Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Continentalists, Americanists and Feminists Strike Back

Many have come here and sometimes requested opinions in private correspondence about my conjoined interests in analytic ethics and phenomenology. Allow me the luxury of anticipating a thoughtful response.

Lo and behold, I woke up this morning to find on Leiter's blog a disparaging analysis of the type of philosophy he marginalizes had organized against his rankings with the Pluralist Guide to Philosophy Departments. Now, I have often wondered why he was so invested in the PGR rankings for philosophy departments. I have very much advocated on this blog a climate of co-operation and coexistence with my fellow philosophers no matter their self-identification because when axe comes down from those that don't appreciate the humanities at all, administrators won't distinguish a Heideggerian from a Strawsonian.

I told my logic students last semester to avoid hasty generalizations, and we should too. Perhaps, Leiter hasn't taught one of these classes in a while, otherwise he wouldn't have said this:

SPEP represents a group of philosophers in the U.S. who strongly identify with a certain conception of philosophy, most traceable to Heidegger (I have called it Party-Line Continentalism), and which identifies philosophy more closely with the kind of stuff that goes on in English Departments and cultural studies, than with the natural sciences, linguistics, history or psychology.   These are generalizations, but as Nietzsche often remarks, the rule is usually more interesting than the exception.

SPEP is not a homogenous group. To be fair, there is an "air of Heideggerian orthodoxy" and I deeply disagree with this. I am not alone, however. This can be seen if A) Leiter were to attend an actual meeting and B) look at the program. Every celebrated Husserl scholar I love attends SPEP and these people are by no stretch of the imagination liking the Heideggerian motif. One SPEP member, for instance, told me that Continental philosophy had become textual exegesis to such an extent that they no longer want to talk about structures of experience, and this is why phenomenology had more in common with the analytic tradition. I've heard this from several people.

SPEP is more numerous than I would like to count. There are people working on race, politics and gender. There are people very suspicious of phenomenology and there are people equally suspicious of the poststructuralism. Likewise, I cannot say that even with the Heideggerian orthodoxy, Continental philosophy is moving in different directions than when Carl Schrag and company founded the group. Marion and Henry, for example, are re-inventing phenomenology to articulate structures of religious experience while more naturalistic inclined phenomenologies are working alongside cognitive scientists on embodiment. I know one Merleau-Pontyian that is working on neo-natal development. If I were to include myself in the mixture, then I embrace the reflective equilibrium of Rawls but want to get clear first on what exactly constitutes moral experience in agency, values and otherness--a metaethical phenomenology of sorts which brought me to my current project of pitting Scheler and Heidegger together.

Now, let me concede even if it were true that these departments resemble English and Cultural Studies departments, then what would be wrong with that in principle? Why can't literature inform us with just as much as science unless of course Leiter thinks science more reliable in producing answers to the type of philosophical problems that constitute philosophy. This is what I suspect is the case. The divide between Leiter and these group of graduate schools is a disagreement about what constitutes philosophical questions and ultimately the methods employed in answering those questions. Further, I speculate that this difference comes across in the PGR rankings. There has been a cultural gap for years between these two and I think it is about time that this divide goes away. It won't go away any time soon nor can we afford the divisiveness professionally---this is a point of prudence, however, not substance. Substance is what divides.

There are times when literature can be more helpful than science, depending on the question. Let me take for example a question I have often thought about since my undergraduate days. What should be the lasting philosophical significance of Auschwitz? How should an ethicists respond to the Holocaust? I think these are questions that philosophy can answer, and some like Adorno have. Beyond that, however, as a side project, I am taking an English literature theory seminar that examines Holocaust literature. I do not think this question is easily answered in any ONE way or the other. Yet, it might help to read some Primo Levi and other survivor stories to get clear as to how exactly those people understood their experience.

Art can serve equally well in a concern like this that science cannot. Several German artists also represent a lifetime of being raised in the country that committed the Holocaust. For example, Anselm Kiefer moved me with his piece Lot's Wife.

Also, I want to speak to the SAAP "alliance"

One important caveat about the generalization:  in this case, the SPEP folks have also allied with philosophers involved with the Society for American Philosophy.  This alliance is political, not intellectual:   like the SPEPPies, the SAPies, feel marginalized from the dominant tendencies in the profession. 

There has been several moves of exclusion, and this exclusion can be seen from the treatment of central authors in the American tradition. Dewey comes to mind. Here is a man that did not have an idle pen, wrote as much as Husserl from what I can tell, and is often not even taught at top recommended philosophy departments (despite Dewey's mainstay was Columbia University). Moreover, I take this move personally since much of SAAP and SPEP call attention to the same matters.

My department is particularly represented at SAAP meetings as we have people doing dissertations that fuse Heidegger and Dewey together. Some work in philosophy of literature and have equal interests in Peirce and Gadamer. I am not saying that SIUC should be regarded as typical. I don't know. I just have friends that work in both areas and it is quite common for my department to have people common to both sets. Therefore, there is at least prima facie evidence to suggest that those interested in American philosophy might have equal interest in Continental figures. Therefore, it is not just that SAAP and SPEP are politically aligned. Instead, there is common ground between the two intellectually.

In this post, I have shown several things:

1. SPEP is made up of more than just Party-line Continentalists (and even that distinction is moribund and superficial. I've spoken about it before here);

2. Science can and does figure into the work of some phenomenologists who also attend SPEP;

3. Even if we grant Leiter's caveat about the work resembling English and Cultural Studies, there can still be philosophical work done that takes its inspiration from English and Cultural Studies. Holocaust literature provides me with a framework to ask questions about Auschwitz in as much as art does (See the Levi and Kiefer examples above)


4. There has been an attempt to control what counts as philosophy and this has resulted in the exclusion of American philosophers just as much as Continental philosophers. It is perhaps just surprising that by excluding Continentals, the Continentalists gathered at several schools, put a stake in the ground and declared some turf. From what I can tell, Americanists weren't even that lucky. SIUC is a wonderful little island for that reason.

Of those that I know, several of them are interested in cross-fertilization projects and this suggests prima facie reasons for rejecting Leiter's characterization of SAAP and its relation to SPEP.


Roman Altshuler said...

You note that some people at SPEP are annoyed by the emphasis on textual exegesis. Yup. I've been to SPEP twice; the more interesting time by far was one where there was a Husserl panel in every time slot (as well as Crowell speaking about Heidegger). Why? Because Husserlians--no matter how bad (and I'm not implying that Husserlians are generally bad, only that every group has some bad philosophers in it)--are concerned to articulate a problem for phenomenology, or a problem that phenomenology can give a response to. Even textual exegesis, in Husserlian circles, ends up taking something like this model, you can't avoid it.

On the other hand, the vast majority of non-Husserl work at SPEP really was just textual exegesis. And one of the things that bothers me so much about so much continental philosophy is just that--the obsession with textual exegesis which remains the dominant way of doing continental philosophy (just check the standard journals!). What's wrong with textual exegesis? Well, primarily, that nobody should care all that much about what Nancy or Derrida or whoever said; what we *should* care about is (1) whether what they said is reasonable by standards external to their texts, (2) whether it can offer something to those who are not already religious Derrideans, and (3) whether it can provide a viable approach to some area of inquiry, the viability of which would have to be shown not by simply making lots of connections, but by showing what interest those connections have to someone not already involved in the game of textual wordplay. Isn't this what philosophy should do?

Carbondale Chasmite said...

Among other things, it should at least strive for what you've claimed. I think philosophy is not just an academic discipline, but a reflective disposition to life in which we learn from others only by maintaining an openness in inquiry. And you'll note that I am very concerned with things in the world as they bear to structures of lived-experience for ethics.

I think that much of what goes on in Continental philosophy is organized around lived-experience or at least it can be thematized in certain ways. I also recognize that a small part of my job as a Continental philosopher (and I really don't know what that means really other than a way to organize job applications in two years time) amounts to explaining the insights of past thinkers in ways such that my Anglo-American Analytic colleagues never have to read them. I don't know if that is a healthy attitude. Over at New APPS, people were suggesting Foucault's had an epistemology whereas others have thematized an account inspired by Foucault. As you may well know, however, Foucault's method is largely genealogical and he would fervently resist having an "epistemology." Such a want for a neutral language might just be the silent powerplay of analytic methods feeding back into Continental philosophy, and it would fundamentally distort the insights Foucault (and others) may have. That's the worry on my end; the want for a neutral language would never be neutral. It might eventually propagate such a conception of how-to in philosophy that such a neutral language would never question itself. Analytic philosophy could never abandon itself to a sustained awareness of how the presentation of its own ideas and the demands of universal norms might affect its articulation of a phenomenon. In some sense, this is already happening in this event. Look at how social or feminist epistemologists are treated philosophically. They, like Foucault and Heidegger, are aware how the major background assumptions and demands conceal and occlude rather than clarify.

I'm guessing there is some commitment to a type of communicative rationality in your assumptions here.

Roman Altshuler said...

You say: "I think philosophy is not just an academic discipline, but a reflective disposition to life in which we learn from others only by maintaining an openness in inquiry." Now, I'm not entirely sure how to take this. I am deeply skeptical of the idea that philosophy involves some way of life; for one thing, because that is descriptively false. But if all you mean is that being a philosopher involves being reflective--then yes, I suppose that's true, but I'm unsure how helpful it is.

I know that there is a lot of lip service given to "life experience" in continental circles, but a lot of it is just that: lip service. Instead of anything having to do with life experience, we end up with a focus on incredibly abstract concepts like "the Other" or "alterity" or "openness to the event" or what have you.

As for worries that your job as a continental philosopher "amounts to explaining the insights of past thinkers in ways such that my Anglo-American Analytic colleagues never have to read them"... well, there are definitely valid concerns regarding the extent to which using standard analytic categories involves butchering the originals. The problem, in my view, is that while people often claim this, that often goes hand in hand with an extremely vague account of how the categories distort the originals--that is, what the originals are doing that cannot fit into these categories, and why this can't be raised directly as a clear and coherent challenge to those categories. (As opposed to vague hand-waving in the direction of claiming that the categories are too subjectivistic, or something of the sort.)

I think this, in part, is where the serious work should lie: in clearly stating what the analytic categories in question are, what's wrong with them, and how the continental thought in question might challenge them. This is difficult, but I don't think it's hopeless at all, in part because (for example) what Foucault might have meant by epistemology (and resisted) is not, I think, obviously what is called epistemology in contemporary discussions.

Carbondale Chasmite said...

I agree and that's part of my modus operandi. I find an analytic category or distinction. Accuse it of being phenomenologically inadequate and then give reasons why it is as such. I presented a paper at Midsouth this past year on a similar theme calling for a formal Phenomenological Adequacy Criterion for moral theory. One analytic in particular was flustered at what I had done to Mackie. :)

I think it is a very real concern of mine to say that concepts like "agency" need to be re-thought. As you well know, we live through time, and the fact that so many proposals of practical agency/rationality have proposed atemporal representations of practical agency is mind-boggling. It is amusing to me that the only well worked out phenomenological description Husserl gave us was time-consciousness and how intimately aware Heidegger is of this fact.

Roman Altshuler said...

I'm not sure what you mean by "the only well worked out phenomenological description". As for agency, yes, it is a topic I'm interested in, and we are having a conference on the very topic of time and agency in DC in November; you should drop by.

But some caution: I do worry when continentals just say (and I'm not saying that you did this) something like, "analytic philosophers just don't get that agency operates in time." Because that's patently false--plenty of philosophy of action deals with time, though obviously there should be more, and more foundational, work along those lines; thus the need for a conference. But there is a lot of work dealing with temporality in agency, even if not thematized as such: for example, any work on how (and whether) we can make an end normative four ourselves by choosing to pursue it.

But there's the flip side: is continental philosophy trying to "re-think" agency? I have doubts. I just finished Raffoul's book on Responsibility, for example, which does a nice job of (unintentionally) confirming that whatever is being discussed as a replacement for agency these days has little to do with agency as such--for one, because "rethinking" too often means not understanding better, but simply scrapping altogether and doing something different, less grounded, more abstract. Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Ricoeur, early Heidegger, etc, did great work on agency; the post-'60s tradition displaced the subject just a little too much, just enough to make it virtually impossible to talk about something like an agent, like the entity that plans, projects, and exercises its power in acting. (Though see work by John Davenport, or Shaun Gallagher--phenomenologists are still doing this stuff.)

Carbondale Chasmite said...

I know about your conference, wink, wink. For you to remain impartial, that's all I can say. I'd be excited since Drummond's work bears directly on the type of themes I like to take up. I like his aretaic reading of Husserl as well.

Raffoul's book on responsibility is confusing. I agree. I'd rather read Fischer at that point. I thought about soliciting some journal for a book review on it.

I will refrain from talking about agency. I'll simply say that I favor constructing an existenital-ontological account of agency against, say, someone like Bratman that constructs an entire conception of agency around planning intentions.

I met Gallagher once. I did a course in philosophy of mind on proprioception and we used his How the Body Shapes the Mind.' I wrote on his prenoetic elements of the body schema as a challenge to Husserlian anti-naturalism.