Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Yeah Okay But Still Blog's Solid Ruminations on the Divide

Back in 2006, I started this blog as a field of exploration. Some thoughts and threads have been abandoned, others refined and others completely rejected. Originally, I entitled the blog the Chasm as living metaphor for what felt at the time as a living reality, the dreaded Continental-Analytic Divide. During my Masters, I'd attended a fairly analytic school and several people there made me feel like reading Being and Time was akin to publicly reading porn. Five years later, I'm still going on strong, planning a dissertation on rejecting Heidegger's account of the emotions and articulating a replacement view with Scheler in mind.

I only live out the drama of this Divide at conferences from older folks. In Memphis, I was at a conference recently and an analytic philosopher told me that Continentals take seriously Hegel, and we don't. For a minute, I thought about saying something about the Neo-Hegelians at Pitt, but I just let it bounce off.  Though, it didn't really bounce off. It bugged me the entire time I was there. I thought maybe that was the goal, to razzle my fi'nazzle. Later, the same gentleman said "Hi" in a very congenial and professional manner. I think this gentleman is convinced. I asked him later who he thought had been overtaken by Hegelianism. He said "Heidegger and all that French stuff!" He was simply ignorant.

Years ago, I went over to UBC to see Peter Singer. After he had left the session with the UBC graduate students,  a PhD student that had asked a rather juvenile question and somehow thought my response to his question to Peter Singer respectful of his intellect came over to introduce himself to me (I don't want to get into it now).  He said, "So what do you want to study after the MA?" I said, "Husserl and phenomenology." He took a step back and looked at me if I were a bizarre three-headed monster. "Why would you want to study that? There are no jobs in that!" I smirked, the very same smirk I now make. We do just fine over here.

These two stories come up in my head whenever someone wants to discuss the Divide as Nick does here. In truth, I think it is collapsing, but it is collapsing more with the fact that it stands as its own specialty. In addition, it is collapsing because there are entire groups of people that have went into philosophy, never read any Heidegger, Foucault and Derrida and they are really curious. The curious thing, no matter how you slice it, is Continental thought has acquired more significance than analytic philosophy. It bugs them to death that the Barnes'n Noble book shelf has 12 Foucault books and maybe two books by Searle (the same is true at Chapters). By comparison, Continental thought addresses/addressed lived-experience of death, politics and guilt to name a few. We often seek out literary expressions of these concepts, find them in art work and talk about the world completely from how subjectivity plays out in experience itself. We do not seek to limit ourselves with Ockham's razor to the point that we shave away what can be talked about, and more importantly, Continental thought embraces how wide and open human experience is. This means that I don't have to reduce the problem of death and meaning of life to the position of an epistemic agent. This is just how analytic philosophers compose and construct their writing. They write from the position of an epistemic subject all the time, and assume that all forms of noteworthy writing will assume this position and impose logical dialectic onto the problem. As such, you get a de-personalized and purely epistemic rendition of a philosophical problem that matters to everyone. I go to Nietzsche, Kierkegaard and Heidegger to understand human finitude and death, not analytic philosophy.

My analytic MA will no doubt help later on in the job search for the analytic barricade remnant of the last generation of scholars still holding on for dear life, and having several members on my committee from the Continental world will also help me. I am a rarit in disposition and training. In my philosophical disposition, I hate the extremes of this Divide. I hate hanging out with people that have only gone to Continental schools. They get rather blemished easily when they don't know who Bernard Williams is, and can't quite get what the Chinese Room thought experiment means. They are usually over-dramatic in their personal life and overly-embellished in their writing to the point it hurts my head to read. I also get rather pissed with the severely ahistorical analytic that would rather understand his/her contribution to a problem. The contribution made to a particular problem is so severed from the historical context that the PhD student is convinced of the contribution they are making to philosophy is original. This is the point of de-historicizing philosophy; it makes analytic philosophers feel very good about doing so little in truth. How many dissertations out there articulate a Neo-Humean account of practical reason? Seriously. I get that Hume thinks practical reason is not a source of ends as Kant thinks. I really do, but coming up with another account while taking seriously philosopher X's refutation of the general account and introducing your own -ism is not interesting. It is only thought provoking to a climate of de-historicized logic choppers.

Now, the above two are caricatures like James' caricatures of rationalists and empiricists in Pragmatism. There are examples I've met, but I've not met them in a while or met more. Most of us fall between the extremes. All philosophers are guilty of rhetorical flourish. Several self-identified analytic philosophers told me that philosophy as a subject should be written so clearly that a generally-educated person off the street could understand it. This general audience for analytic philosophy is a myth--it's an undergraduate pedagogical device and nothing more. I have not find the general reader yet that could understand it. I have met people that have read Melville and Sartre's Nausea. I doubt that literary minds could do justice to Being and Nothingness without guidance anymore than someone thrown into reading any work in analytic philosophy. "Hey you, over there. The guy in the scarf. Tell me what you think Parfit's account of the person might be!" This is an unrealistic expectation and can best be explained by analogy. Like art, philosophy's unfortunate fate is what it takes to appreciate it. The appreciation of philosophy requires time, training and practice just as much as it requires a lot of historical and contextual training to fully appreciate art and its history. Mostly, it requires a sense of living history to do philosophy well, and it is this awareness that makes us sensitive to the possibilities of how open we must be when dealing with philosophical texts and the philosophical conversations we have with each other. This is why the assumptions/methodology of logical atomism cannot constrain the openness needed when viewing Nietzsche's texts. As Nick, the author of Yeah Okay But Still puts it,

I have often been guilty of a “default” adherence to this method, and this is due in large part to my training. Yet, I (and we) must acknowledge that other forms of argument exist, ones which have wholly different validity-conditions.  Nietzsche argued, for example, that belief in a Christian god was no longer “credible” given the discovery of Christianity’s historical origins.  An Analytic Philosophy Monkey will look at this argument , utter the phrase: “genetic fallacy”, and move on.  If Nietzsche really intends to demonstrate, in a deductive fashion, the nonexistence of god, then he indeed commits the genetic fallacy.
Yet, surely he is trying to do something else.  In telling us about the dark, angry, psychologically troubling origins of Christian Good and Evil, he is trying to affect a different kind of change in his reader.  He knows full well that these considerations cannot entail the nonexistence of god.  Yet his argument seems to have a kind of importance.  This importance derives straightforwardly from its context: a Christian reader encounters it and is troubled by it. In order to understand why this is so, we must know so much more about this reader’s psychology, why he believes what he does, why his beliefs are important to him.  If we treat the argument as a straightforward logical deduction , we miss what is essentially an invitation, an opportunity to delve into this person’s life and the significance that philosophy can have for him.

Philosophizing is not simply about presenting ideas in argumentative dialectic. However, it is deeper than that, I feel. There is a passion for life animating Nietzsche's work, and this passion cannot be picked up by people enthralled by the fact that logic is ontologically-binding on reality, or what Nick has called the prominence of logical atomism. This is why so many of these problems in analytic philosophy take shape as they do. Since philosophy has no other method other than to think logical norms dictate how we ought to reason about the problems before us, philosophers internalize these norms to the point that thinking clearly and logically define the writing and its activity. This is not bad in itself and hence my annoyance at French obscurantism. The point, however, is that the confluence of factors that feed into philosophy should not over-emphasize one aspect that it goes on wholly unaware of its history---a sobering point as many top Leiterite philosophy programs eliminate or simplify their history requirements. I think this point is well made in the opening of Bret Davis' Heidegger and the Will: On the Way to Gelassenheit, 

Philosophy perhaps always involves the frustrated attempt to get back to where we have already begun, to get this foundation in full view, if not indeed to lay it ourselves. We then repeat this backward step with an introduction to what we have disclosed, trying to determine the very reading of the reading we have given. This backward stepping is both the virtue and the folly of philosophy...Heidegger asked for his texts to be read as "ways--not works (Wege--nicht Werke, GA: 1:437)", we are invited to pursue the paths of thought his texts open up, rather than forever attempting merely to faithfully reconstruct his "system." In order to genuinely read a great thinker, both critically and "faithfully," one must go beyond merely reproducing his or her thought "in their own terms." Reading is interpreting; thinking is being on the way of a thought and happily so. The task is to attune oneself to what is question-worthy in a thinker's thoughts, to take up his way and not simply imitate his works (Emphasis mine, p 1-2).

I could not put it better myself. For philosophers to genuinely participate with a work in philosophy, one is required to take up this invitation into the very hermeneutic effort in which these texts presuppose and re-constitute in our appropriation. Mere imitation is never enough.


aron said...

If it comforts you, I can tell that from where I am (and that is the middle of Brazil), as someone who's working with a Continental thinker and, at the same time, attend to classes of 'Smooth Analysis' from a Wittgensteinian teacher, the US seems to be an castle of the most conservative Analyticals.

By the way, I to admire Husserl: I'm working on him in my MA...

Carbondale Chasmite said...

Who are you working on?

aron said...

if I understood the question: my work is on Husserl.