What does it mean to ask the question of philosophy?

One evening, after my continental philosophy seminar, I went out to dinner with the professor. He knew that I had been feeling conflicted about the direction of my philosophical studies. He wasn’t worried that I was going to ditch my interest in music and aesthetics for logic, rather he was concerned that I wanted to do phenomenology without being a continental philosopher. I told him that this was definitely not true, it wasn’t that I wanted to do phenomenology without being a continental philosopher, rather I wanted to understand the implication of phenomenology on philosophy of mind (and philosophy of music). He said, that’s what I just said, you want to be a phenomenologist without being a continental philosopher. To this I replied, hunh, then maybe I don’t know what a continental philosopher is. He said, I think that you don’t, but (ever the pedagogue) why don’t you tell me what you think it is.

Ok, I said, I will.

Continental philosophy is that type of philosophy, traditionally originating with Husserl, that is studied by continental philosophers. It includes phenomenology, philosophical hermeneutics, certain (all?) types of critical theory, deconstruction, and postmodernism. Then, ever the wise ass, I said, what do you think it is?

I’m glad you asked, he said, because you have it all wrong. None of those philosophical movements that you have mentioned need to be continental philosophy. Continental philosophy is not a type of philosophy it is a style of doing philosophy that eschews argumentation for descriptions and readings. That is what continental philsophy is.

In other words, I said, as soon as I attempt to break down Derrida’s essays into arguments I have left the area of continental philosophy for analytic philosophy.

That is correct!

But, I said, I’m interested in bridge building. I want to put Merleau-Ponty in dialogue with Dennett, and Derrida in dialogue with Davidson.

Impossible because they are dead! And you cannot step out of the analytic-continental divide. Philosophers cannot be discussed outside of a tradition. This does not mean that that I cannot discuss Quine or Ryle or that Dennett can’t discuss Merleau-Ponty, rather that when I do (or he does) I do it as a continental philosopher. So you are more than welcome to relate Dennett to Merleau-Ponty, but will you be doing that as an analytic philosopher or as a continental philosher?!

I don’t know. I just want to be a philosopher, I said while somewhat whimpering.

You have to choose, he said, if you are going to be a philosopher you must be one or the other. It is impossible to leave the distinction behind.

Hunh, I said, I hadn’t realized that.

And that was the end. Actually there was a discussion about Rorty, and SPEP versus the ASA and exiting the binary distinction, but it got repetitive.

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6 Comments on “What does it mean to ask the question of philosophy?”

  1. Baekho Says:

    That’s a very interesting take your teacher has on “the great divide”. Until reading this I would have given the same definition as you for “continental philosophy.”

    But I have to say that I find your teacher’s attitude to be rather sectarian. The whole concept of the “divide” seems rather artificial to me. I think it was Hegel who said the very fact you are conscious of a boundary qua boundary means you have transcended it (or are capable of transcending it).

    I think you have the right idea—just be a philosopher. Forget the labels. I don’t think any of the truly greater thinkers, whether analytic or continental, cared much about the labels.

  2. musicalcolin Says:

    Thanks for the reply. I think that you are absolutely correct that there is a sectarian aspect to his definition; however, i I think that it goes beyond that and into some broader philosophical issues about the nature of philosophy. I will probably post more on this in a less indirect manner at some point.

  3. Baekho Says:

    Looking forward to your follow up 🙂 In retrospect, I think I may have come off a bit too harshly on your professor—he seems to be identifying two modes of philosophical inquiry rather than two “schools” . But I suppose I still don’t see what would stop a philosopher from utilizing these two different modes, or even from arriving at some sort of synthesis between continental “reading” or “description” and analytic “argumentation”.

    For example, it seems to me that before argumentation can begin, there must be some agreement on the “appearance” of what is being argued about (i.e. description or phenomenology). And in turn when argumentation has exhausted itself one may find a more hermanutical approach to be apropos to the situation.

  4. Nicholas Says:

    Dear Colin

    I would like to contribute a word, belatedly, to this conversation. I am sympathetic to the predicament you describe – or rather to the two predicaments at issue. The one predicament is to discern the nature of the Analytical-Continental relation. The other predicament is to know how to position oneself vis-a-vis that divide when trying to get a job in philosophy.

    Much conflicting ink has been spilt on the first predicament (or, rather, puzzle or question). Perhaps the most important point here, though, is that the Analytical-Continental distinction, and common understandings of each of its two relata, likely combine geographical, historical, substantive philosophical and method/stylistic philosophical elements. Hence there is unlikely to be a single definition of either relatum that captures all and everything that everyone – or even most people – would apply the relevant term to (especially in the case of ‘Continental philosophy’, since that term is in large part a rag-bag term coined by Anglophones).

    Still, we know well enough what we mean – I think – what it is to do Continental Philosophy in a broadly Analytical way. And that approach has much to commend it, I believe. Moreover, that approach might just help you get a job – at least if combined with doing Analytical in an Analytical way and/or (though less good for jobs) Continental in a Continental way.



  5. Nicholas Says:

    Whoops, there is a type in my post. When I wrote,

    ‘Still, we know well enough what we mean – I think – what is is to do [. .]’,

    I meant,

    ‘Still, we know well enough what it is – I think – to do [. .]’

  6. Nicholas Says:

    Er, there were two typos in that correction. Oh dear. Still, you see what I mean.

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