jueves, 22 de marzo de 2012

On the Analytic/Continental Divide: Philosophy and the State of Academia

- On the Analytic/Continental Divide - 
Philosophy and the State of Academia

     Levi and others have been debating a bit about certain features of the academic and dialogic practices of analytic and continental philosophy departments. 

      I myself have experienced all ends of the spectrum in my academic trajectory. I started as a philosophy major in a heavily Continental oriented department in Peru, moved to an extremely analytic oriented department at Cornell; proceeded to write a thesis on Heidegger there, and now I am in UCLA at a comparative literature department majoring in philosophy! I always feel out of place no matter where I am, to be honest. A few things come to mind:

1) The ethos of dialog in analytic-oriented departments I take to be much less vertical and much more 'democratic' in their modus operandi. Even when notable authorities in the field give seminars (here at UCLA: Tyler Burge, Kaplan...) they are routinely challenged to defend their views every time by undergraduates, grad students, and other professors. This is taken to be commonly accepted practice and they seem happy to engage in arguments and disputes, taking themselves rather humbly in argument.

2) By the same token, I have found that Continental-oriented departments are much more reluctant to allow debate to take place. There is almost a kind of protectionism for the authors one is surveying, as if one would sin of being naive if one dared hope to raise contention with the likes of Heidegger, or Lacan, or Badiou. Professors are usually more prone to lecture, and leave discussion to exegetical issues, more than working out whether the theory is a good one. This reverential attitude leads to students developing a kind of inhibition about developing their own views on the matter, or even asking clarificatory questions of the sort that require formulation in the way of a challenge ("how does the mirror stage work in a society without mirrors?"). This last phenomenon results in a lot of jargon just being passed on to students without them having worked out their meanings properly.

3) I take this to be both a stylistic and a philosophical issue. Stylistically, it makes sense a lot of Continental theory needs unraveling, since the tradition is known, not without justification, for some exceedingly convoluted/obscure writing. Thus the need to lecture and engage in exegesis. By the same token, the clarity and formal coherency, much adored by analytics, goes well with the blunt statements, and openness to debate. 

4) At this point one can already see, however, how the stylistic issue overlaps with a philosophical issue. The Continental tradition is also regarded, not without justification, as engaging in highly synthetic views of the tradition, which challenge the history of philosophy, if not the West, comprehensively. They often take themselves to be enacting some kind of liberation from a thwarting force that plagues the tradition: whether these be thwarted wills bent before Truth (Nietzsche), the nostalgic mourning for a forgetfulness of Being (Heidegger), an aesthetic reapportioning of thought to intuition against intellection and representation (Bergson),  a crusade against the atonality of the contemporary (non)-world (Badiou), etc. The thinkers in the Continental tradition are often thought of as performing a kind of historical rupture, both a diagnosis of the shackles that have carried us for long (or, in some cases, since always), and thus also the announcing of a new time for thought. All of them wage war against the specialists, and deplore the hegemony of critique, classical epistemology, and representation.  This is why in tone, as much as content, Continental theory often has a 'bombastic' dimension to it, which fits well within the romantic and leftist-revolutionary spirit of the times in which many of their authors worked within.

Yet one must also note that part of what was ferociously criticized under this tradition was the very idea of systematic comprehensiveness, and the very scientific pretensions of philosophy. The critique of critique, which explodes in the 20th Century post-phenomenological tradition, becomes progressively skeptical of the idea that a systematic philosophy, even in the form of (fundamental) ontology, could take place, or at the very least, be worthy of the thought of the 'genuine' thinker. Philosophy, for a large part of this tradition, became not so much about weeding out the true from the false, but about attaining interpretative leverage, hermeneutic clarity, historical acumen, deconstructive awareness, creative exuberance, affirmative power, militant subjectivity, etc.

In short, authors were assessed by their methodological placement rather than by the coherency of their views; we are invited to see what a given thinker thought and why, rather than to examine the internal coherency of their theory. A question of methodological delimitation rather than of internal analysis, was surely in order. And the "laboratory"
 obsession with clarity, with clearly defined 'research programs', and with critique and formal logic to guide its paths, was greatly seen as the evil to be dealt with. Even Hegel, that great foe of immediacy and paragon of systematicity, becomes skeptical with regards to formalization,  and the tradition that ensues therein follows the lead. The emblematic example here is perhaps Heidegger's own attempted reworking of the entire academic structuring, to serve the hermeneutic integration of thought to its past, rendering it aware of the ever aggravating history of an essential forgetting. The mystery lies in the word, for "we have no yet understood!" Indeed, could we ever?

5) Yet the effect of this 'emancipation' from the perils of critique has been awkwardly a profound dogmatism. Reverence takes the place of argumentation, since all one can hope to do is understand, not refute. One can at best go over the old critiques, the old disputes. But to challenge the pillars of thought cannot but result from an overhastiness. This is profoundly reactive: digression is taken to be a symptom of misunderstanding. The tacit assumption is that one can never be wrong since, effectively, one's challenge will always be the result of incomprehension. This dismantles the rational, not to say dialectical, core that set philosophy apart from sophism, and delivers thought back to the adorations of the sacred.

6) The analytic style, for its part, has obviously emphasized the virtues of clarity and rigor, precisely insofar as it has often strived for the scientific prestige of other disciplines. Its major proponents take pride the more they themselves are taken to disappear from the texts, insofar as they 'let the arguments speak for themselves'. What Continentals chastise as a dullness of style, they applaud as the sobriety of real labor. And of course, close to the pragmatic and empiricist traditions, there is something quite patriarchal and deflationary about the rhetoric for clarity and the 'no bs' policy they promote. They take pride in specialization, for it is the mark of institutionalized prestige. Research programs are encouraged, which means that it is not necessary to ruminate on abstractions like 'being qua being'; Fodor claims he is not interested in skepticism, Burge writes a treatise on the origins of objectivity but doesn't care about idealism. Soames applauds the segmentation of the field, and forecasts an even more violent segmentation, as a sign that philosophy is finally on the brink of living up to its promise.

To 'not care' is deemed commendable, since it signals that one is serious enough to brush off the 'Looney bin' populated by Continental crackpots (like Searle says, those philosophers whose names start with 'H'). Thus they end up
 with patronizing dismissal of any attempts to make grandiose statements, a castigation for anyone who seeks to deviate from the seriousness of scientific labor and the resolution of technical issues. Classrooms welcome the argumentative battles, since critique is very much on the side of rigor and technical scrutiny, systematicity is always boon, and the capacity to attain formal coherency and explanatory transparency separates the men from the boys. 

There where Continentals see a deficit in soul, analytics see a commitment to serious work. There where analytics see a deficit in rigor, the Continentals see the roots of a subversive stand before the historical status quo. Those 'well defined problems' that are the source for scientific progress for analytics, appear to Continentals as the mark of unquestioned phallogocentric violence, ontotheological forgetfulness, bad wills, desire, power, the State, or whatever. In both cases, one elides the other's work for its purported radicalism, but tacit conservatism. Both are quite right about the other, but wrong about themselves.

7) The truth is, that both sides end up reactivating a form of dogmatism. Analytics, for their part, think it is philosophically legitimate to obviate those 'big questions', for it is instructive to know that any sensible practice cannot begin 'from scratch', if not less, and so that it must put to the side the full weight of historical exegesis. It barely takes a coarse scanning over Burge's much celebrated 'magnum opus' and its 'attempts' to make brief commentary on Heidegger, or Soames' avowal of how the early forefathers of the analytic 'school' destroyed Idealism in a few pristine sentences, to realize this. Then one cringes, and must in good consciousness be appalled.

     But one cannot simply obviate the idealist, or the skeptic; and one cannot simply 'drop' the 18th Century baggage and raise a generation of experts in debating about whether sixty seven grains of sand make a heap. And again, although many exceptions exist, there is something of a ubiquity in the tradition that corresponds to this. They overlook the difficulties of philosophy insofar as it would be capable of grinding down not just of a 'well defined' subject matter in the company of researchers, but of thinking its time, perhaps in solitude. It forgets what I take to have been the lesson taught to us by Socrates, and repeated in Descartes and Hegel; namely, that philosophy must begin anew, ever again, perhaps with very little, if not nothing, in the interests of never letting itself be decided in advance. And indeed, in obviating the dangers with the 'hard line' rhetorical appeals to the clownishness of crackpots and their lofty prose, they elide, far too often, the proximity philosophy bears not just to its scientific conditions, but  to its political, artistic and historical ones, as well. 

        Continentals, for their part, have often confused the destitution of rationality for an invitation to refuse the demand for rigor and systematic coherency, in favor of an engrossing exegetical interpretation that deflects anything but scholarship. And yet in doing so, their purported radicalism reverts to conservatism, and their purported anti-academicism reappears in the guise of an objection-repellent specialization. For what else could one do once truth has been deposed, once representation holds no sway over the wills of the strong, once the ontological difference precludes the objectification of Being, or once the cunning of desire overturns every cunning of reason back onto itself? What can we, contemporaries, hope for besides toast to the long sought freedom from the shackles of reason, from the Westernized hegemony, from the patriarchal desire, or from the metaphysical obsession? What can we strive for, except to exert a perpetual vigilance against those who, in the name of truth, seek to confront us with the force of reasons? What are we to do but to revert into our cozy corners, and pledge, before an insular wall, not to let these spooks haunt us any more? 

The result is clear: in what becomes an exacerbated skepticism, historicists patronizingly brush off the attempts to enter into rational deliberation, and not just historical apprehension. Everything is decided for them, until the next 'big thing' out of France acquires guru status and 'breaks the history of the world in two'. Until the next event, metaphysical beginning, act of divine violence, or advent ex nihilo interrupts the stability of the world, rendered otherwise immobile. The obsession with stylistic exuberance passes on, as a sign of spiritual elevation,  and everything that reeks of being mundane, of  being perhaps immediately comprehensible, is suspected of harboring authoritarian prejudices and is symptomatic of positivist shallowness.  The impenetrability of discursive obscurity guarantees that one may dedicate a lifetime to deciphering rather that weaving, and thus philosophy becomes a perpetual deferral of its task, with a presumed modesty camouflaging what in truth enacts stagnancy, a courtesy that veils an order. Twenty years of Aristotle before Nietzsche, no less, ordains the Master! Isn't this exactly the observe of Searle's call for us to 'drop all the bad 18th Century' terminology and its parochial excesses in one fell swoop? 

 Perhaps the single most blunt exemplar proper to this pathological tradition comes with Lacan's declaration before a court of agigated, revolutionary-thirsty students: "You all want a Master, you will get it!". Indeed, there is in the political and artistic inflections of Continentally oriented theorists and students a paradoxical congruence between the need for liberation and absolute submission.  An urgency to give away that which binds becomes indiscernible from an absolute bindedness, the cult of the individual, the enslavement of the passions, and all the other perils for those who insist on freeing thought from the shackles of reason. Such is the paradox: absolute freedom from rational constraint becomes equivalent to the absolute constraint. Is this not the cunning of reason, after all? This much Kant knew; reason is the condition of possibility for freedom. We are gripped by norms, and the normative dimension of our being is that in which we become beings that are capable of challenging, revising, and endorsing; indeed, of judging and making commitments. One gives away freedom along with reason; one disowns one's capacity to partake in the sensus communis as the disguised vanity of the skeptic purports to avoid domination.

      All of this to say, that in freeing oneself from the (scientific) kernel that illuminates the rational demands for rigor and justification, one gives away that which allowed oneself to engage in debate in the first place. The power of deliberation becomes deflated in the great market for theories, before which one may, at best, choose and hope to understand, but never question or challenge. This is the obverse of the anti-critical nod towards intuition; the normative envelopment of judgment and intellection is given over in the name of an experience which reason cannot touch. In the name of the 'subject', 'culture', 'being', or whatever other deflationary icon for the profane to adore, every commitment becomes weary, and the revolutionary stupor reveals itself for what it is: a liberal, if not 'democratic', relativism. It should come as no surprise then that the moment of opening of liberation is the obverse of the closing of deliberation

8) What to do in these confused times? The task ahead is perhaps somewhat obvious: philosophy cannot afford to disconnect itself from the exigencies of its time- it must preserve from science the passion for systematic rigor and formal coherency. It must applaud the scientific irreverence for tradition, in its capacity and ambition to call into question any claim, at any time, albeit not all of them at once, as Sellars knew. At the same time, it must appropriate its reverence for the rational scrutiny without which philosophy dissolves into sophistry, and gives away its discursive richness.  

But it must also applaud the political irreverence towards institutional sedimentation, against the prescription of arbitrarily assigned limits. It must wage war against the sedentary and unspoken rule that can be brought to sight only after patient examination of that which conditions it. That is, it must also appropriate the political and artistic reverence for the unruliness of spirit, for the philological obsession to unearth the roots from a past that unknowingly binds us to an immobile present, and for the affirmative purchase of thought to edify and not just challenge, to revisit and not just renew, ever anew. Systematic rigor without synthetic ambition is indeed too small, but synthetic ambition without systematic rigor is indeed too reckless. Neither the thoughtless enclosure of the Church of the Book, elevated by the adoration of the bovine aestheticist, nor the soulless enclosure of the instrumental demand, with its desacration of every lead bestowed to us by those who came before us, in the name of an enlightenment, far too dim to be worthy of the name.

Only the conjunction of the two poles, escaping from their self-proclaimed solemnity, can mobilize a significant philosophical traversal of our time. It is ours. 

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