Saturday, November 14, 2009

Leiter on "Party Line Continentalists"

Brian Leiter has a great piece up on sophomoric skirmishes between presumed "analytic" and "continental" camps in philosophy.

This is an important piece to read for me, and I assume for many other students of theology as well. I have in the past made sweeping and rather stupid statements about "philosophy" as a discipline, more than anything I think because of frustration at professional and methodological rigidity that I've perceived in some philosophers. And when I'm feeling a little bit more friendly, I usually (and this seems rather typical amongst theologians as well) will make this sort of dumb appeal to the "Continental" tradition against the "analytic" tradition. That is, if I'm going to put up with any philosophers, their work should at least look a bit more like poetry than mathematics.

It makes sense, on a superficial level. "Continental" thinkers often look more like theologians to us, and their work seems to be more amenable to our work. Add to that similarity all of these grandiose proclamations of a "theological turn" in continental thought, and it's easy to see why many theologians snub their noses at the "Analytics" the way that Leiter's interlocutor does.

But I've realized of late that this is all pretty stupid and immature of me to do. I think Kevin Hector's pragmatism seminar has contributed some to my new-found acceptance of philosophical work that would have just bored me to tears a little bit ago. It's not that I know the first thing about 20th century analytic thought, but at least a smattering of readings in some "post-analytic" thinkers has led me to appreciate the broad problems and attempts at solutions that are entertained in real, rigorous, philosophical work. It may not always be my cup of tea, but at least I'm beginning to learn to refrain from making altogether asinine criticisms of it. I'm also learning that if I hope to speak intelligently about these problems, I'd best do my homework and read these people rather than simply make crap up about what sort of thinkers they are on the basis of vague stereotypes and entrenched opinions.

These sorts of suspicions of analytic thought have also come up recently with regard to the recent essay collection, Analytic Theology. Please note- I bring this up not to associate R.O. Flyer with the more superficial reaction to analytic thought by those of the "party line continental" camp. There are surely still critiques to be leveled against certain aspects of "analytic", "continental", or any number of other traditions, even after we recognize that partisan hatchet jobs aren't the way to go.

Anthony Paul Smith has also offered some worthwhile thoughts about the precarious nature of the theological appropriation of certain philosophical concerns, obviously from a quite different conversation than the originally linked Leiter piece.


  1. RE: "That is, if I'm going to put up with any philosophers, their work should at least look a bit more like poetry than mathematics."

    In other words, even when you have the good sense to be conciliatory you make the wrong choice.

  2. Yeah... because you economists and all your mathematical acumen have sure done a hell of a lot of good keeping us from financial collapse lately, right? ;)

  3. While one can be legitimately tired of these debates, one can also tire of Leiter's magisterial pronouncements. But I definitely agree with you that we need to put these silly debates behind us--though that's not exactly the same as shelving all critiques about philosophical methodology. So, for instance, one might have nothing to do with "party line Continentalists" but still be critical, say, of some aspects of "Analytic Theology."

    (By the way, the next issue of "Faith and Philosophy" will include an exchange between myself and Bruce Benson on related matters, based on an article of mine entitled "Continental Philosophy of Religion: Prescriptions for a Healthy Subdiscipline," and concludes with my response, "The End of Enclaves"--in which I emphasize the importance of conversation between 'analytic' and 'continental' voices.)

    In other words, one could have given up on SPEP (the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy--home to "party line Continentalist") years ago but still have legitimate criticisms about appropriate philosophical methodology. Indeed, it seems to me that Rorty does just this from inside the pragmatism you're talking about.

    I'd love to see a syllabus for Hector's seminar (is one available?). This semester I'm teaching a rendition of my Philosophy of Language & Interpretation course [upper-level undergrad, though] which is also focused on pragmatism. We began with Augustine's "De doctrina," then Wittgenstein's "Philosophical Investigations," Rorty's "Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature," and finishing with Brandom's "Articulating Reasons." I've really enjoyed this tack--and learned alot. I only wish we had had time to read Sellars' "Empiricism and Philosophy of Mind."

  4. Thanks for the link. A lot of the ire towards analytics from continentals has a lot to do with the stranglehold on the discipline than any real philosophical debates between the two. Those do exist, but the structure of the discipline really makes it a struggle over mere survival. There are some moves away from this on both sides, though in the Anglo-American system it will still likely be determined by the analytic system overall.

    I quite like SPEP. What's with the haterad?

  5. Oh, my comment looks woefully incomplete there. I meant to say that a lot of post-analytic philosophy is rather interesting, so I hope that departments that actually foster pluralism emerge from this situation. UofC might actually be a good example of this.

  6. In what sense is Leiter's one-paragraph, "Instapundit"-style post "a great piece"? I'm just not seeing it.

  7. I'd hardly call this piece a bit of punditry, and even given Prof. Smith's mention of tiresome magisterial pronouncements from Leiter, I'd hardly call the current one magisterial or even especially controversial. If anything it's not "a great piece" because it's so uninteresting and banal, not because there's anything wrong with what he says. He's not dismissing a whole swath of philosophers, after all, he's simply making the rather modest case for himself as a scholar of continental thought. I take this to be the basic thrust of his argument:

    why is it so important to cabin me off as an "analytic" in contrast to the "Continentals" (who are then, wholly bizarrely, equated with Postmodernists by our commenter)? Who are these "Continentals"? If I have written extensively on Nietzsche, occasionally on Marx and Foucault; if I have taught Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Foucault, Adorno, and Horkheimer with some frequency; if I have co-edited The Oxford Handbook of Continental Philosophy, and I am not a "Continental," then who is?

    I take it that someone can disagree quite strongly with Leiter's views on any number of philosophers and still find his point here convincing. He's not even trying to argue that his stance on Nietzsche is correct here, but only that it is reasonable enough not to be dismissed as ill-read analytic bungling.

  8. Prof. Smith, we read Sellar's EPM, we've read a good bit of Brandom and Davidson, some Quine, a little bit of Rorty to introduce the course, and we're going to read Cheryl Misak and Eddie Glaube in our final weeks.

    Anthony, thanks for your thoughts... I think you're correct, and I wouldn't want to say that there's no room for criticism of one side or the other. I wish I could offer more than that or a sense of what is going on at UChicago, but I'm woefully unknowledgeable of most of this... to the point where I may not even have been the best one to put up this sort of post, although I'm glad it's attracting a few comments. Usually I try to follow the lead as best as possible without causing a disruption when it comes to philosophical matters, but I thought this was worth throwing up.

  9. Leiter is kind of being coy here though. I've not read his work on Nietzsche partly because I find so much of what he writes at his blog to be boring, but also because he has supported a way of doing philosophy that aims to be, above all things, scholarly. I'm not against scholarship, of course, but it leads him to a very strange performative contridiction. After all, I doubt Nietzsche would ahve made the 1872 Leiter Report. And when I first read Deleuze's Nietzsche book I wasn't looking for a deeper understanding of what Nietzsche wrote (I can read him for that), but for something far more than just scholarship. He also carries out a very childish grudge against the SPEP schools, many of whom do actually contain very good scholars of post-Kantian European philosophy. The whole ranking thing is just, well, very stupid for something like philosophy.

  10. I meant that it was in the style of the popular conservative blogger Instapundit -- short, unclear, filled with vague insinuations that he could plausibly back off from if pressed but still wants to put out there, and punctuated by a link. On a substantive level, there's a lot of great analytic philosophy out there, but on a procedural level, I can't help but take the continental side in this war, because there really was a systematic attempt to shut down all other forms of philosophy other than analytic in the postwar period and Brian Leiter is one of the biggest and most obnoxious fighters in that ongoing battle. In short, I really don't think that you understand the background that's informing his post, and I don't think you'd be so inclined to think he's saying something really cool if you knew what a destructive, boundary-enforcing agent he's been in the discipline of philosopy.

    In the abstract, sure, let's not draw up battle lines -- but in the concrete, I'm pretty sure it's the analytic crowd that has been aggressively trying to discredit any other approach for decades and decades now, and for Leiter to act like he's under attack when he gets pushback is insane.

    The remark about the "political agenda" of continentalists is infuriating in context. The claim to be beyond politics is of course an extremely powerful political move -- supposedly he's just defending philosophy as such, while these SPEP types are pushing an agenda through procedural means where their methodology wouldn't stand up under fair scrutiny (or something).