Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Category Archives: Analytic/Continental

Articulating Positions (Updated)

photo of the moments of a work process in motionIn the throes of writing over the weekend, but I wanted to put up a quick pointer to a post from Carl at Dead Voles, who is reflecting on the conversation Daniel and I had here, over the meaning of some of the terms I used when trying to contrast Lukács and Marx. I’ve been thinking back over this discussion myself – not least because the discussion connects up with a more general frustration I often feel about my own work with Marx, which often leaves me feeling a bit helpless to say anything, until I’ve outlined a good chunk of everything. I’m conscious that the nature of this kind of theory asks quite a lot from readers’ patience, I struggle a great deal over how to minimise this problem when I write, and I’m always somewhat sympathetic to others’ frustrations over why I can’t say what I mean more concisely. In any event, Carl’s post manages to transpose what I often experience as a personal frustration, onto the more general terrain of the difficulties of communication across two broad approaches to philosophy:

The conversation between N. Pepperell and Daniel strikes me as a classic sort of contrast between two very different ways of thinking about things, which I’ve tried to capture in my title for this post by hijacking Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle as a rough analogy. Daniel is an excellent philosopher, and he is oriented toward position. N. Pepperell is also a outstanding philosopher, oriented toward movement. The uncertainty principle tells us that we can know either position or movement, but not both.

This is a lovely framing for Carl’s analysis, which I’m almost tempted to quote here in full – instead, I’ll point readers to the original.

Carl’s observations reminded me of another recent discussion of the issue of communicating across broad approaches to philosophy – the conversation sparked by Roman Altshuler’s Do Continental Philosophers Have Arguments?, to which I responded in this post. The focus wasn’t quite the same (I was concentrating on the issue of “embedding”, rather than “refutation”, as a form of critique), but there are still interesting points of contact between the two sets of reflections.

Just a quick update that Daniel has responded over at Dead Voles, clarifying that, while I might have been worried about taxing his patience with my roundabout way of backing into his questions, this was the sort of interaction he had been seeking out:

As a good Wittgensteinian/Hegelian, I’m not inclined to view my remarks this way. As I was careful to say repeatedly, I’ve not read much Marx. I find him hard to read. So, my questions were all asked from, as it were, a very high altitude (or a great distance away, as through a telescope) — they were meant to help me get Pepperell’s/Marx’s project better in view. And I think they more or less served their purpose; they got Pepperell to talk about the sorts of things I’d wanted to hear her talk about in this context (mainly, denying that Marx/Pepperell are trying to carry projects of various sorts that I think are DOA, but which I’d suspected Marx/Pepperell were still trying to make work). Pepperell kept “running criss-cross over the countryside” to make clear what she/Marx was up to, and this was what I was wanting to be done. Rereading my comments, I can see that I wasn’t as clear about this as I’d intended to be: I was self-consciously “derailing” the thread, asking questions that a remark in the post had brought to my mind, but which weren’t questions about the post per se. My apologies for not making this clearer, Pepperell. I’ve been quite happy with how our little back-and-forth has gone.

Daniel’s full response outlines a nice argument on the need to understand a concept by seeing how the concept is put to use – I recommend folks visit the original to see this argument in full, but I can’t resist reproducing the final bit:

To generalize, you can’t have a proper view of any part of anything until you have the whole affair in proper view. But there’s no need for this to cause anxiety; it’s just good ol’ hermeneutics. False, partial, abstract views need not be merely false, merely partial, merely abstract; they can just as well be on the way to understanding what’s what.

I’ve frontpaged Daniel’s blog here before, but for those who don’t yet know it, you can find his writings over at SOH-Dan.

Now I really must ground myself until I have my paper written… 😉

[Note: photo from Andy Bennet, Barry Shank, Jason Toynbee (red.): The Popular Music Studies Reader (Routledge, London 2006), s. s. 231-238, via Excerpter]

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.