Thursday, May 20, 2010

Critchley's New Column, Leiter and What I Am

So, I get a headache anytime Leiter, a talented philosopher of law, goes off the handle and insists on a select few "real" philosophers. He's done it with Judith Butler, calling her a bad writer -- as compared to his colleague the celebrated Martha Nussbaum. Sometimes, Leiter does it with the Derrida and Levinas scholar, Simon Critchley. Now, Mr. Critchley has in some fairness become the Dennett of more popular philosophy, though I think Leiter with his naturalist inclinations would disagree with the level of contribution Dennett makes versus Critichley. Critchley recently wrote a book on how philosophers have died. After perusing the text at Chapters, I put it down. It need not be held in my hands again. Now, Critchley has a column with the New Yorker called The Stone.  Critchley has flown the nest on this one as a fellow blog friend puts it here.

But, let's get back to my headache. Without any "real" argument, Leiter calls Critchley a "bullshit artist" and thinks that "shut the fuck up" is the right response to Mr. Critchley. Again, he is without taste in his demeanor towards Continental philosophy, or what in the past he has called Party-Line Continental philosophy. This is not really justified, but just a deeply ingrained bias. Critchley is an accomplished Levinas scholar in his own right. Yet, to see this accomplished status, someone might have to actually consider writers like Levinas and Derrida philosophers. And that's just it. Leiter and the rest of the Anglophone world think that we're trying to pull the wool over their eyes with obscure terms and ambiguous phrases. If a plainly educated person has no chance of understanding what philosophy you write, then you might as well not write the damn thing--that's their attitude. And, how many times do you know of an averagely educated person that can understand Russell on referential meaning, or what exactly non-cognitivism means for Alan Gibbard? They pretend as if the level of clarity they have achieved corresponds directly to what is valuable in philosophy, and that's a line I just can't ever buy. Moreover, this provides a good example to say exactly why.

These Leiterites don't want to hear that the structure Levinas is trying to describe defies description in the language typical to epistemological, metaphysical and ethical language, or that Derrida's criticism of Western metaphysics relies on a non-demonstrative strategy. On the first, Levinas is trying to capture exactly how others are given in my experience of them, yet typical conceptual schemas fail to capture this givenness. In this way, Levinas tries to overcome both what Husserl and Heidegger have also said on this issue. The move to demonstrate Derrida's points would succumb to the very thing he wants to avoid, namely, that meaning is univocal in any conceptual system.

Now, I am sympathetic to Levinas since he is a way into moral phenomenology, and am skeptical that Derrida's project could ever achieve success. However, I will at least give their due, and make my way through their texts. I have no problem with philosophers being rude. I am rude at times, and Socrates was fairly rude to Euthyphro. Euthyphro wasn't a philosopher, however. The consistent blog-bullying of Leiter amounts to philosophers chopping their own legs off. We are already so under-appreciated in a world that doesn't value art, history, literature -- let alone philosophy -- that I don't think we can forget Davidson's principle of charitability. There is a level of respect we should have to each other, even if we disagree with the scope of methodology, project and analysis. As a phenomenologist, I have nothing in common with eliminative materialists, but I would never call the Churchlands abhorrent for their view on matters of qualia, intentionality and Husserl. I'd argue they are wrong, but would do so in a way befitting the Churchlands as philosophers of mind.

As for Critichley's entry on being a philosopher, I really have nothing to say. I've always preferred Husserl's notion of a "perpetual beginner." When we take up reflection, we begin anew. We are finite, and can't re-invent the wheel with every new philosophical question. We can become mindful of what philosophy means for us and how we are related to it through our common philosophical history. One wonders why Critchley began with the Thracian maid and Thales? What does that anecdote say about us other than philosophers are so overwhelmed by their awe they don't notice wells at their feet?

Ironically, Critchley has become the face of the public intellectual as public as Socrates inaugurated his practice of philosophy. He has a column like Socrates challenging normal people in the agora. In this parallel, one can only hope that people will find some transformation when reading philosophy.