Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Continental philosophers and other animals

Next month, I will be going to Melbourne to attend the annual conference of the Australasian Association for Continental Philosophers (I know, it sounds like something out of a David Lodge novel, but it’s real). Continental philosophers are not people who think deeply about the significance of living in a nation that’s also an entire continent. Nor, you may be relieved to learn, are they sponsored by Continental Airlines (although the concept of the “bar in the sky” developed by that company is somehow in keeping with the spirit of many continental philosophy discussions).

Rather, the term “continental philosophy” refers to philosophy from or inspired by thinkers from the continent of Europe, which mainly means France, Germany and Italy. Even more importantly, it designates philosophy that is NOT part of the (predominantly) Anglo-American tradition of analytic thought. Somewhat confusingly, analytic philosophy is said to originate with the work of a German philosopher, Gottlob Frege. It is scientific in spirit, whereas continental philosophy is anchored in the methods of textual interpretation and inquiry of the great religious, literary and historical traditions that inform European culture. The split between the two is a recent phenomenon, dating only from the Twentieth century, when the school of analytic philosophy emerged.

Although (or perhaps because) their school is a mere baby of the Western tradition, analytic philosophers tend to show a fundamentalist, reformatory zeal, asserting that their approach to philosophy is the one true way. As David Attenborough might have observed, had he ventured into the jungle of contemporary academia, analytic philosophers will fight fiercely to protect and expand their communal and material interests. Sociable, loyal, even charming among their own kind, they become territorial and dangerous in dealings with philosophers from other schools, insisting that continental philosophy (which, mind you, covers pretty much the whole tradition of Western philosophy before the arrival of analytic philosophy) is not worthy of the title “philosophy” and ought to be stamped out wherever possible. And indeed, it has proved close to possible in many philosophy departments in Australia, the United States of America, and the United Kingdom. Analytic philosophy is clearly in the ascendency in these countries.

It should be admitted that most of the philosophers grouped under the rubric of “continental philosophy” are secretly equally dismissive of the value of analytic philosophy, considering that should it magically disappear without trace, this would be no loss to the world. However, they are much less organized or unified in their opposition to their natural enemy, tending to be preoccupied with depressing problems of their own, such as how to continue a tradition of thought which is implicated in the terrible events of European history in the last century, particularly the Holocaust. Busy deconstructing, critiquing, and declaring “states of exception” involving the suspension of the authority of their own intellectual heritage, continental philosophers have been in a weak position to withstand the energetic and strategic advances of the analytic philosophers. While retaining a foothold in philosophy departments, they have tended to scatter into other disciplines, such as literature, fine arts, cultural studies, and the social sciences.

Hence the need for an Australasian Society for Continental Philosophy (ASCP), to bring the diaspora together. There is no equivalent society for analytic philosophy. The analytic philosophers simply dominate the Australasian Association of Philosophy.

This year, the ASCP conference has been given the theme, “The Times of our Lives.” I am preparing a paper on Walter Benjamin’s concept of Now-time. This is a suggestive understanding of historical time, not as an empty, homogenous expanse in which events occur sequentially, but rather as an intense experience of the present as a moment that is full to overflowing with the past, to the point of catastrophe or possibly redemptive revolution. To get a better sense of Benjamin’s work as a whole (his oeuvre, to be continental about it), I have been reading Howard Caygill, whose summary of Benjamin’s project goes some way to explaining why continental philosophy is not in a stronger position in contemporary academia:

Walter Benjamin
“To a large extent Benjamin’s thought may be understood as an attempt to extend the limits of experience treated within philosophy to the point where the identity of philosophy itself is jeopardized. In place of a philosophical mastery of experience, whether that of art, of religion, of language or of the city, Benjamin allows experience to test the limits of philosophy. The work of philosophical criticism according to the ‘method called nihilism’ allows experience to invade, evade and even ruin its philosophical host.”

This is the kind of thing that makes analytic philosophers see the work of continental thinkers as akin to a parasitic disease. But to “allow experience to test the limits of philosophy” need not amount to a suicidal flirtation with destructive forces. In less melancholic mode, it might involve allowing experience to invite, lead and even enliven its philosophical partner. But that would mean moving on from the oppositional category of continental thought, and adopting the ‘method called tango philosophy.’ 


Peter said...

Enjoy the conference !

I like very much the the idea of allowing experience to test the limits of philosophy - or in my case theology. This is a phrase that will stay with me. Thank you.

Emma said...

Hi Justine, I get your blog post in my e-mail and for some reason the formatting is often strange and runs words together. So, I was just scanning the first sentence of your article quickly and read, 'I will be going to Melbourne tattooed...' and I thought, 'what? Justine is getting a tattoo to come to Melbourne???!' Then I re-read a little more slowly and saw it was 'toattend' not 'tattood'. Ha ha, the way out minds jump to conclusions based on patterns is interesting. Have a wonderful time!

Anonymous said...

Enjoy the conference!

I couldn't help smiling while reading your description of the "war" between the two philosophy camps. And I can't help joining in: You show them!
Have a ball.

Juzzeau said...

Thanks guys! Hmm, you've got me thinking Emma: I guess I should be giving some thought to my appearance. Making the shift from Katoomba fashion to a look acceptable on the streets of Melbourne, not to mention the milieu of continental philosophers (they tend to be pretty chic) - it's going to require quite a transition...

Juzzeau said...

An addendum: my vision of contemporary philosophy as a "war" between two camps has been influenced by my experiences at the university where I lectured in philosophy for five years, and studied for an embarrassingly long period of time: the University of Sydney. It's possible that my perspective has been a bit skewed by the particularly fractious and adversarial climate in this institution in recent years. See this article for the latest developments: http://newmatilda.com/2011/12/05/sydney-university-academics-speak-out

Jason Grossman said...

I'm one of those people who think it's very sad that Continental Philosophy is so beleaguered (can't believe I spelled that right) that it's necessary to keep talking about a Continental / Analytic split. I agree that it IS beleaguered, and that it IS necessary to address that ... and anyway I'm all in favour of people having conferences on all sorts of topics. So, given the situation, I'm very pleased that people are pushing to improve the standing of Continental philosophy, including running the ASCP conference.

What I'm not so pleased about is that this situation perpetuates the idea that any given piece of philosophy is either Continental or Analytic. Obviously they're both vague terms, but however you define them there's lots and lots of philosophy that doesn't fit well into either camp. For a start there's the first 2,500 years of philosophy which, as you note, predates the split. But I'm talking about recent philosophy as well.

This affects my own work (when I do any, ha ha) because my stuff looks very analytic, superficially, and in one sense it is, but not in the philosophical sense! (Which I agree with you in tracing back to Frege, and specifically, I'd say, Frege's philosophy of language.) My work is analytic in the more literal sense of analysing things explicitly and often mathematical, and that's just unavoidable, simply because it's philosophy of science engaging with the explicit and mathematical things that scientists write. That shouldn't put it in competition with any particular school such as Continental philosophy. (Of course, my views ARE in competition with various things, but not merely by virtue of looking analytic.)

And by the way, a lot of my interests are influenced by Frege, but in a negative way -- I think he was a terrible philosopher! So that just complicates things more. :-)

Jason Grossman said...

P.S. Since this is public, maybe I should appease Frege fans by admitting that he was a great logician. His one big mistake, IMO, was to base a philosophy of lanugage almost entirely on arguments and examples taken from pure maths. Not so stupid on his part, but a disaster for subsequent philosophy.

Jason Grossman said...

And another P.S.! I don't know why writing P.S.s makes me feel guilty. Nothing wrong with it really.

After email from Juzzeau, I'd like to make it clear to the Googlesphere that I don't think Juzzeau's analysis is actually out of date. It's just that I WISH it was out of date.

Juzzeau said...

Hi Jason, I completely agree with you that there is an enormous amount of philosophy that doesn't fit clearly in either side of the Continental/Analytic division - and that's a very good thing! In some ways, I think we have started to move on from this debate, and I had some qualms about rehashing it, but as you say, it's not entirely out of date, though I'd say its relevance is more anthropological (ie it helps to explain the behaviour of some contemporary philosophers) than truly philosophical.