Rough Theory

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Argument in Continental Philosophy

Over at The Ends of Thought, Roman Altshuler has written a nice post with the provocative title Do Continental Philosophers Have Arguments?”. Altshuler notes that the perception that continental philosophers don’t engage in argument is likely arise among people who don’t read much continental philosophy, but asks whether anything about the practice of continental philosophy might render this impression plausible. In analysing this question, he makes a number of nice points about the practice of “embedding”, rather than directly contradicting or attempting to refute, competing positions:

But I think there is another reason why continental arguments often get missed, and this seems to me to reflect a general difference in the way analytic and continental philosophers understand the purpose of argument…

…a debate can often go back and forth indefinitely, and the waning of such a debate or the prominence of a position is often attributable to factors that have little to do with the rational force of particular arguments.

And here I want to suggest that one typical (though not universal) continental approach to arguments arises out of this recognition: arguments are viewed not so much as techniques used to demonstrate an opponent’s flaw, but rather as attempts to make intelligible underlying issues. …

So while an analytic philosopher might take the arguments primarily as something to be defended or refuted, a continental philosopher may be more likely to look at the context of the arguments on both sides and to search for the deeper conceptual problems involved. Often this involves a method of looking for aporias (a method Ricoeur calls “aporetics”)—points at which both sides have been so thoroughly defended that the fruitful response is not to contribute to one side or the other, but instead to take the problem to be for all intents and purposes insoluble, and to seek the reason for this insolubility in the conceptual scheme common to both sides.

The goal of a continental argument, then, is often not to attempt to resolve a philosophical problem directly, but to try to make the problem itself clearer by providing an intelligible picture of why the problem appears so intractable in the first place. This may seem unphilosophical and, really, unsatisfying to those committed to solving the problem; but it involves the recognition that some problems cannot be solved, and they cannot be solved not because the terms of the problem are badly defined, or because a master argument has not yet been found, but because the problem itself arises out of a mistaken schema. One consequence is that this tends to make continental writing less contentious and more conciliatory—another reason that arguments might seem to be lacking. It is conciliatory in the sense that often continental writing proceeds not by attempting to show that a particular view is wrong, but instead by showing that it is inadequate to grasping a deeper problem. But instead of simply rejecting the view, the method often goes on to seek the truth of the position, roughly, what is right about the position in the sense that it can be used to make sense of the underlying issue.

I engage in this sort of “embedding” move myself, and tend to be drawn to arguments that attempt to demonstrate the plausibility or bounded validity of what they are criticising. I suspect, though, that those on the receiving end of such “embedding” critiques don’t experience this sort of move as terribly “conciliatory”: the “embedder” is, after all, gobbling up competing forms of thought, recognising the validity of those forms of thought only in and through convicting them of not adequately grasping their own conditions of possibility… One could argue that a simple rejection or abstract negation is, in a sense, more gentle, as the process of simply dismissing one’s opponent preserves the opposition on a more level agonistic plane…

Of course Altshuler isn’t necessarily denying this, but is instead trying to make sense of the perception that continental philosophers are not directly engaging with competing forms of thought in an argumentative fashion. I thought the piece was a nice, succinct distillation of some elements of what has occasionally been discussed here around the notion of immanent, reflexive critique.

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20 responses to “Argument in Continental Philosophy

  1. Nick Ramsey February 11, 2008 at 5:43 am

    Rorty makes claims along these lines in his essay “Deconstruction and Circumvention,” in his Essays on Heidegger.

    p. 93
    “Arguments work only if a vocabulary in which to state premises is shared by speaker and audience. Philosophers as original and important as Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Derrida are forging new ways of speaking, not making surprising philosophical discoveries about old ones. As a result, they are not likely to be good at argumentation.”

    p. 101
    “…Derrida cannot argue without turning himself into a metaphysician, one more claimant to the title of the discoverer of the primal, deepest vocabulary.”

  2. N Pepperell February 11, 2008 at 7:06 am

    Hey Nick – Thanks for this. In a sense, there are three sorts of possibilities, combining what you’ve written with Altshuler’s original post, for why someone might take continental approaches not to be engaging in “argument”: one is the unusual characteristics of “foundational” texts; the second is the repudiation of certain forms of argument due to the perception that those forms of argument entail certain substantive commitments with which a theorist is uncomfortable; and the third is the status of a particular kind of argumentative move – “embedding” – whose strategic intent can be missed, if someone doesn’t know to look for it. Of course, a commenter at The Ends of Thought has already suggested that each of these things tends to be perceived as a form of obscurantism, by anyone not already somewhat sympathetic to, or at least familiar with, continental approaches… ;-) So the question becomes whether there are ways to demystify what’s going on – assuming, of course, we’re trying to talk across continental/analytic lines. :-)

  3. K February 11, 2008 at 10:55 am

    i found the point about finding a new language (rather than arguing) to be insightful. otherwise, i suppose the so-called ‘continental strategy’ of displacing the ‘positions on an issue’ at stake in analytic debates back onto a more problematic assumptions is true, but is that really only true of continental phil? i imagine a certain element of analytic philosophy is still problem-centered, and argues that the ‘terms of the debate’ ought to be rethought (this to me is true of all philosophy)…so i’m not certain that such a clean demarcation between A and C on this point can be made.

    if we were to seek the source of the dispute, it seems to me that we have to go beyond these formal or methodological questions and take seriously the overarching metaphysical/ontological assumptions we see at work in both traditions, and the image of thought at work in them. in this respect, the argument has been made that there is no real split between A and C until Brentano’s disciples (of whom one was Husserl on the continental side, and Meinong on the analytic side) parted ways. the story it seems to me should begin there, and be traced through the responses these disciples generated, each in his own way having a problematic constellation surrounding his thought (phenomenological method vs. logical analysis, for example.). We should also recall that Freud was a third disciple of the Brentano school, for what it’s worth.

  4. N Pepperell February 11, 2008 at 3:48 pm

    This is a nice suggestion:

    the story it seems to me should begin there, and be traced through the responses these disciples generated, each in his own way having a problematic constellation surrounding his thought (phenomenological method vs. logical analysis, for example.)

    Although my social theoretic interests lead me to want to supplement this kind of “genealogical” story, with an analysis of more… impersonal or practice-theoretic notions of what might prime the plausibility of these genealogies. But that’s a personal interest, not a criticism – I’d be interested in seeing the genealogical story told as well.

    I should indicate that I don’t have a heavy investment in the continental/analytic divide – as in, my own identity isn’t bound up in the issue, perhaps because I’m not particularly sure the work I personally do would be claimed by either side… ;-) I think, though, that what Altshuler has in mind when he talks about “embedding” – whether this practice is uniquely “continental” or not – is something more specific than just “displacing the ‘positions on an issue’ at stake in analytic debates back onto a more problematic assumptions”: I agree with you that the basic practice of clarifying assumptions and trying to rethink the terms of the debate is so integral to philosophical work as to be something that can’t be claimed by some particular approach to philosophy. “Embedding”, though, tends to be a specific way of attempting to do that, by means of making sense of the plausibility of opposing positions, by treating those positions as symptomatic expressions of some other process that the positions themselves cannot grasp. This “other process” is then posited to account for its opposition, not as a simple conceptual error or arbitrary mistake, but more as a conditioned dimension of experience that renders particular kinds of categories plausible and even valid, in a situated or bounded way.

    In a sense, “embedding” doesn’t directly confront the argumentative claims of whatever positions it’s criticising, but instead steps to one side, asks “why is this a tempting way to formulate the problem”, and then offers its own theory for the genesis of that temptation (paradigmatically a “reflexive” theory that also accounts for its own genesis in the process). This move is probably more common in continental circles – although it’s certainly not definitive of continental philosophy, nor is it something that goes on only there – mainly because accounts of the genesis of the temptation are often historical or social accounts (although Deleuze, for example, produces an ontological argument to a similar effect in Difference and Repetition).

    In terms of whether this is simply an issue of method, or of duelling ontological or metaphysical assumptions – I suppose the question would be how cleanly these issues can be separated. :-)

  5. Roman February 11, 2008 at 8:31 pm

    Thanks for the kind words and the great interpretation. I actually used “embedding” to refer to what I was doing in my previous post on the topic, rather than this one, but I like the use you’ve put it to. And, of course, I think the two projects (crafting arguments in defense of a new schema that are themselves intelligible only within that schema–what I originally called “embedding”–and, on the other hand, the method of seeking aporias and reflecting on their conditions of possibility) are related.

    As N Pepperell has already explained, probably better than I can, I am referring to something other than redefining terms and something other than “displacing” the positions onto “more problematic assumptions.” In some sense, yes, most philosophers do that. To write an argument, after all, you need to have something problematic to argue about. Much of analytic philosophy is problem centered, but this generally means being centered on ways to resolve a problem, not looking for that problem’s conditions of possibility. In any case, I am certainly not trying to give a hard and fast way of distinguishing analytic from continental philosophy (I doubt that can be done), nor am I trying to characterize all continental philosophy. My goal was the more modest, and I hope more realistic one of trying to “demystify what’s going on.” To what extent that can be done depends, I think, on the efforts of the increasing group of philosophers who don’t stay on one side of the analytic/continental divide, meaning not just that they read authors on both sides, but that they freely borrow methodologies from both sides. Once enough of us are doing that, the “demystifying” won’t be so much a matter of shouting across an ocean, and more the use of a language and method capable of faithfully grasping what’s going on in particular texts and applying it to the current situation in philosophy.

    Nick-Thanks for the Rorty quotes. I initially had two paragraphs about how the continental use of language might play into the embedding strategy (which said something similar to Rorty, though I don’t think Nietzsche and Heidegger are bad at argumentation; I remain silent on the topic of Derrida), but took them out to keep the post from being too long. I’ll probably put them up at some point in the future, but I want to avoid having too many posts on methodology next to each other.

  6. N Pepperell February 12, 2008 at 1:22 am

    Apologies Roman – I often use the term “embedding” as I’ve used it above, and so I elided your distinction. But yes, I’m deeply sympathetic to the idea that we can reduce the chasm that is currently perceived to divide different languages and approaches to philosophical questions – and, on a sociological level, have the sense that greater numbers of people are becoming interested in being able to “code switch” amongst traditions, in order to increase the number of perspectives from which problems can be explored…

    I enjoyed your post as a clear (and much more succinct – compared to what I usually write ;-P) presentation of one of the strategies that I think often does confuse people not familiar with this sort of move.

  7. Roman February 12, 2008 at 8:14 am

    Don’t apologize! I was happy with what you did with “embedding.” Anyway, yes, there do seem to be more people doing bridge-building work. I suppose it’s an influence of some major professors trying to bring phenomenology into the analytic mainstream on the one hand, and on the other a pressure on continental philosophers to be able to communicate with the rest of the academic community. What I think is great, though, is that there seem to be significantly more graduate students than professors who are interested in bridgebuilding, which is a hopeful sign that the insularity of both traditions is fading. I suspect, though, that the success of the “code switching” will depend primarily on the ability of continentally trained philosophers to express themselves convincingly to the rest. And, of course, on the open-mindedness and willingness to explore that, hopefully, is typical of many philosophers.

    I think of “code switching” as an intermediary step, though. Once enough people are doing it, there would simply be a language that incorporates both sides without having to switch between them, much the way that one can talk about Rawls and Habermas without having to constantly shift gears.

  8. N Pepperell February 12, 2008 at 7:42 pm

    Sorry for the delay in responding to your comment – I’ve been trying to decide how I feel about your final suggestion, that what we’re aiming for is a sort of encompassing language that doesn’t require code switching. I suspect I think that new languages and new approaches tend to keep generating, as we wrestle with new problems, or even try to think old ones – I find myself wondering whether the successful creation of a single, overarching language wouldn’t perhaps be a sign of stagnation – as in, it’s not necessarily a bad thing to attempt to achieve, but I would perhaps worry that a success in achieving such a thing, would itself be symptomatic of a collapse of critical dynamism in the field. This doesn’t at all mean that I think it’s a good thing to have philosophy split into camps of people who are, so to speak, wilfully refusing to understand one another ;-) Only that I think that a level of diversity of language is intrinsic to the complexity of philosophy’s object – some languages may be better for different things, and even the dissonance involved in moving across languages may be a useful thing.

    I realise I’m replying on a somewhat different level than what you probably intended, in writing your comment. I agree that we need to make an effort to communicate what we’re doing to one another, and that a level of default respect – a baseline assumption that competing positions are attempting something worth trying to understand – is a vital thing to cultivate.

    The issue of the number of postgrads being drawn to cross these divides is an interesting one: does it mean that we are on the crest of an historical shift? Or will those of us interested in such work simply find no place for ourselves unless at some point we affiliate our work clearly with some specific approach? I know that I struggle a great deal with the sense that my own work isn’t “academic” – where this sense derives precisely from the feeling that I routinely struggle with how to contextualise the work, within some established, identifiable disciplinary location. Blogging has been fantastic, in the sense that it makes possible the establishment of a local frame for what I do. This is good for enabling concepts to be worked out – but the issue of how to translate what I do here, into more recognisable spaces, remains a challenge.

  9. Roman February 13, 2008 at 7:08 am

    Great points. On the sociological issue: I don’t know if it’s a historical shift so much as maybe a reunification, a return to a historically established status quo that has been disrupted for the past 70 years or so. (Maybe longer, but of course it’s hard to pinpoint the origin of the split: one can track it back to the 19th century, or to the appearance of analysis, or one can recall that Moore was still reading Brentano, and that Husserl and Frege were involved in largely similar projects.) As for how, I don’t know. Much of it certainly seems to be happening along two avenues: phenomenology (Dreyfus, Kelly, Gallagher, etc) and critical theory (Benhabib, Lafont, Alcoff, etc). And it does seem to largely occur through those already allied with a more analytic style developing an interest in continental work; but there is also a rise among more continentally trained people attempting to make themselves clear to analytics. To some extent this does, largely, end up involving a convergence on the analytic style, but I’m not sure that means settling on “one specific approach.” The dominant idiom stays dominant, of course, but is also expanded.

    On the issue of language. You’re right, my comment above was too sloppy. What I mean isn’t that we need one overarching language, as when every philosopher wrote in Latin, but more something like a confluence of languages in such a way that most philosophers would be fluent enough in all of them that they wouldn’t register shifts as shifts. But maybe this is unlikely. And it would, you are right, avoid the dissonance. I agree that philosophy should not be subsumed under one monolithic language, but would be better off with a conflagration of related, and growing, ones, the speakers of which can nevertheless easily converse. Maybe dissonance and communication can both be preserved in this way, but this would involve changing the institutional structures so that languages are not excluded. That–if it ever happens–will take a long time.

  10. Joe February 17, 2008 at 10:22 am

    The idea of a “Continental strategy” reminds me of Stanley Fish’s appraisal of theory as having “no consequences.” He does this in the introduction to Doing What Comes Naturally, either after or just before, but at any rate in connection to a discussion of Catharine MacKinnon’s anti-pornography rhetoric. Maybe it is because I say it so long afterwards, but his point is pretty straight-forward and everyday: sheer argument cannot change the world. He somewhat criticizes McKinnon for putting so much cache into developing and gaining recognition for Feminist Theory. He considered the way her and Dworkin changed how we talk about female oppression (particularly in the case of rape) as a rhetorical strategy playing as a theoretical one, but that this theoretical facade cannot and should not belie the true rhetorical force of their strategy: this new way of talking about female oppression, which disrupted former ideas of what oppressed women and what did not, could not avoid a new sense of what female oppression was/is. I see the “continental strategy” in precisely this light.

    I think another contemporary though more self-reflexive manifestation of this can thought of in Zizek using Sloterdijk to problematize the distinction between knowledge and action: what we say and what we do are not necessarily the same thing, and in many influential and stupidly mundane cases are, in fact, not. The point here, considered in light of McKinnon, is that our words need not have practical consequences, but they can if formulated properly. What this means for how we understand the “continental strategy” is simply that the strategy is to employ a way of talking, ask a set of questions, engage a phenomenological description that activates its point in just what it’s asking us to do and how it gets us to do it.

    The other way this whole issue might be talked about is in terms of the genetic fallacy, which in one sense, as I understand it, can mean using empirical or historical reasoning for otherwise non-empirical issues (i.e. the theoretical or philosophical (i.e. epistemological or metaphysical). The thing is, in light of Hegel and later Nietzsche, this distinction simply doesn’t hold, or at least it doesn’t stand for what it used to. I think Hegel really drives this message home (from what I’ve read) in his essay, “Who Thinks Abstractly?,” from which one should get the point that there is something necessarily concrete about theoretical and philosophical reasoning worth the name. This makes the genetic fallacy, at least as a derogatory code-word for historicist reasoning, obsolete, since thinkers like Hegel are not interested in any sort of truth that is not empirical and/or historical.

    It makes the battle tough when it comes to those with realist pretensions, who locate truth ultimately (in the sense that it guarantees all that there is and isn’t) as necessarily non-empirical. However, it also helps to underline what the Continentals have going for them: their project doesn’t hinge on whether they’re independently right about this or that, but whether they get their point across effectively.

  11. N Pepperell February 18, 2008 at 1:31 am

    Hey folks – sorry it’s taken me so long to respond – I’m still in recovery mode from the recent conference, and I think coherent thoughts might still be out of reach. Apologies for this…

    Roman – it’s a nice – and potentially rhetorically useful – narrative, the notion that the current analytic-continental discussions and pockets of reciprocal interest, might be conceptualised as a “reunification”. If I were less tired, I’d be tempted to speculate a bit about what a reunification means, when at least the analytic stream has attempted to conceptualise itself as having a “normal science” status – it’s interesting, in a sense, that a possibility should open up to rethinking the sorts of fundamentals that are normally foreclosed by the development of this kind of status. In a sense, the question becomes what the concept of “reunification” means, given the history that has unfolded in between. Apologies that I’m being so abbreviated – very very tired right now.

    Joe – Good to see you around these parts :-) It seems to me what you’re suggesting is a somewhat different gloss on a “continental” approach – one that attempts to bring the reader through a thought process, or confront them with an encounter, or expose them to an experience that will itself transform how they frame subsequent experiences. It’s a bit different – a bit less “argumentative” – than the notion of “embedding”, which is actually a form of argument, but which operates by shifting the level on which the argument is taking place, and also by putting forward a specific vision of argumentative adequacy. Not suggesting that what you are describing is any more or less “continental” than embedding – just musing out loud about the difference.

    I’m personally not enormously comfortable with the specific wording in which you’ve framed your concluding point:

    it also helps to underline what the Continentals have going for them: their project doesn’t hinge on whether they’re independently right about this or that, but whether they get their point across effectively.

    I’d suggest that maybe this phrasing is… normatively underdetermined? That maybe you intend to say a bit more and other than this? This phrasing would encompass, for example, rhetorical manipulation of one’s interlocutor… I’m not sure it would reassure those who worry that continental philosophy doesn’t make “arguments”… ;-)

  12. WildlyParenthetical February 19, 2008 at 11:20 pm

    Mmm… Just poking my head in briefly, to respond to Roman’s and NP’s discussion of a single overarching vs various ‘dissonant’ languages. I tend to ‘side’ with an emphasis on the productivity of dissonance because I’m edgy about totalisation of all kinds ;-P (though with NP against the wilful misunderstanding/dumb resistance that sometimes goes along with that). But really, I was recalling Lyotard on the differend as you two were interacting: the idea that there are, quite simply, chasms that lie between different ‘languages’ and that this is fine, and even important, except when insofar as it produces injustice; but that philosophy’s task is to find, or better, to build little bridges between ways of engaging, such that one discourses’s ‘truth’ doesn’t wind up simply denying another’s. I kinda like this image (which in my head looks a little like a computer game’s platform puzzle of building bridges between islands; or leaping across them, Prince-of-Persia-style. And if you felt like sticking around in my head a little longer, I start wondering what the princess represents in all of this. ;-)) Sorry I can’t offer more here; my Lyotard’s old and rusty.

    But actually I think this all points back to a more fundamental issue: whilst I think that continental philosophers can and should be willing to talk across the divide, and to build bridges, I suspect that the kinds of work that these folks tend to do also tend to make them more willing to acknowledge where the differend occurs. That is, kinda like you said, Roman, they don’t think that things need to be resolved in order for a discussion to be useful, and this makes them frustrating interlocutors, I don’t doubt, for analytic types. In this sense, there’s a kind of cross-purposes between the *aims* of the two ‘styles’ of thought… Indeed, Roman, when you use the words ‘rational force of arguments,’ in the original post, I kinda had to smile. Part of the reason that continental philosophers tend to appear difficult to get along with to their analytic counterparts, I think, is that they don’t have a sincere trust in ‘the rational’ as playing the part of ‘outside adjudicator’ in some sense. Having had numerous conversations with analytic post-grads in my time, the real source of their frustration with me (and it really was frustration) was that I simply wasn’t willing to grant an objective world. Unsurprising that this is frustrating: where does one stand to assess the argument underway? (Except of course, this isn’t quite what concerns me… which again, frustrating for them!)

    Indeed, I think that this is why continentals often look like they’re making crazy statements—it’s just not quite ‘about’ rationality: for example, Levinas’ work in French tends to avoid ‘being’ and ‘to be’ and its conjugation, but in translation this is, apparently, pretty much unintelligible (so the translators add ‘being’ and ‘to be’s conjugations back in all over). But there is a *point* to trying to avoid talk of being/beings etc: he’s precisely trying to show that there ‘is’ (see? so hard to avoid) ‘otherwise than being’ too, which we miss in our obsession with being. If even translations of the same text into English mean such a loss, what might happen in the attempt to ‘simplify’ to make his work accessible to analytic audiences? I’m not saying it can’t be done, but I suppose I tend to think that there is often a point to what looks like crazy obscurantism/wilful confusing-ness, and that is, an invitation to think otherwise. So the ‘translation’ would kinda mean the point was missed? (Of course, there’s always a line: mine gets drawn at Lacan’s style. Impenetrable to me, and so I tend to uncharitably groan and give up, deciding that his point really was that language just doesn’t communicate, and that having got it, I’m no longer required to read on… ;-P I’m sure I’ll get over it one day.)

    Also, I was a little taken aback, K, when you mentioned that “if we were to seek the source of the dispute, it seems to me that we have to go beyond these formal or methodological questions and take seriously the overarching metaphysical/ontological assumptions we see at work in both traditions, and the image of thought at work in them.” I suppose I tend to think that Continental types are more concerned with thinking and rethinking (being reflexive about) these metaphysical/ontological assumptions, and so I guess I’m not convinced that there’s common ground here? Or am I misunderstanding what you’re suggesting? (It’s not a *wilful* one, if I am, I swear ;-))

    (Sorry, looks like I didn’t just poke my head in, but wandered into the room, sat down in the midst of you all, picked up a beer and started lecturing you. Does it help if I say I’m avoiding rewriting a chapter? ;-P)

  13. Roman February 27, 2008 at 11:39 am

    Hi again. Just discovered more comments in this thread (CoComment–which is supposed to track new comments in threads–does not work).

    NP- I agree that the scientific bent of much of analytic philosophy can be problematic for reunification (if I’m correctly interpreting you as suggesting this). But there are many forms in which this bent appears, and there is by no means a monolithic analytic understanding of the relation between philosophy and science. Some Wittgensteinians, like Hacker, oppose naturalism as a philosophical methodology; other philosophers focus on the non-scientifically-accessible nature of the normative, etc. Part of the reunification process would surely have to address the relation between philosophy and science, on which I am unqualified to comment. But it’s worth remembering that until Post-modernism sunk in, there was a good deal of continental interest in the sciences, especially psychology (but also physics). Bachelard, Bergson, Merleau-Ponty, and Ricoeur were all up to date on the stuff. And, of course, there’s always Foucault. Today there are people like Latour, who focus on science as the source of the nature/culture distinction, and interpret scientific practice in such a way as to cast light on the construction of reality as cultural (but not less real, for all that). So there is, I think, plenty of common ground. And this may be why phenomenologists are so good at crossing over: the French phenomenologists knew and respected the various psychological studies continuous with the work many analytics focus on today.

    WildlyParenthetical- I think that, often, analytics who get frustrated with continentals are right to get frustrated. And vice versa. You might smile when I talk about “the rational force of arguments,” but certainly arguments do need to have a rational force: that’s what distinguishes them from, say, threats or emotional appeals. And this need not rely on some model of rationality as a procedurally quantifiable process of logical inference. Velleman, for example, has emphasized the idea that reasons provide considerations in favor of something insofar as they make sense in light of a broader context. In a way this places rationality within a wider hermeneutic framework, allowing that we can make appeals to rationality and the rational force of arguments without insisting that the particular expressions of rational or irrational behavior have to be culture-universal.

    In turn, I smile when you say that you are not “willing to grant an objective world.” It’s hard to take that claim seriously. Of course there are some naive forms of realism, that assume that the world we experience exists exactly as we experience it and would so exist even without us. But I think there are plenty of ways to be a realist without accepting this sort of claim. My feeling is that good phenomenology, for example, always does accept the existence of an objective world. When you do reject the existence of an objective world, then, I hope you clarify what you mean–otherwise it just sounds odd.

    As for invitations to think differently, I have doubts about whether thinking differently is in itself all that desirable. Thinking differently is, of course, often necessary for explaining and recontextualizing problems. But this makes different forms of thinking valuable in relation to an end, and end that in theory should be shareable by those concerned with the problems. Consequently, there should be some way of making the advantages of thinking differently clear to those who do not think differently, at least on some level. Some ways of thinking differently just fail to do this, I think, and become intellectual dead-ends. And I often think that if continental philosophers–particularly of the deconstructionist type–can’t make a good case for their way of thinking differently in a way that makes sense to others, then perhaps they are engaged in an unfruitful project.

  14. N Pepperell February 27, 2008 at 12:37 pm

    Hi Roman – Sorry – my vocabulary was unnecessarily confusing in my comment above. I was referring to Kuhn’s notion of “normal science” – not trying to capture the “scientific” bit of this expression, but instead to capture the bit that refers to any discipline that regards its foundational questions to be settled, so that detail work can be conducted on fairly well-established and recognised lines of research. This can happen in disciplines that aren’t “scientific” in the conventional sense of the term – it’s just a reference to a discipline that has achieved a decent level of consensus about what the key problems are. My point was more that I have the sense that analytic philosophy, at least in its mainstream, regards itself to have achieved “normal science” status – such that a key set of problems, methods, productive lines of research, etc., enjoy a reasonable consensus. Continental philosophy, by contrast, is still wrestling over these issues, such that there are multiple competing schools of thought still contending with one another over foundational questions. Only a very few of these – Habermas and Honneth come to mind – have established research agendas even within the school of thought, and none of these research agendas share the sort of general profession-wide acceptance – I think – as does the mainstream of analytic philosophy.

    My point was that this difference – between a field with an established “normal science” (even if this normal science is somewhat contested by the work of figures like Davidson, Brandom, etc.), and a much more internally-riven field like continental philosophy – is itself one of the things that makes it difficult to talk across analytic/continental lines. One consequence of this is that many continentals who have an interest in talking across this barrier, end up talking, I suspect, to figures who are somewhat (or perhaps substantially) outside the actual mainstream of the analytic tradition. This can result in some interesting and productive syntheses, but those syntheses still, I think, sit outside the “normal science” dominant in mainstream university settings.

    I’m not trying to make a strong claim here – my basis for saying this is anecdotal, and probably just reflects the circles in which I travel. People I know, for example, who would describe themselves as “Davidsonians”, don’t feel they fit into either continental or analytic camps – and yet the continental folks I know who are trying to engage with analytic thought often conceptualise this as an engagement with more “Davidsonian” style work, etc. There is some nice hybridisation going on here, and I enjoy it – but I’m not sure whether it will legitimate continental philosophy within analytic circles, or just result in another bastard child… ;-)

    But my concern wasn’t with, e.g., assumptions about naturalism or the nature/culture distinction – my terminology above was misleading. Apologies…

  15. Roman February 28, 2008 at 12:42 pm

    Oops… that was me being stupid. I should’ve picked up on the “normal science” bit. Well, my sense is that you’re right about the sedimented core of analytic philosophy. And there’s similarly a sedimented core of continental philosophy, lost in playing with words put together in funny combinations (that really only works in German). And so the cores probably won’t be getting along so much. At least, I don’t see the formal ontology people getting together with the Derrideans, at least on philosophical grounds. But I think part of this is just that there really isn’t that much of a doctrinal agreement in the center; when there is doctrinal agreement, it can be shaken and the entire discipline transformed (think of Wittgenstein and Quine, when logical positivism ruled), but now things are much more fluid, with many different research programs. A number of these, I think, are far more ripe for continental influence than others, just as some continental thought is far more ripe for crossing over than other stuff (I have strong doubts that deconstruction, or Deleuze, can break into most analytic circles; but Foucaultians have made the leap, as have phenomenologists, crtit theorists, and existentialists). My feeling is that the continental stuff that can’t cross over will die off; the stuff that does cross over will hopefully succeed in producing viable research programs, rather than bastard children. But this depends on both the quality of that cross over work and various institutional factors.

    My personal bias, though, is that continentals of all stripes would do well to at least try to learn to talk to analytics. For one thing, it requires getting one’s points into presentable, defensible, and coherent form, and that just seems like a good thing. It isn’t the French way of doing things, but I think the fact that Anglophone continentals have often tried to emulate the French rather than interpreting French work through the Anglo virtues of clarity has led to something of a disaster.

  16. N Pepperell February 28, 2008 at 3:12 pm

    I should probably clarify that my comment about bastard children wasn’t meant to be critical of these sorts of hybrids – more to express the sense I’ve had (and, again, purely an anecdotal, personal one) of people who have, on one level, achieved reasonable success at talking across boundaries – but who feel that, in a strange way, this has resulted in alienating their work from either side. This is intended as observation, rather than as criticism. For myself – if for no other reason than to clarify my own concepts, and to find some friction of a sort not likely to be available from folks who share more of my own presuppositions – I find it invaluable to read and try to communicate across traditions.

    Much of my work on Marx is fuelled by an intense irritation with the way in which – from my point of view – he got caught up in a style of presentation that completely occludes what I take to be his actual argument, such that he is often read as saying the opposite of what I take him to be trying to express. I “get” why he thought this style of presentation is important, just as I “get” Adorno’s style and styles of others who think that the presentation of the argument is a major substantive dimension of the argument itself. Nevertheless, I find it personally deeply frustrating the way in which such presentational commitments render the argument – which often can be stated in a much more accessible way – essentially unintelligible without a strange “initiation” to the form of presentation… Of course, the accusation could be levelled at me (not so much in relation to Marx, I think, but certainly in relation to Adorno) that my desire to “translate” this material undermines the specific goal of the work, which involves constituting a particular experience for the reader…

    In any event: if it’s been unclear, I haven’t intended anything I’ve said above as an argument against such attempts at translation – although I think that arguments can be posed against such attempts, with reference to certain types of work. My own work is more or less compatible with expression in multiple disciplinary languages. I’m conscious, though, that certain work is not – I wouldn’t want to make “translatability”, as much as this is central to my own project, and suits my argumentative preferences – or a standard of something like philosophical “interoperability” – into a generalised normative standard for assessing the adequacy of philosophical work: this could preclude or impose unnecessary barriers to the development of forms of thought.

    I do a certain thing, I move across certain lines, in the construction of my work – but I’m conscious that the substance of what I work on, enables this. Other problems might require something very different – and still might, in their own way, “succeed” – provoking transformations not through translating their points into more mainstream vocabulary and method, but through opening new potentials that prove more attractive than the existing mainstream.

  17. Roman February 28, 2008 at 8:42 pm

    Well, whenever anyone mentions “bastard children” in a philosophical context, I just assume they’re referencing Deleuze and making a positive, rather than negative, evaluation. (Although it’s true that bastard children have a way of being left out of society…)

    Admittedly, I’ve never understood any author’s need to write in a willfully obscure style. Some form of “initiation” may be necessary for a lot of philosophical projects; but if it’s taken too far, it always strikes me that the author’s ego is just too big. If understanding a text requires meeting it halfway (so to speak), I’ve always felt that the author must share the burden of that responsibility. (I’ve read very little Marx, but never found him willfully obscure.)

  18. N Pepperell February 28, 2008 at 10:39 pm

    lol – I hadn’t actually been thinking of Deleuze – just bastard children of the more conventional kind :-) So I had been worried it might sound critical, when I had only been after the social exclusion connotation ;-)

    I get irritated at obscure styles, but there are types of argument where I can at least see someone’s case that such styles are required. Adorno is trying to criticise a certain form of linearity that, for him, points back to a “scar” in thought that results in the dominance of a particular kind of reason, and therefore tries to find a style that forces on the reader a task of synthesis. I don’t agree with the theoretical framework that leads Adorno to pose his problem this way, but I can see how, given that framework, he thinks he needs to adopt an unconventional style (although some of his works are far more straightforward than others). I guess I approach the issue on a case-by-case basis – I’m willing to consider whether someone has a serious case for claiming that their substantive point requires or benefits from a radically different form of expression.

    For myself, for my own work, I tend to think, to be honest, that the concepts are hard enough without also placing stylistic barriers in the way (not saying that I don’t place stylistic barriers in the way – only that any barriers I do erect, in my case, are straightforward results of poor writing :-), rather than deliberate stylistic innovations…). Marx isn’t wilfully obscure: he just assumes his readers are far more familiar with Hegel than anyone is likely to be… ;-P The consequence is that many of his sentences are clear enough, but the structure of his argument remains buried – which is an endless source of frustration for me ;-P

  19. Pingback: Roughtheory.org » Articulating Positions (Updated)

  20. 01010100 November 18, 2008 at 5:25 am

    Continental philosophy (at least the older sort, say Kant, Hegel, Marx) may not involve disputation or rely on formal proofs to the degree that analytical phil. does; yet there are arguments, and conceptual strategies, and positions on various matters. Kant does not really prove the synthetic a priori (even as say DesCartes argues for the Res cogitans); but suggests the SAP as a likely alternative to empiricism–so there is a suggestion that Kant’s schema describes reality more effectively than does a Lockean or Humean account. So I would claim there is still some element of “truth functionality”, and that the two separate claims may be compared and contrasted. Otherwise philosophy becomes more akin to dogma (you might not care for philosophy as parasitical on science, but philosophy as parasitical on theology could be as bad, or worse—-)

    Dangers arise when the Cont-phil. becomes overly speculative or conceptual, or abstract: the dialectic itself as presented in Kant’s 3rd antinomy has a certain force (though not really a necessary argument, but again conceptual— or metaphorical). When Hegelians push that abstraction of nature vs. Freedom to cover the unfolding of Time and all human history itself, the fairly-well defined Kantian problem has been rendered effectively useless, except as a somewhat heroic, literary theme.

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