Babich and Bateman: Last of the Continental Philosophers
November 29, 2016
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.
Chris 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: As 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?
The discussion of the difference between analytical and continental philosophy is a new one for me, so I did a small amount of reading about continental philosophy before I finished reading this interview, and I believe that helped my understanding.
It seems like this "takeover" of analytical philosophy and the unwillingness of some analytical philosophers to acknowledge and explore philosophy with a continental approach is similar to a huge issue today among the general public when it comes to differences of ideologies, whether political, religious, moral, or spiritual. Oftentimes a person is unwilling to accept a different opinion or ideology as valid. It is possible to accept an opposing viewpoint as valid without agreeing with that perspective. But people seem unwilling to make the attempt to acknowledge the perspective of someone who has different ideas than they have. This continental analytical divide seems to present a similar issue when is comes to the inability to validate.
Posted by: Taylor Hampton | December 01, 2016 at 06:48 PM
As an artist, I think that it is an interesting argument to derive the way we approach art as either based in continental or analytic philosophy - it would seem logical to approach from the more romantic continental side in performance, but in practice it is much more effective to think analytical (as you can better comprehend your own musical shortcomings and develop a methodical approach to them).
For our discussion of philosophy in the current day I believe it is significantly better to take an analytical approach, as most of us are intersecting with philosophy for the first time - modern philosophical analysis should be just that, analytical. Especially when looking at social media and media propaganda (for example, fake news, ala Chomsky), I believe it is simply unwise to think romantically as you will miss the data that is in front of your face. For my own work I absolutely approach media using the software and knowledge that is available.
Posted by: Joseph Bricker | December 01, 2016 at 07:31 PM
Greetings students of Babette's who have been ordered to comment! :) I have to say, this is an interesting exercise for a number of reasons, not least of which is that I cannot expect either of you to respond to any reply I make. :) Nonetheless, I shall do so.
Taylor: the general problem of accepting alternative perspectives is one very close to my heart; I think the analytic-continental divide in philosophy differs in at least one key aspect: there is a majority view (analytic philosophy) and it denies the very legitimacy - or even existence - of the alternative method. This is slightly different from the situation of not accepting different ideologies (or, as I prefer to say, mythologies) since in few other contexts is there a clear and unchallenged majoritarian position. In the Liberal versus Conservative political split, for instance, the failure of one camp to attempt an understanding from the alternate perspective does not amount to a denial of the existence of the other camp - although it can and does lead to a dismissal and decrying of that alternative.
Joseph: your conflation of continental philosophy with the romantic movement(s) seems to me somewhat misguided - it creates the impression that analytic philosophy is dispassionate pursuit of the truth, while continental philosophy is more idealistic. From my own perspective, analytic philosophy is just as easily distracted by its own internal mythology - specifically the mythos of the truth of dispassion, which you buy into here in making your conflation. Objective truth is the truth of objects, and by definition it is thus a collection of truths of a very limited kind. Precisely the value of the continental philosophical practices are there willingness to raise further problems rather than to attempt to 'boil down' to a potentially over-simplistic truth. While I do find a place for both methods, I feel it would be an error to think that truth was on the side of the analytic methods. They are just as capable of misleading, particularly by simmering down complex situations into a mere smear on the petri dish, rather than embracing their inherent and indissoluble complexity.
Thank you both for your comments! Even if they were delivered somewhat against your will. ;)
Posted by: Chris | December 02, 2016 at 09:58 AM
I am in a similar boat to Taylor, as this is my first introduction to the labels of analytic and continental philosophy. My first reaction to this discussion is that of surprise. I am not only astonished that a topic as broad as philosophy can be put into this binary box, but also stunned that present day philosophers, researchers and professors are so married to a categorical system that alienates themselves from their colleagues. While I imagine this man-made categorization assists theorists to analyze more effectively, it seems to be (as an outsider in this discussion) to be a potential hindrance in the development of contemporary philosophy.
Posted by: Gregory LaRosa | December 05, 2016 at 03:49 AM
It's interesting to read your impression of this being a 'binary box'; for me, this is not so much the case, as there are other forms of philosophy (Taoist, for instance) that aren't engaged in either of these European-language traditions. The situation is akin to the juxtaposition of Popular music and Classical music: this is not necessarily a binary box if you look at the music , but it is a division that has some weight behind it, and one that has a history; one that can be defended and justified, even if it is sometimes more obfuscating than revealing.
Nonetheless, the structure erected does have the effects you allude to here in terms of alienation. But a peculiar problem here, as my discussion with Babette gradually brings out, is that analytic philosophers all too frequently deny that there is any kind of significant continental tradition to talk about. It is not the case, for instance, that dropping this distinction would solve any kind of problem: the practices of continental philosophy are under threat of extinction; dropping any reference to 'the box' doesn't resolve this problem!
If I may make a provocative comparison: dropping all reference to race in the United States does not help anyone suffering from the alienating effects of cultural prejudice. Here again is a 'binary box' ('White' versus 'People of Colour') that is far from binary - and the same point could be made with gender identity. Indeed, there is perhaps a general pattern here of alienating boxes that seem as if the box is the problem - but the very box itself serves to conceal the deeper, complicating issues.
Many thanks for your comment (even accepting that it occurs under academic 'duress'!).
Posted by: Chris | December 05, 2016 at 07:41 AM
Although this is likewise my first occasion of being introduced to the titles of "analytic" vs. "continental" philosophy, I have sensed this divide for some time in my own academic experience. Coming from a background of what I now see was purely based in analytic influences, this semester's introduction to continental philosophy was at first disorienting if not somewhat confusing. If I understand it correctly, it seems that the main difference between the two traditions lies in analytic philosophy's search of an objective truth through logical arguments based in science, as opposed to continental philosophy's use of historical context, interpretation, and subjectivity as its method for exploring a topic. In this way opposing goals are being sought after. I also understand that the divide is further deepened through analytic philosophers's denial of the validity or even existence of the continental philosophers. This is troubling since there is no way to reconcile or even appreciate an opposing viewpoint if one denies that it even exists.
It seems to me that it would be beneficial to approach various topics with the appropriate method, rather than saying that either method is all-encompassing. In order to do so, the complexity of truth must be appreciated, and whether we come from analytic or continental traditions, we must acknowledge that our finite minds will never be able to grasp infinite ideas, and that questions will only lead to more questions.
Posted by: Mari Coetzee | December 05, 2016 at 05:58 PM
This is a thoughtful commentary on the issue! I feel you have summarised nicely the divide here, as also comes out in part two of the dialogue, which went live today. The complexity of truth is, for me, always a key issue - although I am influenced by both traditions, there are so many situations where the analytic method strikes me as limited because it tends to reduce context - yet there are also situations where the complexity of the context can be a barrier in itself, and it can pay to develop a new perspective along analytic lines in order to have a viable line of approach.
I am, for very much the reasons you outline here, sceptical of attempts to throw continental methods into the analytic bag because to do so is to risk denying the complexity of truth. And while I agree that questions do indeed begat further questions, I think there is much to be gained from sketching a topic through the questions that it raised. I cannot call myself a continental philosopher in so much as my language skills are nowhere near where, for instance, Babette's are - yet I would never think that this distinction was not important. For me, it has been critical.
Many thanks for your comment!
Posted by: Chris | December 06, 2016 at 12:08 PM
After the obligatory wrestling with understanding the two divides within philosophy, I started to think about how I view philosophy. On the surface most of us at Juilliard are well trained in the art of romanticism, but deep down I would say I approach most things in my life analytically. My goal always being to achieve the 'right' outcome. However, the right or the truth is ever changing and has no finish line until death. Because of this, it is interesting to me that these two sides do not see the benefit of having one another there to draw off of. When relating this to media, it opens up a world of philosophical inconsistencies. When we post online, we type out a series of words and symbols in order to convey our current state or emotion. However, at that point we leave it up to the audience (everyone else) to try and gather our true intention. It is impossible! Perhaps the marriage of these two schools would allow for an eventual proper discourse on line that always seems to be lacking.
Posted by: Joe Desotelle | December 08, 2016 at 04:47 AM
Many thanks for adding your comments here; I'd like to respond to a few of your remarks.
"However, the right or the truth is ever changing and has no finish line until death."
This is a curious line, one that my instinct was to assent to, but then I had to pause and wonder about which right or truth we might be talking about for there are many conflicting senses to these terms. There is a sense of 'truth' that is never changing... the same sense of truth as in logic. But the never-changing truth can be so precisely because it is removed from the real. Even if the truth is never changing, our relationship to it is always in flux, and I suspect this is what you are elegantly gesturing at here.
Regarding the 'marriage of these two schools' (which is a wonderfully poetic phrasing!), many are claiming that this marriage has already occurred. But the result of this is that analytic philosophy becomes the only school, absorbing continental practice entirely, like an abusive spouse who controls the relationship entirely.
It is thus not a case of needing a marriage, like the Capulets and the Montagues requiring a doomed romance to bury the hatchet, as it is needing to recognise a difference, so that there can be respect for different practices. This is something mirrored, I might note, in many situations today.
Once again, thanks for sharing your thoughtful remarks!
Posted by: Chris | December 08, 2016 at 10:32 AM
OK here goes. My reading of this "divide" is through Foucault. Divide itself assumes the DISCOURSE of a linear, continuous, progressive, historical world and we know that the world is ruled by EVENTS! Kind of what Karl Rove said that we don't follow history, we make history and 9-11 certainly did that. The Dominating Discourse is so obviously the dialectic of opposites in analytic philosophy that the Continental Philosophy Discourse is THE change in Discourse. We know from the past that Discourses die hard and that they are more than Kuhn's scientific paradigm changes where he says you just have to wait for the scientists to die out. (I am excluding Platt and his famous "Strong Inference" paper of course.) To pose a divide, or the squashing of an alternative, or in the context of either/or is to make it obvious what Discourse you are in. I do like Deleuze and Guattari's (Anti-Oedipus) side-stepping into either/or...or...or...or...or etc as it opens up the enchantment of free-association so important to psychoanalysis and Lacan/Freud. To me the whole false dichotomy is a language game and I am sure Wittgenstein would demolish it rather quickly. I can rarely read academic papers now written in an analytic style. I wish I could judo the linguistics the way Foucault did but all of my academic career was rooted in this Dominating Discourse which I spent so much money and time trying to become proficient in. And now I can't stand it! It was only in my 25 years in the psychoanalytic profession that enough slices were made in it to allow me to see it. BTW Toynbee's great History has many many Foucauldian CUTS in his discussion that you can see so much foreshadowing of Foucault. And here I will mention Ayn Rand whose fiction foreshadows Foucault's net, matrix, in Fountainhead via her devotion to Nietzsche. I won't go into her Atlas here - I hope - on the implosion of capitalism, for her a Zizekian "unknown known." Obviously the way I comment about this precludes my being able to write a requested article for JARS for the past few years on Rand. Analytic philosophy quickly bores me with its "gray prose" and I rarely finish one. But there are so many on academia.edu that are proficient in originating a style of writing for Continental Philosophical thinking that is accessible. May I suggest Diane Rubenstein's This Is Not a President in which she taught courses at Madison - after her more sophisticated students at Yale- to make it accessible by reading it through American Presidents. Her scholarship in France is impeccable as Don Juan might say. Babich is revered among younger dazzling minds in Continental Philosophy that you will hear in the future as the CP DISCOURSE becomes more and more DOMINANT. May I suggest the books by Tiqqun as starters in reading the delights of non- linear Continental Philosophical Thinking. They are very short. And very political in these times we have just become mired in. And never forget Baudrillard's Forget Foucault! He is a non-linear stylist of astonishing genius.
Posted by: Janet Abbey | December 11, 2016 at 10:08 PM
Your raise a lot of interesting tangents here... rather than attempt to respond to them all, I shall pick up a few points.
"My reading of this "divide" is through Foucault. Divide itself assumes the DISCOURSE of a linear, continuous, progressive, historical world and we know that the world is ruled by EVENTS!"
If we come at this through Foucault, we have a very clear way of understanding this divide: as two discrete discursive formations (cf. Archaeology of Knowledge). This indeed is precisely how I understand the divide - not as part of a 'continuous, progressive, historical world', but as communities of practitioners who have different practices. You seem to want to assert a false dichotomy here: Foucault suggests a different understanding here; two discursive practices that diverged in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, one of which is under pressure to maintain any viable, employed practitioners.
The open question here is whether this dispute represents an internal pressure inside a single discursive practice (as you seem to be asserting) or whether we have two discrete discursive formations. I favour the latter interpretation, because the network of discourses being folded-in are pulled from different spaces (the sciences for analytic, and humanities for continental). What has to be determined from a Foucauldian perspective is whether the contradiction between these discourses is intrinsic (e.g. systematic vs. methodological natural philosophy in the 17th century) or extrinsic (Linneas vs. Darwin/Natural History vs. biology). My sense of it is that an initial intrinsic contradiction between methods has now produced an extrinsic contradiction. I welcome discussion on this point, which is in no way settled.
Does continental philosophy talk about the same objects as analytic philosophy? This is a question Foucault would ask here. And I believe there is a significant discussion to be had in this regard, particularly in terms of the question: is it that analytic philosophy does not talk about personal, phenomenal experience or that it cannot?
"Analytic philosophy quickly bores me with its "gray prose" and I rarely finish one."
I understand this criticism, although I get on fine with its prose style. The mirror-flaw in continental philosophy is the creation of a custom lexicon of terms that makes it harder to understand. ;)
Many thanks for the suggestion to read Diane Rubenstein, and it is great to hear that Babette's work is "revered among younger dazzling minds" - what we will do when the current crop of continental philosophers are hired out by analytics in the English speaking world, I have no idea. So while it is exciting to be challenged by the suggestion that continental is the more dominant discourse, and I am open to persuasion on this point, I am not yet convinced.
Thanks for your detailed commentary!
Posted by: Chris | December 17, 2016 at 10:59 AM