Sunday, 31 October 2010

Philosophy and Its History

The recent dispute that unfolded on this blog with Brian Leiter concerning his spoof posting on Derrida seems to have produced some considerable interest though, arguably, Leiter's own responses to my reply to his spoof produced more heat than light. Behind this spat, however, lies a more considered dispute concerning views one might have about the nature of the history of philosophy and what kinds of thinking are worth engaging with. In relation to this, Leiter published a view of what he terms "party-line Continentalists" (or PLC) over at his Nietzsche blog.

The discussion of the phenomena of PLC is, not entirely surprisingly, painted as a thoroughly "bad thing" and is even identified as occurring in some very specific philosophy departments. The basic essence of this phenomena of PLC is that it views the history of philosophy from the vantage point of phenomenology and, in particular, from the works of Heidegger and post-Heideggerian French philosophy (including, but not limited, to Derrida). The problem with PLC, on Leiter's view, is that it obscures other historical traditions and somewhat randomly makes its preferred conception of 20th century European philosophy the depositary for reading previous elements of the history of philosophy, specifically those identified as belonging to the "post-Kantian" tradition. In opposition to PLC Leiter sets his own view of "post-Kantian" philosophy which is one that sets out to distinguish the variant strands that have emerged from German Idealism to the tendencies variously identified in somewhat sweeping terms as "post-structuralist" or "post-modernist". In fairness to Leiter, a fairness he is far from generally showing to his critics, the main aim of his opposition to PLC is to give a more differentiated view of the history of European philosophy as it has developed in the last 200 years and to suggest that it is simply false to subsume all its developments into an orthodoxy that proceeds from assumptions of a broadly Heideggerian order.

In some respects these views of Leiter's are well-known and his statement of them in this posting, whilst unusually economical and largely - though not entirely - presented without his usual lacing of insult is less notable itself than in terms of having received a thoughtful response. It is to this response and its interaction with Leiter's conception of the history of philosophy that I will now turn with the intention of adding my own general view of the way in which this decidedly important debate might profitably be advanced. Prior to turning to the reply to Leiter, however, it is worth adding that his posting on this topic was prompted by a comment an earlier posting of his had received which enunciated a view that he took to be paradigmatic for PLC. Leaving aside the scholarly issue that was involved in this exchange (which concerned the legitimacy of appeal to Nietzsche's Nachlass in interpreting his work) the cardinal point for Leiter was the accusation that his own reading of Nietzsche manifested an "analytic" tendency. It was this claim that his hermeneutic preferences were "analytic" rather than "European" that led Leiter to present his view of PLC.

It is this division of responses to the history of philosophy between "analytic" and PLC that has led David Allen to respond to Leiter over at his blog Speculative Humbug. Allen argues that whilst the division between "analytic" and "Continental" might well not be the best way to view different interpretative strategies when it comes to the history of philosophy that there is, nonetheless, something captured by these terms that Leiter is in danger of simply not grasping. In place of the division between "analytic" and "Continental" Allen argues for one between what he terms "situated" and "open" kinds of scholarly reading. "Situated" readings, on Allen's view, present the thinking of figures in relation to some specified pre-existent conception of a topic as, for example, when Heidegger is related to AI rather than being read in terms of his own specific and original philosophical contribution. This "situated" reading is what, on Allen's view, leads to a response to the history of European philosophy that is broadly concerned to view its development as part of on-going conversations that don't include the possibility of conceptual ruptures. By contrast, "open" readings are focused on trying to see what the question of the thinker one is interested in interpreting was concerned with in its own terms and remain "open" to the view that what could emerge from this will be a way of thinking that is not capable of being assimilated to pre-existent ways.

Allen has further contributions to make in his response to Leiter and his posting is certainly worth reading in full (as is Leiter's original posting). However, I want to stop at this point in order to draw some lessons from the distinctions as Leiter and Allen have provided them and think through ways in which I can suggest this argument could be used as an occasion for advance of understanding rather than being - as is so often the case, particularly when disputes concern the status of the work of Derrida - merely a basis for mud-slinging. Allen's distinction does seem to me to capture something significant even though - as he notes himself - it is something of an abstraction.

Focus on a thinker's own works to try to figure out the nature of their contribution in its own terms is surely something worthwhile even it may be - as Kant remarked of Plato - that it is subsequently possible to understand a thinker's contribution better than they understood it themselves. Further, part of the point of any scholarly work on figures from the history of philosophy, is to uncover the multiple levels at which terms and concepts may be working in texts, levels that may well only partially be assimilable to the apparent general logic of the text. In some senses, this recognition is surely shared between scholars of different schools which is why, in many Anglo-American works, you meet expressions such as "this is Locke's 'official' view" which one can contrast with other "views" expressed even within the same text. When put like this it becomes apparent, in fact, that even if you do think the first requirement is to understand a thinker in their own terms it may well not be as evident as you may have first thought what those terms are. This is the basic reason why there is a problem of interpretation at all.

When we see this I think we can note a problem with viewing the focus on the original work of the thinker, as opposed to that of "situating" them in some subsequent debate, as a clear difference between a conception that is most concerned with the thinker's original contribution as opposed to an appropriation of their work for a different project. It is not that this doesn't describe something. It surely does since, for example, to work through a "Kantian" view of punishment, something on which a few philosophers have been engaged, is to elaborate quite a bit more than what Kant himself wrote on the topic (which turns out to be precious little). So, in such a case the "Kantian" conception turns out to be one that requires engagement with a set of distinctions and problems that Kant himself had no evident interest in (even, as it were, "un" officially). So clearly there is something different going on in this case than in the one were we think instead about the pattern of Kant's comprehension of time (a rather difficult and involved topic on which Kant wrote a great deal but which is not obviously coherently collectable into a single kind of doctrine).

When these relations are set out it becomes less clear that Allen's distinction between "situated" and "open" readings really catches the difference between "analytic" and "PLC" in such a way as to restore its importance in the light of Leiter's criticism. Leiter is right to suggest that there are traditions of reading the history of European philosophy and that, within these traditions, there is room for disagreement about what, if anything, is "central" to European philosophy and, further, whether there is, coherently, any such thing as "European" or, come to that, "analytic" philosophy. But Allen is also right to think that the view that some texts can be viewed as opening up entirely new developments in the history of philosophy is part of what motivates one conception of its history and that this is opposed to a more subliminal view that regards that history through the prism of a continuum.

In a broad sense, unless there is some sense of continuity within the history of philosophy then there is a problem about saying what it is that marks a philosophical debate as being specifically one that belongs within the history of philosophy. And it is here I think that we can begin to get at what is at issue between PLC and its opponent Leiter. PLC inherits a view that Leiter's original posting referred to, the view, enunciated clearly by Marx but also emergent in the general reaction to German Idealism, of thinking that there needs to be some engagement between philosophy and "its (possibly several) others". It is not that some sense of this is entirely lacking in those who oppose PLC but the sense of it that they might possess - particularly if, like Leiter, they work on Nietzsche - is one that still has a tendency to assimilate this "otherness" to a notion that is perhaps too ready-to-hand (as Heidegger would say). So Nietzsche, for example, appeals in a broad way to notions such as "life" and "nature" as ways of gesturing at something that does not fit a "logic of the concept" and, somewhat generally put, this resistance to a logic founded on the supremacy of the concept tends to reverberate within phenomenology (even in Husserl with notions like the "life-world") and its inheritance in French philosophy. The problem the latter tradition has, however, is that it wishes to register this resistance without falling back into the "obvious" character of what it is that might be thought to resist the concept (and which is the basis of an uncomfortable engagement with Nietzsche).

So I don't take this division to really rest where Allen takes it to be and nor do I, unlike Leiter, think that PLC is simply a mis-reading of the history of philosophy. It is, though, true that there is something very odd for a Kantian such as myself engaging in debate concerning views about the history of "post-Kantian" philosophy. This is evidently because the various proponents of the view that there is something that is "post-Kantian" philosophy clearly want to distinguish this from whatever "Kantian" philosophy might be. And yet there is, as Leiter again acknowledged, from the neo-Kantians of the late nineteenth century onwards, a revival of conceptions of philosophy that are thought by their proponents to be, in various ways, broadly "Kantian". This does not mean that there are not, within these trends, divisions like that between PLC and their proponents on the one hand and those who wish for different, perhaps more assimilatory readers, on the other. Clearly, since philosophers as different as Wilfrid Sellars  and Lyotard have given extended responses to Kant there is scope within quite different kinds of philosophy for views of what his work consists in and how it might be engaged with. Amongst them, however, it might well be helpful to define even more clearly than has been done in recent years, what the "Kantian" conception of philosophy really consists in and how it relates to  the quite different views that are at work for the adherents of PLC and their opponents.

In conclusion, I do think the phenomena of PLC that Leiter refers to does exist but, unlike Leiter, I don't lament it. It requires a different practice of philosophy and this different practice motivates a different response to the history of philosophy. That does not, or should not, rule out the view that there are many other responses to the history of philosophy available. But the more differentiated conception of such history that Leiter apparently wishes to push is, as Allen states, vitiated by Leiter's fairly partisan commitment to the view that there does exist an "analytic method" that is always superior to any other one (and which he apparently thinks exists even though "analytic philosophy" itself does not!). This commitment ensures that there remains an insuperable obstacle to serious argument with others and produces a peculiar strain in Leiter's commentary. It echoes, in fact, the commitment of the most devoted adherents of PLC, that Heidegger always has the last word on any topic, the basic facet of PLC to which different conceptions of philosophy do need to continue to object. Finding a place for a view of the practice of philosophy and its history that is serious about historical engagement and yet does also think that the centre of philosophical achievement may not be Heideggerian (might even be Kantian!) is something that I would prefer to engage in. This might yet also enable a reading of Derrida that does not produce the reflexive dismissive response of Leiter.


sh said...

I've just been re-reading this post and I realised when I got to the comments section that I never thanked you for referring to my work in such a positive manner. My sincere apologies! I found it very flattering and the comments very interesting and helpful.

I'm presently reworking the piece with a view to submitting a revised version of these ideas as a conference paper (hence my re-reading your post), and your comments here will be extremely helpful in trying to make the model more nuanced.

Gary Banham said...

Thanks very much for this response: always good to hear that something written on here has been appreciated! Please keep in touch with regard to your re-working this paper, I'd be interested in further engagement.