June 7, 2010

Why Listen to 'Continental' Philosophers?

In a recent edition of Faith and Philosophy (the October 2009 edition, to be exact), there is an exchange between James K. A. Smith and Bruce Ellis Benson about what can or should be done to improve 'Continental' philosophy of religion. The discussion focuses on the reduction of 'enclaves' - i.e. on getting 'Continental' philosophy of religion into mainstream venues, and having dialogue with mainstream (analytic) philosophy of religion. Now, something about this exchange struck me as rather odd: the exchange takes place in a mainstream venue, a philosophy of religion journal read mostly by analytic philosophers. Yet the exchange is almost entirely directed toward those working within 'Continental' philosophy of religion. I would think, if Smith and Benson want to accomplish their goal of ending enclaves, they would take a moment to answer a crucial question that analytic philosophers might have: why should we care? Why should we listen to 'Continental' philosophers?

Now, surely there are some benefits to dialogue between analytic and 'Continental' philosophers. One of these is that there are some interesting historical figures, such as Hegel, Schopenhauer, and Brentano, who are sadly ignored in the analytic tradition, and we could benefit from hearing thoughts inspired by them on various subjects. (In recent years, Brentano is less ignored than he used to be.) 'Continental' philosophers may be in a position to help us out here.

But there are also reasons why analytic philosophers generally ignore 'Continental' philosophy. For instance, having had an entirely analytic/historical philosophical education, I have been led to believe the following:

  1. 'Continental' philosophers do not believe in truth in any meaningful sense. They do not merely deny the correspondence theory, as some analytic philosophers have, but actually deny that there is any process by which I can hope to conform my beliefs to truth or, in some cases, that there is even such a thing as my beliefs conforming to truth.

  2. 'Continental' philosophers are suspicious and/or dismissive of formal logic and other such tools of rigorous reasoning.

Now, I say that I have been led to believe these things. It is my understanding that these sorts of claims about 'Continental' philosophy are in fact mistaken in two ways: first, 'Continental' philosophy is by no means a monolithic entity, or even really a unified tradition. (This is why I have been putting 'Continental' in scare-quotes.) The second is that even those writers (e.g. Derrida) who most nearly fit the mold are at best caricatured by these claims. (At least, that's what they tell me; I haven't a clue what Derrida actually said.) Nevertheless, let me say this: the endeavor I am engaged in is one of using logic in an attempt to conform my beliefs to truth. That's what I call philosophy. There are some anti-philosophers - i.e. thinkers who argue that this endeavor is impossible - who are useful to me because refuting them sheds light on the nature of my endeavor (or, if they can't be refuted, they will have alerted me to the fact that I am wasting my time). However, in order to be useful to me they have to actually present some arguments. Bald assertions won't do.

In sum, if someone wants to claim that reading a 'Continental' writer is going to be worth my time, she should show that either (1) this writer is engaged, as I am, in the use of logic to conform his beliefs to truth, or (2) this writer presents difficulties with that project which I had better address. I'm sure that there are many 'Continental' writers who satisfy one of these disjuncts; as long as Smith and Benson had our ears, I wish they would have pointed some out.

Posted by Kenny at June 7, 2010 5:36 PM
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Comments

How can you claim that Derrida is an example of somebody who "most nearly fits the mold" and then in the very next sentence say that you have no clue about what Derrida actually said? That seems odd.

"In sum, if someone wants to claim that reading a 'Continental' writer is going to be worth my time, she should show that either (1) this writer is engaged, as I am, in the use of logic to conform his beliefs to truth, or (2) this writer presents difficulties with that project which I had better address."

What criteria do you use if she recommends an "analytic" philosopher?

Posted by: Eric at June 19, 2010 5:17 PM

Hi Eric,

On Derrida - I said, "that's what they tell me" because Derrida's views have several times been described to me by people sympathetic to them. I have reason to believe these people know what they are talking about, but faulty memory, misunderstanding, etc., could lead to my being in error, even if what I was initially told was right. I said, "I haven't a clue what Derrida actually said" because I've never read anything written by Derrida, so I don't know, for instance, how exactly he would present his views on truth and the possibility of true belief. As his views have been described to me it seems, for instance, that he would deny that sentences can ever be true since sentences have no objective meaning. Perhaps he believes in propositions, and those can be true, and we can believe the true ones, but it would be odd to believe in propositions if one didn't take them to be the meanings of sentences. So insofar as he denies (so I am told) that sentences have objective meaning, there is good reason to suppose that he is close to fitting the mold, or at least that the stereotype was partially derived from him. If I am misunderstanding him on this point, it is a widespread misunderstanding, and so still supports the claim that he is one of the key figures behind the stereotype.

As to your second question, reading analytic philosophy (and historical philosophy) is what I do all day. It is true that I can't read everything there is, so I have to work at allocating my resources efficiently. But analytic philosophers are, in general, engaged in the same general sort of endeavor as I am, so there I operate under the default assumption that (at least if they are good at what they do) their work will be helpful to me.

The purpose of this post was simply to point out that, sociologically speaking, there are some barriers to getting analytic philosophers to care about what 'Continental' philosophers have to say, and to try to identify the nature of those barriers. I wasn't trying to say that those barriers are valid or that they ought to be there. I don't know enough about 'Continental' philosophy to make a judgment about that, so instead I tried to identify just what someone on the 'Continental' side would have to do to overcome the barriers.

Posted by: Kenny at June 19, 2010 5:38 PM

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