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.


Wikipedia Knows Nothing - Out Now!

What does the Wikipedia know, and how can it know it? More to the point, how can anyone using an anonymously edited source, the contents of which change on a daily basis, know that what they are reading constitutes knowledge? In this provocative challenge to contemporary concepts of objectivity, four figures of knowledge – the Wikipedia, scientific experiments, anonymous peer review, and school education – are investigated in order to question the way we understand the world around us.

Rather than support the classical view of an objective world 'out there' that our beliefs must accord with in order to count as knowledge, Wikipedia Knows Nothing argues that all facts are the residue of skilled activities and that knowledge is better understood as a practice. Furthermore, rather than a single 'real world', the many worlds that we each live within form a multiverse about which our subjective knowledge-practices give us broader understandings than the objective knowledge produced by experimental apparatus.

The merit of the sciences doesn't lie in their possessing the only path to truth, but in their capacity to develop knowledge-practices that can resist objections across all worlds. This leads to an urgent need to recognise the role of practices in creating and maintaining knowledge, and the different ways that truth can be stitched together into distinct but non-contradictory patchworks of 'real worlds'. When we do, we must question any claim that knowledge can come from anonymous individuals exercising an unchecked power to silence others – whether this happens on the internet in wikis, or in professional academic discourse.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 License.

Purchase Print or eBook from Lulu.com, or Download for free.

Cross-posted from ETC Press.


Top Ten Incredible Philosophy Books No-one Recommends (3): The Top Five

Following last week’s background to the Top Ten, and Numbers 10 through 6, here are the final five books in the countdown of obscurity.

 

5. Max Stirner The Ego and its Own (1844)

16,200-18,300 hits
Nominated by J. Moesgaard

Stirner The Ego and His OwnThe last of the nominated books to clear 10,000 hits, Moesgaard remarks that it is “largely unknown but a fantastic rejection of ideology in favour of radical personal freedom.” The introduction to the first English language edition of the book in 1907 goes further than this, and remarks that “the memory of Max Stirner had been virtually extinct for an entire generation.” Stirner, however, warrants an entry in the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy (if not the IEP), which stresses the tremendous influence of this text upon Karl Marx’s thought. Sometimes viewed as a precursor to Nietzsche, the lasting impact of this particular book seems to have been upon contemporary anarchist thought, which has adopted it as a key text in part because of Stirner’s suggestion that the rise of egoism would ultimately result in the collapse of the State. This particular prediction seems to be in error, but Stirner’s text still has much to offer those who would side with him in considering the State apparatus an illegitimate institution.

 

4. Alasdair MacIntyre Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry (1990)

6,710-8,510 hits
Nominated by Chris Bateman

MacIntyre Three Rival VersionsThis is the book that inspired this whole whimsical endeavour, and it’s the youngest title in the countdown at a mere 26 years old. MacIntyre is one of those folks that people like to say is ‘arguably the greatest living philosopher’, although this perspective is largely espoused from inside the Catholic church that Scottish-born MacIntyre defected to in the early 1980s. The book of his that is unanimously recommended is After Virtue, which is unfortunate as Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry is a deeper, wider, and less polemic title. Not only the single best commentary on Nietzsche and Foucault’s work, it’s also a flawless exposition of how their philosophy utterly undermined the foundations of the Victorian encyclopaedia – not to mention a text with profound implications for epistemology and the contemporary university. Skip the five chapters explaining the history of Christian philosophy in the 13th and 14th century if you cannot bear such things and it’s still an incredible response to the genealogical and encyclopaedic perspectives of knowledge. Include them, and you have a book that profoundly reconfigures contemporary preconceptions about just about everything.

 

3. José Ortega y Gasset What is Philosophy? (1929)

2,630-5,170 hits
Nominated by Judith Stout

Ortega What is PhilosophyOrtega is far from an unknown figure in Spanish philosophy, and the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy has an article on his life and work. However, his prolific writings make it hard for any single work to stand out from the crowd. This title was adapted from his lectures and suggests that philosophy is “the radical study of the whole universe”, while aligning his work closely to that of Heidegger. Indeed, Ortega remarks that “to live is to find oneself in the world”, adding: “Heidegger, in a very recent work of genius, has made us take notice of all the enormous significance of these words.” In Ortega’s perspective, the sciences provide a detailed analysis of aspects of things, but their specialist methodologies preclude them from dealing with universals. Philosophy, on the other hand, is also a specialist, but at the other extreme; thus Ortega paradoxically declares that “the philosopher is also a specialist, a specialist in universes.” Unafraid of metaphysics, Ortega provides in What is Philosophy? a passionate and unflinching defence of the work of philosophers.

 

2. John Gall Systemantics (1975)

3,490-3,840 hits
Nominated by Bart Stewart

Gall.SystemanticsAlthough not a philosopher by either training or attribution, John Gall’s text (originally entitled General Systemantics) has profound implications for anyone pondering the functioning of all systems great and small. The short book focuses upon the way that systems fail, and contains with it what has come to be termed ‘Gall’s Law’: “A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked… A complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be patched up to make it work.” The book is structured around 32 axioms, somewhat mimicking the form of more heavyweight philosophy tomes, but remains readable throughout. If this is outside of the typical considerations of academic philosophy, it remains an illuminating (and amusing!) meditation on the failures that inevitably result from applying grandiose theories at too gargantuan a scale.

 

1. Gerd Buchdahl Metaphysics and the Philosophy of Science (1969)

2,050-3,280 results
Nominated by Michael Pereira

Buchdahl Metaphysics and the Philosophy of ScienceHere, at the bottom of our Marianas Trench of philosophical obscurity lies Gerd Buchdahl, the first lecturer in history and philosophy of science at Cambridge. In this vast tome, subtitled The classical origins: Descartes to Kant, Buchdahl dismantles any suggestion that philosophy is without practical implication, and shows the intimate interconnectivity between the empirical sciences and the work of the Enlightenment philosophers. Michael Power, one of Buchdahl’s students, writes in a retrospective on the book that its “unremarkable title belies its dazzling mixture of analytical and historical insight.” Here is a text that, Powers attests, renders the often inscrutable topic of metaphysics as “a project with heart and excitement”. Buchdahl, who died in 2001, remained resolute that the sciences benefited from their exchanges with philosophy, writing in 1962 that “a critical approach to the history of science will do well to avail itself of the results of philosophical scholarship”. He left as his legacy the journal Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, which remains the leading publication in that particular field.

 

More nonsense soon!


Top Ten Incredible Philosophy Books No-one Recommends (2): From 10 to 6

Following yesterday’s background to this Top Ten, here are the first five books in the countdown of obscurity.

 

10. Maurice Blondel’s Action (1893)

211,000-426,000 hits
Nominated by Greg Sadler

Blondel L'ActionTo say that I was surprised by the search engine results for this one was an understatement, and I began to wonder if the results were skewed by the simplicity of the book’s title. While that might be the case, there is still tremendous discussion of this text out on the internet, although it is no way considered a standard text in phenomenology, existentialism, or deconstruction, all of which could be gainfully compared to Blondel’s work. Action was Blondel’s fiercely-contested doctoral thesis, and provides a philosophy of action that breaks substantially with the rationalist currents of Kant and other Enlightenment philosophers. Blondel claims “action is that synthesis of willing, of knowing, and of being, the link of the human composite that one cannot separate without destroying everything that has been deunited.” The obscurity of the book in philosophy circles is inverted in its importance in French theology, and Sadler’s Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy page for Blondel (which was the top hit) stresses its influence in forming the “New Theology” that influenced the Second Vatican Council.

 

9. Ludwig Wittgenstein Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921)

180,000-290,000 hits
Nominated by Benjamin E. Hardisty

Wittgenstein TractatusThere’s an irony to this appearing in the list, since I had originally given it as an example of a book that overshadows others by its author. But there is a very real sense in which Hardisty is correct to nominate this: despite its huge importance for twentieth century philosophy, almost no-one now recommends reading the Tractatus. In part, this is because the significance for this text has radically changed over the last century. Whereas Wittgenstein’s mentor at Cambridge, Bertrand Russell, considered this to be an essential advance in understanding philosophy, it has gradually come to be recognised that Wittgenstein’s own view of this book was radically different, a point I briefly explore in Wikipedia Knows Nothing. Another significant issue with the Tractatus is the sheer difficulty of the text, which makes even Heidegger seem straightforward.

 

8. Robert Pirsig Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974)

172,000-192,000 hits
Nominated by Adrian Voce

Pirsig Zen and the Art of Motorcyle MaintenanceIt’s certainly the case that few if any philosophers recommend this book, although Pirsig’s narrative has been hugely popular ever since its first publication. Espousing a ‘metaphysics of quality’, Pirsig is not especially involved with Zen (or Ch’an) Buddhism, but rather in a distinction between “romantic understanding” and “classical understanding”, which is sometimes compared to Nietzsche’s split between Apollonian and Dionysian. This is the highest selling title in this Top Ten (indeed, the highest selling philosophy book of all time), having shipped more than 5 million copies, and also holds the world record for greatest number of publisher-rejections, at 121. While it scarcely qualifies as a candidate for a ‘library of forgotten knowledge’, it is resolutely exiled from academic philosophy, where it is never recommended. Neither the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy nor the Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy mention it once.

 

7. Herbert Marcuse One-Dimensional Man (1964)

60,400-79,500 hits
Nominated by Stefano Gualeni

Marcuse One-Dimensional ManNow the search engine hits are beginning to recede, and we proceed more convincingly into our deep dive into publishing obscurity. Marcuse’s book, subtitled Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society, is another text (like Blondel’s Action) that is well-read, but only in a particular context, in this case the ‘New Left’. But this is a book not just for Marxists, and its critique of “one-dimensional thought” offers palpable rejections of twentieth century linguistic philosophy, philosophy of science, and social science. In his retrospective upon this book, Ronald Aronson, a student of Marcuse, declares that it “teaches us that we need to slow down in making our assessments”, and suggests Marcuse’s thought still possesses revolutionary potential.

 

6. Georges Bataille Theory of Religion (1973)

30,900-43,600 hits
Nominated by Will H.

Bataille Theory of ReligionWe have still not reached the depths of the truly obscure, but we are far from the well-trodden paths of philosophy now. Bataille’s provocative and challenging book, a slender volume of little more than a hundred pages, presents religion as a search for a lost intimacy, and recognises that life can be affirmed through destruction. Despite its short length, it is often viewed as a difficult read, which perhaps accounts for the lack of any clear critical consensus upon it. One of it’s core idea is that an animal exists in the world “like water in water”, whereas humans develop an awareness of mind that severs them from this state of being. Religion, in Bataille’s view, is an attempt to recapture this pure immanence. Clearly influenced by both Nietzsche and Durkheim, Bataille himself seems to have viewed this text as a radical reworking of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. He never got further than drafting it during his lifetime, and it was published posthumously.

 

Next Week, the Final Part: The Top Five