A few weeks ago, after Nietzsche ushered us out of the era of modern philosophy and we moved into the era of contemporary philosophy, we saw Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein narrow the field down to its analytical school, which focuses heavily on logic and the analysis of language. This school has come to dominate the US and British philosophy systems, but it is not the only one that has continued on. In sharp contrast to the narrow and rigorous analytic school is the wide and wandering school of continental philosophy. In my Philosophy 101 guide, I pulled together this definition of that school:
Continental Philosophy – This refers to a set of traditions of 19th and 20th century philosophy from mainland Europe. Continental philosophy includes the following movements: German idealism, phenomenology, existentialism, hermeneutics, structuralism, post-structuralism, French feminism, the critical theory of the Frankfurt School, and some other branches of Western Marxism. Continental philosophers generally reject scientism, the view that the natural sciences are the best or most accurate way of understanding all phenomena. Continental philosophers often argue that science depends upon a "pre-theoretical substrate of experience, and that scientific methods are inadequate to understand such conditions of intelligibility." Continental philosophy usually considers the conditions of possible experience as variable: determined at least partly by factors such as context, space and time, language, culture, or history. Continental philosophy typically holds that conscious human agency can change the conditions of possible experience: "if human experience is a contingent creation, then it can be recreated in other ways." Thus continental philosophers tend to take a strong interest in the unity of theory and practice, and tend to see their philosophical inquiries as closely related to personal, moral, or political transformation. This tendency is very clear in the Marxist tradition ("philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it"), but is also central in existentialism and post-structuralism. Continental philosophy has an emphasis on metaphilosophy. In the wake of the development and success of the natural sciences, continental philosophers have often sought to redefine the method and nature of philosophy. In some cases, such as German idealism or phenomenology, this manifests as a renovation of the traditional view that philosophy is the first, foundational, a priori science. In other cases, such as hermeneutics, critical theory, or structuralism, it is held that philosophy investigates a domain that is irreducibly cultural or practical. And some continental philosophers, such as Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, or Derrida, doubt whether any conception of philosophy can be truly coherent.
This is clearly a mixed bag, with many ideas that have little in common with one another, but the underlying anti-scientism that runs through many of the philosophers who fall in this school make them common enough to run quickly afoul of an evolutionary philosophy built entirely upon investigating the consequences of findings in that scientific field. In fact, I was tempted to drop the last philosophers from this school off my list, but they are widely cited in academia and have even made appearances on popular tv shows like the Colbert Report. Read some quotes about them, and read my analysis of their thoughts though and see if you can tell me why.
I'm very proud that some people think that I'm a danger for the intellectual health of students. When people start thinking of health in intellectual activities, I think there is something wrong. In their opinion I am a dangerous man, since I am a crypto-Marxist, an irrationalist, a nihilist. —Michel Foucault
Anyone who has heard [Jacques Derrida] lecture in French knows that he is more performance artist than logician. His flamboyant style—using free association, rhymes and near-rhymes, puns, and maddening digressions—is not just a vain pose (though it is surely that). It reflects what he calls a self-conscious "acommunicative strategy" for combating logocentrism. —Mark Lilla in a review in The New York Review of Books
Bernard-Henri Lévy is short on the facts, long on conclusions. —Garrison Keillor in a review in The New York Times
Michel Foucault (1926-1984 CE) was a French philosopher, sociologist, and historian. Foucault is best known for his critical studies of social institutions, most notably psychiatry, medicine, the human sciences, and the prison system, as well as for his work on the history of human sexuality. His work on power, and the relationships among power, knowledge, and discourse has been widely discussed. In 2007, Foucault was listed as the most cited intellectual in the humanities.
One of Foucault’s central theses: all periods of history have possessed specific underlying conditions of truth that constituted what was acceptable as, for example, scientific discourse. Foucault argues that these conditions of discourse have changed over time, in major and relatively sudden shifts, from one period's episteme to another. Foucault refused to examine statements outside of their historical context. The meaning of a statement depends on the general rules that characterize the discursive formation to which it belongs. Fair enough. This is a good reason to give history’s philosophers some credit for working with the knowledge and tools they had at their disposal. It is also a good reason to re-examine their beliefs in light of our progress.
Needs to Adapt
In Foucault's "Technologies of Punishment," he considers two contrasting types of punishment. The first type, "Monarchical Punishment," involves the repression of the populace through brutal public displays of executions and torture. The second, "Disciplinary Punishment," is what Foucault says is practiced in the modern era. Disciplinary punishment gives professionals (psychologists, program facilitators, parole officers, etc.) power over the prisoner, most notably in that the prisoner's length of stay depends on the professionals' judgment. Foucault goes on to argue that Disciplinary punishment leads to self-policing by the populace as opposed to brutal displays of authority from the Monarchical period. Disciplinary punishment is clearly better than monarchical punishment, but there are other options. In a cooperative society concerned with the long-term survival of the species, which understands the workings of evolution and therefore insists on tit for tat justice and never allowing cheaters to win, the various means of punishment should be doled out as necessary and appropriate in an escalating order of: restoration, rehabilitation, and incapacitation as a last resort. The focus of these punishments is the education of the criminal and the deterrence of future offenses by the populace. Seeking retribution gives way to short-term emotions of vengeance that were useful in nature before the public good of justice was provided for by the state. Now though, the emotions of the victim of a crime must not be allowed to override the use of reason to create justice and stability for the long term.
The Order of Things made Foucault a prominent intellectual figure. In this book, Foucault made the claim that "man is only a recent invention" and that the "end of man is at hand.” As far as we know, man is at the end of an evolutionary process that began with the Big Bang. Evolution is the term we use to describe the way life attempts to survive. The end of man will only come when the species goes extinct or finds the means to immortal life. Either way, those ends could be near at hand or a long way off. Our actions will decide which and when.
Jacques Derrida (1930-2004 CE) was a French philosopher born in Algeria who developed the critical theory known as deconstruction and his work has been labeled as post-structuralism and associated with postmodern philosophy. His academic influence in Continental Europe, South America, and all countries where continental philosophy is predominant, is enormous; becoming crucial in debates around ontology, epistemology, ethics, aesthetics, hermeneutics, and the philosophy of language.
Needs to Adapt
Derrida considered that when encountering a classical philosophical opposition (body-soul, existing-being, passivity-activity, sensible-intelligible, receptivity-spontaneity, heteronomy-autonomy, empirical-transcendental, immanent-transcendent, local-global, femininity-masculinity, animal-Man, beast-sovereign, etc.), one never encounters peaceful coexistence of the two opposing concepts, but rather a violent hierarchy, where one of the two dominates over the other. In order to begin the deconstruction, one must break the link between the two opposing concepts. But, as a second step, Derrida added that one must do what is needed so that the two concepts stay separate and non-hierarchical. Not to synthesize the terms in opposition, but to mark their difference and eternal interplay. To mark the undecidable of all oppositions working across all texts in western culture, he created marks like: the pharmakon, that is neither remedy nor poison, neither good nor evil, neither the inside nor the outside, neither speech nor writing; the supplement, that is neither a plus nor a minus, neither an outside nor the complement of an inside, neither accident nor essence, etc.; the hymen that is neither confusion nor distinction, neither identity nor difference, neither consummation nor virginity, neither the veil nor unveiled, neither inside nor the outside, etc.; the gram, that is neither a signifier nor a signified, neither a sign nor a thing, neither presence nor an absence, neither a position nor a negation, etc.; and spacing, that is neither space nor time. Though Derrida was highly regarded by contemporary philosophers his work has been regarded by other Analytic philosophers, as pseudo-philosophy or sophistry. Searle, a frequent critic of Derrida, exemplified this view in his comments on deconstruction by saying: “...anyone who reads deconstructive texts with an open mind is likely to be struck by the same phenomena that initially surprised me: the low level of philosophical argumentation, the deliberate obscurantism of the prose, the wildly exaggerated claims, and the constant striving to give the appearance of profundity by making claims that seem paradoxical, but under analysis often turn out to be silly or trivial.” According to Foucault, Derrida practices the method of obscurantisme terroriste. He writes so obscurely you can't tell what he's saying, that's the obscurantism part, and then when you criticize him, he can always say, "You didn't understand me; you're an idiot.” That's the terrorism part. Derrida is no lover of wisdom; he is no philosopher. As defined above, he is deserving of spacing - neither space nor time.
Bernard-Henri Lévy (1948- CE) is French public intellectual, philosopher, journalist, and best-selling author.
Needs to Adapt
Lévy became famous as the young founder of the New Philosophers school. This was a group of young intellectuals who were disenchanted with communist and socialist responses to the near-revolutionary upheavals in France of May 1968, and who articulated a fierce and uncompromising moral critique of Marxist and socialist dogmas. His books have been criticized for being neither journalism nor philosophy, but attempting to be both. More recently, in the essay De la guerre en philosophie (2010), Lévy was embarrassed when he used, as a central point of his refutation of Kant, the writings of French "philosopher" Jean-Baptiste Botul. Botul's writings are actually well known spoofs, and Botul himself is a fictional creation as is easily guessed from his thought system being called “botulism.” This is the state that famous philosophers have fallen to. It is a consequence of the atomization of knowledge in academia and the retreat of philosophy from the realm of the natural sciences. There may be fitter philosophers out there, and if so, I hope they come here to help me with my endeavor.
So Foucault clearly has a healthier relationship with thinking than his other two French continental compatriots, but I couldn't bear doing a post on Derrida and Levy alone so I've lumped them all together. In one sense, this is unfair to Foucault, but at least he looks much better by comparison, and he looks better with just a short, shallow entry on my part. (Digging deeper into Foucault's writings exposes plenty of criticisms.) The less said about Derrida and Levy the better.
Over the course of writing these deeper blog post profiles of the 60 philosophers on my original list, I've become much better acquainted with the current scholarship and personalities in the field and I don't despair nearly as much as I did when I finished my first draft. There are plenty of non-famous academics publishing interesting things, and I've even managed to join their ranks with my own published paper. I have hope now that fitter philosophers can and will carry human thoughts forward in a productive way, and I'll do my best to be part of that now that I've finished laying out my beliefs and comparing them to those from the best minds in history. Thanks for listening and pushing me along the way!