-contnental-philosophy/.Report

terenceblake
7 years ago

The context of my text was Chomsky pandering to a common stereotype of recent (“post-structuralist”) French philosophy as obscurantist and empty. I wanted to give an impressionistic, intuitively understandable sketch of what that stereotype might be neglecting and that might help people get their bearings in a literature that I find very valuable and enriching (after all I left my own country for the love of it), and that sometimes makes me throw up my hands in exasperation. On my blog I try to take difficult thinkers and ideas and make them easier to understand, but for that purpose I don’t usually translate them into plain language, as I think that is not always good method and I have explained why. I gave it a try at Justin ‘s request, so I think I deserve thanks rather than abuse, or people parading their superior knowledge. If I put things in plain language, it was for those who wanted clarification, not for those who have a lot of knowledge in the field. I think it is only fair to take into account the pragmatic context of my original piece (a desire to defend recent French post-structuralism from a set of unjust stereotypes) and of my clarifications (a desire to reformulate one phrase in “non-elitist language”, to see if that would help people wondering about my meaning).

I am glad John Protevi joined the discussion, as I read his books and posts with profit. I am a little surprised that he refers to himself as a “real life continental philosopher”, as in my view he is an American philosophy professor specialising in the study and application of recent French continental philosophy. I discussed one of his applications here: http://terenceblake.wordpress.com/2014/08/23/a-deleuzian-analysis-of-a-case-of-academic-rejection/, but one must take into account the pragmatic context, as usual.Report

Anon
Anon
Reply to  terenceblake
7 years ago

Terence, it seems that there is some confusion because most commentators are using “continental philosophy” in a very different sense than you are.

For example, Protevi’s self description as a continental philosopher is a very common usage in American philosophical circles: anyone who studies continental philosophy is usually called a continental philosopher. Many people often point out jokingly, as evidence of how confusing a term it is, that there more “continental” philosophers in America and the UK than on the continent. In addition, it’s standard usage here to use “continental philosophy” to mean a very broad period of philosophy, usually extending from Hegel to the present.

You seem to use the term differently, giving more focus to recent work, associating it more closely with geography than subject matter. That’s fine, but I don’t think many people in the discussion realized there were two different usages at play.

Keep in mind the context of this blog’s post: Justin started a new post around your list introducing it as a discussion about what continental philosophy is in general. Given that the readers are mostly American academics, the implication was that it was about the more general usage of the term we’re most familiar with.

To be sure, there were some less than civil replies, including my first one, but I think there were also many thoughtful, fruitful replies. I think some of the responses you say you had hoped for, such as your text’s helpfulness for understanding Zizek, were absent because of that context. The thread topic as Justin presented it was its accuracy as a picture of continental philosophy in general, so people were only responding to it on that score.

Apart from a couple rude posts that were dismissive or didn’t offer reasons, I think many of them were fair in their critical content, disagreeing with you and making reasonable arguments for their disagreement. Numerous posts, for example, mentioned that German idealism may not fit. I gave a very specific reason: it opposes alterity. You might have engaged that argument, and explained why you disagree, I would have been happy to debate it further, and I still am.

Part of the reason people haven’t offered positive suggestions for improving the list probably goes back to the different usage of the term CP. Since we use it so much more broadly, it may not need any improvement for the narrower usage of the term that you seem to have in mind.Report

terenceblake
Reply to  Anon
7 years ago

I am quite aware of the different usages of “continental philosophy”, I just happened to use one acception in a reply to Chomsky’s stereotypes. My blog is not about Continental Philosophy but about pluralism – epistemological, ontological, and psychological pluralism. The name Agent Swarm is a Deleuzian joke as it means in my eyes “active multiplicity”. The legend “pluralism and individuation in a world of becoming” is perhaps a more complete summary of my interests. I talk about philosophers I like, mainly Feyerabend, Deleuze, Lyotard, Serres, Laruelle, Stiegler and Latour. I have actually met and talked to all these except alas! Feyerabend and Laruelle. I also talk about Badiou and Zizek, who I find are regressive figures, and I sometimes call them “demi-post-structuralists”. I don’t usually talk about continental philosophy because for me it is not a useful label, as I don’t feel that I am doing anything very different in philosophy to what I was doing in my analytic days in Australia in the 70s, I am making use of the same cognitive skills. Yet there does seem to be a difference in style between French and American analytic contemporary philosophy. True most or all of the traits on my list apply to both, yet I think that what is foregrounded in one is backgrounded in the other. So my list is not meant as a criterion of demarcation between the two but a gesture at the imaginative context that would permit one to see that certain aspects of Zizek’s style that one may be used to seeing as accessory are central for the conveying of his message for him, and that this is typical of that context he is steeped in. I think I helped people who were disturbed by Chomsky’s denigration, or by repeatedly encountered similar rejections, to know how to see through the wall of incomprehension and of intolerance that he was building on and reinforcing. If people from a different socio-cultural horizon wish I used words like them or talked about philosophies that they like to discuss, that is not my affair. I talk about living philosophers who are still producing important work, such as Latour and Stiegler and Laruelle, not because I like what is new and trendy (as some commenters have pointed out, I am very uninformed), but because I find they are talking about my life and my problems both intellectual and existential. Try reading Laruelle, he is very obscure. Yet I manage to clarify bits and pieces and some people profit from that. One thing I loathe is people quoting large slabs from thinkers that they have no idea what they mean or what relevance they have to our lives. For me they are “quantitative masters” (to use a Deleuzian expression) and will always win in an academic discussion, but that is not exactly what I am engaging in. I sometimes think of Continental philosophers (in my sense) as engaging in conceptual ascent and existential descent (two more traits!, I am aiming for twenty). That is to say: a French post-structuralist (but also those before, and non-French etc., but you know what I mean if you have read this far) will often take a concrete situation and extract out or extrapolate some new and very abstract concepts that they will develop in relation to others, and then apply them in a surprisingly concrete way. And they will do this over and over again in a single text (does anyone prefer this way of expressing things to “Continental philosophy involves a perpetual pulsation between conceptual ascent and existential descent”?, which is my preferred style in the list, although in the corresponding articles I explain what these garish sentences mean). This will result in such a text being strangely much more abstract, and so obscure, than a comparable analytic text, and at moments much more concrete. Continental philosophy is strange and fun and also deep and moving, it can change your life. This movement of conceptual ascent and existential descent is something that Protevi does quite well in his recent books. But I have a teasing relation with him (on my side) so I discussed a case where he only partially succeeded. This is not bad manners on my part, as studying a case that succeeds a little and fails a little could conceivably lead to a conversation aimed at producing a more successful treatment of the case. My list is a “failed” case too, and I have tried to pursue the offer of conversation that I encountered to improve it. What I take away from the conversation so far is a more explicit account of the pragmatic context of the list, and three new traits to add, that I had been thinking about for some time but that this dialogue prompted me to formulate. I remain a little disappointed, but finally that is not too bad a result.Report

terenceblake
7 years ago

Reblogged this on AGENT SWARM and commented:
I am not very pleased at the course of the discussion. I saw a link to Justin’s post, which seemed to me to be asking for clarifications, and so I gave what explanations I could. Suddenly I am being told that I know nothing, and that what I said does not apply to 19th Century German
idealism (which I doubt) or to American Continental Philosophy (which I know nothing about, as I have been living in France for the last 34 years). I don’t much like American academics lecturing me about stuff they don’t know first hand, as if I were their student, and a pretty bad one at that. I am sad that next to nothing was said about how my text helps people to understand what Zizek is doing, and no positive suggestions were made to improve the list, though I did ironically steal Protevi’s “nominalism”, as I had been thinking of adding “anti-essentialism” for a long time. My list is actually quite pedagogical, and it does synthesise lots of real life experiences that I have had in France, like the story of the French artist for deconstructing the question, and noticing how even 16 year olds in my classes use “problematic” quite naturally. But to tell it all in the form of such stories would have multiplied its length by 10 and weakened its transversality. On my own blog people liked it and found it helpful, and on twitter and facebook too. But I think that it is mainly people who like recent French post-structuralism-and-after who read my blog. Not Justin’s audience it would seem, at least for this post.Report

Carl B. Sachs
7 years ago

I agree with Protevi’s “nominalistic” hermeneutics — some particular texts that are routinely classified as “analytic” or as “Continental” may have greater affinities across that distinction than with other texts classified along with it.

A book like Ladyman and Ross’s “Every Thing Must Go” might have much more in common with Deleuze’s “Difference and Repetition” or Meillassoux’s “After Finitude” than with Lewis’s “A Plurality of Worlds”. (Yes, I realize that claim needs extensive argumentative support; no, I’m not going to that here.)

For that reason, we should be equally suspicious of both “analytic philosophy” and “Continental philosophy” as social kinds. They are perhaps better thought of as distinct ‘styles’ of philosophy, and each of them — as with all the other styles of philosophy! — require training. If one is untrained in a particular style, then texts written in that style will be much harder to read, conversations with people who are trained in that style will be much more difficult, and so on.

I do not think that the divide has always been one of style. In the Carnap-Heidegger debate, there are real and substantive issues at stake, both philosophical (e.g. whether logical structure is necessary for linguistic meaning) and metaphilosophical (e.g. whether philosophy should be scientific). But I do not think that there are, in 2014, any substantive philosophical or metaphilosophical positions clearly identifiable with either “analytic philosophy” or “Continental philosophy”.

[Full disclosure: I work on select figures in “analytic philosophy” and select figures in “Continental philosophy” — I’ve published on Sellars, Davidson, and McDowell (but not on many others!) and on Nietzsche, Adorno, and Merleau-Ponty (but not on many others!) because I find the texts of those particular figures helpful in dealing with questions I’m interested in.]Report

Derek Guntherson
Derek Guntherson
7 years ago

https://thehorizonandthefringe.wordpress.com/2014/08/09/divided-in-metaphilosophy-some-thoughts-concerning-analytic-and-continental-philosophy/

I like this better since the hermeneutic pluralism could be more open than Blake’s peculiar Deleuzean emphasis.Report

terenceblake
Reply to  Derek Guntherson
7 years ago

I am glad you use my term to designate the trait. You prefer Hackett’s more verbose style, but for me “Deleuzian” is a compliment. It means both dense and intense, a pulsation between concept and affect. French philosophy, and here I am including both structuralism and poststructuralism, underwent a “semiotic turn”, whose imprint can be found in Lacan and Derrida, Deleuze and Latour, Foucault and Badiou. “Hermeneutics” was adopted but reworked from the semiotic point of view, and the hermeneutico-semiotic decomposition of competences into performances is a good definition of a general idea of deconstruction such as it can be found in all these thinkers. I am grateful to you, as I now have my 20th trait: the semiotic turn.Report