Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Another Leiter Travesty Pt. II

I am quite unnerved by this recent tirade, but let's be fair to a man that labels, yet rejects being labeled himself. First, let us be concise about the definition of Party Line Continentalsm (PLC).

Party Line Continentalism" since what it actually picks out is a political effort to enforce a certain philosophical orthodoxy, namely, that which arises from a conception of philosophy and its methods that is largely fixed by Heideggerian phenomenology and developments in mostly French philosophy that involve reactions to Heidegger (such as Derrida, but not only him).

Is the nature of philosophy fixed by one author, or methodology? Is CP? I wasn't aware that PLC was fixed by Heideggerian phenomenology nor its French reception. But let's be fair to what he thinks Good philosophy is. Good philosophy is well-composed prose, good reasoning and a decent understanding of the history of philosophy. All these things are beyond PLCers. As Leiter puts it,

their command of the history of European philosophy after Kant is often quite weak and idiosyncratic...
Party Line Continentalists are very exercised about the fact that there are philosophical scholars of the Continental traditions who treat the figures of post-Kantian European philosophy as philosophers, without reading them through the lens and the methods of Heidegger and/or post-structuralism. Heidegger and (most) of the post-structuralists (Deleuze is an exception) were not, however, very good scholars or philosophical expositors, so it is not surprising that those with real training in philosophy and its history would not read the great figures of the Continental traditions in accord with the Party Line.

I think the use of the term PLC vs. Scholars of the Continental tradition is a misnomer first of all. There is more diversity between all the work I have ever encountered. Of course, we cannot assume my experience typical, but the anecdotal experience here is in part what carries evidence for Leiter's conclusions about philosophy as a whole. Leiter picks up the self-identification of the ostracized from the very philosophical orthodoxy historically that smushed all these thinkers and traditions together in the first place. Only "real philosophers" appear as the group I mention. Then, Leiter accuses Continentals of banding together when they were initially just thrown to the wind in the time of dominant analytic philosophy. However, this is not my gripe, just an unfair time slice of the exclusion as it stands now. It's a separate and independent issue whether or not this ostracizing is still active by what PLCers call "Analytics."

And again, it's not the party line, nor is it anyone's line per se. Anyone that has ever been to SPEP or even the Heidegger meeting at the Pacific APA knows there are as many different versions of Heidegger and Derrida than an official line. Such a generalization betrays the exact content and variety of scholarship within “Continental philosophy.” Of course, Leiter would have to take seriously the journals Continental Philosophy Review, Philosophy Today and Research in Phenomenology and the New Yearbook of Phenomenology as sources of top ranked journals since many of these authors are truly scholars of various thinkers, not PLC in whole. In fact, I know of many Husserlians that have started picking up on certain problematics such as Zahavi in cognitive science, or how I situate my work as trying to discern structures of moral experience by appropriating Husserl as a way to enter metaethical problems. But, I digress. There never was a PLC, but then again, there were many people interested in Heidegger and Derrida's problematic with the metaphysical tradition. Let me make my second point.

The point is that PLCers (even though there are really noPLCers) were never bad expositors if one understood what their gripe was WITH THE TRADITION as a whole. They spoke in the same OVERALL tone that Putnam mentioned when he uttered that “Meaning ain't in the head” or Gauthier calls for a solution to the “crisis of morality” ushering in such an ambiguous phraseology to call for a solution to moral foundations as the result of moral bargaining. It's just for these thinkers (Derrida and Heideggger) the history of Western philosophy is one huge conceptual scheme in the very same way that semantic and representational content were encountered historically in the whole of metaphysics for Putnam and the history of ethics is encountered for Gauthier.

Given that one can conclude generalities about the history of Western philosophy, then such generalizations or trend-observations can stand in for decent understanding of history, as long as they lead to a clear problematic. Given that Heidegger and Derrida consider the history of Western metaphysics as uncritically accepting of presence from the Greek onwards, then it is not that they are bad expositors of history; it is Leiter and the rest of the Anglophonic world that are bad at recognizing what it is and how they are encountering the conceptual scheme of Western metaphysics. Being insular for one party is directly connected to the inability for others to even want to listen. We should be mindful of that. I will concede, however, that the predecessors were better at expressing the criticism of Western metaphysics than Heidegger or Derrida.

For these Anglophones, it all comes down to clear writing. Of course, if you were to read my paper on Stevenson's emotivism, you would think that I was an "analytic." If you read my Husserl & Derrida seminar paper, you would see me oscillating between historical clarity and the alleged obscurantism since the very critique of metaphysics/Husserl involves many locutions of Derrida, as well as the attempt to make sense of them. It's not that PLCers are bad at philosophy; it's that Anglophones pretend that the prose they write can be understood by a decently educated man in general which is as much a fiction as the ideal observer in consequential theories. However, this type of clarity in their projects was as never true as they wanted to it to be when analytic philosophy held its domination. Clarity is a matter of degrees. Just read Grice's proposal about meaning, or Davidson. You'll get levels of clarity depending on how convoluted the problem and its historical dimension. Thus, you can see my problem with the want of exclusion entirely as he says it,
I am genuinely hopeful that over the next generation Party Line Continentalists will be exiled entirely to literature departments, where lack of real depth in philosophy and its history does not matter. If, in addition, some of the unfortunate "fads" in Anglophone philosophy--and the trivial intellectual parochialism that often accompanies them--do not intervene, then we may really enter a period of philosophical scholarship in the Anglophone world in which "analytic" and "Continental" as terms of partisan battle are largely uintelligible to those drawn to the problems of philosophy.

Not only does this speak to a generous spirit to the humanities, but the biased assumption of science-philosophy relation over the humanities. How is it that English departments lack real depth? I recall Nussbaum's fascinating point about the role of literature in moral thinking and the transformative dimension we have from our encountering literature and art at large.

I have a problem with anyone that starts off with faulty assumptions. First, that Heidegger and Derrida are bad expositors and bad historians of philosophy given that such generalizing can come in the same Anglophonic tendency to stand in relation to history (I'm not just repeating this, I have reasons for thinking this, e.g. the argument of analogy contained herein with David Gauthier and Hilary Putnam). Next, these trends carried on in their predecessors not as bad scholarship and philosophy. Instead, they are like projects picked up just in the analytic tradition. Consider the term "cottage industry." Every student of analytic philosophy is aware of those papers that have spurned cottage industries of papers, and some of my favorite works of analytic philosophy come from these papers, like Bernard Williams "Internal and External Reasons" or "Moral Luck." PLCers are interested in problems, but want to see them articulating in the textual history, not abstracted into logic.

Finally, the dominant trend to see philosophy as only problems that transcend their historical significance is itself a presupposition that needs defense, and itself an uncritically held belief by many philosophers. In essence, you don't get that for free, Mr. Leiter. In philosophy, none of us get our assumptions and starting premises free. That's the point, and uncharitable point you miss completely. Don't get me wrong. I think Derrida misses the point of Husserl's complexity the more I read Voice and Phenomenon, and Violence and Metaphysics. Moreover, I see Husserl as an interlocutor to expose the shortcomings of Heidegger. I would just rather expose and treat them fairly as taking up problems within the context of the history they encountered and makes my ability to understand them possible.


Clark Goble said...

On the one hand I agree with Leiter that the "Continental" label is kind of silly as is the analytic label. That said I find myself sliding often into their use. Even though I probably read more philosophy on the so-called analytic side than the Continental side. (In terms of 20th century figures)

That said the divide clearly is there. Many philosophers hate major European figures or if they like them like them in a particular way. (Leiter's reading of Nietzsche being a clear example) One thing I think Leiter misses when "Continental figures" appeal to Will to Power is that I think all of them recognize its problematic nature. (i.e. possible manipulation by his sister; texts never intended for publication, etc.) However they find them philosophically interesting. In a way they are retracing Nietzsche's steps and perhaps coming to a different Nietzsche than the historical Nietzsche. This would be problematic if they were calling him THE Nietzsche. But, outside of Heidegger's interesting if problematic texts on Nietzsche, I just don't see people doing this. As you note there just isn't A SINGLE authoritative, whole and non-contradictory complete philosophy. And sometimes those more minor areas apt to be discounted by those focused on the main reading are philosophically interesting.

I am surprised to learn Leiter appears to like Deleuze though. I think Leiter just gets Derrida wrong. But I'd be the first to acknowledge that Derrida often isn't doing pure philosophy. However Sartre, who Leiter appears to have a soft spot for, surely did a lot of philosophizing via literature. (Indeed I'd say Sartre was a lot more successful there than in his more philosophical texts - the reverse of Derrida)

Carbondale Chasmite said...

Agreed, Mr. Goble.