The Malaise of Philosophy’s Relevance: An Answer to an Anonymous Analytic Friend Why He Ought to Read More Continental Philosophy

imagesI know it’s controversial and puts me into an old category subjected to the egos of a previous war, a war waged by those on and off my dissertation committee, a war that caught pragmatists in the middle, and a label not even invented by whatever Continental philosophy is since the label is the “miscellaneous” category invented by analytic philosophers to organize labor about what they should dismiss than know about. A friend recently commented and said that I tend to borrow and be influenced by Continental Philosophy more so than whatever holds for analytic philosophy (there are notable exceptions like W. D. Ross and Rosalind Hursthouse, but ethicists are largely the exception in my thinking); I may even be disparaging about analytic philosophy from time to time, and yet some friendships continue in recognition of the contentious nature of philosophy itself. The analytic friend asked me why he ought to study Continental philosophy even if he conceded the caricature given below. Here’s my attempt at answering that question very loosely.

The largest reason I have never been persuaded about the alleged superiority of analytic philosophy is (and has always been) how unthematized experience is; left unrefined and barren, ignoring experience divorces philosophy from the relevance of living a transformed life by philosophy. Recently, Walter Sinnot-Armstrong wrote an essay at Daily Nous where he claimed:

Because of these potential applications [in the previous paragraph to this one, Sinnot-Armstrong shows the pragmatic relevance to some classic analytic questions], there must be some way for philosophers to show why and how philosophy is important and to do so clearly and concisely enough that non-philosophers can come to appreciate the value of philosophy. There also must be some way to write philosophy in a lively and engaging fashion, so that the general public will want to read it. A few philosophers already do this. Their examples show that others could do it, but not enough philosophers follow their models. The profession needs to enable and encourage more philosophers to reach beyond the profession.

In analytic philosophy I hate how ahistoric and wrongheaded thinking of philosophy as an aspiring science is, how the solving of narrow problems as if philosophy should ignore the deeply existential and pragmatic concerns of life. When analytic philosophy doesn’t ignore the existential and pragmatic concerns of life, analytic philosophers enter a realm of the living subject, the practical agent, and it’s the sphere of value theory I’ve never taken issue with that undergirds much of the same area of agreement and engagement with my work. Instead, it has always been their myopic focus and inability to contextualize their relevance to the ongoing history of their own development. Like the science they admire, analytic philosophers seek to move forward, make progress on problems, and always look to the future at the expense of the present and past that configures their own possibility.

Of course, there are exceptions, and in many ways, analytic philosophy is dissipating to an awareness of other approaches. I know more analytically-trained philosophers reaching out to sources beyond their training, but such outreach and cooperation can only be sustained if experience is thematized. Hermeneutics, phenomenology, existentialism—these are approaches that recognize a qualitative richness to experience, and offer ways to interpret that experience. In many ways, we could introduce, like analytics, a strong sense of experience. Let’s call this thesis the Strong-Commitment-to-Experience. Skepticism about these trajectories comes from Derrida and his descendants. We could call this the Weak-Commitment-to-Experience. In many ways, what separates the two is that Derrida and his descendants do not think that the subject and/or the center of experience can be thematized in any reliable sense. There is no metaphysics of experience possible at all. A metaphysics of experience is not the same sense of metaphysics repudiated in Heidegger’s Being and Time since I would read Heidegger as offering us a way to make sense of experience, even if it just is one among many possible ontological interpretations of Dasein’s facticity. Contrary to the French post-structuralists, there is no structure or intelligibility to experience beyond the assertion of an interpretation, and no matter how heretical a phenomenologist is to Husserl, phenomenology is always committed to the fact that the world discloses its pre-intelligible meaningfulness to an experiencer.

If analytic philosophy seeks to always push its possibility into the future under the promise of science as the ultimate deliverer on all ambiguities and felt difficulties, then there can be absolutely no compromise with a vision without experience. This is an age-old problem, and most commonly distorted from the idea that a part of experience must be reduced or explained away by science as the final arbiter. Such tension can be felt in older moments of analytic philosophy and its own self-reflection. Dennett’s intentional stance comes to mind very easily on that score.

I firmly am convinced that enthusiasm for science is not the final answer on such questions, and I would not attempt to labor the pursuit of such a question beyond the brilliance of Husserl’s engagement with the natural attitude. Try as I might, I don’t think I could do it justice. What I can say is further assert why I am more open to Continental philosophy based upon the benefits one receives by paying attention to experience itself and how the interests in value theory in both analytic and Continental philosophy emerged.

First, a continental philosopher often pays attention to the cultural horizon, seeing problems of interpretation of experience as caused by the milieu that gives rise to the problem itself. This means that experience might pay attention to any number of elements drawn from the lifeworld in question. As such, continental philosophers pull from art, history, politics, and literature. In many ways, this chief boon is particularly responsible for how influential Continental thinkers have been to many within the humanities. We can all recall discussions with colleagues who are taking a horribly watered-down literary theory seminar in English or Cultural Studies and not reading Derrida through his critique of Husserl. Like reading Foucault and talking of “geneaology” without reference to Nietzsche

Second, this attention to experience also means that Continental philosophers engage in the production of art and often have a more acute connection to culture. Sartre wrote plays and novels, and Heidegger wrote bad poetry. Sartre also critiqued art. I, too, write bad poetry and short stories on occasion, but that’s a post for another day. However, this connection does bespeak even to my own life. I’ve also talked to 90.3 in Cleveland about critiquing art exhibits around the city. That proposal is still ongoing, and yet to be decided (more than likely a flight of fancy).

Third, an openness to experience means that people on the street can see the relevance philosophy has to their lives. If philosophers openly talk about the cultural problems associated with living in a capitalist society and one talks to a dock worker, the problems are addressed in a more satisfying way than as if their relevance is feigned from on high. A chair of a very analytic department once told a colleague of mine that the problems of philosophy are whatever the writers of the top analytic journals say they are. Such insanity can only be made by the raw efforts of assertion. Even analytics, famous ones like Harry Frankfurt, are responding currently to the malaise of relevance. In his Portrait of American Philosophy, he says:

I believe that there is, at least in this country, a more or less general agreement among philosophers and other scholars that our  subject is currently in the doldrums.  Until not very long ago, there were powerful creative impulses moving energetically through the field.  There was the work in England of G.E. Moore and Bertrand Russell and of Gilbert Ryle, Paul Grice, and Herbert Hart, as well as the work of various logicial positivsts.  In the United States, even after interest in William James and John Dewey had receded, there was lively attention to contributions by Willard Quine and Donald Davidson, John Rawls and Saul Kripke.  In addition, some philosophers were powerfully moved by the gigantic speculative edifice of Whitehead.  Heidegger was having a massive impact on European philosophy, as well as on other disciplines–and not only in Europe, but here as well.  And, of course, there was everywhere a vigorously appreciative and productive response to the work of Wittgenstein.

The lively impact of these impressive figures has faded.  We are no longer busily preoccupied with responding to them.  Except for a few contributors of somewhat less general scope, such as Habermas, no one has replaced the imposingly great figures of the recent past in providing  us with contagiously inspiring direction.  Nowadays, there are really no conspicuously fresh, bold, and intellectually exciting new challenges or innovations.  For the most part, the field is quiet.  We seem, more or less, to be marking time.  (pp. 125-126)

Now, it’s Thursday. I have to prepare a lecture on Buddhism and cannot give any more voice to this question. However, I invite you to highlight the boon from your particular engagement with Continental philosophy. Since so many places have disparagingly shared their hatred for Continental philosophy, I won’t share such comments. Instead, I will only share thoughtful meditations (which can be equally critical of it) about its possibility. Is Frankfurt right to include Continental philosophy above? Is Continental philosophy in the doldrums as analytic philosophy is? It would seem that, for me, Continental philosophy is never in the doldrums in the same way exactly. Continental philosophy is in the doldrums because its very good fortune about responding to interpreting cultural horizons also means that it has become an activity of commenting upon comments about someone else’s comments about Heidegger. It has become textual exegesis without application.

The irony is striking to me. After completing and posting this blog post online, I could have just as easily directed my friend to the same answer I gave to C. P. Snow’s Two Cultures. 

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4 thoughts on “The Malaise of Philosophy’s Relevance: An Answer to an Anonymous Analytic Friend Why He Ought to Read More Continental Philosophy

  1. As I understand your view, reading this post and having communicated with you on Facebook, you reject the supremacy of analytic philosophy because the analytics don’t have much to say about experience, at least in the way that you want to talk about the experiential subject (though there is much talk about experience in analytic philosophy of mind). Furthermore, you argue that analytics have missed the point of doing philosophy. Analytic philosophy tends to be (though is not always) ahistorical, problem-solving, and in love with the sciences. From your perspective, this is a problem because philosophy should be historically conscious, aware of context, and should seek to problematize the sciences in ways that analytics don’t (though it is worth baring in mind that analytic philosophers do problematize the sciences and that, as far as I can tell, the scientism cotinentals accuse analytics of is largely a strawman; otherwise, the analytic debates over, for example, scientific realism & anti-realism would be unintelligible).

    I agree with you that analytic philosophers should not simply assume that philosophy is one thing as opposed to another and that any sort of myopic insistence that philosophers spend their energy on one sort of thing as opposed to any other is (likely) mistaken.

    The problem I would pose for you is that you seem to have asserted your own myopia. It is true that analytic philosophy is not typically historically oriented; what you have failed to demonstrate is whether all philosophical questions can be answered by taking the sort of historical perspective you endorse. It is true that analytic philosophy is largely based around problem solving, yet you want philosophy to have practical applications. Unless philosophy solves problems, how could philosophy have any practical applications?

    When I read this post, what I hear from you is that you have particular expectations as to what you’d like philosophy to do. Analytic philosophy fails to do what you expect philosophy to do; so you dismiss analytic philosophy. But analytic philosophers can retort with their own expectations of what they would like philosophy to do, which differ from your expectations, and then dismiss non-analytic philosophy because it fails to deliver on those expectations.

    Furthermore, while analytic philosophy might not speak to your experience, it does speak to mine. I find much of continental philosophy to be alienating and frustrating. The logic-chopping and problem-solving of analytic philosophy appeals to me partly because I find it comprehensible and relateable. I like seeing numbered premises; logic makes sense of my world. If continental philosophy is better at getting at our lived experiences than analytic philosophy, why is it so poor at capturing my experience of the world?

    • Stereotypical analytic philosophy, insomuch as it is ahistorical and problem-solving focused, is frequently blind to its own history and that of others. This has the effect of blinkering it to its own presuppositions, even when those presuppositions are made clear, whether from a recognized insider or an outsider. Moreover, at least when I write “analytic,” I am including the social/cultura/institutional/economic matrix of factors that go along with it; for instance, analytic hire analytics. They also dominate the “good schools,” and thus “coming from a good school,” also means “analytic.” They don’t recognize non-analytic philosophy as philosophy–even when their own insiders reproduce the theses of outsiders (analytic pragmatism’s co-option of pragmatism, or feminist philosophy of science of the social production of knowledge), etc. Finally, they tend to marginalize their own dissenting voices, e.g., cross-traditional voices, and one again feminism.

      There’s a reason The Pluralist’s Guide was created in response to The Philosophical Gourmet Report. The editor of the latter, and the rating committees, are dominated by the most powerful political faction, and translate that power into intellectual superiority. And, as Upton Sinclair said, you cannot convince a person to believe something if their paycheck [or reputation] depends upon denying it. Note, by the way, that I haven’t rooted for a particular tradition, unlike Ed.

      To be honest, the point wouldn’t be such a sore one if it were for the fact that analytic has political and economic hegemony in the discipline, and thus it’s a conversation of David and Goliath in which David doesn’t win over who gets employment, respect, and a future.

      p.s. Ed … you could have been a much clearer speaker.

  2. Of course, the response is tongue and cheek, but mind you, the myopia is far from perfect on either side. To say that you are not listening is to say that you’d rather impose logic and conceptualization upon an experience prior to thinking about what is revealed there. At that point, you could never hear the call of experience, and illustrates all too well how you couldn’t ask the question of being like Heidegger’s contemporaries.

    And I’m not uncritically accepting of Continental philosophy. See the last sentence of the post, and let’s not be indulgent by any means. Let’s be as clear as glass. This post is about what should be studied and what should be discarded as a general rule of thumb (and even rules come with exceptions), and it seems in the last week or so, some analytics have been inspiring Leiter and Justin at Daily Nous to think about the relevance to philosophy and our lives. There’s something in the air about the irrelevance of philosophy, why is it in the doldrums, and don’t you find it odd that both are reading .

    For me, the one way that Continental philosophy is not in the doldrums is the focus on experience (this insight is qualified), or to put it in more familiar terms my judgment follows from James’s pragmatic rule. If it cannot make a difference in someone’s life at all, then the discourse should be abandoned, or at the very least some burden is on the part of speculator to show why we should accept what she has to say. If an analytic philosopher of religion presents an argument to show God’s existence is a fact; it follows from these premises right here. They point to their words on a page, and think that reason can capture reality so much that the concepts can be logically talked about. Often, they point to the page and label their position the So-and-so-thesis, or call their position so-and-so-ism. I don’t think philosophy can do that. At best, philosophy can show why we can’t do that, and at the same time, express what it can do by making sense of human experience and give an interpretation about how it all “hangs together.”

    Fair enough, let’s introduce a distinction between theoretical problems with no practical applications, and problems (practical or theoretical) with practical application. Analytic philosophy consists somewhat of the former more than the latter, but again, generalizations being what they are we cannot assert this absolutely. Yet, I don’t think the proclivity can be denied, as you indicate.

    I’m glad you find Continental philosophy frustrating. That means for the very first time you may be reading a text that presents the cognitive dissonance philosophy is supposed to deliver over to its readers. It also bespeaks the volumes you may not know and what the text assumes you should know to read it. One doesn’t just pick up Heidegger without seeing at what period it was written, what he was reading, and with whom he was discussing these ideas. One doesn’t just read Wittgenstein either like one first drinking ice tea for the first time. How many times have I had the same discussion of the disingenuous analytic philosopher that pretends his talk is comprehensible to the intelligent general reader, yet the intelligent reader after much discussion is qualified with the exception of knowing the previous literature and articles the analytic philosopher is responding to.

    How much of philosophy can be hashed out in premises? How much of reality slips through our fingers in how we employ our language to talk about it and our experience? How many times have I heard a paper about so-and-so-ism blindly argued at a conference, proceeding from raw intuitions that were self-evident, or an arranged and contrived scenario of outrageous proportion as proof for said thesis or ism. That’s my favorite—the thought experiment, and the blind ahistoric confidence in its ability to capture intuitions or describe what’s truly real without consulting the experience of what is real.

    Tonight, I am teaching Batchelor’s book Alone with Others: Existential Approaches to Buddhism. It’s far better than any philosophical treatment I’ve read of Buddhism. It’s clear, concise, and wonderful. It introduces Buddhism through Marcel’s existentialism, Tillich, and Heidegger. It’s very well written, as most existential pieces are.

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