What is Continental Philosophy? Kareem Khalifa




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TitleWhat is Continental Philosophy? Kareem Khalifa
Date09.06.2013
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What is Continental Philosophy?

  • Kareem Khalifa

  • Department of Philosophy

  • Middlebury College


Outline

  • Failed definitions

  • Critchley’s Wisdom-Knowledge Distinction

  • Historicity

  • Critique, Praxis, and Emancipation

  • Scientism versus Obscurantism



I. Failed Definitions

  • The Continental-Analytic “Split”

  • Bad Labels

  • Bad Caricatures



The “Split”



Are the labels correct?

  • “Continental” is a misnomer

    • Many key analytic figures are from Germany and Austria
  • “Analytic” is a misnomer

    • Widespread consensus that there is no such thing as an analytic truth.
    • Pragmatism, naturalism are generally regarded as alternatives to analytic philosophy
  • So the labels aren’t correct.



Are the caricatures correct?

  • Continental philosophers use mathematical tropes and scientific concepts

    • Topology (Deleuze, Lacan), Set Theory (Badiou)
    • Much of contemporary science studies is Continental in its theoretical orientation (Latour, Pickering)
  • Analytic philosophers use literary and religious tropes and concepts

    • The “Mystical” (Wittgenstein); “Frictionless spinning in the void” (McDowell); “Joycean machines” (Dennett)
  • So the caricatures aren’t correct.



II. Critchley on the split

  • Knowledge versus Wisdom

  • Suggested amendment:

    • Forms of Rationality versus Value of Cultural Practices


Knowledge versus Wisdom

  • Analytic philosophers concerned with knowledge.

    • “Theoretical” concern about how one can be rational in accepting that things are the way they are.
    • Paradigm: Science
  • Continental philosophers concerned with wisdom.

    • “Practical” concern about how to lead a good life, typically construed as life of reflection.


Virtue of Critchley’s Distinction

  • Continental philosophers are concerned with wisdom

  • They are also rarely concerned with knowledge independent of wisdom

    • Ex. Foucault is interested in how forms of knowledge:
      • Arise under specific social conditions
      • Serve as vehicles for controlling people
    • Ex. Habermas is interested in how scientific knowledge presupposes several practical interests


Problem #1 with Critchley’s formulation

  • Analytic philosophers are concerned with ethical, social, political, aesthetic, and religious questions

    • Analytic studies of morality, applied ethics (bioethics, just war, etc.), justice, law, democracy, poverty, music, art, God, etc.
    • These don’t seem terribly “scientific” or “epistemic”
    • These also seem important for leading a good life.


Problem #2 with Critchley’s formulation

  • Search for Wisdom ≈ Search for “meaning of life”

  • “Meaning of life” is unfortunate phrase

    • “Meaning” has a long history in analytic philosophy.
    • “Life” has both a cultural and a biological sense.


Proposed modification to Critchley

  • Analytic philosophers are concerned with forms of rationality

    • Regardless of the topic (science, ethics, social and political philosophy), the concern is with providing reasons for a belief, doctrine, action, or policy
  • Continental philosophers are concerned with the value of cultural practices

    • A more precise gloss on what’s meant by the “meaning of life”
    • Cultural practices include lifestyles, beliefs, folkways, traditions, etc.


III. Historicity

  • Recap, and lingering ambiguities

  • Historicity

  • Distance

  • Assessment of Critchley’s historicity

  • Alternative account of historicity



Recap and a lingering problem

  • Thus far, Continental philosophy = philosophy concerned with the value of cultural practices

  • However, analytic philosophy is also concerned with the value of cultural practices, such as science, law, biomedicine, government, etc.



Differences in method

  • Analytic philosophy is concerned with conceptual problems

    • Ex. External world, other minds, the objectivity of moral claims
  • Continental philosophy is concerned with contextualized problems

    • Ex. Heidegger’s conception of the external world, Husserl’s problem of other minds, the objectivity of Marxist moral claims


The “biography objection”

  • Contextualizing problems conflates biography and history with philosophy

    • Heidegger’s thinking that the external world is knowable doesn’t tell us that the external world actually is knowable.
    • For the latter issue, we need rigorous argumentation that can tell us whether or not it is rational to believe in an external world


Historicity: the argument against “pure” conceptual problems

  • The historicity claim: a person’s beliefs, values, and problems are influenced by (“embedded” in) his/her historical context

    • This includes philosophers
    • Ex. Most analytic philosophers of science from the 18th through the early 20th century believed that causation was a metaphysically dubious concept; now it is considered the most central concept in philosophy of science


The limits of the historicity claim

  • The historicity claim justifies contextualizing problems only if:

    • There is always a significant “distance” between us and the people (philosophers) we interpret
      • i.e., only if our assumptions are very different than theirs
      • If not, then we can treat their problems as identical to our own
  • Call this the “distance claim”



Do historicity and distance justify contextualizing problems?

  • Both the historicity and the distance claims depend on historical and social-scientific facts about us and the people we study

  • The historicity claim is probable

  • The distance claim is contingent, depending on who we’re interpreting

  • Thus, this shows only that in certain cases, one can contextualize problems productively

  • It does not show that one must always do so; so sometimes the “biography objection” is well-placed



A stronger historicity claim

  • Recall: analytic philosophy is concerned with forms of rationality

  • Forms of rationality depend on historical context

    • To be continued on Thursday…
  • So analytic philosophy should contextualize problems

    • Though perhaps not in the same way as Continental philosophy


IV. Critique, praxis, and emancipation

  • Recap and lingering problem

  • The two cultures solution

  • Critique of the two cultures solution

  • A better solution: critique, praxis, and emancipation

    • Crisis
    • Historicity again
    • Tradition


Recap and Problem, Redux

  • Recap: Continental philosophy contextualizes problems concerning the value of cultural practices

  • Problem: How does one contextualize a problem? How does one solve that problem?



The Two Cultures: Critchley’s view



The Two Cultures: My view



The Two Cultures: contextualizing and solving problems

  • Continental philosophy contextualizes problems concerning the value of cultural practices using quasi-artistic and –spiritual hermeneutical methods;

  • It solves those problems by reclaiming certain traditions that have been lost or forgotten



Problems with “The Two Cultures” model

  • Continental philosophy typically aims to be:

    • Progressive by reclaiming traditions,
    • Critical by being hermeneutical;
    • Pragmatic, spiritual, and aesthetic
    • Critical of forms of rationality by hermeneutically reconstructing them as presupposing values of cultural practices, etc.
  • How do we reconcile these dichotomies?



Critique, Praxis, and Emancipation: The Common Solution

  • Key idea: We reorient ourselves of our traditions to affect social change

  • We can thus overcome the dichotomies of the two cultures model

  • We can also elaborate how to contextualize and solve problems about the value of cultural practices



Crisis

  • Producing a crisis (critique) consists of making people aware of the fact that some present set of practices (praxis) is:

    • Taken for granted;
    • Contingent (because of historicity claim);
    • Bad/Problematic; and
    • Can be changed for the better (emancipation)


Critique, historicity, and praxis

  • If the historicity claim is correct, then all human experiences are contingent, in that if history had been otherwise, our cultural practices (praxis) may have been different.

  • Thus, historicity implies that the human being is “a finite subject embedded in an ultimately contingent network of history, culture, and society” (64).

  • This invites us to think about how our practices might have been better, i.e., to critique our practices.



Tradition

  • One can recover something from a past tradition that heightens awareness of a contemporary problem.

  • This is a critical confrontation or (using Husserl’s term) reactivated experience of tradition.

  • It is contrasted with a dogmatic reception, taken for granted, or sedimented experience of tradition.

  • Resolves many of the “Two Cultures” dichotomies



What is Continental Philosophy? The Ultimate Answer!

  • Continental philosophy argues that certain cultural practices are:

    • Taken for granted;
    • Contingent;
    • Bad/Problematic; and
    • Can be changed for the better by having a reactivated experience of the tradition from which they arose


V. Scientism versus obscurantism

  • Continental philosophy of science

  • Anti-science versus Anti-scientism

  • Anti-science as obscurantism



Continental philosophy of science

  • Continental philosophers often hold that science consists of a set of practices that:

    • Are easily taken for granted;
    • Contingent;
    • Problematic; and
    • Can be changed for the better by having a reactivated experience of the tradition from which they arose


Example: Heidegger

  • Science looks at physical objects in abstract and theoretical ways and “forgets” the practical value that they have in everyday practices.

  • This is one expression of how modern human existence is routinized, mundane, inauthentic, impersonal, etc.

  • Thus, we need to remind ourselves of how objects exist for us in everyday practice.



Scientism and Science

  • Scientism is (by definition) bad.

    • Exaggerated trust in the efficacy of the methods of natural science applied to all areas of investigation (as in philosophy, the social sciences, and the humanities)
  • Science can be good

    • Cures for diseases
  • But it also can be bad

    • Pollution
  • Critiques of scientism are often confused with critiques of science.



Ways of critiquing scientism

  • It privileges knowledge at the expense of wisdom.

  • It fails to recognize that science and technology play a role in alienating human beings from the world, e.g.,

    • By disenchanting the world
    • By turning all objects into commodities that can be traded without full appreciation of the deeper values they possess beyond a market structure
  • It fails to recognize that science has its own set of unjustified assumptions, and furthermore, there is no way that these assumptions can be justified scientifically.

    • Ex.: Habermas critiques scientism on the grounds that it takes for granted the interests underlying the search for scientific knowledge


The Slippery Slope to Obscurantism

  • Scientism’s faults are not science’s faults

  • Failure to appreciate this leads to obscurantism:

    • A style characterized by deliberate vagueness or abstruseness typically opposed to the spread of knowledge or the exchange of ideas.
    • More precisely, Critchley characterizes this as “the rejection of the causal explanations offered by natural science by referring them to an alternative causal story, that is somehow of a higher order, but essentially occult.” (118)


VI. Conclusion

  • Continental philosophy argues that certain cultural practices are:

    • Taken for granted, contingent, problematic; and can be changed for the better by having a reactivated experience of the tradition from which they arose
  • Analytic philosophy argues that certain forms of thinking are more rational than others

  • These need not compete with each other



Useful connections

  • Continental philosophers must show that it is rational to accept that a cultural practice is taken for granted, contingent, problematic, and capable of improvement.

  • Analytic philosophy must examine the historicity of forms of rationality.

  • Productive disagreements distance claims and biography objections

  • Checks and balances against analytic philosophy’s scientistic tendencies and continental philosophy’s obscurantist tendencies



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