Saturday, September 18, 2004

The Trouble with Continental Philosophy #1

I hereby begin a series of posts highlighting various examples of objectionable Continental verbiage. Today’s example is not the worst but lies ready to hand, so I start with it. I don’t criticize the Continentals because I am an ‘analyst’; one of the reasons the Maverick Philosopher is so-called is because he is neither. The ‘analysts’ have their own typical failings which will come under fire later. A pox on both houses!

Alain Badiou’s Manifesto for Philosophy (tr. N. Madarasz, SUNY Press, 1996) begins like this:

The dominant philosophical traditions of the century agree that philosophy, as a discipline, is no longer really what it used to be. It must be said that Carnap’s critique of metaphysics as nonsense is very different from Heidegger’s announcement of the supersession of metaphysics. It is also very different from the Marxist dream of a concrete realization of philosophy. Very different as well from what Freud ferrets out as illusion, indeed paranoia, from speculative systematicity. But the fact remains that German hermeneutics like Anglo-Saxon analytical philosophy, revolutionary Marxism and psychoanalytical interpretation concur to declare the ‘end’ of a millenial regime of thought. No further question of imagining a philosophia perrenis perpetuating itself. (27)

Although I have skimmed the whole of Badiou’s book, this opening paragraph really is enough to return the book to the library. Part of what he is saying is that "Anglo-Saxon analytic philosophy" has declared the end of philosophy. This is simply false. It may be true for Richard Rorty, but Rorty does not represent analytic philosophy. It is true that Rorty rejects the existence of perrenial philosophical problems, but this is not true of many or even most analytic philosophers.

When a book starts off with a grotesque falsehood, why continue reading? But if one does continue reading, one quickly finds oneself immersed in the usual Continental mishmash of persons and themes: Lacoue-Labarthe, Lyotard, Lacan, Deleuze, Gadamer, Celan, Derrida, Genet, Heidegger and the Jews and the Nazis, Kolyma and Auschwitz, Plato... And all of this on one page! (28) What’s the point of all this name-dropping? Define your terms. Make an assertion and defend it. Tell us what your thesis is. Say something definite.

You can re-read a page of this stuff half a dozen times and not know what is being said or where the discussion is going. And I say this as someone who has read practically all of Nietzsche, Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre, Gadamer, a shit-load of Derrida (who, according to John Searle, gives bullshit a bad name) and plenty of others besides.

This Badiou book seems to have all the typical French faults: the confusion of philosophy with a kind of Begriffsdichtung (conceptual poetry) in which practically anything can be associated with anything else; the historicist confusion of a theory’s being accepted or in favor with its being true (but cf. p. 140); the excessive use of rhetorical questions. As an example of the latter: "What in fact did Heidegger do other than presume that the ‘firm resolve’ of the German people as embodied by the Nazis was transitive to his thinking as a professor and hermeneutician?" (29) Rewrite that interrogative as a declarative and it still won’t make much sense.