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?


Likened to Hume

Always pleasant to hear nice things about your own work, but my email this morning had an especially joyous moment when a book editor not only offered me a gig but wrote of Imaginary Games:

…I came to your book with enthusiasm. It did not disappoint. In fact, aside from the great exposition of ideas I found your prose style astonishingly lucid and generous. Hume came to mind.

Being compared to Hume is a great complement, since not only was he Scottish (I am one quarter Scottish, on my mother’s side) but like me he was also an ‘outsider philosopher’, utterly disconnected from the academic philosophy of his day. A great start to my week!


What is Reality? (2): Subject and Object

Veres SzabolcsBeginning with Descartes’ cogito, discussed last week, and later developed in intricate detail by Kant, the buffered self emerges by cleaving up existence into two halves: subjects (the cogito, mind), and objects (the world around us, matter). That this philosophy has been successful is an understatement: almost everyone today can distinguish between what is subjective and what is objective, and most associate subjectivity with either personal experience or with error, and objectivity with factuality and truth. It is against this mythos that my recent philosophy argues, offering a different understanding of objectivity, and thus a different perspective on the subjective.

Both of the competing mythologies outlined in the first part, positivism and anti-realism, descend from this Enlightenment philosophy, which is responsible, among other things, for providing the contemporary sciences with their foundations and motives, and for dividing academia into arts and sciences. Positivism elevates objectivity above subjectivity, placing the truth entirely into the objective and thus valorising the sciences. Anti-realism is not the reverse of this, but picks up a different strand in Kant, who recognised that there was a rift between subjective experience and things-in-themselves, such that human subjects are cut off from reality because this noumenal world of objects (as Kant termed it) is completely unknowable through sense perception.

All contemporary views of reality respond to Kant in some way. For instance, object-oriented ontology positions itself as a substantial break from Kant who is accused of correlationism. This is a purported error that speculative realist Quentin Meillassoux characterised as the idea that we only have access to the correlation between thought and being, but never to either considered in isolation. According to Graham Harman, whose work is the wellspring of the object-oriented ontology movement, objects are withdrawn from one another; the Kantian rift between subject and object thus applies between all objects, not just human subjects, a philosophy he develops from Heidegger. Nothing has access to the real, which is always beyond the rift (a term that I am borrowing here from object-oriented ontologist Timothy Morton).

This is a fascinating attempt to break from both anti-realism (by decentralising the thinking subject) and positivism (by keeping the real always out of reach), but it is clearly a sophisticated extension of Kantian noumena, and not a break from it. Reality is still just-out-of-reach for the object-oriented ontologists, it is just that it is so for everything, and not just for humans. Reality is cloaked in obscurity, and thus the only kind of realism that is plausible must find clever ways to speculate (hence, speculative realism). There is an excess of the real, always beyond reach, and this limitation on access to reality applies for all things. 

 

Contact with Reality

At the turn of the twentieth century, the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead was struggling to incorporate the new discoveries of physics (relativity and quantum mechanics) into a philosophy of reality, and modified Kant in a different way. Reworking Kant’s foundational Critique of Pure Reason, Whitehead suggested that all entities encounter each other through a process of contact he termed prehension. When you put an apple upon a table, the apple prehends the table and the table prehends the apple, while you prehend both through your hand and vision.

Whitehead was an influence upon Harman, and in Whitehead’s extension of Kant’s philosophy to all things, we can see the commonality. But Whitehead offers the opposite move to expanding the Kantian rift, suggesting that our sense experiences are objective, and that subjectivity only comes in when we interpret those experiences into subjective forms. Again, we’re working with Kant’s toolbox, but Whitehead’s claim that sense impressions are objective is a radical break since it downplays the importance of the rift.

Hubert Dreyfus and Charles Taylor look to Heidegger for a very different path to Harman’s. If object-oriented ontology has correlationism as its bugbear, for Dreyfus and Taylor it is mediational theories, which all descend from Descartes’ splitting of the world into subject and object. Against this, they suggest that Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and the later work of Wittgenstein suggest a contact theory in which there is:

…a re-embedding of thought and knowledge in the bodily and social-cultural contexts in which it takes place. The attempt is to articulate the framework or context within which our explicit depictions of reality make sense, and to show how this is inseparable from our activity as the kind of embodied, social, and cultural beings we are. The contact here is… something primordial, something we never escape. It is the contact of living, active beings, whose life form involves acting in and on a world which also acts on them. These beings are at grips with a world and each other; this original contact provides the sense-making context for all their knowledge constructions, which, however much they are based on mediating depictions, rely for their meaning on this primordial and indissoluble involvement of the surrounding reality.

Like Whitehead, Dreyfus and Taylor downplay the significance of the rift. They, however, run into problems when they try to incorporate the work of the sciences into their scheme, and are forced to afford scientific investigation a rather special status when they say “You can't explain [science] to anyone while avoiding all such words as ‘true,’ ‘correct,’ ‘real,’...” This for me, as for other commentators on their book Retrieving Realism (e.g. Eric Gerlach), is a substantial weak point in their otherwise brilliant critique of mediational theories.

In Wikipedia Knows Nothing, I back Dreyfus and Taylor’s contact theories of reality – we, and indeed all things, are in contact with the reality we live within – but I resolve the question of the sciences through Isabelle Stengers’ concept of a reliable witness. The sciences are engaged in translation of the knowledge of objects – it is this which deserves the name objective knowledge, and viewed this way it entails no magical road to truth (as Plato effectively claimed philosophers possessed, and positivists sometimes imply scientists possess). The strength of the sciences lie in their capacity to develop apparatus that resist objections, and this is subtly different from understanding their assertions as real or true.

If we are all in contact with the realities we live within, but different things prehend each other in different ways, then we live in a multiverse, an idea offered by William James at the end of the nineteenth century; an each-form of reality, instead of an all-form. Dreyfus and Taylor talk of plural realism to make a similar point, and I have developed the same idea from the work of novelist Michael Moorcock (from whom the physicists inherited the term ‘multiverse’ in a rather different sense). Rather than associating reality with that excess beyond anything’s ability to encounter, we can place reality right here with us, in contact with all things, yet being experienced differently, and yes, ultimately mediated by imagined worlds – but worlds that can only be understood by virtue of our living within them.

Viewing reality as a multiverse does not mean denying any claim of the real, as anti-realism attempts, but acknowledging the different ways of being in contact with reality. It means acknowledging different real worlds instead of making reality a grail that it always just out of reach. If this feels alien, it is because we are accustomed to the modern scheme of belief and reality, subject and object, which presumes – following the long tradition descending from Plato – a single true universe, a unitary reality. Kant’s rift between this and the subject, whether or not it is extended to all things, is not incorrect, it just places the emphasis in the wrong place. Yes, there is an excess of the real, but it is just as much present in the different contact that all things have with reality as it is hidden beyond them.

For more about what it means to live in a multiverse, my new book Wikipedia Knows Nothing is available from ETC Press as a free PDF, or from Lulu as a paid paperback or ebook.

The opening image is a painting by Romanian artist Veres Szabolcs; I am uncertain of the title, but I found it here, on a list of emerging painters at the Modern Edition website. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.


What is Reality? (1): Belief and Reality

The EncounterThe science fiction novelist Phillip K. Dick suggested that “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” This seems like an eminently sensible suggestion. It might be surprising to realise, therefore, that it encodes a perspective on reality that emerges in the philosophy of Plato some two millennia ago, and receives new codification in the last few centuries by Descartes and Kant. Given that the concept of reality has in effect been constructed by these philosophers, should we be cautious about thinking that questions of reality are merely matters of common sense?

Dick’s adage contrasts belief and reality, suggesting in effect two key relationships between the two: belief in reality, which is marked by nothing being changed in the world by that belief, and belief against reality, which is marked by creating something that is not real and that which thus disappears when it is no longer believed. Note that core to this understanding is not reality, which is admitted to be a blurred affair in this conception, but belief.

The twentieth century was marked not by challenges to this model of reality, but by ethical conflicts over the meaning of beliefs. On the one hand, the early twentieth century positivists proposed that we ought not engage in belief against reality since it is nonsense, a simple and honourable position sadly elevated to a cultural war by certain atheists at the century’s close. On the other, various kinds of anti-realists proposed that we ought to recognise that reality is constructed by belief, and thus ‘belief in reality’ is nonsense, a position taken by positivists as anti-scientific (and therefore wrong, both morally and practically).

What both positions have in common is that they are both modern, which is to say, they are a product of the philosophical changes wrought in Europe in the Reformation era (16th century) and by the Enlightenment (18th century), which bequeath us ‘the modern age’. One of the most fascinating things about early twenty first century philosophy is its obsession with creating distance from the modern, an ethos captured beautifully in Bruno Latour’s book title We Have Never Been Modern. If we want to understand reality – and thus see beyond the juxtaposition of ‘belief versus reality’ – we have to see where modern reality comes from, and also take stock of where it might be going.

 

The Porous Self in an Enchanted World

There was no reality prior to the modern era. It is not until the 1540s that the term was used to mark the quality of real, and a century later before it was first used to mean ‘everything that is real’. Prior to this, there was no such term in usage, nor any particular need for it. This can be a difficult idea to absorb since ‘reality’ is a central concept to our time, and it can be hard to imagine what came before.

In his epic work, A Secular Age, Charles Taylor explores the changes in our understanding of the world over the last five centuries, and provides an extremely detailed description of the European mythos immediately prior to the modern era. At the core of this is the notion of a porous self in an enchanted world, where the influence of spirits and things-with-power is a lived experience. This is a markedly different understanding to the distinction between self and world (mind and matter) that originates in Descartes. Taylor writes of this time:

..the boundary between agents and forces is fuzzy in the enchanted world; and the boundary between mind and world is porous, as we see in the way that charged objects can influence us… The porousness of the boundary emerges here in the various kinds of “possession”, all the way from a full taking over of the person, as with a medium, to the various kinds of domination by, or partial fusion with, a spirit or God. Here again, the boundary between self and other is fuzzy, porous. And this has to be seen as a fact of experience, not a matter of “theory”, or “belief”.

Here we have a way of being in the world that entails an intense vulnerability, and a corresponding anxiety. Dark magic and unseen spirits could enter into a person and change them, affect them, creating a need for protection from such influence. Thus, villages were grateful to the clergy for keeping a holy relic, since the power and influence of that item would suffuse the entire region, offering everyone living nearby some measure of protection. This is the essence of the porous self concept that Taylor back-projects from our own utterly contrary understanding of ourselves.

What happens immediately prior to the Enlightenment, and largely as a result of the philosophy of Descartes, is the emergence of a kind of buffered self that has no such permeability, and this in turn leads to what Max Weber in the nineteenth century calls the “disenchantment of the world”. Descartes work is itself part of a lineage of philosophy and theology, and inherits important influences from Augustine’s work, which (Taylor explains in The Sources of the Self) cross-bred Plato’s vision of cosmic order and reason with Jewish theism. It is Augustine, Taylor attests, who introduces an inwardness of our reflexivity, and this leads to Descartes’ ‘cogito ergo sum’, I think therefore I am.

Descartes’ cogito, the individual mind, emerges from Descartes’ commitment to doubt everything, to discard all belief and then attempt to rebuild on sure foundations. This radical thorough-going doubt is very different from Plato’s philosophy, but takes from it a division into a true world ‘outside’ and an experience of the shadow of that world, now placed ‘inside’ a mind. Descartes radical doubt gives us the contemporary sciences, and thus the positivism that undermines belief, which is a great irony since Descartes was a dedicated theist and thought his philosophy was providing an ultimate proof to the reality of God.

Once the mind is severed from reality, as Descartes effectively pioneered, we gain the new concept of a buffered self that is not subjected to the porous influence of dark or holy forces around us. Instead, we gain a subject, and against it, the objects that it perceives. In this modern view, which we have inherited, our individual self is not vulnerable in the way the medieval mythos entailed since an insurmountable gap has been opened up between us, and the world around us. It is this gap that is required to make sense of the concept of reality.

Next week, the final part: Subject and Object

The opening image is The Encounter by Curtis Verdun, which I found here on his website, Art by Abstraction. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.