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:
“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.’