I 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.