If we look at the history of philosophy and science we will see that in many instances the triumph of a philosophy (broadly construed) occurs not so much through the refutation of a position so much as through the enlistment of others that gradually leads the prior philosophical positions to all but pass out of existence. Thus, for example, the Enlightenment thinkers did not so much refute the Scholastics, but rather through a lot of [often unfair] rhetoric, enlistment, institutional maneuvering, etc., enlisted the Scholastics out of existence.
Any reader of Medieval philosophy knows that there are all sorts of precious gems to be found in these forms of thought and that characterizations of Scholastic thought by figures like Descartes, Voltaire, Hume, etc., are often on the order of Monty Python’s Holy Grail. Beginning from the position that the persistence of an entity in time requires the ongoing enlistment of other entities as a means of sustaining or perpetuating itself (e.g., my body needs food, atoms constantly exchange electrons, etc), the success of the Enlightenment thinkers (and it was not a complete success), consisted in setting up roadblocks in the ability of Scholasticism to re-produce itself across time through acts of communication. This occurred in part through acts of seduction (creating new philosophies that were politically and intellectually attractive to new generations), strategic use of the printing press, the formation of networks outside of the Scholastic dominated universities, and rhetorical mockery of Scholastic thought that attached it to a number of the more egregious aspects of recent European history.
Hume, for example, mocks Scholastic thought suggesting that it is simply an elaborate defense of superstition (i.e., witch burnings, religious wars, brutal oppression of uneducated classes, etc) garbed in sophisticated language. Scholasticism, taking itself to be establish, institutionally protected by the universities, the aristocracies, and the Church, did not see as necessary to defend itself against these attacks (yes I’m exaggerating) and was content to continue its debates within the walls of the academy. As a result, it sealed its own fate by failing to recognize that it is not simply the content of ideas that count, but also their transmission and proliferation. In this regard it’s worthwhile to think of alternative history’s of philosophy so as to underline the inherent contingency of ideas and positions.
How, for example, would philosophy be different today had Hume died before writing the Treatise and the Enquiry. There would be no Kant and therefore no subsequent German Idealism. Yet this would entail a fundamental difference in the issues dominating thought today and surrounding social constructivism and linguistic idealism. The absence of Hume would mean that the critiques of induction from an epistemic standpoint would not have arisen and therefore would have headed off subsequent idealist trajectories of thought. Such experiments can open thought to envisioning other possibilities and ways of talking about the world.
All of this sheds a different light on the dominance of teaching from the standpoint of the history of philosophy in Continental philosophy departments. When viewed through this lens, asserting the primacy of the history of philosophy becomes not so much a practical issue of the impossibility of doing philosophy unless one is well acquainted with the history of philosophy, so much as it is a matter of a certain strategy in trials of strength, intent on preserving philosophy in a particular form and defending against the emergence of new forms.
I am definitely not making the claim that the history of philosophy shouldn’t be taught or that our graduate students shouldn’t have a strong grounding in the history of philosophy. Nor am I making the absurd claim that every thinker does not first find him or herself thrown into a world populated by the history of prior thought that functions as a material cause for their own philosophical work. Rather, what I take umbrage with is the tendency of Continental programs to require dissertation work on another thinker. What I would like to see is something as cool as Continental thought with the authorial voice and commitment that you find in problem-oriented Anglo-American philosophy.
I suspect that some of the reason we don’t find this in Continental thought has to do with the linguistic turn. Insofar as the linguistic turn led to the conclusion that we can’t talk directly about the world but are rather always haunted by language and history, the recourse becomes one of writing about what another philosopher said about the nature of the world so as to simultaneously 1) be able to talk about the nature of the world, while 2) claiming that one is merely talking about texts. Since texts, like Humean impressions or the Cartesian cogito are treated as what we are directly related to, it follows that any talk of the world must be mediated by texts.
We thus get a strange triangulation where the philosopher wishes to say something about the world, recognizes that the linguistic turn prevents this, so we must talk through a naive philosopher’s text to speak about the world. The philosopher using this strategy simultaneously believes, perhaps, what he is saying about the world through, say, Leibniz, while being able to plead a critical stance by virtue of merely talking about texts and not, therefore, naively thinking that one can directly speak about the world.
larvalsubjects Says: February 7, 2009 at 12:15 am For me the issue is not with whether or not work references other works and is in dialogue with particular philosophers so much as it is a matter with whether or not work is about those thinkers. I would hardly know how to think in a way that wasn’t in dialogue with Plato, the Stoics and atomists, the rationalists, the empiricists, German idealism, Marx, Deleuze, Husserl, Derrida, Foucault, Lacan, etc. These other thinkers are always in the back of my mind and I constantly draw materials from them. However, what I’m trying to think is not about these thinkers or an exposition of those thinkers. I suspect that Continental philosophy would be recognizable as Continental philosophy by virtue of having a certain pedigree of references and dealing with a certain set of themes common to that tradition and informed by that tradition. The difference would be that it wouldn’t be commentary on these other thinkers.
Tusar N. Mohapatra Says: February 7, 2009 at 5:05 am
I as a non-specialist disagree with Mikhail’s verdict regarding Levi’s prose. The clarity, courage, and honesty with which he conducts his ontological quest is really commendable. May I take this opportunity to ask, why Merleau-Ponty continues to be ignored by him. [TNM]
larvalsubjects Says: February 7, 2009 at 5:14 am Tusar,
I really have no excuse for the absence of Merleu-Ponty in my thought. I’ve always felt like I’ve had something of a missed encounter with him. While I’ve read the Phenomenology of Perception and a number of his essays, he’s never really clicked with me for some reason or stuck in my mind.