The “Analytic Co-opting” and Death of the Continental Tradition

A conversation about Continental philosophy between Fordham University philosophy professor Babette Babich and game-designer and “outsider philosopher” Chris Bateman is being published in parts on Bateman’s blog, Only a Game (part one, part two).

Bateman attributes to Babich the view that “the art of continental philosophy is dying out.” Babich, who works in Continental philosophy, attributes this to a broader trend. She says:

the problem is to be sure not merely the exclusion of classical sorts of continental philosophy but all kinds of things that don’t fit an increasingly narrower analytic mode. I am… keenly attuned to the analytic co-opting of the continental tradition.

The “co-opting” she’s referring to is the trend over the past couple of decades for philosophers who work in an analytic style to take up the figures and topics on which Continental philosophers had written. This is one of those ideas that people familiar with the philosophy profession will understand, even if it is notoriously difficult to get satisfactory definitions of “Continental” and “analytic” philosophy. Babich adds:

Analytic philosophy privileges argument and persuasion, making a case, making a claim, proving a point, persuading an opponent and so on and it is to this extent fairly legalistic, case-focused. From this perspective it is rather easy to wave a flag and think that waving a flag is all that is needed. So if one talks about Heidegger or Nietzsche that will justify calling oneself continental.

The worry is, in part: if that gets to be called Continental philosophy, then what do we call the stuff we used to refer to as “Continental philosophy”?

A good chunk of Daily Nous readers will likely answer, “we call that ‘bad philosophy'” — an answer that Babich and Bateman are aware of and understandably reject. Continental philosophy is not my tradition, either, but given that so many smart and well-educated people find it worthwhile, it behooves us to attempt a more generous response.*

What comes through in Bateman and Babich’s conversation is a sense of loss resulting from a kind of academic gentrification. And just as real-world neighborhood gentrification is a mixed bag of benefits and costs, so too, they think, is this academic version. For it is not just a question of what a type of philosophy is called. There’s the question of whether and where it can continue to exist.

I think this is worth discussing. Conversations about analytic and Continental philosophy tend towards the fiery, fueled by smugness and defensiveness. Can we do it in a more peaceable, non-insulting way?

A couple of questions do come to mind. Do Babich and Bateman have the facts right? Is there less “traditional-style” Continental philosophy? Fewer venues for it? How far back does the style of philosophy that Babich and Bateman call “Continental” go? We don’t mourn the loss of logical positivism as a living form of philosophy; should we have the same attitude towards the kind of Continental philosophy with which Babich and Bateman identify (if it is actually declining)? How have the institutions of universities and disciplines affected this kind of philosophy, and how should they from now on? Suppose that Continental philosophy of this type is dying: what about it should be saved?

You’re welcome to discuss these and other related questions. But please, let’s keep it civil.

And in case you haven’t ever looked at it, here is the comments policy.

(Thanks to Dirk Felleman for bringing the Babich-Bateman conversations to my attention.)

* Me, elsewhere: “It seems silly to think that finally, after a couple of thousand years, we, the dominant Anglo-American analytic philosophers, have, in the last century, finally hit upon the correct set of questions and the correct method of philosophy. I happily admit that those are my questions and my method, but nonetheless I think I have to be open to the idea that it may be limited in important respects.”

Gerhard Richter, "Florence 36"

Gerhard Richter, “Florence 36”

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