Sunday, August 1, 2010

Kevin Mulligan On the History of Continental Philosophy

Below is my short reaction to Mulligan's online article about Continental philosophy.

I am skeptical that there is anything like Continental philosophy other than a convenient shorthand for job applications. For the phrase has never had any purchase with me since I have had and never will have anything in common with post-structuralists or psychoanalysts who are both supposedly an illustration of Continental philosophy. There are so many people grouped into the phrase "Continental philosophy", I find it offensive that anyone would lump so many competing philosophical positions into a phrase. It's like grouping, Russell in with Putnam or Tarski with Davidson without so much as thinking whether or not they have anything in common. It's always been a political term, a term suggested by others that do not want to bother reading "that stuff over there." It is exclusionary to the point of absurdity--absurd since those rejecting it most often know nothing about it (In the department hallway at Simon Fraser, a visiting lecturer called all of Continental philosophy "crap" and when I asked him what he read, he smirked and said "Nothing.") One should demonstrate a passing knowledge of its content if one is going to dismiss it.

If there is nothing really like Continental philosophy, then I find it decisively wrong that Mulligan would look to a literature review of Dilthey's work from 1884 and suggest this is the moment something like Continental philosophy comes on the scene. As a starting point, Mulligan wants it to speak as an origin that seemingly overtakes all subsequent "Continental" thought. In so doing, it suggests implicitly that Continental philosophy cannot work with science since the review in question is about Dilthey's suggestion that history should take the focus of analysis rather than thinking that philosophy should work with the sciences in much the same way that history and tradition become the focus of Gadamer over thinking that philosophy should always coincide its efforts with the natural sciences (A great essay demarcating this distinction might be Truth in the Human Sciences by Gadamer). Not all of Continental thought is a pure anti-scientism, but simply a tolerant enlargement that philosophy can talk about things within human experience and not always consult the natural sciences to do so. In fact, "Continental" philosophy can work with science. Much of Merleau-Ponty's research is as a child psychologist in as much as Husserl talked to many mathematicians and famous physicists at Gottingen (A great article detailing these famous contacts is Patrick Heelan's Husserl's Philosophy of Science). Moreover, phenomenology in its contemporary form is called a post-phenomenology where whatever you may consider it, phenomenology is being actively appropriated by either phenomenologists or philosophers of mind as a way to articulate notions about proprioception, embodiment and cognitive science (Zahavi, Gallager to name a few).

More importantly, Mulligan cites in Footnote 2 that his entire essay starts as an "accumulation of prejudices" in the cliches presented at the very beginning which "seem to me to be one and all true". He writes,
Continental philosophy is often held to have the following distinctive features; it is inherently obscure and obscurantist, often closer to the genre of literature than to that of philosophy; it is devoid of arguments, distinctions, examples and analysis; it is a problemarm "Ask me what I'm working on, and I'll reply with the the name of a problem", the Analytic philosopher will proudly say, "ask the, and they'll reply with a proper name": (a variant on this: Continental Philosopher to an Analytical Philosopher: "I'm a Phenomenologist", "I'm an Analytical Philosopher, I think for myself"). It is also, he will ruefully add, terribly popular, but, he will happily continue, mainly in departments of literature and in some of the human sciences. He might also add that Continental Philosophy came to prominence in the English-speaking world because it seemed to address issues that analytic philosophy had conspicuously fialed to address: the nature of textual interpretation, aesthetic questions, as well as a variety of issues in social and political philosophy. The fact that this one-sidedness had all but disappeared by the 1970s does not, he will have to go on to say, seem to have impeded the career of Continental Philosophy. 
If Mulligan allows for the possibility that these could be nothing more than the accumulation of prejudices in the very beginning of the article, then why continue to write this piece? It would seem that the bias overtakes what he said of the Continental distinction at the end, it might be a "spurious fiction" and despite his own observation of it, he continued on with the very prejudice he felt may have constituted his first efforts. This is the very same prejudice motivating how ruefully ignorant many Analytic philosophers are. I should say this is what happens to philosophy when you are so convinced that the problems you work on are more important than the historic connection to philosophy that Analytics actively pretend is not there.

Anyway, you can decide for yourself.

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