Thursday, June 21, 2007

Rant: Why I Hate Continental “Philosophy”

Well, not all philosophy written by continental Europeans: I do like Frege. And not even all Continental Philosophy: Brentano is ok. I mean the obscurantist bs written by Continental “thinkers” that’s supposed to address the human condition. I had an encounter with someone who was into Levinas that set my teeth on edge and this got me to thinking what it is that makes me so flat out angry about these Continental “philosophers.” Here it is:

(1) Their prescriptions for living the good life are wrong-headed and promote human misery

(2) Their moral recommendations are self-serving and promote self-deception and

(3) They are dogmatically convinced (or claim to be) that anyone who rejects their way of doing business, analytic philosophers in particular, are political conservatives

Philosophy is the true wisdom that saves us—not by cranking out maxims and prescriptions but by inculcating a way of thinking and operating that enables us to live well and do the right thing. Here is the Wisdom that saves (“a” is for “analytic”)

(1a) The Deflationary Strategy: everything is more manageable than it seems, more amenable to reason, analysis and plain commonsense, and in more cases than you imagine, fixable. If you’re depressed, anxious or feel that life is “meaningless” then either (a) you’re confused or (b) you suffer from a chemical imbalance. Get clear about what you want and how to get it. Take up a hobby, get more exercise, organize your office space, etc. If this doesn’t work take a pill or have a drink. We aren’t grand, tragic figures: we’re animals who are happiest working, exercising, making things, putting things in order, playing, setting reasonable goals for ourselves and achieving them.

Here is the adolescent self-dramatization that damns (“c” is for “continental”)

(1c) The Inflationary Strategy: everything is less manageable than it seems, nothing is amenable to reason, analysis is deceptive, commonsense is shallow and the whole idea of “fixing” things is wrong-headed. If you’re depressed, anxious or feel that life is “meaningless” then you’re a deep thinker who sees Reality as it really is and are suffering from existential angst. Enjoy your misery: life is tragic and you’re a hero.

Then there’s ethics:

(2a) We can’t make the world perfect but we can improve it and make people better off by improving the material conditions of their lives. Send money to Oxfam and work politically for the establishment of a socialist welfare state. This is expensive and the more you pay the better off other people will be—and, of course, the worse off you will be. There is no free ride: doing the right thing is tough.

Maybe the alternative that bothers me here isn’t so much the Continental alternative as such but the pious one:

(2c) All you need is Love. Kiss lepers. Work in soup kitchens. Giving money isn’t enough—in fact it may be beside the point. People need dignity, respect, love and compassion. And you need to be informed and involved. This is cheap—in fact dignity, respect, love and compassion are free!

(3c) Returning to Continental “philosophy,” the most vexing thing of all is their smug assumption that if you don’t buy their dogmas, you don’t buy their leftist political agenda. Levinas Woman objected to the discussion of free-will we where having because she had some bee in her bonnet about “collective responsibility.” As far as I could gather the idea was that if we didn’t have this sense of collective responsibility we wouldn’t be moved to fight injustice: “I’m not (individually) responsible for colonialism (slavery, the Holocaust, etc.) so there’s no reason why I should work to rectify these injustices.”

This seems to be an empirical claim at the bottom of this—that I won’t be motivated to fix things unless I am, in some sense, responsible for their being broken. But it’s false. My family regularly trashes the house and I clean up after them. I’m furious at them: they shouldn’t behave this way and I tell them so (though not often because it’s futile). I’m not responsible for the mess, individually, collectively or in any other way, but I clean it up because I want the house to look good. I want things to be neat, organized and efficient. I’m not responsible for poverty, racism or colonialism but I’m going to work to fix these injustices because I want the world to be neat, organized and efficient. I don’t care these injustices came about or who’s to blame—I just want them fixed and I’m prepared to pitch in.


Anonymous said...

A general rule of thumb when it comes to Continental Philosophy:

19th century Continentals up to Husserl are worthy of respect, even if we don't always agree with them.

20th century Continentals after and incl. Heidegger are crap. PERIOD.

KT said...

Sorry to have been the proximate cause of the encounter that caused the rant!

I definitely didn't get the 'collective responsibility' issue either--not to say that I don't think that there is such a thing, only to say (as I think that I did the other day) that it isn't the same thing as individual responsibility. And I'm inclined to think that if there were no individual responsibility, there would be no collective responsibility.

Just think--we'll have more opportunities for these interactions next year!

MikeS said...

I'm with anonymous. I like your posts best when the passion sticks out. This is wonderful.

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

Neither side of the coin is without blame.

Analytics are a bit too stuffy for their own good, and is "arm chair" philosophy really trying to help humanity?

As a person who is pushing Enlightenment don't you have to fall with our great friend Immanuel Kant?

It is rather amusing that his project of "re-uniting" philosphy have proven to be such a divisive action in the long run. Gone are the raging battles of the empericists and rationalists; enter the raging battles of the analytics and the continentals.

Life is neither completely analytic nor completely synthetic. It baffles me that this simple observation has been forgotten.

I think more than anything philosophy has failed us because it has worked so hard to become esoteric in order to protect itself in a capitalist world. Knowledge had to be guarded in order to make money off of it in order for philosophers to survive.

The shame is that it has been a long time and no real work has been done to bridge the gap and "re-re-unite" philosophy.

How can a subject (which should be)open to any inquiry be divided?

Vanna said...

Thanks for writing this.