Thursday, February 17, 2005

An Argument Worth Having

I might have been a bit too glib in my post on Ross Douthat's complaints about American philosophy departments, but we're now getting into a subject pretty close to the heart of my interests---so let's see where it goes.

Now clearly, there are a lot of things about which the following could be said:
The reason _______ has not caught on in America is that "Americans have become poor readers, with little foreign language ability, and zero critical reading skills."
When I said that Continental philosophy in particular has not caught on in America, I meant among American philosophers, who are not poor readers and who do have critical reading skills. Analytic philosophy has hardly taken hold of the popular American imagination either---in fact, and this is where there's a kernel of truth to what Douthat is saying, the average American's conception of philosophy is probably somewhat closer to the Continental tradition than the analytic.

I would dispute the notion that analytic philosophy "draws its formal qualities directly from the maths and sciences." It's certainly true that analytic philosophers speak in a language that often looks a lot like scientific language, but that simply reflects the fact that analytic philosophy assumes what science has provided as a necessary starting point in a way that other philosophical traditions have not. What science does, essentially, is to create predictive models. The model that best anticipates the resultant output from a given input is the one that wins out in scientific debates. Right? The aim of contemporary metaphysics (just to restrict the scope a bit) is very very different. Have you ever asked a physicist what mass really is? Or the spin of an electron? His answer, if there is one, will be something equivalent to an element of formulae. It can inform philosophy, but it is not identical to any branch of philosophy, even on a purely formal level.

That was a bit of an aside, but I want to pivot off of it to make a point about the relationship between analytic philosophy and the humanities, and what rests on it. In his essay, "After Metaphysics, What?"---which I confess I don't entirely understand---Hilary Putnam says something relevant to this issue which sounds about right to me:
For Rorty, as for the French thinkers that he admires, two ideas seem gripping: (1) the failure of our philosophical "foundations" is a failure of the whole culture, and accepting that we were wrong in wanting or thinking we could have a "foundation" requires us to be philosophical revisionists. By this I mean that, for Rorty or Foucault or Derrida, the failure of foundationalism makes a difference to how we are allowed to talk in ordinary life---a difference as to whether and when we are allowed to use words like "know," and "objective," and "fact," and "reason." The picture is that philosophy was not a reflection on the culture, a reflection some of whose ambitious projects failed, but a basis, a sort of pedestal, on which the culture rested, and which has been abruptly yanked out. Under the pretense that philosophy is no longer "serious" there lies hidden a giganic seriousness...(2) At the same time, Rorty's analytic past shows up in this: when he rejects a philosophical controversy, as, for example, he rejects the "realism anti-realism" controversy, or the "emotive cognitive" controversy, his rejection is expressed in a Carnapian tone of voice---he scorns the controversy.
If I read this correctly, the point about the estrangement of philosophy from culture in Anglo-American circles, as opposed to the continuing role of the philosopher as public intellectual in the Continental tradition, comes out of what Putnam identifies in point (1) as the conception of philosophy as a "pedestal...on which the culture rested." It seems to me that Putnam's implicit diagnosis is exactly right---i.e., that that conception derives far too much from the failure of the Cartesian project. In my earlier post, I identified Hume versus Kant as the faultline between the two philosophical traditions, and that's true in a causal and historical sense, but it might be more accurate, given the evolution of the traditions (and the vastness of their mutual estrangement---remember that Kant was responding to Hume!), that the faultline now lies in each side's interpretation of the failure of substantive foundationalism. What ties together analytic philosophy, it seems to me, prior to unification with sciences, is the conception of philosophy as a "reflection on the culture...some of whose ambitious projects failed." And in that sense, the analytic tradition is the one that maintains a bond with the culture, for no other reason, at the very least, than that the Continental tradition presupposes the extinction of a culture with which to bond. (That presupposition seems to underlie the idea that "our culture is almost dead anyway." In what sense? We still have sociality. We still have entertainment, if not necessarily art.)

It is undeniable, however, that Continental philosophy engages in cultural (or post-cultural) projects in a way that analytic philosophy does not. I don't think it's at all obvious that the shunting of Foucault, Derrida, et al. into literature departments, at least in American universities, does discredit to the discipline of philosophy. Nevertheless, the relationships of Continental philosophy to science and to literature are roughly opposite those of analytic philosophy to science and literature. It's a mistake to label one of those developments a "retreat into technique" but not the other. And if I may be permitted one grandiose generalization, what redeems the analytic tradition is that it uses science to clarify and enlighten its investigation into the nature of reality, whereas the Continental tradition is either more concerned with investigating the nature of literature or (here's where things really break down) investigating the nature of literature under the pretense that such enquiry really is investigation of reality. The thing that bothers me the most about the various anti-realist positions is the kind of linguistic turn they take---the assumption that the failure of human conceptual schemata to accurately capture reality has any bearing on what reality is. Post-Heideggerian Continental philosophy, it seems to me, relies on a version of that faulty assumption that has been taking steroids.

Here's where we really part ways. I think it has been Continental philosophy that has "acquiesc[ed] to state power, mass ignorance, the proliferation of capital, and the devaluation of art." I don't think I need to justify that in theoretical terms. It's appreciable sociologically. Metaphysical realism is the antagonist to all those things---because it affirms that they are precisely what they are, and nothing else. The Bush administration's court philosophy---yes, it's a cynical, debased interpretation, but an interpretation nonetheless---is effectively Continental anti-realism. Whence, if not out of that tradition, does the right's outright perverted relationship with the facts of the matter concerning Iraq, weapons of mass destruction, torture and "torture," etc., etc., come? Analytic philosophy has certainly pulled itself away from cultural or political engagement, but it has also not provided the conceptual basis for the rejection of objective truth upon which contemporary reactionary politics depends so profoundly.


At 6:46 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think you define Continental philosophy a bit narrowly. Framing the debate (or should I say, reducing it) in terms of realism vs. anti-realism obscures the great contribution that many contemporary Continental philosophers--among them Habermas and Arendt, hardly Nazis--have made in the service of objectivity and politics. In fact, our political discourse would be greatly impoverished without these thinkers.

At 6:53 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think you define Continental philosophy a bit narrowly. By framing the debate in the vague terms of realism vs. anti-realism, you reduce "Continental" to "postmodern" and obscure the contributions that many contemporary Continental philosophers--among them, Habermas and Arendt, hardly Nazis--have made to objective, politically engaged theorizing. In fact, our political discourse would be greatly impoverished without these thinkers.

At 7:32 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

dan, ill be responding to your post over the weekend -- have a paper to write tonight. Though i think the above anonymous comment is already saying something useful. The realist/anti-realist distinction is a binary developed within analytic philosophy to define its boundaries. As such, im not sure how much power it has in assessing the difference between analytic philosophy and another form of thinking. That some thinkers are happy to call themselves "anti-realists" is fine, but very few continental philosophers have identified themselves, or could be considered, as such. I must defer a further response for now. I would ask you preliminarily to consider the fact that you are deploying the vocabulary of analytic philosophy to assess continental philosophy's content. This a dubious move, and may in itself highlight a problematic within analytic philosophy. Your assertion about the White House policies . . . well, ill get to that later

-- jeremy


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