Monday, November 9, 2009

The Continental Traditions in Philosophy vs. "Party Line Continentalists"

A brave, anonymous soul posted the following nonsense on the thread about "Myths about Nietzsche," but it represents such a pernicious and widespread bit of self-deception that it warrants its own post. Our commenter begins:

This was an interesting talk, but I was saddned to hear Leiter take a snipe at the Postmodernists.

I did not take a "snipe" at postmodernism, I expressed a scholarly opinion, namely, that many postmodernist readers of Nietzsche (like Derrida and in a different way Foucault) misunderstand his views on truth and knowledge, in part because they rely too much on material Nietzsche did not publish, which expresses views it appears he rejected over time. This is, if anything, the consensus view in the scholarly community. But it is not a snipe. The anonymous author does not even address the scholarly issue. This is minor (though revealing), since the really good stuff is coming:

Like many Analytics, Leiter's attitude towards the Continentals (and especially towards the Postmodernists) is of barely concealed contempt. With few exceptions, Analytics tend to reduce the thought of their Continental/Postmodernist foes to easily dismissed, facile generalizations, instead of sincerely engaging in dialogue. Of course, the same could be said of many Continentals and Postmodernists, in regards to their attitude towards the Analytics. Much of the time the Analytics and Continentals really seem to be talking past one another.

I am not an "analytic." I do not even know what that means. I can certainly tell you the basics of Quine and Kripke, though I've read relatively little David Lewis; I think metaethics deals with important philosophical problems, but find most Anglophone normative theory embarrassing; I could give you a short lecture on the Gettier problem and the responses to it, but I think "analytic metaphysics" is a seriously wrong turn in the field and ignore it. I can also tell you the basics about Habermas, though I am not a fan and much prefer Adorno, Horkheimer, and Marcuse; I think Derrida is a charlatan, and am sorry to see Foucault, whom I think is the most interesting diagnostician of the 'iron cage' of modernity since Weber, associated with him so often; I agree with Deleuze that phenomenology is our "modern scholasticism," but have a soft spot for Sartre. I enjoy Hume and Nietzsche, Spinoza and Marx, but haven't much affection for Leibniz or Hegel.

I am interested in philosophy and philosophical problems that crop up in various traditions, but often have an interest and existence that transcends them. But why is it so important to cabin me off as an "analytic" in contrast to the "Continentals" (who are then, wholly bizarrely, equated with Postmodernists by our commenter)? Who are these "Continentals"? If I have written extensively on Nietzsche, occasionally on Marx and Foucault; if I have taught Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Foucault, Adorno, and Horkheimer with some frequency; if I have co-edited The Oxford Handbook of Continental Philosophy, and I am not a "Continental," then who is?

As I have noted before--and as The Oxford Handbook, I think, reflects--we are living in a Golden Age for scholarship on European philosophy after Kant. Someone who thinks there is a lot of "talking past one another" going on can't, obviously, be talking about the current state of scholarship on figures like Hegel, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Husserl, and Merleau-Ponty--so what is the commenter talking about? Who are these mysterious "Continentals" since they are not me, Michael Rosen, Taylor Carman, Frederick Beiser, Peter Poellner, Sebastian Gardner, Julian Young, Raymond Geuss, Michael Forster, or any of the others working on and in various Continental traditions of philosophy?

As any actual scholar knows, there is no such thing as a "Continental tradition" in philosophy; rather, as Rosen and I noted in the introduction to The Oxford Handbook,

[P]hilosophy in Continental Europe in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is best understood as a connected weave of traditions, some of which overlap, but no one of which dominates all the others. So, for example, German Idealism marks the immediate reception and criticism of Kant's philosophy in figures like Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel, who use a comprehensive conception of reason to provide connected answers to a broad range of questions of metaphysics, epistemology, and the theory of value. The breakdown of the German Idealist view was, in turn, of central importance in motivating Marx, Kierkegaard, Schopenhauer, and, more indirectly, Nietzsche. The reactions against Hegel's Idealism in the decades after his death in 1831 were, in fact, manifold; they included: (1) the German Materialism of the 1850s and 1860s in writers like Buchner, Moleschott, Czolbe, and Vogt (though with resonances in better-known philosophical figures like Feuerbach, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche), who took seriously the development of modern physiology, and advocated...the replacement of philosophy by science; (2) Marx's own repuditation of the domain of philosophy as the attempt to establish doctrines in metaphysics and
epistemology in favor of a political, critical and scientistic conception of philosophical method; and (3) the emergence of neo-Kantian thought in the latter years of the nineteenth century (e.g., Lotze, Helmholtz, Fischer, Cohen, Windelband, and Rickert) as a response to the emergence of psychology as a scientific discipline ...

Most of the major twentieth-century developments in "Continental" philosophy can, in turn, be seen as responses to one or more of the nineteenth-century philosophical currents. Inasmuch as there is a Marxist tradition in philosophy, for example, it is marked by a dissatisfication with Marx's professed ideal of a scientific, historical approach to the study of society from which all philosophical questions have been purged, a dissatisfaction expressed in figures like Lukacs, Gramsci, Adorno, Horkheimer, Marcuse, and, finally, Habermas, who returns Kantian-style questions about justification to center stage. (The analytical Marxists in Anglophone philosophy end up, arguably, with a similar dissatisfaction.) Modern Phenomenology arose, like neo-Kantianism, in reaction to the development of modern psychology, in particular the attempt to reduce issues regarding the nature of thought, meaning, and logic to questions to be answered by an empirical scientific investigation of the facts of mental life....In the hands of Heidegger, however, the tradition is importantly transformed, with a new emphasis on the relationship between structures of meaning and the lived experience of particular individuals that inspired the French Existentialists (like Camus and Sartre) in their belief in the priority of 'existrence' over 'essence.'

Other important developments associated with Continental Europe in the twentieth-century do not map neatly on to the story sketched so far. The philosophical tradition we associate with 'Hermeneutics,' for example, which asserts the centrality and distinctiveness of interpretation for any understanding of language (and, hence, of human beings in whose lives language plays a constitutive role), intersects with both the German Idealist and the Phenomenological traditions and brings to them a distinctive set of issues regarding the relationship between language and thought, the nature of historical and social understanding, and the essential finitude of human
understanding, issues that are manifest in hermeneutically minded writers from the eighteenth through the twentieth centuries, including, Herder, Schleiermacher, Dilthey, and Gadamer.

So, too, 'Structuralism' was a movement initially not in philosophy, but in linguistics and the social sciences--associated with figures like Saussure, Levi-Strauss, Barthes, Althusser, and others--which placed emphasis on the explanatory autonomy of systems in contrast to psychological, historical, or teleological explanations. But once this idea was imported into philosophy and psychology itself (for instance, by Lacan and Foucault) the consequence took the form of the so-called 'death of the subject' out of which in turn the tendencies known as 'post-structuralism' and 'post-modernism' emerged (in figures like Derrida, Deleuze, and Foucault again). In its most radical forms--informed by Heidegger and one (contentious) reading of Nietzsche--post-structurlism is best understood as a modern form of skepticism,
calling into question not just the possibility of objective truth but of determinate understanding.

This brief, introductory survey of positions, doctrines, and thinkers found on the European Continent after Kant should make clear that any unqualified talk of "Continental" as a kind of philosophy (a doctrine, a method, a set of problems) is ludicrous.

So what's really going on here when people, like the anonymous commenter (but many others, of course), speak of "Continental" or "Continentalists"? For sake of clarity and accuracy, we should really call this sociological phenomenon "Party Line Continentalism" since what it actually picks out is a political effort to enforce a certain philosophical orthodoxy, namely, that which arises from a conception of philosophy and its methods that is largely fixed by Heideggerian phenomenology and developments in mostly French philosophy that involve reactions to Heidegger (such as Derrida, but not only him). Since phenomenology, as it began with Husserl, has much in common with the origins of mid-20th-century analytic philosophy in Frege, there is, shall we say, a certain irony in demarcating the philosophical terrain this way, but it is especially ludicrous to denominate phenomenology-plus-poststructuralism "Continental" given that it effectively excludes the Frankfurt School, Marxism, German Idealism, and Nietzsche from the Continentalist camp. (Of course, that is not how the Party Line Continentalists understand what's going on here, but this is at least partly because their command of the history of European philosophy after Kant is often quite weak and idiosyncratic.)

Party Line Continentalists are very exercised about the fact that there are philosophical scholars of the Continental traditions who treat the figures of post-Kantian European philosophy as philosophers, without reading them through the lens and the methods of Heidegger and/or post-structuralism. Heidegger and (most) of the post-structuralists (Deleuze is an exception) were not, however, very good scholars or philosophical expositors, so it is not surprising that those with real training in philosophy and its history would not read the great figures of the Continental traditions in accord with the Party Line.

Now back to our anonymous commenter, who clearly is in the grips of Party Line Continentalists:

It's good that some of the Analytics are finally starting to get exposed to and grapple with some of the early Continentals, like Neitzsche and Heidegger. But, unfortunately, I think many of those Analytics either completely miss the point that the early Continentals are trying to make, or (worse) try to co-opt them in to the Analytic fold. I think the former is the case with Leiter, when he dismisses Thus Spoke Zarathustra as a mere parody.

It is indicative of the intellectual level of too many Party Line Continentals that they are such careless readers and listeners. I did not, in the interview, dismiss Zarathustra as a parody; I pointed out, rather, that Zarathustra is a parody of the Christ-figure (how could this not be obvious?), and the book a parody of The New Testament, with Zarathustra "preaching" an anti-Christian doctrine. I then pointed out that any careful interpretation of Zarathustra has to be alert to the parodic form, and thus careful in attributing what Zarathustra says to Nietzsche--a hermeneutic consideration especially relevant to appraising the meaning and significance of the image of the Overman.

"Analytic" philosophy as a substantive research program has been moribund for forty years or more, yet Party Line Continentalists know so little about the history of even recent philosophy, that they continue to think that there must be Party Line Analytics lined up against them. In fact, it is the entire history of philosophy and almost every major philosophical tradition prior to that launched by Heideggerian phenomenology that is lined up "against them," which is no doubt why Party Line Continentalists are so intent on misappropriating the term "Continental" for their sect and excluding other philosophers and scholars engaged with the Continental traditions from the Party.

Like most philosophers engaged with the Continental traditions in this Golden Age of philosophical scholarship, I am happy to be excluded from the Party. But I am not happy to see the Party Line discredit the philosophical figures I care about by associating them with their sectarian Party Line. But Party Line Continentalism has no business appropriating the name of a place that is the home to such a rich and philosophically interesting array of thinkers, most of whom do not have the all-too-common vices of the Party Line, such as obscurantism, careless reading, dialectical feebleness, and often ignornance of the history of philosophy.

The good news here is that Party Line Continentalism is, ironically enough, increasingly just an Anglophone phenomenon, confined to a handful of departments in the U.S. (e.g., Penn State, Stony Brook, DePaul, Memphis, Vanderbilt, the New School, Dusquesne), the U.K. (e.g., Middlesex and Dundee), and Australia (e.g., New South Wales). (Even these Party Line Continentalist departments are increasingly diverse, which is a welcome development!) On the European Continent itself, Party Line Continentalism is in retreat almost everywhere, as rigorous historical scholarship, that transcends national boundaries, and Anglophone-style philosophical work is increasingly dominant.

I am genuinely hopeful that over the next generation Party Line Continentalists will be exiled entirely to literature departments, where lack of real depth in philosophy and its history does not matter. If, in addition, some of the unfortunate "fads" in Anglophone philosophy--and the trivial intellectual parochialism that often accompanies them--do not intervene, then we may really enter a period of 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.

UPDATE: Needless to say, comments are more likely to appear if signed.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the blurb. I agree that the analytic-continental distinction is far too inaccurate to describe the development of contemporary philosophy. There is no such thing as continental philosophy per se, it's only an umbrella term which encompasses many types of philosophical thinking, such as phenomenology, existentialism, German idealism, Frankfurt School, etc etc. I can appreciate the insights of Marx, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Deleuze, and Gadamer as well as those of Wittgenstein, Anscombe, MacIntyre, and Quine.

I think the problem is that if you don't identify yourself as a follower of the continental philosophers, then you're a heretical analytic philosopher. Foucault famously declared he is a Nietzschean. Lacan told his audience, you can be Lacanians if you want, me, I'm a Freudian. Frankfurt school members wanted to be called Marxists, while G.A. Cohen and the Analytic Marxists did not. John Searle said it best when he was accused of being a phenomenologist: "I am not a phenomenologist. I am an analytic philosopher, I think for myself."

It's this fixation on labels that is core of the problem. "Analytic" philosophers who write and study "continental" philosophy don't write as those they study. They write according to accepted convention of academic styles. Whereas "continental" philosophical writing reflect the philosophy being presented, especially in Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. I think you said it best Brian, when you wrote in the PGR, it's hard for a philosophy department to train a Nietzsche.

FK said...

You write: "I am genuinely hopeful that over the next generation Party Line Continentalists will be exiled entirely to literature departments, where lack of real depth in philosophy and its history does not matter." Here I disagree. It does matter, and it should matter to philosophers. This kind of proposal for a "solution" expresses a certain, let us say, peninsular conception that many philosophers have of their field (which is also my field), perhaps because they have given up on literature departments and some of the other humanities. What one should be "hopeful" for, if anything, is that bad post-modernist "philosophizing" will come to be as little tolerated in the other humanities as it is in philosophy, and that as a consequences there will be a better basis for interaction and collaboration between philosophers on the one hand and people working in history, anthropology, literary studies, and so on, on the other. Academics in other humanities should be expected and encouraged to take it on themselves to engage with "real" philosophical scholarship, and in return we philosophers should start thinking again about what it might be that disciplines other than the ones we habitually talk to (i.e., some of the natural sciences, linguistics, psychology, law, perhaps political science) can contribute to our inquiries - if only by way of raising questions that tend to be neglected (or should I say repressed?) by us. Resistance on both sides is to be expected, but so are substantial benefits.

Narziss said...

I think what the anonymous poster (to your philosophy bite) displayed was simply uninformed resentment. This resentment is partially repressed and yet partially expressed in passive aggressive mannerisms and is felt throughout academics, including at the level of students. More precisely, I suspect that this resentment has arisen from a conflict with the dedication required for acquiring the skills to produce academically rigorous essays that others can comprehend (that means an unselfish writing style) and with the dedication required in becoming informed in the history of ideas.

Unfortunately, philosophy is notorious for attacking the presuppositions and foundations of various 'systems of thought' and this seductive emotion of 'seeing through a system' and 'conquering through deconstruction' has attracted numerous unrigorous students who rather sit back and claim that they 'see through that system' before they ever even dedicate the time to understand it.

This line humored me,

"I am genuinely hopeful that over the next generation Party Line Continentalists will be exiled entirely to literature departments, where lack of real depth in philosophy and its history does not matter."

Ideally, of course, it would be best if such uninformed attitudes of 'seeing through systems' were exiled somewhere entirely outside of academics, namely, to the New Age section of Barnes & Noble.

s. wallerstein said...

I recently chanced upon a book called "The New Nietzsche" (1977), pure Party-Line Continentalism, from Stony-Brook by chance. All the interpretations come from a literal reading of the Will to Power, as you also point out. They generally miss the point, the humor, the psychology.

Tom Sparrow said...

I generally do not comment on posts such as this, mostly because they are too quickly labeled reactionary and thereby fuel the myth that there is a genuine battle going on between 'analytic' and 'continental' philosophers. Perhaps there was at one time. But since Duquesne was mentioned by name, I'm compelled to make a few remarks.

First, it's unfortunate that 'continental' and 'postmodern' are used as synonyms still, both by those who wish to denounce continental philosophy and those who would defend it. I don't know anyone, especially within the Duquesne department, who would endorse this synonymy. Indeed, such an endorsement is often evidence of the facile thinking that Leiter would like to see relegated to literature departments. I'll give Leiter the benefit of the doubt and assume that he doesn't really want literature programs to be weakened by an influx poor scholarship.

I'm quite sympathetics to Leiter's assessment of Nietzsche scholarship (and philosophical scholarship generally), and agree that a rigorous historical approach--not unlike that expected when researching, say, Descartes or Plato--is required. The point is that there is no necessary discrepancy between careful historically-grounded research and continental methodology. Indeed, historicism is a key component of continental methodology. Only 'party line' postmodernists (not continenalists) would say otherwise. There is, however, no reason why the 'New Nietzsche' folks can't get along with the likes of Janaway, Gemes, and Leiter, so long as it can be agreed that there are several legitimate ways of practicing philosophy.

My main objection to Leiter's post is an empirical one, regarding Duquesne's philosophy department. No one in the department--faculty or student--pursues the kind of irresponsible postmodernist research program criticized in this post. Moreover, there are very few students (and arguably no faculty) who take a Heideggerian/poststructuralist approach to philosophical analysis. This may have been less true in previous decades at Duquesne. Our department's approach to continental philosophy is not restricted to phenomenology/poststructuralism, but encompasses the history of continental philosophy, including critical theory, Marxism, Nietzsche, and especially German idealism. In this way it does not support the 'political' efforts of party line continentalism. Of course, it's not possible to maintain an apolitical research program, but this does not mean that every campaign is as legitimate as the next, or as desirable.

It's also unfortunate that this post links the careless comments of the anonymous poster with the familiar 'continental' departments by situating both the poster and the departments as advocates of party line continentalism. It's just not the case that this ideological program is endorsed or encouraged--let alone thriving--at Duquesne. If anything, the majority of students and faculty are currently pursuing the kind of historical study promoted by Leiter.

To conclude, it should be said that there is an obvious difference between philosophical work that claims to be scholarship in the classical sense and philosophical work that is appropriating theory and doing something *creative* with it. I don't know anyone who would try to pass off the latter as the former, nor should we waste our breath criticizing the latter for not being the former.

sweater said...

This is difficult because I agree with you (BL) on so many points of philosophical substance, but I think you are just flat-out wrong about the sociology. For good reason, though: the rhetoric of the commenter you're responding to reeks of indoctrination and un-philosophical ideology. But this commenter is not expressing any sort of general movement--not even from within the academic dark corners you think are so threatening to good philosophy.

I am a very late-stage graduate student at one of the departments you would consider Party Line Continental. And my undergrad was equally--if not more so--PLC. In short: I was baptized and nursed on this shit. But I just don't reflect the picture you paint. I know rigorous scholarship when I see it. I take PNC as axiomatic. I'm neither a relativist nor a nihilist nor a dilettante.

A couple of abstract sociological points. A major virtue of anglophone higher education is its emphasis on economical, well-structured prose. As university instructors, we can safely assume that our students have tried their hand at the "3.5 essay," that they recognize the necessity of a thesis statement. All 20 year olds have a long way to go, but at least their instructors are on the same page when it comes to expectations for college-level composition. This is a unique virtue. The formality and conciseness we (rightly) consider so basic were just not really on the radar screen for, say, Algerian secondary schoolers (Derrida) or for Italian dissidents (Negri) in the mid-20th century.

Nonetheless, some people listened to these thinkers (who do indeed give boring, rambling lectures). And they were inspired, and they went to work at PLC programs. And they took up bad habits, and they inspired undergraduates along the way, and here we are.

But I think the passion that drives PLC people--with all their bad habits--is more understandable than you admit. It's not strange that someone who, as a 20 year old, felt moved by the idea of giving birth to a dancing star because God is dead and we have killed him (or whatever) should be disappointed with debates about the Falsification Thesis. And it's understandable that a promising young philosopher, who might have great things to say about the tightrope walker, would be wary of colleagues who care about kind-epiphenominal states.

More specifically, I really think you should stop naming programs you see as deficient. I enjoy the PGR, and I think it does a great service. But consider the difference between its positive effect (on the one hand) and (on the other hand) the brutal negative effect of declaring that various PLC departments lead to poorly-trained grad students. With a view from nowhere, we might hope that no one ever ended up at these programs you find so offensive--or that they ceased to exist entirely. But it's too late for that, and some of us are already here. And just as a contemporary Harvard PhD might be good at formal epistemology, or a CMU PhD might be good at a historical field, so might a PLC PhD be good at real, rigorous, professional philosophy.

Brian Leiter said...

Philleo1: I take the point of your last paragraph. In the paragraph prior to that, though, I do find it mysterious why someone enchanted by Zarathustra, say, would go to Stony Brook? What Amos, earlier, says about 'the new Nietzsche' is apt.

Tom: you may well be right about the tenor of the Duquesne program, though there are faculty who fit the profile, as you must know. My point wasn't that Party Line Continentals work only on Heidegger and post-structuralism, but that it informs their approach to philosophy and scholarship, even about other historical figures. This is not true of everyone at Duquesne, I concede.

Tom Sparrow said...

Brian, I take your point that Heidegger and his French successors undoubtedly color some of the work at Duquesne, however it must be noted that very, very few folks actually work on Heidegger or endorse his own way of doing philosophy. And among the French, it is Foucault and Deleuze (especially) who are the most widely read and studied. I don't know a single student who is a Derridean, and certainly no faculty member engages in deconstruction of Derrida's sort, which seems to be the really pernicious force to be avoided.

I think the timeline here has to be even more specific than it is. I would want to say that even in the last few years Duquesne has become even less like a party line department. At this point, however, perhaps we would have to start naming names and pointing to publications as evidence, but that is probably not what we should be doing here.

abuemma said...

I don't disagree with most of this characterization of Party Line Continentalism, which surely exists in roughly the form that Brian describes, and is certainly destructive. But it is worth saying, as Brian rarely does in these discussions, that there exists also Party Line Analytic philosohpy. Surely everyone reading this has met the philosophers - some of them quite famous - who will proudly announce that they know without reading a word, that there is nothing of philosophical value in Hegel, Heidegger, Nietzsche, Foucault, Derrida, etc. And there are even more who, while a bit more polite, simply find no need to engage with any of these figures. Brian, rightly in my view, makes a stark (though I would say a bit too stark) distinction between Foucault and Derrida. But how many programs at top 20 departments so much as encourage political philosophy students to read Foucault - leave aside actually assigning it? How many programs in 20th century metaphysics or epistemology even mention Being and Time? I've been denouncing the entire conceptual space centered around the analytic/continental distinction for 20 years. And it has started to break down for sure. The work of people like Dreyfus, Haugeland, Pinkard, brandom, McDowell, Carman, Blattner, Leiter, and many others is largely responsible for that. And at this point, pretty much the only thing keeping anyone taking it seriously as a sociological phenomenon are the Party Line folks on both sides. But of course they reinforce one another. Part of the reason places like Penn State don't engage with the rest of us - not hte only, but part - is that they are so often dismissed in ignorant and abusive ways.

Mark Lance

Brian Leiter said...

Mark: I have certainly heard philosophers dismiss "Hegel, Heidegger, Nietzsche, Foucault, Derrida, etc" but in each case, these philosophers did know something (in some cases, a fair bit) about these thinkers. No doubt there are folks who fit your description, but I think there is a tendency to assume unfamiliarity as the cause of such dismissals in order to dismiss them!

"Party Line Analytic Philosophy" is a bit harder to describe (I'm not sure what the party line is). That's why I wrote at the end about unfortunate "fads" in Anglophone philosophy and "trivial intellectual parochialism," which strike me as the real problem.

abuemma said...

I've never attributed complete ignorance of a text without asking. (I sometimes infer substantive ignorance from obviously ignorant comments.) I have had at least 100 conversations over the last 20 years in which folks said straight out that they had never read the philosopher they "knew" was worthless. The party line has to do with what is worth attending to. I once surveyed about a dozen political philosophers I know well - all good philosophers, all active, all at strong departments, well trained, polite, non-dogmatic - to see if they had read Foucault. One said he had "read a bit a long time ago." None of the rest a word. Or to take another example: Williamson and Stanley's paper "knowing how". They purport to attack the very idea that there is a fundamental distinction between know-how and knowing that. They say that everyone who endorses the distinction relies on arguments by Ryle. Nowhere in the paper is there so much as a mention of Heidegger, Dreyfus, or Haugeland, despite the fact that Dreyfus has a chair at Berkeley, is taken enormously seriously by cognitive scientists and roboticists, even by the Pentagon (though the latter is no credential in my book.) So what does a grad student conclude from such a paper by two excellent philosophers, at top 5 universities? One possibility is to assume that there is no one else making an argument for the view. That would just be false. Or, if they hear of H, D, and H, they will likely assume this all must be a different "discipline". They aren't mentioned because they are doing "continental philosophy." Meanwhile, an entire rich research program - one that is influential in many areas, including moral philosophy, etc. and which certainly influenced people who are mentioned like Putnam - is pushed out of sight. I'm not meaning to pick on these two in particular. It is just a clear example. There are many many more. It is primarily in this way that "analytic" philosophy enforces dogmas, by simply treating philosophers who disagree as if they don't exist. (Whether consciously or not. I suspect not in most cases. But the function is institutionalized all the same.)

John Protevi said...

I have always agreed with the thesis that there is no way to come up with a conceptual distinction between "continental" and "analytic" philosophy. There is however, a sociological reality of different citation and hiring networks that for a long time used the terms "continental" and "analytic" philosophy as labels. There are a lot of difficult issues involved here. If I may be permitted a link to my blog, I have a series of posts on these topics here:

I think it's still the case that while many French philosophers have won acceptance as serious thinkers by the mainstream network (formerly labeled as "analytic") -- e.g. Levinas [at least for Putnam], Foucault [for Hacking], Merleau-Ponty [a number of people in the embodied mind school], maybe some day Deleuze and Badiou -- one dividing line or lightning rod or perhaps even shibboleth remains Derrida.

So maybe another name for the network here dubbed PLC might be the "currently takes Derrida seriously" network. I say "currently" because I think he too will be integrated into the mainstream network as have Foucault et al. That just seems to be the historical trend; those once thought beyond the pale become integrated over time. We'll have to wait and see.

Ivan V. Ivanov said...

Regarding what abuemma said about Stanley and Williamson's paper:

Dreyfus and Haugeland get their conception of know-how from what has come to be the default though still disputable interpretation of div. I of Being and Time (there are dissenters such as Christensen, McDowell and, possibly, Brandom).

Take Dreyfus. The problem with him is that he defends his account of mindless coping on the crucial points, either by falling back on Heidegger or on certain experiemtal results in cognitive science. The account is incomplete at best. Furthermore, and this should have become clear from the exchange between Searle and Dreyfus (also between Dreyfus and McDowell), getting the phenomenology of mindless coping right is one thing, giving a philosophical analysis of it is another. Mind you, Stanley and Williamson also claim to respect the phenomenology: they argue that practical knowledge has a distinct guise.

Ryle is the preferred target for S&W because he presents a clear analysis of know-how. In comparison, Heidegger is either unconcerned to give such an analysis (my view) or (mistakenly) believes that such an analysis can be established merely on the basis of the phenomenology of coping. This is not to say that Heidegger is not an essential read on know-how (he is!), just that he's not an apt dialectical opponent in a paper aiming to get us clear on what know how consists in.

Lastly, one of the motivations behind Stanley and Williamson's paper has been philosophers' tendency to make a desparate appeal to the concept of know-how on many significant topics (knowledge of meaning, knowledge of phenomenal character, etc.) without being clear on what they mean by "know-how". This does not immediately doom Putnam- or Devitt- or Lewis- style views. But if anything can save those views, and if those thinkers were originally sensitive to that thing, they had in mind something else than know-how. This also does not discredit the philosophers that inspired people like Putnam (e.g. Heidegger, Aristotle). On the contrary, the insufficient grasp of "know-how" demonstrated by the likes of Putnam and Dreyfus, coupled with some hermeneutic charity, should lead us to revisit Heidegger, Aristotle, Merleau-Ponty et al., rather than dismiss them outrightly.

abuemma said...

John: I think I take Derrida seriously. Tried to read most of his work. I don't have Brian's view of him, but I don't think he is a great philosopher, and not remotely in the league of Foucault. Surely your principle can't be that one must take everyone ever taken seriously in France equally seriously. There are certainly people well respected in "analytic" circles who I think aren't particularly significant in what they produce. No one says that it is inevitable that in the future people like me will take them as seriously as Lewis.

Ivan: I don't understand how this is a response. Yes, Dreyfus completely explicitly gets his main ideas from Div I of B&T - and these days more from Merleau-Ponty - but is that an objection? You say there are no arguments - somehow it is a complaint that he relies on experimental results? - but I just disagree. In another forum I'd be happy to explain some of them. And as it happens I'm with McDowell in that fight, but both are on the same side vis a vis S&W. Both take skills to be irreducible to knowledge-that and neither in the way Ryle does, so I just don't understnad how this is a response to what I said.

Your explanation for S&W utterly ignoring Heidegger is a bit of a strange one, and I think wrong as history, but even if we buy that, what about Haugeland of, say, "Mind Embodied and Embedded?" Are you going to claim that he gives no account?

I really don't understand what you are getting at in your last paragraph. The issue at stake here is whether the complete ignoring of Haugeland and Dreyfus - and lots of other folks with multiple books on these topics - is functioning as a sort of field-defining politics. If the goal is to show that these philosophers fail to give an account of know-how, or don't know what they mean by it, then I simply don't see how it is responsible to ignore them utterly. I would think that would require talking about what they say and showing what is wrong with it. (Is that controversial?) Since they do not do this, I take the article to have a different function.

Ivan V. Ivanov said...


The issue I have with relying on authorities which are notoriously difficult to interpret should be obvious: 1) rather than Dreyfus, S n W should have directly engaged with Heidegger to get a better account of coping. However, 2) it is very probable that what Heidegger believes about coping will turn out to be orthogonal to the debate between intellectualists and anti-intellectualists, which is the topic of the paper. I also take McDowell to be an intellectualist, though this is not the place to argue about him. However, you should be aware that SnW also tie know-how to abilities. Their point is that those do not include the ability to succeed in performing the action corresponding to the known way, and also that having such abilities is part and parcel of having a certain kind of belief, i.e. of having a propositional attitude.

It is true that S n W do not engage with Haugeland, but Bengson and Moffett, who hold a very similar intellectualist view, have done a great job in mapping the various know-how teams, with Haugeland, Dreyfus and Brandom included among the players. What is important in the context of such articles are not distinct thinkers but distinct accounts. As long as Dreyfus or Haugeland do not bring any distinct account to the table (which they arguably don't), I don't see why they deserve special attention. Especially if we are talking about a 30-page article.

Cog sci results are a different story, but there have been many fruitful discussions lately as to what exactly relevant findings on practical skills can help establish. I am skeptical that intellectualism is incompatible with those.

The bigger point is this: intellectualists are fairly familiar with anti-intellectualist accounts, and their unfamiliarity with an occasional figure is neither intentional nor worrisome.

s. wallerstein said...

I'm not a philosopher, although I am a lifelong (I'm 63) reader of Nietzsche. What Brian says of the Party Line Continentalists, that they are "careless readers" of Nietzsche seems not only true, but perhaps the central point. Nietzsche demands careful reading and rereading.

abuemma said...

"As long as Dreyfus or Haugeland do not bring any distinct account to the table (which they arguably don't)"

I'm sorry, but that is just absurd.

But even if it weren't, my point is not about whether they are ultimately original, right, etc. It is irrelevant whether it is aruABLE that they bring no account to the table. It is also irrelevant whether you think there are interpretations of cog sci evidence that are different from theirs, and it is irrelevant to bring up others who may have taken them seriously. (I don't know Bengson and Moffett, but will have a look. I do know the S&W view.)

My point is that there are many figures in the 20th c who are widely regarded as major philosophers, who have extensive writing on the topic at issue, who are not so much as mentioned in an article claiming to refute the whole idea. The article reads as if the only philosopher worth taking seriously in the defense of basic know-how is Ryle. To write that way is to engage in "discipline" not argument. (Note re your "it's only 30 pages excuse, even a footnote saying "we think Haugeland, Dreyfus, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, etc. don't actually say anything intelligible and different from Ryle" would change the function of the article. This would acknowledge that these people exist and have said things. Then readers would be led to see whether this is right, whether the view was defensible, who else disagreed. But there is no such footnote.)

And my more general point - I reiterate again that this article is just an example that I have to hand because I taught it recently - is that such "discipline" is endemic to major departments which are thought of as "analytic" just as a different form is to departments which call themselves "continental".

Unknown said...

Slightly surprised and worried about the inclusion of Dundee under the label of 'party line C.' My work on Deleuze and much of the work by my colleagues (on Bergson and so on) is not fixed by Heideggerian phenomenology. In fact, I had hoped to give scholarly and approachable readings of Deleuze of the positive kind you advocate. So I am not convinced that your inclusion of Dundee in your list reflects the scholarly values you espouse.

James Williams, University of Dundee

Manuel "Mandel" Cabrera Jr. said...


This is perhaps not to the point, but I'm curious what you (and/or Deleuze) mean by saying the phenomenology is a contemporary form of Scholasticism?


FRW said...

As an advanced grad student in a Comparative Literature department with very close family members who happen to be so-called "analytic philosophers" (I don't know what else to call them, but they are certainly ultra-skeptical of "party line continentals) I believe that I am in a unique position to comment on this discussion.

I agree with FK's comment, particularly his objection to your statement about being "hopeful" that PLC's will be: "exiled to literature departments, where lack of real depth in philosophy and its history does not matter." In fact, I am slightly offended by this statement, because it seems to suggest that, as a scholar who happens to be affiliated with a literature department, it does not matter whether or not I study anything except misinformed, meaningless jargon, since I have already been "exiled" and dismissed.

My allegiance is not to writing that I perceive as jargony and "selfish." I am very appreciative of clearly written, logical writing. I therefore agree with nearly all of the other points that you make, and this is part of what continues to plague me as I finish up my dissertation and attempt to enter the job market.

About two years ago, I came to the striking and upsetting realization that I am constantly surrounded by academics who could be labeled what you call "party line continentals." I realized almost simultaneously that I find Derrida's writing to be obscure to the point of laughable, and I find his ghost-like presence in departments such as mine pernicious. Same goes with Lacan, and more recently Butler and Spivak (who are perhaps even worse offenders in some respects).

Although I was given a limited amount of space to express my discontent with the so-called "philosophers" that we are required to study, I have also felt tinges of latent hostility from so-called PLC's from time to time. This is an extremely alienating and discouraging feeling.

Since we are required to take "theory" courses in order to be eligible for our degrees, I personally wish that, among other things: 1) "we" (I don't like this pronoun) would stop calling literary theorists "philosophers,"2) "we" would stop assuming that logic and "Truth" are bad things (or non-existent!) and 3) that "we" would stop being praised for writing obscurely.

One of the only theory classes that I took seriously and truly enjoyed was principally focused on the Frankfurt school philosophers (Benjamin, Adorno, etc.) I am also in agreement that Foucault is infinitely better than Derrida.

To sum up, I agree that it is foolish to label Continental philosophy as the PLCs often do: "phenomenology-to post-structural." There are obviously many strains of philosophical history that are being ignored here. The unfortunate part is that I do believe that I am in the vast minority in regards to other scholars who emerge from Comp. Lit. departments. But, even if that is the case, why should I be automatically excluded and labeled as "an unfortunate lost soul from one of those other departments in the humanities." Do we, ALL humanities scholars, truly believe that such an attitude bodes well for the future state of the humanities in general? I suppose that this is a rhetorical question.

Ivan V. said...

Mark (I have no idea why I called you John, apologies about that!),

I certainly don't believe that Stanley or Williamson have much love for or interest in the various people we've kept mentioning. So I'm not that far from you in demanding more regard for those (plus I have a great deal of respect for Haugeland and Dreyfus, although I still think they are wrong in their accounts of know-how). I do think that failing to engage with those philosophers could have been a serious blunder (but see below why actually there is no blunder). A related problem I have with the article is the restricted methodology: know-how needs to be approached not only with the tools of linguistics, but also in light of cog sci results, phenomenology, action theory, etc.

The reason why I refer to Bengson and Moffett's article is because I see it as an expanded version of S n W's article. It turns out that there are powerful objections against certain basic claims the likes of Haugeland are committed to, and Stanley and Williamson have in the minimum hinted at those objections in their article. So, unless you end up arguing that Haugeland does not have the kind of commitments that Bengson and Moffett attribute to him, then really Haugeland's account (which is, mind you, in a different camp from Ryle's) is not a threat to intellectualism.

Brian Leiter said...

I am now calling an end to the Ivan I./Mark L. debate about the Stanley & Williamson paper. It has been an instructive exchange, for which I thank them both, but it shouldn't take over the thread from the main topic. Thanks.

Tim Themi said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
abuemma said...

"a kind of retarded puberty and sign language mixed with an evangelical, ecstatic state stemming of the belief that God's Love [in the case of Jesus], or the Truth of Being [in the case of Heidegger], is here, now, and makes us blessed, if only we'd open our eyes to it."
This perfectly illustrates my point - assuming that this poster is not merely trying to mock Brian's criticisms of PLC. Perhaps such comments could be excused if one only had the original rather dense Heideggerian texts to work with, but with all the perfectly clear work by Dreyfus, Haugeland, Blattner, Crowell, Lear, and many others, the fact that someone can give such a characterization of Heidegger is a sign of a deep social pathology in the field.

Samuel C. said...

It's hilarious that Brian disavows any specific program to analytic philosophy, but then assigns a very particular reading of Heidegger and post-structuralism as the identity of Continental philosophy. What a vicious cycle!

Continental and analytic aren't two different 'styles' of philosophy, they are competing conceptions of what philosophy should be. It's little wonder both sides think the other's movement is dead; they were never mutually intelligible.

As a self-described Continental, please help me: what IS analytic philosophy? It's problematic is so expansive it covers literally everything! Continentals generally limit themselves to concrete engagement with the issues of their time. That seems much more manageable than a general analytic and much more interesting than a boring 400-page book about Nietzsche's abstract views on morality.

All it takes is one Continental philosopher to connect with the broader culture and the weaknesses in analytic methods will be made painfully obvious (namely that nobody reads what you write).

Anonymous said...

I assume Brian approved the last comment as a reductio of the Party Line position.

Tim Themi said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Brian Leiter said...

Indeed, "Samuel C." is not the kind of ally Party Line Continentals need. The Dunning-Kruger Effect strikes again!

sodapopinski51 said...

"Anyone who thinks deeply will ultimately think himself out of all political parties..." Nietzsche, somewhere in my trusty old Portable Nietzsche Kaufmann edition...

Bradley Kaye said...

Interesting post, but ultimately it misses the point. "Continentals" are typically interested in philosophy as a creative expression, hence they turn towards Zarathustra and say something like "On Truth and Lying in an Extra-Moral Sense" as being perfectly legitimate forms of philosophical discourse even in lieu of their illogical aspects. Foucault and Deleuze, and even Derrida, are not necessarily interested in producing a "Contradiction-free" perfectly logic-tested universal, transcendent, ever-lasting theory of everything like say Hegel did in Phen. of Spirit. Plus, analytical phil. tries to find "absolute" truth, permanent throughout all-time and recorded history... whereas Foucault, Deleuze, etc. are historicists bred in the Marxist tradition where the underlying assumption drawn from Marx himself is that... "the bourgeoisie are the a-historical class" so historicizing the "Human" will essentially deconstruct some of the a-priori latent assumptions that underlie capitalism, hence they are revolutionaries first "thinkers" and "theorizers" second. I humbly ask you to please check out my blog... you may enjoy it.

Brian Leiter said...

Since the absurd generalizations about "Continentals" and "analytics" in the last comment have no basis in fact, I was tempted not to post this, but since Mr. Kaye put his name to this, I've put it up. In its own way, it is instructive about part of the problem.

Anonymous said...


Dear Prof. Leiter,

While it is true that the terms 'analytic philosophy' and 'continental tradition', etc., are in some sense "absurd generalizations", I think you've largely missed the point because you are caught up in the thing that's being critiqued: analysis.
OK, not that analysis is a bad thing. Of course not (I've got a Ph.D. from an "analytic" department, so who am I to complain?).

So much for labels, what about specifics?

First, a commentary on the idea that there is a distinction here, and that, if none is to be found, that there is no distinction to be made.

You're entire argument boils down to the following claim: a general distinction ("analytic vs. continental") cannot be maintained in terms of (specific) exemplars which meet the distinction (the distinction always breaks down in specific cases); therefore, there is no distinction. But of course, this argument doesn't amount to much, largely because it misses the point.

The method of demonstrating the failure (or truth) of a distinction by means of particulars really doesn't work for things like musical styles, or artistic styles, in general. Scholars will be able to argue the specifics of a supposed distinction until the cows come home.

*Mutatis mutandis* for philosophical styles. The "distinctions" between them can only really be evoked.

Anonymous said...


The analytic school disciplines their work by means of rational argumentation (though, modeled on various logical calculi formalized early in the 20th cent.) But this only characterizes a certain *style*: the tendency to break apart(*lysis*)so as to understand by building up the broken-down pieces into an intellectual whole. Analyzes pieces first, whole later.
In tension with this this tendency (which, truth be known,is a tendency in *all* thinkers) is the way of the poet or novelist (the artist), which is the way of spirit (or we may say, of "Geist"): an experience or encounter with the whole coordinates the parts (and is reproduced within them).

There is a way of philosophy that tries to communicate not only by means of another scholar's works or by means of a supposedly well-defined tradition of scholarly work on a particular subject (philosophy and scholarship here being distinguished), but rather by the means employed by poets and novelists (artists), which is to say, by evocative means. This is to put the reader him- or herself in that very mode of being that is the object of the philosophical inquiry, or to destroy the illusion that "you" stand "outside" your subject matter.

Anonymous said...

PART III (and final)

At this pole, we do not sharply distinguish between poetry and philosophy, literature or scholarship. Whereas a scholar describes an object of inquiry, the philosopher, in the evocative mode, exemplifies that object itself, goes "inside". (We might even call up, here, Bergson's remarks about the distinction between what he called "relative" vs. "absolute" metaphysics. The former mode is to "move round the object", the latter is where "we enter into it".)

There are two figures of Western philosophy that meet this description: Hegel and Heidegger. Their philosophies are not inquiries into some subject matter, as the traditional scholar would have it. No, their philosophies are ways of entering into their objects -- they demonstrate that very entry itself. Their thinking is also well-grounded in poetry, not for illustrative purposes (as we find in scholarship all the time, as with Martha Nussbaum, e.g.); poetry is there for *correlative* purposes, to show the way in.

It is true, Prof. Leiter, that the distinctions we speak of here ("analytic", "continental") are in fact absurd generalizations, and, moreover, are often used for mud-slinging purposes.

Nonetheless, there is something to be said about analyticity itself, and from this, we can derive (as it were) a distinct mode of thinking that characterizes the "analytic" school ... and, yes, some "Continentals" would certainly fall in-step with my characterization.

So, perhaps I can propose a really substantial distinction, or rather, a polarity: philosophy ... scholarship.

Scholarship of some kind is necessary, but it does not exhaust philosophical practice or method or philosophical *life* (even Putnam nowadays seems to be coming around to the idea of philosophy as a way of life).

What I am proposing is an actual dialogue, between the various ways of living it and "doing" it (I don't like that expression very much, but it tends to be popular among the "professionals").

Finally, there *is* a great gap between professional, scholarly, philosophy on the one hand, and a philosophy continuous with poetry or literature (or even, I would say, music) on the other. When we are at this end of the spectrum, when we are at the poetic end, the evocative end, we leave the scholar's chambers and philosophy becomes not an end in itself, but, I think, we begin to quest for what many philosophers have *talked about*, namely, happiness. And here we are essentially religious (as opposed to seeking a religion).

In the scholar's chamber, religiosity is (at least today) anathema; it is almost sacrilegious, for to think that one is on a quest for a truth in one's own actual life (as opposed to the quest for truths of a general and external sort -- intersubjective, scholarly truth) seems utterly selfish and vain (think of Kant's sublimated religiosity, emerging in the later Critiques) -- a kind of unholy subjectivism (indeed, I hear this criticism, sometimes, about philosophers like Heidegger).

And, to be honest, one must always be true to themselves: don't do poetry when you're actually supposed to be doing scholarship, and *vice versa*.

Still, there is a way of writing, thinking and being which is a happy tension between scholarship and poetry, and that's the path I've chosen to take (or to "endure"). It's not something you can put on your CV, certainly, and it would be obscene and pretentious to do so. But it *is* another way, another path.

Your scholarly disposition requires you to acknowledge this, and to position it amongst the other possibilities. It might not be *your* form of life, but it is a perfectly valuable and important one. I would even say: an essential one.

Thanks for reading.

M.Cifone, Ph.D.

Troy Camplin said...

Hey, we already have them over in literature, and they are doing a great deal of harm, so I don't want them over here, either.

And you shouldn't want them over here, either. The historical dialogue between literature and philosophy more than suggests that you shouldn't want that in the least.

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Ed Engelmann said...

When I started studying philosophy many years ago, the "analytic school" took very little interest in historical perspectives and questioning presuppositions ("seeing through"). Mostly it was the continental types who were engaged in this. Now we have a great deal of work in "analytic philosophy" which is historically oriented and investigates presuppositions (e.g, Frege). Could it be that the analytics have actually learned something from the continentals? Sure, continentals are always in danger of degenerating into gibberish, and analytics in danger of reducing philosophy to moves an a chess board. But this is a function of mediocrity, wherever it is found.

Historically (and simplistically) speaking, a split did occur into the two camps after Husserl, with Heidegger, Sartre, etc. taking on path, and Russell and the Vienna School taking another. This split was finalized after WW II in the UK and US. Any critiques of this understanding?

Ed Engelmann

Stan Slater said...

Prof Leiter,

Initially I was weary of what I understood to be a harsh treatment of 'continental/SPEP' type departments. This post has cleared up my confusion significantly.

I would have to agree with you that at times the scholarly for these programs level isn't too concerned with important threads of thought understood by studying the history of philosophy.

The only addition I would like to pose is that at times the methodology/parties of the 'analytic' vs. 'continental' seems to fail in proper communication with one another. Maybe the sides just don't want to read/listen to each other, I don't know. But why can't we just acknowledge that different methods exist for answering the same questions? These methods don't have to be distinct from each other but rather just different ways to effectively answer/pose questions. The party lines much like politics lead to shouting and not much progressive understanding of one another.

Thank you,

Stanley Slater

PS- unfortunately I turned in a paper once and received a low grade. The reason why I was given the grade was stated as "I [being the professor] do not do this kind of philosophy". No reason was given as to if I had failed in the prompt. Hopefully this will come to an end.