Philosophical Tribalism


Jon Cogburn recently posted a comment by Douglas Kellner regarding “analytic” and “continental” philosophy. I have highlighted some of the more interesting parts:

. . .I found a broad range of continental philosophy attractive. And yet I was not happy with the division of Anglo-American philosophy into continental vs. analytical perspectives. While much that passes for analytical philosophy today is abstract, academic, and often useless, much that parades as continental philosophy is dogmatic posturing and pretentious gibberish. But both the tools of conceptual analysis and perspectives of continental philosophy can be applied together in specific tasks and projects. Philosophy, in my optic, is both analysis and synthesis, deconstruction and reconstruction. Consequently, I would defend pluralistic perspectives that draw on the best work on all traditions.

. . . .Ironically, many of those who I consider the top philosophers of my generation have left philosophy departments, raising some serious questions about the contemporary institutional status of philosophy. On the whole, it seems like contemporary American philosophy seems frozen, in a state of paralysis. While the dominant analytical philosophy suffers from theoretical sclerosis, a hardening of the categories, and undergoing a slow public and academic death, the situation of continental philosophy is also dispiriting. In the 1980s, it looked as though contemporary philosophy was entering a frutiful state of pluralism with a blossoming of continental philosophy, mutating into “Theory,” crossing over into every discipline. On the philosophical frontlines, there was also a reappropriation of Dewey and pragmatism, of other strands of American philosophy, as well as the move into new fields such as feminism, African American and Latino philosophy, philosophy of technology, environmental philosophy, philosophical media studies, and the philosophy of electronic culture and communication. These trends continue within the broader philosophical-intellectual world, but often not in philosophy departments, and they have been pushed to the margins of the academic discipline of philosophy.

Most distressing, not only has reaction and retrenchment set in with analytic philosophy, but continental philosophy is segregating itself into circles in which specific philosophers are revered as the Voice of Truth, of the revered Word. Thus the ontotheological dimension of philosophy that Derrida decried has its Renaissance in schools of contemporary philosophy.

After I read this, I thought this passage by Graham Harman was particularly apropos:

…the followers of both Heidegger and Derrida share an uncommon resistance to stating the teachings of their masters in the form of an actual thesis: indeed, these followers imply quite openly that anyone who tries this is a ham-fisted blunderer who merely inscribes himself in the very discourse that has already been overcome–or whatever. One senses a deep rooted fear of criticism in this strange wish to be utterly impregnable, to turn the enemy’s weapons back against the enemy rather then meeting them openly with equal and dissimilar force (Guerrilla Metaphysics, 111).

While Harman was making a broader point about Derrida’s essay (monograph!) “White Mythologies,” one could easily substitute a variety of philosophers into this passage. Just saying…

Anyway, Kellner concludes by offering up a vision of “living” philosophy:

Living philosophy, however, is always synthesis, always in motions, always taking in the novel, absorbing challenging ideas, trends, and theories, constantly developing and reshaping philosophy, in dialogue with other disciplines and contemporary culture and experiences.

Yet, while I agree with this comment it made me feel kind of funny.  Either I’m just kind of dim-witted  or up until now I’ve just been very naive, for Kellner’s comment about living philosophy strikes me as, well, obvious. Not so obvious to those “State Philosophers”–on both of the so-called analytic and continental “sides”–I suppose…

10 thoughts on “Philosophical Tribalism

  1. Maybe “living philosophy” is just a different word for “obvious philosophy”? I’m reading – for the nth time – Apology with my Intro Class and it always, always moves me in a way I’m sure Plato intended it to move the reader – now I can go into much detail about the dialogue-speech itself, but I find it that students as readers only connect to the most obvious points. Maybe it’s the performance of the specific philosophical content that I do in class that really matters and really counts as philosophy? Isn’t it really the goal of any instructor of philosophy? Or philosophy in general? Well, we’re back to our old question about the relevance here, aren’t we?

  2. I was lucky enough to take several classes with Kellner when I was an undergraduate.

    While I like the way he is able to incorporate the best of analytic and continental philosophy in his work, it is problematic to think that there could be a glory days of academic philosophy. Mikhail has said this before- most of us (by most, over 99%) are more akin to performers of philosophy, than composers (I guess there is a role for something like music theorists and historians too?). But by our system disciplines have to not only teach the young but justify themselves by producing new research. This is always problematic. Consider English; for years the professors worked towards contributing to scholarly editions of great works. When they ran out of great works nobody knew what to do next, and nobody still does!

    With Literature and Philosophy and the arts as well, this is just going to be ludicrous, because everyone has to pretend that they are in some sense doing the same thing as the greats they study. I’m sorry Mr. Creative Writing Professor, you are not Tolstoy; you are not even his irritating nephew. You are not even an overrated hack like Don Delilo or Cormac McCarthy.

    From a Nietzschean perspective, the goal should be to set things up so that the few spots of excellence will shine through. Maybe the system does that today; I don’t know. . . The thing I like best about analytic philosophy as it is usually done is that it does allow the vast majority of us who are mediocre to do something fairly middling (argue against somebody else or develop minor arguments). But too much of that, combined with undue glorification of people whose genius combines that with self-promotion (these are many of the Leiterific “stars” of our generation) does lead to great impoverishment and ultimately ludicrous ignorance of essential swaths of philosophy.

    My own growing interests in phenomenology, Schopenhauer, and Indian philosophy, in addition to the fact that I’ve got a book on video games, has been mocked pretty severely by some of my friends. Too bad. I got into philosophy to learn. I wanted to open up to the world and attain something like liberation of which yogins speak. I still do, and it would be insane to think that this wisdom could spring from my own head like Zeus’ daughter! Philosophical writing for the student of philosophy should be just to clarify and connect the things one is learning. But the publishing paradigm doesn’t have much to do with that. This being said, it’s the only game in town, the only way to improve your thoughts by subjecting them to savaging by blind reviewers. So I’m not going to stop playing.

  3. My impression of Kellner is that he’s a master of the obvious, a prolific collector and exhibitor of intellectual brickabrack, taking the artisanal products of others’ minds and machining them into marketable commodities. A vulgarizer. He’s one of those guys who publishes his notes from every book he’s read and every class he’s taught; perhaps a dying breed now that blogs allow many more of us to do this much less formally. In the band he plays rhythm guitar. In short, a very valuable and admirable fellow at that mid-range of academic reproduction.

    We’re at our best I think when we open up questions for students as jewelers create settings for gems.

  4. Despicable,

    Aside from making a bunch of unsubstantiated claims about how science triumphs over philosophy and religion, you seem to have missed the the structural similarity between typical scientific and religious authority! For one, both are defended in terms of their demonstratable autonomy from human construction when in fact, as Latour would argue, both could be more pragmatically defended in terms of how well-constructed their truths are. So, I’m not sure what you are talking about here.

  5. Oops, the comment Shahar is responding to was in moderation or at least appeared to be and while reading it a second ago I certainly thought it was a joke or a spam so I just deleted it – the basic idea was: Science rules, Philosophy is no longer necessary…

  6. What, you mean science doesn’t rule? What exactly is philosophy necessary for? I mean it’s amusing and whatnot, like a game of bocce… 😉

    I caught the tail end of its phantom presence; it had a funny avatar.

  7. At my school they’re in the same department. Remember bocce is played from two sides. If we get some scientists standing on the sidelines ducking stray balls, shouting out trajectory equations and kibbitzing beer chemistry we’ve got a whole freaking garden party.

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