Burning Bridges, Peter Wolfendale

Author Information: Peter Wolfendale, University of Warwick, pete.wolfendale@gmail.com

Editor’s Note: Originally posted on 16 July 2013 at http://deontologistics.wordpress.com/2013/06/16/burning-bridges/. Thanks to Peter Wolfendale for his generosity for allowing me to repost his essay. I made minor edits. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-YK

I’ve read a couple interesting posts over the last few days on the topic of the analytic/continental divide.

The first was Jon Cogburn’s post (http://bit.ly/ZLy7wz) linking to Ray Brassier’s talk on Sellars’ Nominalism at the Matter of Contradiction conference in London in March (the video [please see below] unfortunately cuts out before the Q&A that I was involved in). Jon presents some interesting remarks on the ‘divide’ from the perspective of someone with analytic training who has subsequently attempted to enter the world of continental philosophy, at least in its American form (the centre of which seems to be SPEP [Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy]).

The second was Roman Altshuler’s post (http://bit.ly/1a6PtY5) on the importance of dialog between continental and analytic philosophy. Roman’s post is a fantastic contrast to Jon’s insofar as it seems to come from the opposite direction: someone with loosely continental training coming to analytic work later, albeit from a European perspective (in which the ‘divide’ is configured quite differently). In addition, the comments on Roman’s post raise some very interesting issues, such as the problems caused by differences in the way Area of Specialization/Area of Competence distinctions are configured between the traditions (i.e., thematics vs. history). This is something that causes me serious headaches when trying to put my own CV together. I usually find discussions of the divide to be severely worn and uninteresting, but these were exceptions and are very worth reading.

Still, I think I should probably briefly state my own view of the issue here, as it has mutated quite a bit over the years. In short, I think the ‘bridging’ metaphor in terms of which these debates are usually configured has become part of the problem labelled by the word ‘divide’ and that it must be burned if we are to solve this problem (or any subset of problems that constitute it). I studied both analytic and continental philosophy at undergraduate, did an MA in Continental Philosophy with a dissertation on Deleuze’s metaphysics, did a PhD on Heidegger’s account of the Question of Being and its relation to metaphysics, and am now heavily bound up in work on Quine, Sellars, Brandom, and a number of self-identifying analytic thinkers. I have discovered time and time again that I simply do not fit in to the neat set of categories that the divide/bridge framing sets up.

The work I do drawing on thinkers from either side is not usefully classified as bridging, because I see them as contributing to the development of philosophical problematics that do not neatly split apart into ‘analytic’ and ‘continental’ sides. I aim to do original work that draws on resources from both traditions, which I am happy to explain in as neutral terms as I’m able. I’ll spare the anecdotes about how this inevitably means taking flack from both sides, either for choice of references (e.g., Hegel/Heidegger/Deleuze or Frege/Quine/Sellars) or levels of exegetical/analytical detail (e.g., too much/not enough discussion of classic historical texts/cutting edge journal debates), but will simply say that my aims are often frustrated by the current configuration of philosophical traditions.

There are differences in forms of expression, thematic/historical awareness, and philosophical methodology within both the analytic tradition (e.g., between ‘therapeutic’ ordinary language philosophers and formalist metaphysicians) and the continental tradition (e.g., between Francophile poststructuralists and proponents of German Idealism), but we are never encouraged to see these as ‘divides’ that need ‘bridging’. We should be able to deal with similar differences across traditional lines in the same terms. As such, my response to the aforementioned problems is to refuse to identify as either an ‘analytic’ philosopher or a ‘continental’ philosopher. I am a philosopher, plain and simple. I study the topics I take to be important, and I reference the thinkers I take to be important. I try to adopt the virtues and avoid the vices of each tradition as I understand them. I firmly believe that this is the only healthy response to the ‘divide’ as it currently exists.

I could say some more specific things on these topics here, but I’ve made most of the useful points elsewhere already. However, I will take the opportunity to quote some of those points here. First, I’ll quote this response to some thoughts by Reid Kotlas (http://bit.ly/14qQupL) on the question on clarity in philosophical writing, which I wrote in the comments thread to his post:

I think there are styles that encourage rigor, although there is no single such style, nor does writing in such styles necessarily encourage rigor. I find that there is plenty of analytic philosophy that takes it’s own stylistic tropes too far, ultimately becoming less clear, as well as some analytic philosophers who simply write in awkward ways. I find reading McDowell like looking at a magic eye picture, as usually I have no grasp of what his position is the first couple times I read it (he has a tendency to use complex clauses and multiple negatives, so that it can be hard to tell which is his own position and which is his foil when tracking through the text), and then find that at somepoint it just clicks into place and I can see what the structure of the argument is (and there is a structure, albeit it labyrinthine). Davidson and Dummett however I like much less. I remember being in a seminar on Dummett’s paper on the justification of deduction, and no one (including the seminar tutor) had a good idea what was going on in it. I eventually realised what the argument was, but it was all presented in the most horrible order.

When it comes to continental thinkers, I think Heidegger has good moments and bad. His lectures are usually very good, and his private Beitrage style notes are generally very, very bad. I haven’t read enough Derrida, but I think that it’s obvious he’s had a bad influence over all. He has a few stylistic and argumentative tropes that he might be able to pull off, but few others can, despite a lot of trying. There is also a more general style that one finds in a lot of French thinkers, where one gets the impression that they’re almost trying to alienate the reader, by purposefully not filling in blanks and making as many opaque references as possible. Deleuze’s own early work (as opposed to his writing on others, which is generally very well written) suffers from this quite badly. Everybody agrees that [Difference and Repetition] is a brilliant book (myself included), but I don’t think anyone has managed to actually reconstruct everything it says (despite their being a veritable cottage industry in tracking down its more obscure references). The less said about his stylistic experiments with Guattari the better.

Ultimately, I think there is good and bad writing in both ‘camps’, and that one does well to pick up the good bits from each, and their forebears (I personally have a soft spot for Kant’s style, but I recognise that I’m perhaps a little masochistic in this). Clear writing can also be expressive, using all the tools of metaphor, similie, analogy and narrative (something I think Hegel, Heidegger, Deleuze and Brandom are masters of), the problem is that unless these devices are used to aid in understanding arguments, they’re basically promissory notes. There’s nothing wrong with such notes. Sometimes we hit the end of our inferential rope and all we’re left with is intuitions and whatever modes of expression we can use to convey them. The trick is to remember that they’re discursive IOUs, and not to peddle them as hard conceptual currency. Let’s be humble when we’ve reached the precipice where reasons run out and we’ve got no choice but to make intuitive leaps, rather than valorising the act of leaping itself.

Second, in the comments thread on Jon’s post (http://bit.ly/zuO7Xj) I linked to one of my earlier posts, in which I discussed the relationship between Ray’s work and my own in terms of how we approach the continental/analytic split. I’ll quote the relevant passage here:

I cannot overstate Ray’s influence on my own thinking. He’s responsible for my increasing commitment to philosophical rationalism, and more recently for forcing me to return to the treasures of Plato’s work (which I’ll say more about below). We have some importantly different influences (Laruelle and Badiou on his side, and Deleuze and Heidegger on my own), and some equally importantly overlapping ones (Kant and Hegel). However, we came to Sellarsian philosophy independently and from different directions at about the same time. Ray has taken the more direct route by leaping headlong into Sellars’ own work (something which I’m lagging behind on), whereas I’ve taken the more indirect route, approaching it by way of Brandom’s eminently post-Sellarsian philosophy of language. This has lead to certain differences of expression and emphasis between us, but these only serve to strengthen our distinct lines of attack upon the conceptual citadel that is Sellars’ legacy. There are obviously disagreements between us, but even I’m not entirely sure we’re they all lie yet.

However, there is one helpful way of thinking about the difference in emphasis between our approaches, which reveals both how they differ and how they complement one another. Ray has famously spearheaded the charge to bring epistemology back into the fold of ‘continental philosophy’, with reasonable success, and I see myself as trying to lead a similar charge on a different front, namely, to bring semantics back into the fold. The systematic study of the content of thought is something that was central to the work of Hegel and Husserl, but the filtration of their legacy through Heidegger and Derrida (and even the later Wittgenstein) has left a philosophical landscape which is exceedingly hostile to the idea that thereis a universal structure of thought, let alone that we can describe it in any level of detail. This hostility is one of the central props holding open the chasm between the analytic and continental traditions, and it must be conceptually demolished with as much pyrotechnic flair as we can muster. In this respect, the return of rationalists like Badiou and Meillassoux to the centre of mainstream continental discourse has been entirely positive. This also explains why some of the attempts to find common ground between the traditions by way of the legitimate parallels between Heidegger and Wittgenstein have been so unsuccessful, insofar as they try to use this prop as a bridge. Anyway, it’s important to see that my own and Ray’s charges are not opposed, but are part of a single rationalist campaign to return reason to its rightful place at the heart of philosophy. As Brandom is fond of saying: “semantics is the soft underbelly of epistemology”, and this makes my own concerns entirely congruent with Ray’s.

I’ll leave it there for now.

Categories: Comments

Tags: , , , ,

Leave a Reply