Tuesday, November 16, 2004

From the Mail: On Continental Philosophy

Bill Honsberger, doctoral candidate at University of Denver, writes:

Dear Bill,

I have recently discovered your website and have enjoyed it very much. I read today your posts on Continental thought, see here, and was enjoying the fact that you are one of the few analytics who have endured the reading of Derrida, Deleuze and the rest of the Frenchies.

BV: Actually, the moniker, 'Maverick Philosopher,' apart from an element of self-romanticizing schtick, is supposed to convey that I toe no party line, and bear no brand, neither that of the Continentals nor that of the analysts. That being said, I suppose I am broadly analytic in my approach: I try to be clear and rigorous; I am often explicitly logical, holding close argument to be essential to good philosophy, and taking pains to make sure arguments and counterarguments are clearly presented rather than merely suggested or alluded to; I am attentive to language and the ways in which it can lead and mislead our thinking; I am more problem-oriented rather than text-oriented; and a few others besides.

On the four points just mentioned, it would be easy to show how people like Derrida represent the exactly opposite position.

I am at the dissertation stage of my doctoral program at the University of Denver and it has been such a struggle, not to argue with the premises offered, but to figure out what they heck these people are saying!!! My own philosophical background was entirely Analytic (grad level at the University of Nebraska and the University of Colorado) and I had no preparation at all for what I was going to run into. I have never even heard of Husserl until I got to DU, let alone all of his "children".

BV: I think it is important not to mix the early Continentals, who are outstanding philosophers, with the later ones who are often shoddy. Brentano, Meinong, and Husserl -- not to mention the lesser lights -- are philosophers of very high rank indeed. It says something about narrowly analytic philosophers that they don't know anything about these thinkers beyond a few cliches. (A really good analyst like Roderick Chisholm is of course a shining exception. See his Brentano and Meinong Studies, Brentano and Intrinsic Value, and other works.)

Heidegger is a transitional figure. There is much of value in him. Although he starts off wissenschaftlich, and is still that way in Sein und Zeit (1927), he ends up going off the deep end. (I'm brushing in very broad strokes.) But even his later work is fascinating and, I find, fairly comprehensible. I recently discovered that an early Heidegger article of mine is on-line here.

The early Sartre of Transcendence of the Ego, Being and Nothingness and other works is well worth reading and studying. The better analytic philosophers like P. Butchvarov are well aware of this.

But by the time we get to Derrida, the rot is deep and wide. It's a tale of decline from serious, rigorous work to name-dropping, out-of-control historicism, playful nihilism, wordplays parading as arguments, linguistic jackoffskyism, and much other crapola besides.

My first quarter at DU I was told by my advisor (hard core Pomo thinker Carl Rashke) to take Levinas. The endorsement that came was that Levinas was opposing both Heidegger and Derrida. I figured I had found a friend just from that endorsement. It took most of the quarter to try and even understand the language, the "cadence" of the language and all the rest. I kept asking my prof what the heck did we just read? It was like I had descended onto Mars and I had no clue.

Actually, I like Levinas. He's a serious man. There are some solid insights in Totality and Infinity. He scores some critical hits against Heidegger. You can't expect to understand Levinas cold. You have to warm up with the later Husserl and Heidegger, not to mention Hegel and Rosenzweig, et al. It takes time. Similarly, you can't expect to understand contemporary analytic philosophy of language if you haven't spent some time breaking your head against Frege and Russell.

Gradually I learned the doublespeak, and I appreciate your comments on "learning the idioms". Totality and Infinity was so hard to read, but then I took Heidegger and had to apologize to Levinas. Sophistry as a tradition.

BV: I think you are being unfair. Neither Heidegger nor Levinas are sophists. Derrida may be a sophist, but arguably Daniel Dennett is one as well. Anyone who holds that there is no intrinsic intentionality, that all intentionality is a matter of ascription -- when ascription is itself an intentional state -- is teetering on the brink of incoherence. He can't see it though, because of his scientistic commitments.

Oh well. My website is www.havenministry.com. If you are really bored, you can see some of my philosophical papers forged in the midst of the Pomo zoo. I also appreciated your link to the analytic bloodsport column. I just forwarded the link to my philosophy of religion friend/prof at Denver Seminary. An excellent reminder for up and coming young bloods.
God bless and keep up the "work"/leisurely contemplation.

Bill Honsberger