Mulhall on Philosophy and Culture

This past October, Stephen Mulhall (Oxford), delivered the Grahame Lock Memorial Lecture, and it contains interesting reflections on philosophy and its significance in the broader culture:

Sometimes philosophy finds that its own continued existence does not matter to anyone else… But philosophers shouldn’t deny their own responsibility for this fate. For how many philosophy departments currently reflect in their internal structures a sense of the vital significance of the question of fundamental ontology? How far do our departments make room for raising the question of how their various activities relate to each other, as opposed to being an assemblage of self-sufficient enterprises, or a domain within which the relative importance of various branches of the subject are fixed, effectively put beyond question by an inherited consensus (call it a syllabus)? If, on reflection, we cannot confidently say that our own ways of living as philosophers reflect the conviction that the question of whether philosophy makes sense is of such importance, then we should not heap all the blame for our present cultural irrelevance on either universities or governments, as if our fate could only have been forced upon us from without.

He also discusses different approaches to philosophy:

The story of analytic philosophy can be narrated at this level of generality, because it makes sense to regard it as a distinctive school or movement – a collective enterprise held together by shared (or at least overlapping) commitments to certain methods and doctrines which developed over time within recognizable limits. However, an analogous story cannot be told of ‘Continental’ philosophy, because that label was used to denote all the major philosophical schools or movements that held sway on the continent of Europe (primarily in Germany and France) from the death of Kant to the present day. It thus includes German Idealism (especially Hegel), Marxism, Nietzschean genealogy (including Foucault), Existentialism (from Kierkegaard to Sartre and Camus), Phenomenology (from Husserl to Heidegger, Sartre and Merleau-Ponty), Critical Theory (especially the work of Adorno, Horkheimer and Habermas), Deconstruction (Derrida), and so on. Analytic philosophy could usefully be compared with any one of these schools or movements, each of which is held together by certain shared commitments; but it makes no sense to compare it with all of them – as if there were some set of commitments that every one of them shared, or some particular ‘Continental’ philosopher who could go proxy for all.

So it’s unsurprising that these ‘Continental’ philosophers never identified themselves as such (even if their stubborn Anglophone defenders were sometimes forced to); rather like the idea of a ‘Continental breakfast’, that of ‘Continental’ philosophy is one used primarily by those outside the cultures to which it primarily applies. It is, in fact, essentially an invention of analytic philosophers, and applies to anything and everything in the post-Kantian philosophical scene that is not analytic philosophy. And it’s true that many ‘Continental’ philosophers did (in various ways) reject commitments central to the analytic tradition – by questioning the priority of logical analysis, by pursuing avowedly metaphysical (and so purportedly meaningless) projects or at least taking them seriously enough to engage in critical dialogue with them (and so presenting the history of the subject as an essential context for its current work), or by aligning philosophy more with the humanities and social theory than with the natural sciences.

In that sense, there is a minimal (although essentially negative) descriptive content to the idea of ‘Continental’ philosophy. But it was never really a purely descriptive category; anyone who grew up within the philosophical culture that deployed it knew that it was a term of disapprobation, and at the limit a term of abuse. For it tended to be assumed (not entirely without justification, or at least provocation, in some cases) that ‘Continental’ philosophers not only did not do philosophy the right way, they did it in such a way as to threaten the very integrity of the subject. Their querying of the significance of logical theory was taken as a rejection of rational standards, and their willingness to speak metaphysically was taken as a willing embrace of obfuscation and nonsense. ‘Continental’ philosophy was thus a kind of anti-philosophy, what Plato would have called ‘sophistry’; the choice between analytic and Continental traditions was one in which both the essence and the existence of philosophy as such was held to be at issue, in just the way that the poets and the sophists threatened to extinguish the subject at its inception, or more precisely to prevent it coming into existence at all.

One way in which ‘Continental’ philosophers flaunted their threatening difference was in their tendency to take more seriously than their analytic colleagues the following question: ‘Why is there something (anything, anything at all) rather than nothing?’ I want to suggest that we might make further progress with the issue of philosophy’s distinctive nature by considering a variation on that canonical query: ‘Why is there something called ‘philosophy’ rather than nothing?’ What difference would it make if there were no such activity – no departments of philosophy in universities, and no recognition in the wider culture of the bare possibility (never mind the value) of doing what inhabitants of such departments (and of course, many others outwith that institutional context) spend their time doing?

The full text is at Humane Philosophy.

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