“Party Line Continentalists?” (and Post-Kantian Philosophy)


While my first instinct was to simply ignore Brian Leiter’s discussion of “Party Line Continental Philosophers,” since it appears to be nothing more than a straw man, I came across this rather thoughtful response at a blog called Speculative Humbug:

Leiter suggests (or rather alludes to his having suggested elsewhere) that we are living in a ‘Golden Age’ for (Anglophone) scholarship on the history of post-Kantian European philosophy.  While this is perhaps overstating the case a bit (important recent figures, such as Deleuze and Badiou, are still quite neglected), it is certainly true that the history of philosophy has a much more considerable presence and respectibility in the Anglophone philosophical academy than it had at the height of of the dominance of the analytic movement.  Various figures have been influential in breaking with the ahistorical paradigm that previously dominated, not least amongst whom is the critically important yet still strangely subliminal Wilfrid Sellars.  In the wake of these figures, Anglophone scholarly work on Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche and perhaps especially on phenomenology abounds.

The post continues:

On this basis, Leiter objects to the idea (which he associates with PLC) that much of this scholarly work consists in an ‘analytic appropriation’ (implicitly a misappropriation and a distortion) of ‘continental’ thinkers, obscuring the true power of their thought.  Leiter regards this notion of analytic appropriation as misguided, and suggests that we must foster ‘philosophical scholarship in the Anglophone world in which “analytic” and “Continental” as terms of partisan battle are largely uintelligible to those drawn to the problems of philosophy’.

While this is an extremely worthwhile sentiment, I wonder whether Leiter remains insensitive to what seems to me to be a real distinction in scholarship on the history of post-Kantian philosophy, one that might perhaps be seen as the real distinction of which the rightly maligned analytic-continental distinction is an obfuscatory manifestation.

Read the rest here.  For now, I’ll just say this, the analytic-continental divide is at bottom, sociological and not philosophical.

6 thoughts on ““Party Line Continentalists?” (and Post-Kantian Philosophy)

  1. Sounds like ecumenical church service.

    In the light of all the barbarians, religious fanatics, tea-partyists, media rubbish, natural sciences hegemony, budget cuts, internet grassroots, Wallstreet gamblers etc. academic philosophy becomes the interpassive representation of reason and high culture, which forgets about its wild, ideologically charged, violent past and the megalomaniac world and mind changing attitude – something we solely associate with media and technology these days. The postmodern = ecumenical key term is that of “tradition” and all of them are good and worthwhile and shall be continued forever in the paradise of scholarship.

    If there is a Last Man, shouldn’t we imagine it as a Nietzsche administrator?

  2. For now, I’ll just say this, the analytic-continental divide is at bottom, sociological and not philosophical.

    I’m not convinced that this sentiment is true, actually. I wish it weren’t — cf Mikhail’s Downer Principle…. It strikes me that at the level of philosophical approach, problem-spaces, and general technique, continental philosophy is in fact very different from analytic philosophy. to take just one example: immanence. Much of continental philosophy takes this notion to be some kind of obvious, gold standard for doing philosophical work. I can’t think of a single instance in which it appears in ‘analytic’ philosophy. that feature is not sociologial, but points to a completely different way of conceiving of a problem, of approaching it, etc.

    Further, I think Leiter’s point that (party-line) continental philosophy these days more or less picks out 20th C french philosophy is more or less right too. So, for instance, one can reformulate swaths of Hegel for analytic purposes, or Heidegger, or Husserl (e.g. West coast Husserlianism), but I don’t think one could do the same for Sartre, Levinas, or even Deleuze (before anyone mentions Badiou, let me say that he doesn’t really understand his own mathematical statements; saw him give a talk on negation, that was incoherent). Part of that has to do with basic commitments: some of Sartre ideas are simply antithetical to analytic aproaches, and I don’t see how Levinas would help Singer or Christine Korsgaard (no relation to me).

    In the end, if the distinction is going to disappear, it’s not going to be because people continue to complain about the non-translatability of key concepts and ideas. it would be better to gain the basic competences and do your own translations. in the end, we should all be using the most advanced tools for conceptual analysis anyway, and not insisting on the vernacular on the 19th and early 20th century.

    • I can’t think of a single instance in which it appears in ‘analytic’ philosophy. that feature is not sociologial, but points to a completely different way of conceiving of a problem, of approaching it, etc.

      Perhaps, but my feeling is that “different way of conceiving a problem”(and everything you note above about the impossibility of reproachment) is sociological, not philosophical. Hopefully I can expand on this at some point. For now, I’ll just offer this up. For one, think of Bertrand Russell–oft cited as the founder of analytic philosophy, and his cohort were fighting against the idealist thinkers prominent in the UK towards the end of the 19th century, whose thought can be traced directly back to Hegel. Against this background, there’s Heidegger’s well known “denouncement” of the reign of logic in “What is Metaphysics,” which not only sets him against Husserl, but Cassirer and the Neo-Kantians, the Vienna folks and so on. Briefly, with this sketch, we can already see the “divide” emerging, e.g. those reacting against Heidegger and those following along with Heidegger, coupled with the rejection of idealism (and those influenced by idealism as well). The thing is that these philosophical differences come into contact with historical/social/political forces (how could they not?). To use Heidegger as an example: his connection to the Nazis, and his use of philosophical language to support National Socialism (still a problem) made it difficult to separate his work from the person. Thus, very often (as evidenced by Faye’s recent book) moral debates, political controversies/arguments etc were “graphed” on top of philosophical issues. From another angle, one could look at the reception of philosophers in the States, for one example. Nonetheless, from my perspective, the divide, which is essentially an accident of history, becomes coagulated over time, and the stakes are raised when each “culture” develops a specific reading list as it were, but I don’t think there’s really a methodological distinction to be made.

    • I guess I just need to see the rest of your characterization, Shahar. I mean, of course we can deflate the issue and treat it as a sociological one, in much the same way that we can offer sociological, psychoanalytic, or evolutionary psychological accounts of just about anything. But simply because we can offer non-philosophical explanations doesn’t mean the problem isn’t still philosophical. The major question is what motivates the approach — and here there does seem to be a difference in kind between ‘analytic’ and ‘continental’ philosophy. Further, it strikes me that Heidegger’s engagement with logic is precisely one of those philosophical dividing lines. The interests and orientations are specifically philosophical, no? For what it’s worth, Nelson Goodman took his work to be more or less consistent with Cassirer’s (on the issues of constructivism and projectibility, etc), so I’m fine with saying that Cassirer is analytic. Again, the dividing line isn’t geographical.

      I’m not an expert on British Idealism, but I seem to recall that Russell’s attack on Bradley (I don’t remember him mentioning McTaggart) has to do with whether we think (logical) relations are internal. The idealists (of course) think they’re ideal and internal, whereas Russell and co took the new logic and said they were external. This debate is also at the core of the Tractatus, and doesn’t strike me as particularly sociological. It has to do with the metatheory for a first order language.

      Similarly with Cassirer and Heidegger. The problem with te normative approaches advocated by the neo-kantians (and Cassirer makes this point in relation to Rickert somewhere in the Logic of the cultural sciences) was that they could never find a hinge between their accounts of value and actual practices. Heidegger levels a similar charge against Rickert (Heidegger habilitated under him, remember) in his KNS seminars from which prefigure the ‘handy’ ‘present at hand’ analysis of SuZ. So again, I’m not convinced that it’s sociological — there’ just too much good philosophy in the disputes to reduce it this way.

      Faye might be a nadir in this respect.

      • You’re probably right. Frankly, up until a few weeks ago I would have responded exactly as you have, as that’s pretty much what I’ve always thought. However, since I’ve been reading a good deal about “naturalizing” phenomenology of late, it’s made me wary of the analytic-continental division altogether. So perhaps I’ll back off a bit because I know it tends to sound too reductive, but if we look to those two factors I mentioned above (Russell/Heidegger) it’s clear we can see a rather clear outline of the division, of course. My point is this: when it’s all cashed out the result is the introduction of a rather deep divide within (academic) philosophy. Now, this divide cashes out in terms of, for the most part, precisely who we read and make reference to. So, we have a list of authors one typically associates w/”Continental” philosophy, but, these authors really have very little, if at all, in common, be it style, method or “doxa.” In turn, I’m wondering why we group them together at all. That said, as the sociological and political (let’s forget about crap like Faye and simply think of academic politics) division between the two cultures begins to coagulate over time, scholars, students etc identified with either side simply stopped reading each others stuff. It seems accidental. Again, I’m very sympathetic to everything you’ve said, but I’m not so convinced “there’s just too much good philosophy in the disputes to reduce it this way.” Whether or not some sort of rapproachement is in the works, I think it would probably be good for everyone. Too ecumenical or not, I wouldn’t mind if in 25 years we looked back at the division as a historical curiosity. That said, much of what is lumped under “analytic” philosophy just leaves me cold.

  3. At the universities I’ve attended, there are analytic scholars who study and write about Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Husserl, but that’s about it.

    At one university, the faculty hired a Foucault (and Kant) scholar, and she really is the token continental scholar at a predominantly analytic department.

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