Last of the Continental Philosophers.

November 29, 2016/January 16, 2017

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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.

No Continental Wiki

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.