Babich and Bateman: Mediaddiction

Last week, the discussion about corporate venality passed sideways into a diagnosis of US politics and the commercial system propping it up. This week, philosophers Babette Babich and Chris Bateman turn to the moral ambiguity of social media.

clip_image002Chris Bateman: You also suggest social media is rooted in a kind of masturbatory (if you’ll forgive the allusion) self-satisfaction, self-enclosure. Like dogs begging for treats, we become self-conditioned to seek the strokes of trivial recognition that social media hands out – and there’s nothing genuinely social about this. Yet you and I remain on Twitter despite our awareness of this problematic situation. Are we trapped? Naïve? Self-deceived? Or is there a counterpoint to this problem that justifies colluding with mediated culture? What, if anything, is the alternative?

Babette Babich: This is a grand question, it is, as I do suggest and I do mean this, perhaps also a certain benefit of social media that it has this self-satisfying character, though I also spoke more neutrally of a kind of social media autism. Sherry Turkle looks at this issue as she has written several books on the matter as her own thought has evolved and she thinks, and a lot of cognitive psychologists concur, that it might be better, in a word, simplistic as it can be, as she suggests this, if we were to put down our phones.

CB: Which we have made impossible by becoming habituated to our cyborg existence as robot-with-human, since the smartphone is nothing but a robot slave which, in line with Hegel’s famous critique, we as masters are dependent upon.

BB: We hack the imprecations of modern digital culture on our psyche in our lives by means of these little objects and the cybernetic reaches, as it were, its full conclusion, its ultimate consequences with this little device. We have hands.

CB: Not to mention eyes. The eye and the hand are our passage between worlds, worlds sustained by imagination (such as the worlds of videogames, or for that matter movies or paintings or novels) or worlds sustained by corporeal practices – including the kind of practical world that has been rendered endangered by the systemic dependency on production we all accept and cannot question. I have never forgotten meeting a blind girl who played the videogames that the company I worked for at the time made, games that had been designed without any thought that someone without vision might play them. Yet she did. She essentially substituted patience for seeing. Which is ironic, because the prevalence of social media today is the substitution of seeing for patience, about which nobody has any vestige – yet spectacle, pre-generated visions, video distractions... for these, we have an unquenchable appetite.

BB: What a beautiful analogy, especially the fast short-circuit to immediate gratification and its demands. This is the way addiction works. The dark problem with the dream of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his Oculus Rift and thus and indirectly that of whoever feeds him tidbits from whatever military-corporate government security arm there may be (the surveillance arm may be utterly ‘invisible’ but we know it is omnipresent and we know, or can suppose, its interests), is the built in, downloadable chip, or the very acoustic signal alone — I talk about this in The Hallelujah Effect, it is what effects the effect — hacked into our minds, our consciousness.

CB: The cyberpunk novelists were deeply into exploring this theme, with varying degrees of success, but the lesson of the early 21st century has been that you don’t need the cybernetics actually inside your flesh, you don’t need a neural splice or a data port, because hands and eyes are already a sufficient interface to enter into another world, a robot-mediated world, the ‘consensual hallucination’ William Gibson foreshadowed. Sterling’s imaginative future of conflict between those who favour genetic enhancement and those who favour software enhancement overreached the mark: we needed much less than expected to fall prey to the ‘near future’.

BB: Hands, eyes, and ears! This is the reason The Hallelujah Effect focuses on the acoustic – and if I were writing this book today rather than four years ago now, in addition to all the things you are mentioning, I would probably try to integrate a review of the ASMR augment [Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response], for those who can ‘feel’ it, and this too is a kind of ‘masturbatory’ thing. (There are various versions of the acronym floating around on the internet, and one refers to a non-ASMR Magic Fades album, Augmented Sapiosexual Misanthropic Relationships.) To my mind, the ASMR YouTube phenomenon, specifically the work of video performance artists – and there are several I feel worth noting [for example, here, here and here] but to name those names is worth its own blog discussion (probably in another and expressly acoustic context) – might in fact be further connected in the spirit of the anthropology and sociology and psychology of social media with the Asexual movement. Thus ASMR has nothing to do with the erotic despite the popular press’s habit (BBC’s Nick Higham has been trying to explore this [e.g. here, and again here]) of invoking ‘brain orgasms.’ Such journalistic prose gets a lot of attention but misses the point of ‘entrainment’ as this concerns me, as does the first response to the phenomenon suggested by Liverpool neuroscientist, Frances McGlone, as Higham quotes him. But to miss the connection with entrainment means missing utterly the interface point you very importantly emphasized above, Chris. Acoustic brain entrainment has been a research topic in the military for years (happens to be the disturbing but valuable take-away from the Scots philosopher – and performance artist! AKA Kode9 – Steve Goodman in his book, Sonic Warfare). But the miss may also be no accident inasmuch as official cognitive science refuses to recognize ASMR, so much so that current research on it is done by teams of grad students (nary a supervisor in sight) – and not too many teams of grad students at that. At the same time – this is a “normal science” phenomenon in Kuhn’s sense of the term – one can wonder whether a failure to recognize a phenomenon counts as proof against ontological standing or as an indication of a failure of scientific currency? Here the problem is that not everyone has an ASMR response, just as not everyone is colorblind. Thus there is a partial parallel with the debate on synaesthesia which was also for a long time roundly denied as a phenomenon for similar reasons. And, in addition to the non-universality of the phenomenon, there is also the general trouble we have with nuance and complexity in complex physical systems. Take the example of nutrition science. When I was young, and oddly this conviction remains in force and no amount of research seems able to shake it, nutritionists argued that a calorie was a calorie was a calorie in order to deny that table sugar was as such, that is: qua disaccharide (where glucose, which is what the body uses for energy, is a monosaccharide), a particularly bad thing, which even sugar lovers, and I am one, know it to be by direct experience: one lives the phenomenon, captivating high (or nervous absorption, however it works for you) followed by an almost predictable crash, and then there is dental health as well as the tendency to gain weight, adiposity, attested to a century ago by Brillat-Savarin.

CB: There is sometimes a pressure in research communities to find the simplest explanation – a calorie is a calorie – as if this was the highest goal of the sciences. It’s Occam’s Razor gone wild, throwing out every relevant circumstance in the pursuit of the elegance of simplicity. So I would counter the original suggestion that non sunt multiplicanda entia sine necessitate, “entities must not be multiplied without necessity” (which apparently Occam got from John Punch’s commentary on Duns Scotus) with what I like to call Occam’s Nemesis: necesse est ponere plures, “it is necessary to posit plurality”. In my estimation you are not demonstrating much in the way of expertise if you can only represent complex situations inadequately.

Flat WhiteBB: And so the question: does expert denial constitute idiocy or does it simply reflect the durability of the received view? The hermeneutic phenomenological approach that matters to me as a continental philosopher can be useful here. One can philosophize about apricot cocktails with it, the great beauty of the thing is that this includes other cocktails, and beer in addition to sucrose, as well as different kinds of coffee, as I am a great one for thinking about the virtues of coffee and philosophy, but not less travel, as coffee is a multifarious thing, a culture that cannot simply be translated into Starbucks’ parlance or indeed and lamentable prevalence but is sedimented into the variations of a worldview. Took me years, and I am still not sure I am right about it, and I do live part-time in Winchester, to parse what a flat white might be.

CB: It is striking how coffee practices are automatically amalgamated into the commercial system. The flat white from 1980s Australia; the cortado from Spanish and Portuguese culture... If a new way of drinking coffee was discovered in the Amazonian rain forest tomorrow, I would expect to be drinking it in a coffee chain by the end of the month (and for someone somewhere to be complaining that they didn’t have it yet).

BB: You see, the things an American can learn! But experience tells us that that it might not catch on: Starbucks tried to do the slow pour, but as a New Yorker I can attest that Starbucks is slow enough as it is, and the Japanese take on coffee requires a little more time than we tend to have (still: I love it because of its metonymic – this is a joke, like my mention of the title alone in Heidegger’s Analytic as if that alone would suffice – association with the supposed Coriolis effect, as if the entire earth were somehow involved in the brewing of your coffee, or in the pouring of water over one’s tea). As a hermeneutic phenomenologist, one attends to the lived world but not less to the embodiment of living what is lived in that lifeworld and for the sake of that. Thus someone like Heidegger could remind us not only of the life of the lifeworld but of very vortices of the world as such (Heidegger speaks of worldhood and with-world) and the bodying forth of that life in the living of it.

CB: Phenomenology always leads me back to the imagination, and your remarks on Heidegger here reminds me of Theseus’ famous speech in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which also has some bearing on the social media phenomena:

And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
Such tricks hath strong imagination,
That if it would but apprehend some joy,
It comprehends some bringer of that joy.
Or in the night, imagining some fear,
How easy is a bush supposed a bear!

The dialogue continues next week: Touching Robots

Babich and Bateman: Monopoly and Other Games

Last week, a discussion about corporate venality and Ivan Illich’s ‘machine’. This week, philosophers Babette Babich and Chris Bateman turn to the problems of US politics.

imageBB: Our relation to industrial or corporate capitalism seems, at least in certain of its elements, to be a version of the faith one might have in the Irish Lottery, that or a kind of contact fetishism: we seem to think we must be beholden to millionaires all the way down (as if contact with or enthusiastic support of the wealthy might be the secret ingredient to waking up wealthy some fine day). I like your feudal vision of this indenture [discussed last week], perhaps there could be game design that might be thus inspired – if the great Jane McGonigal’s game reflections draw out the advantages of games for life and even for measurable pain management, maybe we can have a game for the economy, the opposite of Ge Jin’s ‘gold farmers’ (like Jane, he had also been briefly at Fordham, though I met him at UCSD) a game that might help us understand real-life economics. Of course, as you know, such exist, like Bertell Ollman’s board game for Marxism, Class Struggle (which was actually released as a board game — and I am grateful to Tracy Strong for tipping me off about this, although, and this is also how metonymy works, Tracy remembered Ollman’s game under the name of the more memorable, because rather higher profile board game, Anti-Monopoly by the San Francisco political theorist Ralph Ansbach).

CB: Since you have invoked Monopoly, I am honour bound to comment on the rather sordid history of this game. For it originates, as these days people are more aware of, as a modification to Elizabeth Magie’s 1904 The Landlord’s Game. Magie, struck by how children had an innate sense of fairness, thought that if a game made it clear how unjust property ownership was, it would allow a future generation to produce a fairer world. The game rules, in fact (linked to above), contain some remarkable clauses such as: “The Landlord’s Game is based on present prevailing business methods. This the players can prove for themselves; and they can also prove what must be the logical outcome of such a system, i.e., that the land monopolist... is monarch of the world.” There is also a rule allowing players to vote in a Single Tax, which allows land ownership revenue to be used for everyone’s benefit. It’s a remarkable design – and an even more remarkable story, for of course the ending is that it did not enjoy success in that form but instead became the design template for the hymn to capitalism that is Charles Darrow et al’s 1935 game Monopoly. It’s a game, frankly, that game designers hate because it is shockingly unbalanced – yet it has its fans, if for no other reason than its millionaire power fantasy has a near-universal appeal.

BB: My point is less about riffs upon or reinventions of Monopoly than the critically phenomenological observation that we do not buck the system. Thus it is worth remembering that the same system one worries about under the reign of the crass and still crasser regime of Trump-style crony capitalism was unchallenged in eight years under Obama, whose main virtue now seems to be that he was classier about it. Obama bailed Wall Street out effectively to the very same dollar amount that Bush had done just prior to his own assumption of office, as if to send a signal. And as power is passed from one administrative regime to the next, the most critical voices (though not heard on mainstream news channels) raise questions about Obama’s drone habit…

CB: It continues to shock me, both that it happens, and that people do not appear to be horrified about it.

BB: Sloterdijk’s Terror from the Air could use an update on the bombs dropped by the US under Obama – a fairly silent war conducted without report, behind the scenes, unwitnessed, to which we can only add current anxieties about the very same legacy of the military industrial complex that will continue under Trump whose only promise appears to be to bring us more military projects for less investment.

CB: This is a problem that can be out in the open or hidden away. In the US, the demand for the best equipment for the troops (who are now permanently deployed, in stark denial of the intentions of the Founding Fathers) pours shocking money into programmes that culminate with planet-killing bombs or murderous robots. The UK, with its smaller size, does not engage so directly with industrial weapons research and settles instead for a thriving business selling weapons abroad. We rival China for arms exports, although the two together sell less than a third of what the US manages to send abroad. It doesn’t matter who you vote for in this regard, the CIA and similar agencies keep pushing along their projects and agendas more-or-less regardless of who sits in the White House.

imageBB: Note that we didn’t quite have a choice in the last election which was less a matter of Trump or Clinton (and the very fact that Sanders was closed out of the election is part of this non-choice), not only because of the workings of the ‘Hallelujah Effect’ but also because the popular vote has never been what decides an American presidential election: we did not invent the electoral college at Trump’s behest. And despite this, professors of political science who teach the rules for American elections in their classes by day, moonlight on Facebook and Twitter saying the same things one can hear on Fox News and CNN regarding the dangers of Trump, the virtues of the popular vote, and the importance of blaming Jill Stein for Clinton’s defeat. After the election the same debates re the popular vote continued, shifting blame still to Jill Stein or else to Russia. But hacking is an issue that has nothing to do with Russia, it is an old question in a digital age (thank you Diebold) so clichéd by 2016 that ten years ago there was an HBO documentary on hacking American elections, Hacking Democracy. At issue in the documentary – it’s worth seeing – is less that hacking happens as it does than that, and this is digitally and philosophically very intriguing, when it does it is undetectable: it is a difference that literally makes no difference: it is undetectable, unless you know it is being done, you can neither detect it nor rule it out.

CB: As a friend of hackers, I might dispute that claim – a good hacker can produce a trail of breadcrumbs in situations that otherwise seem immaculate. But please go on!

BB: Still, what may be more disturbing is that stealing elections, the very idea, is so entrenched in US politics that political scientists take it for granted and factor it into their discussions of the popular vote, as if there were no other way about it.  Thus if Bush steals an election from Gore, we shrug, or at least we let the Supreme Court do the shrugging for us. When Clinton’s campaign does related things contra Sanders, we shrug: backroom politics, what are ya gonna do? Thus in the face of all that past shrugging the most surprising thing is perhaps mainstream media complaints regarding a putative Putin hack, post Trump.  Hacks to one side, what is evident is that we work ourselves into a frenzy over the supposed choice between two non-choices while ridiculing anyone who claims that either one comes down to the same. We do this even after eight years of explaining on both social media and in academic conference lectures and corridors that Obama could not keep his campaign promises because of Republican opposition and corporate and lobbying forces in Washington – the same Republican concerns Obama sought to work with, the same corporate interests Obama bailed out.

CB: We are so focussed on the person who sits in a particular office, that it manages to obscure the larger system they are incorporated into, and which they cannot change. It always comes back to the same thing for me: how was Obama unable to stop drone assassinations? Attacks that killed vast numbers of innocents and that were by no means the ‘precision strikes’ they were intended to be. Indeed, these shameful practices – which in my view dishonour the very troops that US citizens, and indeed myself, have such respect for – flourished under Obama’s watch. And not, I suspect, because he was entirely in support of them, although sometimes I wonder...

BB: Note that we have already said all the trigger things needed for the automatic associations that drive these debates and to inspire counter claims: everyone knows where to come down on these and related issues.

CB: This is the problem with moral horror, as I call it in Chaos Ethics; the cognitive dissonance of politics and ethics: the moment you are triggered, as it has become popular to say, all possibility of discussion has already ended. We fight over these flashpoint situations without there being any possibility of that conflict doing anything but entrench our ‘enemies’, making productive dialogue impossible. It is all too easy to simply give in to cynicism and conclude that there is no point making any kind of effort at all. At which point, Illich’s machine has most certainly won out. Corporate venality, as you have eloquently put it, is all that is left.

BB: I take very seriously your question as to what one might then do.  I don’t know. It seems to me that a great deal might be attained if one might finally come to see that there was a problem to begin with, in all its complexity and not less in its persistence. As Nietzsche once reflected – and his formulation is more salient than standard reflections on akrasia [ἀκρασία] – knowing better does not remove the conundrum: it does not mean one will do things otherwise, and it is far from the beginning of liberation: there is necessity, ananke [ἀνάγκη], all the way down.

The dialogue continues next week: Mediaddiction

Babich and Bateman: Corporate Venality

In this latest dialogue between philosopher and Nietzsche scholar Babette Babich and ‘outsider philosopher’ Chris Bateman, we discuss our relationship to corporate power and influence, the possibility of virtuous behaviour against a backdrop of pervasive technology, and living with robots.

imageChris Bateman: In your book The Hallelujah Effect, you draw out some of the ways that our apparently freely motivated actions in social media tend to devolve into propping up the corporate ownership of popular culture. Web 2.0’s much vaunted appointment of the masses to the role of ‘content creator’ becomes a kind of ‘free range egg’ alternative to ‘battery farmed’ corporate content creation – the content we ‘create’ is an unpaid corporate promotional service. You suggest this is the new venality, a corporate venality where we are effectively being psychologically ‘bribed’ to prop up corporate interests. And we all end up participating – even those of us who question this arrangement. Is this inevitable? How would someone find a virtuous path in this situation?

Babette Babich: This is a great question.

This is such a great question that I would be up for anyone who might suggest such a path out of the fly bottle.

I don’t think such a path exists, or at least and surely not without critique, which is why there is a need to focus on Adorno (even if Adorno’s tone can annoy a lot of readers, Horkheimer does not make it any better) or Günther Anders (part of Anders’ 1956, The Obsolescence of Humanity, “On Promethean Shame” is now available in English as part of Christopher Müller’s Prometheanism) or Marcuse or indeed Baudrillard. The problem is that as happy denizens of the capitalist world view, that is, as happy consumers dedicated to feeding the corporate machine all the gigantic profits it can eat, that the dynamic is just as self-detonating as Marx suggested long ago and as we have, quite empirically found, to our great distress, bubble after bubble, in the UK under Thatcher and since then, as if no lessons had been learnt, and they weren’t, and on-going again with Brexit and its subsidiary consequences.

CB: On Brexit, I shall have to defer comment, if only for brevity, although it is something I spend time quite some time thinking about, and remain quite conflicted.

BB: Let me also note – although I am mindful of the complexity deferred – that academic authors are perhaps more insulated from the same profit question though no less involved. I was just interviewed for a UK job (patently I was not offered the position or I would not be talking about it, and that complicity is worth a blog of its own) where I was asked point blank about just how I planned to bring corporate money to the university: I have no such plans or techniques for the same, and I said as much.  What I did not say was that I thought that the very idea violated academic integrity.  And yet there is no way to be an academic and not be involved with corporate money, corporate enhancement, corporate exchange, whether one intends this or not. Thus just to limit this complexity to something as seemingly innocuous as research – academics routinely write (and edit: recruit, and collate for journals and book collections, reads copy: one’s own, that of others) for no compensation, before, during, or after publication. Yet most academics who write for the sake of communication and engagement, the furthering of research, also vigorously protest file-sharing – a complex issue on which you have written and which remains very resistant to analysis at any level. Maybe this is because the digital ontology of our lives is happening, or unfolding, all around us.

CB: You say ‘corporate machine’, and ‘machine’ was specifically the metaphor Ivan Illich used to describe the way that Western society – the democratic, free market economy, rights-claiming ideological system – functioned, and he tried to warn countries that had not yet been pulled into it what they stood to lose. Because it seems, as you suggest here, that once inside there is no way out, no way back, because once you join an economy of specialisation and dependence upon manufacture and commerce you can never be self-sufficient in any tangible sense. The moment you are not growing your own food, the moment you lose those skills that once were the mainstay of existence, you are entirely dependent upon the system to sustain you – and the system now is the corporations just as in feudal times it was the aristocracy. Feudal capitalism would be another way to see it; millionaires swearing fealty to billionaires, and the peasants in thrall to their employers who – whether by bank or by capital investment – all depend upon millionaires or billionaires somewhere down the line.

imageBB: It was Illich’s metaphor and it still bears reflection, as I often connect it too to the Frankfurt School theorists and their culture industry.  I write occasionally  about Illich in connection with education and health care but I think his comments even more vital in connection with what he called conviviality, and this complex feudality is, I think part of that as we live semi-blind to the system that sustains us, as you say, and corporate feudality is a matrix all its own. Illich pointed out that what is at issue is more than the preservation of exotic cultures, Carmen Sandiego style (where in the world can one be free of corporate control?) if only because as he also argued, there is no place, to one side or the other of Brexit complexity or Trump wall-building insanity, where one is or could be free of corporate control.  Illich’s writing and sensibility has, if one opens oneself to reading him, the capacity to raise the tone, to remind us of conviviality, that we are very much in this together even if we need the spirit of an almost-saint, as I believe Illich was such, we certainly need the patience of one, even to pose such questions at all. Hence toward the end of his life, talking about his decision to shut down the centre he himself had founded in Cuernevaca, Illich spoke of the “cultivation of conspiracy,” meaning, as he gave a historical as well as etymological discussion, being close enough to others that we might be able to share their breath, to breathe with them. “Con-spiratio.”

CB: Finding Illich was transformational for me, because here were precisely the questions not being asked today, and (soberingly) being asked around the time that I was born. Having taken these questions to heart, though, I have felt remarkably isolated – because to think with Illich is to exile yourself from almost everyone else today, to challenge everything that most people unquestioningly take to be the best aspect of what we have (whether education, medicine, or transport). Worst of all for me is precisely that I do not feel close enough to others to share breath – far from the delight in my nomadic existence that gave me my company name (International Hobo Limited), now I feel an acute sense of the costs of that nomadic existence, but the habit is there now, and it is terribly difficult to break… I had not thought, before you mentioned it, of this other meaning of ‘conspiracy’, shared breath, but yes, I suppose I yearn for a conspiracy I feel able to belong to!

BB: Historical philology is captivating and one learns from Illich’s account, but you mentioned him to touch on the question less of spirit (and Illich’s conspiracy) than speculation and capital, specifically our unwitting involvement with it, an unwitting involvement that tends to become quite witting. Most of us at university will seek corporate sponsorship if we can. Hence a nearly universal response to Illich on breathing the breath of others – he was speaking of the original meaning of the kiss of peace – can be the same as a fairly universal response to Žižek in the time of Occupy Wall Street (I include here some of the photos I took of the movement, during a day of organized protests, with union support from all over the New York seaboard and mindful that Occupy has in the space of a few years passed into a cliché for a thoroughly defeated movement) as Žižek suggested then that we might, say, dismantle capitalism, that would be the ultimate Brexit. As is his wont, Žižek articulated our own answer for us in effort to get us to think about what we consider, this is a Lacanian conundrum, what we regard as or name the impossible.

The dialogue continues next week: Monopoly and Other Games

Jon Cogburn's Commentary on Babich and Bateman, Dialogue I

Pleased to report that Jon Cogburn, who is one of the professional philosophers interested in games (rather than professional games designers embroiled in philosophy, such as Ian Bogost, Stefano Gualeni, and myself…), took an interest in the first Babich and Bateman dialogue, The Last of the Continental Philosophers. Over at the multi-author Philosophical Percolations blog, Jon provided some excellent commentary on our discussions under the title One more difference between analytic and contintental philosophy. Here’s an extract:

I do have one quibble with Babich’s characterization of analytic and continental philosophy. I think that in characterizing continental philosophy she tends to characterize what the Mighty Dead of that tradition have done and in characterizing analytic philosophy she tends to characterize what standard academic philosophers get up to. But if you do this, then of course analytic philosophy ends up looking stupid when contrasted to continental philosophy. It’s dangerous too as we might lose sight of the fact that philosophy is egregiously difficult, so much so that most of it is going to be mediocre. The problem with analytic philosophy isn’t that the overwhelming majority of it is mediocre, but that the self appointed (though widely recognized) mandarins of analytic philosophy don’t have enough humility to recognize this. I would hate to see Babich unwittingly recapitulate this vice.

This makes this dialogue into part of the Republic of Bloggers, and that is always good news. My thanks to Jon for his thoughtful contributions to the topic. And speaking of Babich and Bateman, Dialogue II is on its way – look out for that soon!


The Last of the Continental Philosophers: A Dialogue

The Last of the Continental Philosophers was a four part dialogue between veteran Nietzsche scholar Babette Babich and ‘outsider philosopher’ Chris Bateman, looking at why continental philosophy is something every academic philosopher claims for their own while the practices of this tradition are gradually dying out.

The dialogue originally ran from 29th November to 20th December 2016. Each of the parts ends with a link to the next one, so to read the entire serial, simply click on the first link below, and then follow the “next” links to read on.

The four parts are as follows:

  1. Last of the Continental Philosophers
  2. What is Continental Philosophy?
  3. Claiming the Continental Flag
  4. Analytic Philosophy and the Sciences

If you enjoyed this dialogue, please leave a comment! A new Babich and Bateman dialogue begins in early 2017.

Babich and Bateman: Analytic Philosophy and the Sciences

What started as a discussion about the (doomed?) state of continental philosophy turned last week to the reasons that analytic philosophers claimed the ‘continental flag’ for themselves. Now, the discussion concludes by moving into the relationship between analytic philosophy and the sciences, and what this means for everyone.

New York NightBabette Babich: Analytic philosophy is a disaster when it comes to theology [as discussed last week] but it is also a disaster when it comes to natural science, thinking about it, engaging it, and these days it is the scientists who are saying such things about analytic philosophy, to which, and rather predictably, analytic philosophy responds with utterly naïve circularity by urging scientists to take courses in analytic philosophy.

Chris Bateman: There are problems on both sides, here. Some scientists raise complaints about philosophy not understanding their field, and thus writing nonsense. This for me is an odd complaint because there is just as much nonsense written within each scientific field by the scientists themselves, and complaining about the ‘outsiders’ seems to be very odd focus. Writing The Mythology of Evolution was a fascinating exercise for me because it’s the most sustained discussion I’ve had with people in a field I myself had never studied. They were extremely open to my questions, and it made me think that claims of failed discourse between science and philosophy were a question of a lack of will, and not anything fundamental; but poor communication caused by a deficit of will is perhaps the hardest breakdown in discourse to fix.

BB: Indeed. But evolution is one of the most complicated questions going.  As someone who started her career in the sciences, specifically one of the sciences that claims to theorize evolution, namely biology, what is troublesome is still a matter of history and context, so the analytic-continental debate could be restaged just at this level as well.  But that is another question – and you have a book on it! More generally, it is worth noting that analytic philosophers do not, towards the end of the remedy to this communication problem with science, take courses in physics, or better yet, in physical chemistry, just to name a course that separates the science-minded from the non-scientifically minded just at the undergraduate level.

CB: Some philosophers are well versed in certain sciences in my experience – I’m a particular admirer of Isabelle Stengers, who was a chemist before she practiced philosophy, and whose work has massively informed my own. But there is certainly not any general awareness of a need for interdisciplinary work – which is a great shame, as almost nothing interesting happens without spanning disciplines, and philosophy is a wonderful nexus between other forms of thought.

BB: Absolutely true! But philosophy of science will take, at least in my experience, anyone trained in the sciences who wants to write philosophy, without requiring a comparable ‘training’ in the history and texts of philosophy.  Thus Bob Cohen, for a long time the head of Boston University’s Center for the History and Philosophy of Science, had a degree in physics and this is common. Peter Galison has a PhD in physics and history of science, in good Conant fashion (Conant senior, let me be clear, as it was his stipulations that made Kuhn Kuhnian). The point is the explication of science to scientists which some philosophers of mind sometimes undertake to do, consider the Churchlands, Pat and Paul and so on. Thus Steven Hawking declared, some years ago attracting media attention — and never bothering to retract the claim — “Philosophy is dead.”

CB: Indeed, and so unwisely, too. The press is as much to blame as anyone here, for thinking that a physicist has ultimate authority on anything but physics which (and I speak as an ex-astrophysicist myself) is the narrowest and least generally applicable of all the contemporary sciences.

BB: Just to be clear in this regard, Hawking’s comments were contra philosophy but not contra continental philosophy — analytic and continental are not distinctions Stephen Hawking makes and he is pointing to the great majority of philosophers to begin with rather than the straggling few individuals of the continental kind, statistically not worth worrying about, being few in number and too long in the tooth to boot, just remember Thomas Kuhn’s analysis of the prime mechanism of scientific change…

CB: I find, as Foucault also makes clear, this barrier to change applies to all disciplines, personally. But I fear we have travelled far from the question we were working on!

BB: So returning to our earlier discussion, and now I can hear the full power that drives your already very forceful point; why, given all that can be said about the dominance of the analytic approach in philosophy, the persistent push to be continental, even if only to appropriate the name? Well, apart from just taking all the jobs and titles and posts, which is the biggest part of it, there is also an utter innocence: a kind of conceptual blindness on the part of analytic philosophy to the continental tradition. This amounts to what is in effect, a constitutional inability to see the point of any of the things noted before [e.g. in part 2] as significant in any way.

CB: Which is also the general problem some scientists have had with philosophy of any flavour, I rather suspect.

BB: To be sure. But think of the moment in a colloquium, provided it ever happens, which in fact it does not tend to, where, having invited a continental philosopher (as opposed to a continentally-flavoured analytic philosopher) to give a talk where someone in the audience asks the speaker to say just what it is the speaker is saying, a question is usually posed (there is more rhetorical spin than logic here) as the third or fourth question after the lecture. This can be a quite friendly question, posed in all innocence, just as one can explain something in class and a student can raise their hand and ask one to say it all again, once more, with pith, for the exam.

CB: The expectation that there must be a simpler way of putting a point, which is tied up in the naïve risks entailed in taking something complex and then making it too easily understandable, and thus misunderstandable – the ‘selfish’ gene being the paradigm example par excellence.

BB: That is a great example! In this context, if I could seem to be suggesting that continental philosophy just is what Heidegger does in Being and Time along with what Nietzsche does in all of his philosophy, including Zarathustra (Heidegger reminds us to ask who was Nietzsche’s Zarathustra?), also including the very unpublished bits many of us are delighted to have scholarly permission to ignore, and not less all the pre-Socratic thinkers as well as a Plato read rather differently than an Oxbridge don would read him and an Aristotle read differently than a current Stanford professor of theology would read him, today’s continental claimants are often more at home in comparative literature or other departments where the talk is talk of “theory’ which last I have nothing against but which is not, because it does not have to be, philosophy.

CB: This is critical theory you’re referring to here? I always find it odd, to be honest (although I enjoy reading a lot of it) that anyone would call ‘theory’ something that involves neither theorising nor application of theory. I rather suspect the choice of ‘theory’ is a rhetorical move to add credence to a particular kind of hermeneutic activity, because ‘theory’ is a word clad in the shiny armature of the sciences.

Adorno-horkheimerBB: No, or not quite, or at least not as I understand critical theory.  For me, critical theory is Horkheimer and Adorno  – and then some. But today’s Frankfurt School hasn't been about Adorno for years. Thus if I have reservations about philosophy overall, your point about ‘theory.’ only gets more complicated inasmuch as there is no move to 'annex' Comparative Literature or what other disciplines like Political Science or Sociology or even Media Studies or Communications can call ‘theory.’ Thus it matters as Reiner Schürmann long ago observed (to quote him once again as a witness to the era) that when the American analytic philosopher, Richard Rorty wrote The Mirror of Nature to look at certain conundrums interior to the philosophical project of raw feels and C-fibres that were then all the rage, and proceeded to decamp from the Princeton Philosophy Department he did not join ranks with the so-called pragmatist pluralistic movement, let alone the ‘continentals’ who read his book with enthusiasm, but, ganz im Gegenteil, or “far from it” as Schürmann would say, switched instead to those very departments of Comparative Literature that had long welcomed Derrida, jumping disciplines as he jumped ship.

CB: Sometimes, any safe harbour, no matter how far flung, is better than going down with the ship...

BB: Certainly! But I am not persuaded that Rorty needed safe harbour.  A Princeton Professor is not typically a persecuted personage. Surely Rorty wanted more than analytic philosophy.  But he remained enough of an analytic philosopher that he would not put in with other voices, the pluralist voices, let alone the continental voices. Rorty, I would say, wanted to become Rorty rather than to help bring other voices into the profession. But there is something more: and currently among analytic philosophers there is, it seems to me, a sense of incipient boredom.  I find a presentiment of this in, of all people, Mary Midgley who wrote a blurb on your book The Mythology of Evolution to inspire blurb-envy in anyone, especially me (I have adored Midgley’s work for years, and it takes nothing away from this admiration to note that she too, of course, enjoys an analytic formation and great sympathy for the same tradition).

CB: I ought to say that as an outsider, I felt enormous pressure to earn endorsements for my philosophy books lest I have no credibility at all. Not to mention, lacking any training in philosophy, I felt I needed to engineer something akin to an apprenticeship by building upon the work of others, to which I was obligated to a certain intense (and solitary) study. Thus Imaginary Games is clearly a tribute to analytic aesthetician Kendall Walton, who very gladly endorsed it, and The Mythology of Evolution answers Midgley’s call to clear up the contemporary confusion about motives, and again, she endorsed it. I consider these endorsements as enormous blessings, of course, but it ought to be recognised that I sought them out from direst personal need... But I digress: you were talking about analytic boredom?

BB: My point here, in addition to connecting with your own book, is that Midgley herself points to the devolution of analytic philosophy, left to its own devices – and it insists on being left to its own devices whereby and on its own terms, it winds up, as I am fond of quoting A. Z. Bar-On, as having “less and less of what to analyze.”

This is Midgley’s point, as she wrote in a lovely letter, snippets of which have (owing to the occasional interest regarding the absence of women in academic philosophy, especially at the highest levels) been getting a certain amount of attention on the internet. To finish this very long answer to your very engaging first question, I’d like to quote her at more length than she is usually quoted, not that she is long, she is very concise, inasmuch as what Mary Midgely does assesses analytic philosophy’s ‘normal’ in the sense of Kuhn’s normal science, as a culture which endures until revolution anticlimactically comes through folk’s dying off or until some other way emerges that manages to change the topic. As she writes in a letter to The Guardian (Thursday 28th November 2013):

What is wrong is a particular style of philosophising that results from encouraging a lot of clever young men to compete in winning arguments. These people then quickly build up a set of games out of simple oppositions and elaborate them until, in the end, nobody else can see what they are talking about. All this can go on until somebody from outside the circle finally explodes it by moving the conversation onto a quite different topic, after which the games are forgotten.

More from Babich and Bateman in the Gregorian New Year.

Babich and Bateman: Claiming the Continental Flag

The dialogue began when I asked Babette Babich what characterises the (dying) tradition of continental philosophy, and why so many philosophers feel the need to ‘claim’ the term for their work. Following on from last week, the discussion continues as we explore the appropriation of the continental title by analytic philosophers with very different methods.

imageChris Bateman: This still leaves open part of my original query: why, given the predominance of analytic methodology, would anyone feel the need to claim continental as part of their title?

Babette Babich: Your original question, brilliantly, stepped aside all the muck I’ve tracked back in regarding the analytics and the continentals, and their disputes and bitter histories, almost up to the veritable ‘existentialist café’ reference to Sartre, to ask why, and everything I’ve brought back in just makes your question even more powerful, to ask why then, after all that, one might want to claim to be continental?

And the answer is venality: it has to do with the getting of posts in academic philosophy: I wish it were something more noble or, as they used to say when I was young, more ‘tough-minded’ than just that. But it is not so, alas, and analytic philosophy, which already had the greater portion of the jobs when I took a doctorate some thirty years ago, now occupies nearly all the jobs. In fact, the late Reiner Schürmann wrote a de Tocqueville style report on the state of philosophy in the US (written in French for the French) claiming, as he wrote in the mid-eighties, that the analytic move was a done deal with 90% of the jobs (he counted), going back to the early 1960s.

CB: This is more than just a coincidence, though, and it’s certainly not any kind of Spencerian survival of the fittest... it must at heart have to do with the prevalence of (and academic bias towards) positivism in the wake of its stricter ancestor, logical positivism. And this ties in also with your aforementioned point that having been connected in any way with Jesuits hurt your career – because for all that I might admire certain contemporary positivists, my quip that they are at heart “atheists for science” is apposite, and an unthinking anti-religious bias goes hand-in-hand with positivism as a broad movement, just as loving one’s country need not end in racism but all too frequently does.

BB: One could say that my worry about continental philosophy corresponds to the standard lament: they don’t make philosophers like they used to! But it seems far too political to simply represent the ordinary decline that goes with golden age thinking (and, contrary to millenarian fantasies, the golden age in such fairy tales is never the age to come, this is Judeo-Christian thinking). And it is massively in force, whether we are atheist or not, in our ‘faith’ in technology which goes hand in glove with our conviction that we are not destroying the world beyond any possibility of remedy (the liberal consensus seems to be that we can solve everything if only we all admit that there is climate change and that we are through pollution and deforestation causing this age we name the anthropocene, as we surely are, and yet not that we are doing anything so nefarious as ‘controlling’ the weather, heaven forfend: of course that’s impossible!).

CB: My philosophy increasingly moves against this mythos of technology as saviour, another of my inheritances from Mary Midgley, of course.

BB: Only Sloterdijk, and very gingerly at that, comes close to suggesting the irreversibility of our environmental crisis and its at least in part militaristic etiology in his book Terror from the Air.  No one else touches this theme.

CB: Timothy Morton’s idea that we and the other animal species around today are the dwindling survivors of an extinction event that already happened also leans in this direction, but I agree it is rare that this perspective comes out at all.

BB: In any case, at issue is reversibility, and there is no chance that pollution or deforestation will be halted. Thus and, just in case everything is ‘beyond all repair’ (to use American military jargon absent its acronymic vulgarity), we can just spend all of everyone’s money and all of the earth’s remaining resources to get a select few of us to Mars, or some other supposed alternate planet, there to rinse and repeat the cycle.

CB: Aye, I’ve found myself forced (paradoxically, from my perspective) to become a space travel opponent precisely because the ‘flee the planet’ mythos, as Lynn Margulis astutely critiqued in her final years, is exactly the wrong way of understanding the problem. For if we cannot work out how to live here on Earth, we shall not be able to live anywhere in the universe, so even if you want a future with ‘space colonies’ and the like the focus must, can only be, on learning first and foremost how to live within our terrestrial resources.

imageBB: And here we are, this is part of a continental style, adding complexities to your question which was only about why one might say that one is continental if one is not in fact continental.  We can coin a new term for philosophers of this kind, the analysts who claim to be continental and call them ‘trans-Continental’ (but I am still going to prefer the original Orient Express to this new terminology). There are a lot of these after all: almost all of those who teach Nietzsche and Heidegger at the university Professorial level. There are exceptions of course (but they are few) in the UK, in the US, in Canada, in Australia, and increasingly, I wrote a book about this, La fin de la penseé, in France and I was just in Berlin to see just how very true this is of Germany too. Today’s professors, you can just read their CVs or listen to them, are analytically trained, by which I mean that they use analytic argumentation and do what is recognized as analytic. This is so far advanced that mentioning analytic is not necessary. It is goes without saying as the default mode. And on the basis of this, one can define or specify what analytic philosophy would call ‘really’ analytic, which last stipulating distinction is a quite analytic thing to do.

CB: Indeed – Stephen Yablo wrote a brilliant paper that influenced my engagement with the analytic practices known as ‘fictionalism’, about the difficulties entailed in shrugging off commitments with ‘really’. It emerged from his examination of discussions between Carnap and Quine – the logical positivists once again having a historical role here in making analytic philosophy what it is. This reminds me that even the disagreements within analytic philosophy move in analytic circles: the analytic methodology lurks at the foundation of academic philosophy today.

BB: All, but all, of my new colleagues at Fordham, even the so-called ‘continental’ ones, naturally have analytic formations. The department head once told me, not unlike the email example I began with [back in part 1], not to say such things to younger colleagues as it upset them.  But for me what is at issue is a matter of style and what that style does to philosophy and how it limits it.

CB: By excluding entire ways of thinking?

BB: Yes. Analytic philosophy does not connect with approaches such as Heidegger’s or Merleau-Ponty’s or Derrida’s... unless in an analytic or domesticated mode.  But the text is the problem. Thus Dreyfus made Heidegger analytic and other scholars just followed suit. The trouble is the text, meaning the trouble is a hermeneutic one. I note, because it is important, that one should make an exception for Foucault as one can manage to leave out all reference to Pierre Hadot and a different way of writing on ancient philosophy and so too, for more arcane reasons, Deleuze, who counts in today’s analytic modality as the new Bachelard, who was, for his part, always a name, positivistically, poetically as he was, congenial to analytic philosophy of science. So yes, there is a kind of disconnect with respect to a great many significant thinkers, but including certain names such as Simondon and Stiegler. But always, the problem seems to be the need to exclude any reference to history or context at all and that is why analytic philosophy is, to my mind, a disaster.

CB: There are no shortages of disasters caused by philosophy either narrowing its own perspective, or being compartmentalised and shuffled off the stage where matters are discussed in public. It’s one of the reasons that I see my own role as being in part about popularising philosophy – because when it comes to avoiding disaster, philosophy is one of our best and least used tools. Do you see other disasters beyond those we’ve already mentioned?

BB: I think there are fascinating questions and challenges involved with popularizing philosophy, something that has been a great trend in Europe for a few decades but that I have worries about. On the disaster front, I ought to underscore that (and of course all of this is in my own judgment) the analytic turn, now consummate as it is, can only be a disaster for a Jesuit school just to the extent that analytic scholars cannot offer training in the kind of philosophy that is of use to the priest-to-be. Lacking connection with theology but not less with other traditions in philosophy, between philosophical schools as well as further connections to history and to art and to poetry, all those complexifying details one might have objected to leaves us today with an impoverished philosophy. The same thing is true of Jesuit schools in the UK and so on. Maybe the better question is how can it be otherwise? Those who determine what counts as ‘good’ philosophy are analysts and they do not recognize any but their own approach to philosophy. And “there’s an end on’t.”

CB: The connection with theology is an important one, I think, and not because religion itself is essential, per se, but because it remains the fundamental matrix of culture, even when it is not recognised as such. There are so many people who consider themselves atheists today and think that this means they are completely outside of religion. As a result, they fail to see how their thinking is resolutely bound up with the Abrahamic traditions, and especially Christianity, which is the analytic philosophy of world religions. The result – much as with the relationship between analytic and waving a continental flag – is that we say we are not going to talk about theology, when what actually happens is that a particular theology (or rather atheology) is the unacknowledged dominion of thought on a rather wide swath of topics.

The dialogue concludes next week: Analytic Philosophy and the Sciences

Babich and Bateman: What is Continental Philosophy?

Last week I asked Babette Babich what characterises the (dying) tradition of continental philosophy, and why so many philosophers feel the need to ‘claim’ the term for their work. This week, the discussion continues as we move towards a positive exploration of continental philosophy practices, as opposed to the thriving analytic philosophy tradition.

New YorkBabette Babich: Analytic philosophy privileges argument and persuasion, making a case, making a claim, proving a point, persuading an opponent and so on and it is to this extent fairly legalistic, case-focused. From this perspective it is rather easy to wave a flag and think that waving a flag is all that is needed. So if one talks about Heidegger or Nietzsche that will justify calling oneself continental.

Chris Bateman: Can you provide a definition of what constitutes continental philosophy, even if such a definition is a simplification?

BB: We are so very analytically minded – it is the dominant mode in philosophy after all! – that a definition is certainly in order. What is continental philosophy? Continental philosophy is thinking, it is questioning, elaborating questions, making them more comprehensive, deeper, making them worse, proliferating these same questions and adding more and other associated questions. It includes reflection, musing, quandaries, provocations, sometimes it includes comparisons, say, but this was a joke after all, connecting M&E — analytic metaphysics and epistemology — to M&M’s. And this range of different things has been true for quite some time going back to the beginnings of analytic philosophy with the Vienna Circle and logical ‘analysis,’ whereby any time one mentions Vienna it makes a difference to note that one should not forget Freud but one does.

CB: Mary Midgley, who has been a huge influence upon me, never forgets Freud, but I am younger and sadly tend to ignore him, even though I have frequent recourse to the Vienna Circle and the ‘logical positivists’, who I often draft in as a ‘bad guy’ in my philosophy, because they demonstrate (as Midgley said to me in a recent exchange) an excess of certainty that is part of the complex of problems we face today, along with (paradoxically) a voiding of the very possibility of certainty that is just as problematic. But you were talking about Freud...

BB: Yes, Freud, because that adds a layer of complexity to the word ‘analysis’ but not less to the historical context of the term in its genesis and development. Thus to logical positivism and logical empiricism and logical analysis one ought I think to review the relevance of psycho-analytic investigations along with the psychological investigations that animated so many at time at one side or the other of psychologism, including Frege and most saliently Husserl and Heidegger.

CB: So was the Vienna Circle the original confrontation between analytic (which they effectively founded, riffing off Wittgenstein’s Tractatus – much to his chagrin!) and continental, represented then as the early phenomenologists, Husserl and his one-time assistant...?

BB: I would make that claim but of course historically speaking they were all continental. The dream of analytic philosophy is an expat philosophy and Wittgenstein only became Wittgenstein as himself an expat, an import: Austrian wine in British skins as it were. Mercifully, and I am thinking of all philosophy in the last century, pre-Brexit! But it was Carnap who was the original analytic baiter, as it were, and he took on Heidegger. Thus his analytic challenge to Heidegger’s reflection on thinking and being, thinking and nothing, quite independently, as Carnap sovereignly ignored Heidegger’s context just as analytic philosophy has, with a perfectly good conscience about it, been doing ever since. Carnap ignored Heidegger’s reference to the origins of philosophy with Parmenides as this directed Plato and thus all the rest of us footnotes, as Whitehead regarded us. Heidegger sought to raise the question of Being, to think Being, as he put it, thereby appropriating Leibniz’s question: why are there any beings at all much rather than not being in the first place or at all, in order to ask after and thereby connecting the thought of nothing (i.e. no thing at all, no being at all) with the thought of being.

CB: And these kinds of questions were bordering upon nonsense to Carnap, Quine and the other logical positivists I suppose, since they were ‘straying into’ metaphysics which was the Vienna Circle’s bugbear...

Heidegger QuoteBB: Nonsense does not say the half of it. Carnap zeroed in on the logical contradiction in the reifying move, that is: the object contradiction of treating the nothing as something (I note that Heidegger himself adverts to just this), whereby it is said of nothing that it is: or as Jimmy Olson, could say “Holy Parmenides!” Sartre, in an unsung effort to come to Heidegger’s aid, for which Heidegger who did notice this, was, predictably, ungrateful, wrote Being and Nothingness, which adumbrated how he, Sartre, with no little assistance from Simone de Beauvoir with whom he wrote the book (unless you ask the Fullbrooks and a number of other scholars who would tip the balance of contributing authorship in de Beauvoir’s favour – count one more for female philosophical minds!) would have proposed at least one answer to Carnap. For his part, Heidegger was deeply affected by Carnap’s attack as it highlighted what he regarded as a failure to hear his question as such (Being and Time, after all, is all about not hearing questions, in addition to not having posed them to begin with, there is also the problem of not being able to see that the questions he is talking about are questions, to which must be added the persistence of the habit of assuming that there are no questions to be asked in the first place.

CB: Very much an inheritance from Nietzsche, I would hazard.

BB: To be sure! As I am fond of pointing out, Nietzsche himself claims his special excellence to have been the asking of heretofore unconsidered, unasked questions. In fact, Nietzsche uses this philosophical habitus as it characterizes academics now and in his own day as the basis for one of his better jokes in what is for me the key to his philosophy of science, namely: our assumption that because we fail to perceive something we are justified in concluding that there is nothing, that there is nothing there at all, an assumption we make in perception, as empirically as we like, and an assumption — and this is where Nietzsche rightly ambitions to doubt more radically than Descartes and to take critique more critically than Kant — that also obtains on the level of the concept. We think that whatever exceeds our conceptual grasp exhausts the range of the possible. In my thinking on the philosophy of science I would bring Eugene Wigner and Nietzsche together right at this point, but unfortunately there is rather a great deal to say beforehand, so I leave it at that for the moment.

CB: Perhaps we should return to Heidegger... I’m curious to discover how this pans out.

BB: Well, Heidegger remained deeply affected, interested as he was in logic, having written a dissertation on logic and science (he remained, as I think it important to note, qualified to examine doctoral theses on both subjects throughout his university career) and I think his objections to what Carnap missed in his thinking, his questioning, illustrates the distinction between analytic and continental philosophy. Continental philosophy uses all the resources of language and thinking and indeed experience, this is the life-world, this is the body, to think about the questions it raises.

CB: All of which is far too messy for the logically-grounded analytic approach!

BB: For the most part, analytic philosophy is interested in making claims. These are also effectively ‘answers.’ For the sake of the question as such, continental philosophy complicates matters. Thus, along with Nietzsche, from whom I do argue that Heidegger did borrow this a bit, it is Heidegger who teaches us how very difficult it is to question anything, especially as an academic, especially as a trained philosopher without immediately jumping ahead to what one supposes the answer to have to be, or even, as Nietzsche was terrible critically-minded in pointing out, to smuggle it in in advance with one’s initial definition and then triumphantly, all Jack Horner about it, to pull out the very thing one had inserted, insinuated, defined, stipulated at the start with the appropriately exultant noises of discovery.

The dialogue continues next week: Claiming the Continental Flag

Babich and Bateman: Last of the Continental Philosophers

Babette Babich's philosophical writing is exuberant, poetic, and very much in the spirit of Nietzsche. Hardly coincidental that she is director of The Nietzsche Society and editor of the journal New Nietzsche Studies. In these series of dialogues, we talk about philosophy, music, and corporate venality, starting with the discussion that follows concerning the state of continental philosophy.

clip_image002Chris Bateman: You have suggested that despite the growing number of academics claiming to wave the continental philosophy flag, the art of continental philosophy is dying out. What would you say characterises this tradition, and why do you think so many feel the need to 'claim' the term for their work?

Babette Babich: This is a challenging and important question but it also touches quite a few nerves! The problem for me is just that your formulation elegantly excludes the term ‘analytic’ and I am not sure one can do that.

CB: Ha, well they are certainly bound together as concepts since ‘continental’ has typically meant ‘not analytic’, but you’ve convinced me in the past that there are practices at the heart of continental philosophy that make it more than just a shadow term.

BB: A few weeks ago, I was very pleased to be invited to give one of two presentations for the first meeting of a series of 13 lectures on Nietzsche —Nietzsche plus ‘Mr. X’ variations – which have been scheduled throughout the year 2016-2017 at Columbia University, that glorious movie-icon (thank you Woody Allen) of a campus in New York City. The first meeting was on Nietzsche-Heidegger, and there were two speakers and we were asked to write little blog summaries of our presentations and mine included, just in passing, a slightly provocative but orienting reference to the analytic-continental divide as a difference that is important to point out. The other speaker teaches at Barnard (which is part of Columbia), Taylor Carman, who is an analytic philosopher who writes on Heidegger (and Taylor is so very analytic that analytic is part of the title of his book). Yet Taylor would regard himself as ‘continental’ as would many of my analytically formed colleagues at Columbia (those trained in both the US and the UK) and this holds for many, many universities. But this automatically excludes any space for the kind of philosophy I do, which is part of the point of appropriating the term ‘continental.’

From the organizer, my elegant and kind host, Professor Bernard Harcourt, who trained at Chicago and now teaches at the Law School at Columbia, came a fairly strong email response in reaction to my blog post, received as I was still writing my lecture. ‘Oh no!’ was the general drift, don’t mention the analytic-continental divide. Everyone there, the email message reassured me, would be firmly on the continental side. Well I wasn’t sure how that could be true when the other main speaker wasn’t at all continental and where the entire event was to be held at Columbia, boasting as it does a solidly analytic philosophy department.

CB: You’re almost suggesting the prevalence of philosophers claiming to work in the continental tradition is a tactic to exclude continental practice from consideration at all, a kind of colonial appropriation?

BB: You folks have the REF in the UK, we have the Leiter Report, and it all comes to the same foregrounding of analytic approaches for everything and everyone, including analytic approaches to continental philosophy.

CB: Yes, I see, and the trouble with this it that analytic philosophy has a clear footprint – the construction of logical argumentation – quite distinct from continental philosophy which, as you have stressed to me, has roots in philology and the hermeneutics of language, all of which is antithetical to the analytic methods. So if you foreground analytic methods you can’t then simply add continental – analytic with continental is not like having a quarter pounder with cheese, it’s more like having white and red wine together, which does not make rosé.

BB: True! Alas! And I have had some experience with this at Boston College, the university where I took my doctorate just because I could work directly with Hans-Georg Gadamer and which choice in retrospect was probably not so hot for my career, not because training with Gadamer was not a great thing – it was – but because BC was a Jesuit school and there is a kind of enduring anti-Catholic sentiment that lingers in the academy. The graduate students were inspired to organize a conference to get folk to come and talk about the fortunes of the analytic-continental divide, and who proceeded to invite analysts mostly to speak (remember these are not folk who will agree with this designation but their background in analytic philosophy belies that to my mind), Nancy Bauer and Rae Langdon, to mention several external speakers, and I too was invited as an alumna. Now the program at Boston College has in the interim (meaning post-Gadamer, and post-Taminiaux), hired only ‘safe’ sorts of continental-cum-analytic folk.

Indeed all of their younger hires enjoy, as is largely the case everywhere, more rather than less of an analytic formation. Because, and this is the reason to parallel the REF and the Leiter brigade, the standing recommendation in philosophy at BC and everywhere, as at Fordham and to be sure you will recognize this from your position in the UK is to hire ever more analytic people, and they could not be more clearly blunt about it, even when it came to staffing continental positions. This does not mean that one will have many positions for Heidegger or Nietzsche experts, but when you do have a position it will be filled by an analyst, however counter-intuitive that may be.

CB: In terms of my position in the UK, I have no involvement whatsoever with the philosophy establishment, which is why I tend to describe myself as an ‘outsider philosopher’, and don’t get paid to teach philosophy at all (although that doesn’t stop me sometimes teaching philosophy when I am supposed to be teaching game design or narrative!). Yet I still encounter what you’re describing. I had a rejection from The British Journal of Aesthetics, which is a crowd of analytic philosophers that I have great respect for, and which sent me the greatest rejection letter I’ve ever had the pleasure to read in the past. But for this paper the rejection clearly hadn’t understood my paper at all, and it wasn’t until weeks afterwards that I realised that I’d inadvertently written in a broadly continental style and was lacking any analytic argument at all. Which is a shame, really, as it was a great paper – but one for which there might be nowhere it might be able to fit. That’s not quite the same as your remarks about hiring analysts for continental positions, but I think it points to a related problem – that there are ways of doing philosophy that don’t even look like philosophy when analytic philosophy is taken as primary.

BB: Thanks for the clarification on your post, and indeed I well believe that you would bring philosophy into your courses! As for the example you give it makes sense to me as a parallel because the problem is to be sure not merely the exclusion of classical sorts of continental philosophy but all kinds of things that don’t fit an increasingly narrower analytic mode. I am just keenly attuned to the analytic co-opting of the continental tradition as I have long written on this topic, and like your account of the BJA (a journal I admire as well), I also have suffered from it – you seem to take the engagement in good stride but that could also be because you have a buffer of another, new and growing field (I am kind of crashing your discipline a bit at the moment in the course I am teaching on digital philosophy, so I have huge respect for this).

But the problem is actually the same sort of thing that, so it would seem, drove Brexit and the recent presidential  elections in the US and that is digital media to be precise, the social matters but very specifically in terms of both lability (anyone can edit) and backlash (only certain edits are tolerated).  But social media also has a very personal or harsh side. Thus, I have recently encountered a stunning bit of hostility from the persons of, on Facebook, Brian Leiter, who insisted, contra the notion of a difference between the analytic and the continental, that there is only a matter of doing ‘good’ philosophy, and still more recently, on Twitter, Barry Smith who insisted on the very same non-existence of the analytic continental (calling it “an old divide,” such that supposedly it no longer matters as such) and likewise insisting on only “good philosophy.”

CB: This is one of those rhetorical moves that lacks internal consistency, for it cannot be ‘good philosophy’ to think that context cannot matter. Only if you have committed to analytic philosophy’s uncomfortable alliance with the sciences does this kind of claim even seem plausible. And I have to question the motive behind denying an evident conflict, since there is clearly a strategic choice being made in this denial.

BB:  No Continental WikiAs recent as these unpleasant encounters were, the tactic is old and has been at work as long as I have studying it. I like to compare it with Rumpole of the Bailey (largely because I am fond of Rumpole) and the smear tactic that worked wonders in antiquity but has really come into on and with social media, whether Facebook, or Twitter, or Wikipedia Usertalk back and forthings. And I noted just recently at Fordham as indeed as part of a kind of wiki hive collective action, there was a day devoted to teaching students and faculty to edit pages, fairly capriciously, on Wikipedia.  O, joy.

CB: Well don't get me started on Wikipedia (given my recent book...) or we'll never get back to the topic at hand! What happened with this purportedly analytic-continental conference in the end?

BB: Yes, back to Columbia. Well, I am as cowardly as the next academic and when my host asked me not to mention something, even something I am passionate about, I could not but take his request to heart, suffering as I do from such exclusions has not meant that I have gotten used to the same (quite the contrary!), and when I read my lecture, in deliberate deference to my host’s sensibilities as he had made them clear, I trimmed out the reference to the analytic and the continental (I did leave a slide, the video of the event shows only my slides during my talk, featuring a comparison with M&Ms, a type of candy that may, if you are lucky, be unobtainable in Manchester), even though it was the one of the most important points I had to make in talking about and between Nietzsche and Heidegger on the assigned topic of Heidegger’s Nietzsche. In the course of the evening, I could not but be struck by the overwhelmingly analytic tenor of the topics highlighted. Indeed it couldn’t have been more analytic, with the exception of Seyla Benhabib who asked a question to which she did not want an answer, wondering as she did, why Heidegger would say that Nietzsche had ‘destroyed him’ i.e., “Nietzsche hat mich kaputt gemacht”. The answer involved philological hermeneutics and, as I said, although she said that she did want an answer, in fact, the complexity was not of interest. But Columbia put it on YouTube — one can see the M&Ms for oneself if one likes.

CB: I regret to report that there is practically no place on Earth one can hide from M&Ms these days – which makes the parallel with analytic philosophy all the more apposite, I suppose! If, as I am suggesting, logical argumentation is at the heart of the analytic methods, can you express the essence of the continental practices in philosophy?

BB: Continental philosophy includes a historical sense, a sense of historical context which it does not name ‘the history of philosophy.’ If Heidegger writes about Anaximander he is not reflecting on philosophy’s history as if this were a thing once done, passé, whereas we now, today, do some other sort of thing when we ‘do’ philosophy. At the same time the continental tradition also emphasizes everything that has to do with context, with interpretation, as a difference that makes all the difference.

CB: This indeed was the trouble with my paper for the British Journal of Aesthetics... I wanted to make a point about creative works that were art-like, sport-like, and game-like, and how this was historically situated, and how this could not be hidden away by asking “what is art?” or “what is a game?” as if it were only a matter of some kind of observational analysis. The paper, rather impishly, was entitled “Can a Rollercoaster Be Art?” – which was about the most analytic aspect of its construction, and even then I confess halfway through to having built a Trojan horse... and that’s not what an analytic philosopher wants to read, not even close.

The dialogue continues next week: What is Continental Philosophy?