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Postmuddleism is not dead, yet....
April 7, 2008 8:25 AM   Subscribe

French Theory. "This is drivel about drivel — “metadrivel” as some stucturalist, post-structuralist or deconstructionist might say."
posted by Xurando (132 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite

 
That was a great summary, but two things: It really jars on me how both Fish and Cusset talk about French Theory as if it were a Some Very Specific French Thing Versus America. Also, Fish gets Butler and Scott wrong -- they're not "criticizing something because it is socially constructed", they are undergoing a "critical interrogation" of the process of social construction. Critical, as in Frankfurt-School/Enlightenment-critical, not as in the usual negative-connotation-criticism-critical.
posted by suedehead at 8:47 AM on April 7, 2008


Random postmodern essay generator
posted by infinitefloatingbrains at 8:49 AM on April 7, 2008 [3 favorites]


infinte beat me to the puch by like 30 sec!
posted by timsteil at 8:59 AM on April 7, 2008


One of my bosses is very engaged in the fight against continental philosophy/critical theory. You can read some of this papers here (under the section 'On and Against Continental Philosophy').
posted by leibniz at 9:19 AM on April 7, 2008 [1 favorite]


America needs theory like a Fish needs a blog.
posted by octobersurprise at 9:19 AM on April 7, 2008 [1 favorite]


Don't miss the link at the bottom of the page linked by infinitefloatingbrains to the Alan Sokal "Social Text Affair" -- which I've just given you directly.
posted by George_Spiggott at 9:22 AM on April 7, 2008


Stay tuned for exciting new developments in this thread!

- Comments self-righteously defending Science against The Humanities, accompanied by anecdotes about how easy liberal arts majors have it!

- Comments weeping about how the evil deconstructionists are hurting the work of Science, with po-faced recitations of all the good things Science has done for us!

- Comments linking French theory to right-wing politics and Intelligent Design. That means they're equally bad, natch!

- Comments lamenting the state of academic scholarship and discourse these days!

- Many, many comments pointing out how academic work dealing with French theory is difficult to read and uses big words, and then arrogantly dismissing it on the basis of the commenter's own ignorance and incomprehension!

- Comments attacking English departments for not studying the Great Books anymore!

Don't touch that dial! Your rerun of "Thirty Years of Profoundly Uninformed Debate" is coming up right after these messages!
posted by nasreddin at 9:23 AM on April 7, 2008 [42 favorites]


Before things get too out of hand, let me just mention that the best explanation I've ever come up with of postmodernism is The Beatles' White Album.

On the subject of the article... Stanley Fish usually annoys the spats off me, but here, on a topic he actually knows something about, he's very good. I guess I have to remove him from the Harold Bloom Hall of Fame of People That Annoy Kattullus Beyond All Bounds of Reason.

I won't try and defend all that ever has been called post-modernism. Like with most everything, science, philosophy or pizza, for instance, a lot of crap has been given the label post-modernism, but the best post-modernists are brilliant. Derrida, Murakami and, yes, The Beatles, certainly don't need me to defend them.

Furthermore, the anti-French theory stuff is just yet another iteration of the "continental philosophy suXX0rZ" drivel that's been coming out of England for centuries.
posted by Kattullus at 9:26 AM on April 7, 2008 [1 favorite]


(Can I just say I'm tremendously sympathetic to, and appreciative of, nasreddin's all-too-realistic and clearly experienced summary of how these discussions tend to go, even if I probably differ with him strongly about where I'd come down in such a quasi-debate?)
posted by George_Spiggott at 9:30 AM on April 7, 2008


Stay tuned for exciting new developments in this thread!

You forgot:

-Comments implying that criticism of postmodernism is proof of ignorance!

-Comments supporting continental philosophy in the vaguest of terms!
posted by Pope Guilty at 9:31 AM on April 7, 2008 [6 favorites]


(Can I just say I'm tremendously sympathetic to, and appreciative of, nasreddin's all-too-realistic and clearly experienced summary of how these discussions tend to go, even if I probably differ with him strongly about where I'd come down in such a quasi-debate?)
posted by George_Spiggott at 11:30 AM on April 7


Yes you can! Now do so, please.
posted by adamdschneider at 9:33 AM on April 7, 2008


Many people tend to see what they want to see when catch-all phrases like "French theory," or "postmodernism," or "deconstruction" are lazily bandied about. One often knows in advance what to expect in these discussions: smug caricatures and broad-brush condemnations of pedantic obscurantism that fufill a certain anti-intellectual tendency to assume that all academics not engaged in the "hard reality" of the sciences are at best frivolous, parlor game decadents, and at worst jargon-addled charlatans. And certainly, just as there are some kneejerk and patronizing PC Volvo liberals who fufill a certain embarassing political stereotype, so too are there some academic theorists who drink too freely of their own moonshine to demand serious attention, but in both cases my experience (both as a progressive, and as a person with an interest in philosophy--broadly construed) is that these people are the exception and not the rule. To turn to these topics only in the interest of finding confirmation of pre-digested stereotypes seems a peculiar way to spend one's time. And not especially enlightening.
posted by ornate insect at 9:34 AM on April 7, 2008 [2 favorites]



-Comments implying that criticism of postmodernism is proof of ignorance!

-Comments supporting continental philosophy in the vaguest of terms!


You're right. In the interest of fairness, I also forgot:

- Unfounded accusations of racism, sexism, and prejudice against arbitrarily defined minority groups!

- Repeated assertions that changing language is exactly the same thing as a revolution!

- Vague, admiring references to dead Marxists!
posted by nasreddin at 9:36 AM on April 7, 2008 [3 favorites]


Many people tend to see what they want to see when catch-all phrases like "French theory," or "postmodernism," or "deconstruction" are lazily bandied about. One often knows in advance what to expect in these discussions: smug caricatures and broad-brush condemnations of pedantic obscurantism that fufill a certain anti-intellectual tendency to assume that all academics not engaged in the "hard reality" of the sciences are at best frivolous, parlor game decadents, and at worst jargon-addled charlatans. And certainly, just as there are some kneejerk and patronizing PC Volvo liberals who fufill a certain embarassing political stereotype, so too are there some academic theorists who drink too freely of their own moonshine to demand serious attention, but in both cases my experience (both as a progressive, and as a person with an interest in philosophy--broadly construed) is that these people are the exception and not the rule. To turn to these topics only in the interest of finding confirmation of pre-digested stereotypes seems a peculiar way to spend one's time. And not especially enlightening.
posted by ornate insect at 9:34 AM on April 7 [+] [!]



Honest to god, I can't tell if this is written as satire, or heartfelt opinion..
posted by timsteil at 9:40 AM on April 7, 2008 [3 favorites]


- Vague, admiring references to dead Marxists!

And two hardboiled eggs. *honk* Make that three hardboiled eggs.
posted by cog_nate at 9:47 AM on April 7, 2008 [1 favorite]



And two hardboiled eggs. *honk* Make that three hardboiled eggs.

Hardboiled? You bourgeois pig. Everyone knows we can't make an omelette without breaking them.
posted by nasreddin at 9:48 AM on April 7, 2008 [1 favorite]


timsteil -- I don't see why you'd think it satire; while the sentences are moderately long and contain a handful of four-dollar words, it's clear and uncomplicated enough sentiment.
posted by George_Spiggott at 9:49 AM on April 7, 2008


timsteil: it's heartfelt opinion, and written as one who has been routinely disapointed by similar discussions in the past, and who is probably far less sympathetic to the vagaries and theoretical excesses of "postmodernism" in philosophy than might be assumed. But I'm also willing to defend the need for philosophy (and for that matter science) not to have to justify itself to everyone who comes along demanding such justification. If there is indeed a Fear of Knowledge among some of the familiar pomo punching bags (and I readily agree that there is), there is also an overly reductive fear of theory among many who turn to this "debate" for a kind of self-satisfying confirmation of all their cherished, pet beliefs. Epistemology in particular is not well served here. A lot of academics have long since moved beyond the familiar "analytic/Continental" divide anyway, but such news makes for less sexy copy.
posted by ornate insect at 9:50 AM on April 7, 2008 [2 favorites]


I'm always amazed at how ready folks like Fish are to toss around a concept like "French Theory" as if its actually illustrative. As if there aren't massive debates between and among French intellectuals and philosophers. As if Derrida and Foucault and Deleuze are all pretty much saying the same thing. It's just goofy. Fish is pretty smart on some topics, and nuanced too, but he and other smart, nuanced English folks continue to act in ways that seem deliberately obtuse when it comes to theoretical discussions.

And the inspiration for the column, the book by Cusset, does not seem particularly, well, inspiring to me. Nor accurate. Derrida spent a great deal of time, implicitly in his early work, and explicitly in his later work, talking about the relation between deconstruction to justice, to politics, to the law. So for Cusset to announce that deconstruction has no relation to politics is a bit of a stretch, and by a "bit" I mean a gigantic expanse. It is only a betrayal of deconstruction to think a politics can be influence by or derived from it if one begins with either a very narrow concept of the political, or a caricature of what deconstruction was, back in the early days of its American appropriation, when many of the fans of deconstruction offered nothing but pale, fanboyish efforts to duplicate Derrida's sensibilities.

That being said, it is Murakami rather than the Beatles who I think best captures the spirit of postmodernism, and moreso than even Pynchon. To read Hard-Boiled Wonderland or a Wild Sheep Chase is a transformative experience, imho.
posted by hank_14 at 9:59 AM on April 7, 2008 [2 favorites]


Everyone knows we can't make an omelette without breaking them.

Revisionist Twit! Everyone knows you can't make egg salad without boiling them!
posted by jonmc at 10:00 AM on April 7, 2008


And I do recommend the comments below the Fish article. Some of them are pretty precious.
posted by hank_14 at 10:01 AM on April 7, 2008


>>America needs theory like a Fish needs a blog.

An America without a theory is like Fish without a blog?
posted by honest knave at 10:03 AM on April 7, 2008


Incidentally, I should point out that I'm basing my reaction to Cusset's book on Fish's discussion of it, not on Cusset himself, whose work I would like to give the benefit of the doubt, and will likely buy and read at some point, Fish notwithstanding. My reaction above had more to do with Fish's gleeful highlighting of a particular passage or claim, a claim that doesn't square well with other readings of Derrida, nor Derrida's discussion of these subjects in prose and in interviews.
posted by hank_14 at 10:05 AM on April 7, 2008


And "French Theory" *is* often lazily bandied about. In short, Fish's very lucid article is a response to Derrida's "Structure, Sign and Play in the Human Sciences", but 40 years on.
posted by honest knave at 10:07 AM on April 7, 2008


I wish I had more time for this, but busy day, busy day. However, I think the take-away point of the article is very insightful: In many ways, the project of creating descriptions of the world which are seamless with the world, that is to say, perfect descriptions, is impossible. We, as humans, will never have a complete picture of the world we live in beyond the picture we create for ourselves. The "Deconstructionalist" (see what I did there?) position holds that this conclusion is more important than it is, that because we cannot have a perfect set of descriptions we should reject descriptions, or at least deflate them into something political rather than epistemological. That, simply put, is an error. As Fish points out, we can accept the conclusions of deconstructionalism, but this changes very little about us, or what we do with ourselves. We don't have to give up concepts like truth, or right, or wrong or anything normative - not at least on a methodological level.
posted by elwoodwiles at 10:29 AM on April 7, 2008 [1 favorite]


honest knave: thanks for the link.

I would like to use your comment and the following comment by Fish (from the diaried article)...

"The Cartesian trick of starting from the beginning and thinking things down to the ground can’t be managed because the engine of thought, consciousness itself, is inscribed (written) by discursive forms which “it” (in quotation marks because consciousness absent inscription is empty and therefore non-existent) did not originate and cannot step to the side of no matter how minimalist it goes. In short (and this is the kind of formulation that drives the enemies of French theory crazy), what we think with thinks us."

...to recommend a book: Consciousness and the Play of Signs by Robert E. Innis.

This book of first-rate philosophy is a stimulating example of lucid thought brought to bear upon the complex question of how we human beings interpret our world: the author engages the work of Charles Sanders Peirce, Ernst Cassirer, Michael Polyani, John Dewey, and yes, Derrida, to synthesize a novel notion of human signification that avoids the familiar and problematic Cartesian-Archimedian point of the "I" that Fish refers to in the quote above.
posted by ornate insect at 10:33 AM on April 7, 2008


hank_14: I'm always amazed at how ready folks like Fish are to toss around a concept like "French Theory" as if its actually illustrative.

I understood him to be talking about the reaction in America to the theories of Derrida, Deleuze, Kristel et cetera. In that case, using the term "French Theory" is only proper. Because all of this is just the eight hundreth anniversary bash of "continental philosophy is your mom" it's Frenchness needs to be addressed. Not that the theory is especially French, but that the reaction to it is the same that English philosophers have been giving to "continental philosophy" for centuries. This England vs. the Rest of Europe tiff has got to end, it's sooooooooo boring.

I'm telling ya, isn't it time we got back to arguing whether new stuff can be as good as old stuff?
posted by Kattullus at 10:37 AM on April 7, 2008 [1 favorite]


sorry this is long - what are you going to do, I'm a PhD student and one of those crazy people that is serious about 'French theory', whatever that is:

“Criticizing something because it is socially constructed (and thus making the political turn) is what Judith Butler and Joan Scott are in danger of doing when they explain that deconstruction “is not strictly speaking a position, but rather a critical interrogation of the exclusionary operations by which ‘positions’ are established.”

First, it is worth noting (as suedehead did) that this is a mischaracterization of both Scott and Butler’s work. The problem for these two writers (in the most general sense) is not that gender or any other seeming political, epistemological or cultural unity is socially constructed. As Fish quite rightly points out, deconstruction (and Frankfurt School ideology critique, and, in fact Marx and Nietzche) sees such constructedness as unavoidable/necessary. Therefore, for example, asserting that ideas of heterosexuality, feminity and masculinity are socially constructed is not an argument against those ideas. (It may, as suedehead pointed out, be a ‘critique’ in the tradition of Kant, Marx and the Frankfurt School, but that is another story.) However, Butler’s writing on gender does take on a political task. Butler (in the broadest sense) argues that gender is not grounded in a ‘natural’, biologically determined, state, but is rather a particular way of living in the world that is made possible by an array of social, political, and cultural discourses/institutions/disciplines etc. (Butler draws directly on the work of Louis Althusser and Michel Foucault for this argument – see Foucault’s Discipline and Punish and Althusser’s On Ideology.) This is not an argument against gender or heterosexuality, but rather, an argument against the naturalization of gender, against the assertion that one’s gender is determined ahistorically by certain (non-social, non-linguistic) ‘facts’. From a political standpoint this is a very important argument that moves directly against any assertion of heterosexuality as a ‘natural fact’ – an assertion that lies at the ground of evangelical Christian definitions of the sexuality the ‘God intended’, for example.

Second, Fish is correct, and it is a sad fact, that the work of Derrida, Foucault, Lacan and Lyotard (among others) has often been poorly read and poorly put to use in the US academy. However, these writers have also been very poorly read and poorly used by their opponents in the US academy (‘new criticism’ being a good example).

Third, as Fish must be aware, Derrida in his later work dealt explicitly with the question of deconstruction’s relationship to the making of ethical judgments and political decisions. (See Derrida’s The Mystical Foundation of Authority, Rogues, and On Forgiveness, to name just a few.) His response to this question is too complicated to explain here. However, it is worth noting that Derrida and Foucault in particular were deeply involved in various political struggles throughout their careers and (unlike Fish) did not attempt to draw a line between their academic and political projects.

Finally, many people note how deconstruction and its philosophical relatives are insufficiently or incoherently political. But the often unspoken or fully repressed politics of contemporary post-analytic philosophy of mind, cognitive science, statistics, psychology and neuroscience seems to me much much more dangerous. These are all disciplines that often claim (like Fish usually does) an apolitical stance, and yet produce politically significant statements on issues of race, economics, intelligence and gender. As disciplines that are influential in everything from tv programming, the torture/interrogation of prisoners and racial profiling it seems these are much more important targets of critique (in both senses of the word) than poor (in all senses of the word) readers of Derrida.
posted by huffa at 10:37 AM on April 7, 2008 [8 favorites]


I'm a PhD student and one of those crazy people that is serious about 'French theory', whatever that is

So..what section of Wal-Mart are you planning on stocking after graduation?
posted by jonmc at 10:39 AM on April 7, 2008 [2 favorites]


Kattullis: Fair enough ;)
posted by hank_14 at 10:41 AM on April 7, 2008


"All we lose (if we have been persuaded by the deconstructive critique, that is) is a certain rationalist faith that there will someday be a final word, a last description that takes the accurate measure of everything. All that will have happened is that one account of what we know and how we know it — one epistemology — has been replaced by another, which means only that in the unlikely event you are asked “What’s your epistemology?” you’ll give a different answer than you would have given before. The world, and you, will go on pretty much in the same old way."
I thought this was well put, it's an excellent antidote to anyone who is getting tired--or overwhelmed by philosophy, because it puts the idea in perspective without rejecting the theory or idea out of hand. That said, he isn't really discussing French Theory as much as he is Deconstruction and a little Post-Structuralism, probably because that's what he's "familiar" with (I'm not particularly familiar with Derrida, so I give him the benefit of the doubt, although obviously a few above have taken issue with his reading).

I disagree with the quote in the OP that the essay is drivel - I don't necessarily agree with everything Fish says, but it certainly wasn't drivel, and I'm guessing that the book he's reviewing isn't either. Flip posts about "Comments implying that criticism of postmodernism is proof of ignorance!" aside, what I would criticize is the act of engaging in critique of (or more appropriately in this case--flinging the aforementioned drivel at) something that you don't really understand just because it has a bunch of big words that you think don't mean anything (or much).

Every profession has it's own jargon, and if French Theory don't come down to your Information Theory hut and slap the asymptotic equipartition property out of your mouth, then it's probably best to return the courtesy.
posted by illovich at 10:41 AM on April 7, 2008 [2 favorites]


"Every profession has it's own jargon, and if French Theory don't come down to your Information Theory hut and slap the asymptotic equipartition property out of your mouth, then it's probably best to return the courtesy."

fair point - btw, in some departments (including my art history dept) there are quite a few people who are well acquainted with both jargons!

also, fair point, jonmc, but surprising as it may be with a decent PhD you can look forward to many years of low pay and overwork as a college professor! (and you might even get tenure one day!)
posted by huffa at 10:46 AM on April 7, 2008


Dude, Wal-Mart does not hire PhDs. But Borders loves them.

(Proud holder of PhD).
posted by hank_14 at 10:53 AM on April 7, 2008


also, fair point, jonmc, but surprising as it may be with a decent PhD you can look forward to many years of low pay and overwork as a college professor! (and you might even get tenure one day!)
posted by huffa at 11:46 AM on April 7 [+] [!


Wait--$50k a year with another $50k in loan debt is poor pay?

Crap.
posted by mecran01 at 11:05 AM on April 7, 2008


Many of postmodernism's most strident critics are Platonists or crypto-Platonists of one stripe or another. These people are the supposed heroes of the new rationality, like Daniel Dennett and co. One of the things these people are very careful about is discussing this ideological underpinning, because it is non-falsifiable twaddle. Postmodernism is highly offensive to these people, not because it encourages irrationality,** but because it makes several convincing arguments that Logocentrist searches for absolute underpinnings are garbage.

Everything else is a veneer atop this. Anti-continental types can't confront this because frankly, there's a sense of embarrassment that these champions of reason fantasize about forms and natural morals implicit in the cosmos itself (again, Dennett) without one whit of support besides the very style of bullshit they revile. They are reduced to sniping at the margins.

(This is why, in the guise of Brights, their criticism of religion is similarly superficial. In short, they're too hypocritically religious in their own way to stage effective fundamental attacks, because those would be self-defeating.)

Postmodernists are mostly oblivious to this, because their dismissal of Logocentrism is so reflexive and matter-of-fact it doesn't bear deep exploration any more; it's a springboard with which to look at more interesting things. Postmodernism is a rhetorical Columbo, too; many questions and doubts, but sharply defined answers *can't* happen here. So we meander through a bunch of bullshit, casually appropriated language (but not *incorrectly* so in a pomo point of view, because definitions are a Derridean pharmakon anyway -- and it infuriates science-focused types that postmodernists really *don't give a shit* about what "quantum" really means). That's what makes the field impenetrable.

The debate is like a clown with a croquet mallet (pomo) showing up at bat at a baseball game. The pitcher (modernists) is pissed off. The clown wants to find out what will happen due to this dissidence and what it will reveal about baseball. The pitcher figures that it just isn't baseball. In various contexts, each of them could be the asshole.

** I mean, has any postmodern thinker ever made significant groups of people abandon medicine and nuclear physics for witchcraft, or stab people in the face because it's All Subjective? Come on. Scientists, economists and other ideologically Logocentric professional and institutions have proven themselves perfectly capable of doing staggeringly stupid things without Derrida's help. It's an arts field, not Christian Science.
posted by mobunited at 11:23 AM on April 7, 2008 [6 favorites]


I disagree with the quote in the OP that the essay is drivel

That quote was from the following smugly ignorant comment on the essay:

This is drivel about drivel — “metadrivel” as some stucturalist, post-structuralist or deconstructionist might say. Literary theory (not to be confused with literature) is more worthless and deluded than alchemy or astrology ever were. It should be banished from our educational system. Failing that, any student who takes a course in literary theory should be required to take three in mathematics, a discipline which has actually manages to cogently connect words and names with perceptions and actions.


That said, I gaze on all these postwhatever debates with benign indifference. If people can make a living off them and/or have their experience of life and literature enriched, good for them. They make no difference to the world at large or me in particular.

I met Derrida; he's a very nice guy and when he gave talks they were literate, funny, and comprehensible. I still can't make head nor tail of his books.
posted by languagehat at 11:27 AM on April 7, 2008 [1 favorite]


Honest question from an ignorant but interested outsider: I see many people in this thread referring to "continental philosophy". I was under the impression that "French Theory" or poststructuralism or deconstruction or whatever term you choose was largely an approach to literary criticism. Is there a "French", or poststructuralist, movement within (particularly American) philosophy departments, or was I correct in thinking that it's mostly limited to the study of literature and history? Is this even a sensible distinction to make?
posted by mr_roboto at 11:28 AM on April 7, 2008


The debate is like a clown with a croquet mallet (pomo) showing up at bat at a baseball game.

Then it's settled: postmodernists are juggalos.
posted by fleetmouse at 11:29 AM on April 7, 2008 [2 favorites]


Honest question from an ignorant but interested outsider: I see many people in this thread referring to "continental philosophy". I was under the impression that "French Theory" or poststructuralism or deconstruction or whatever term you choose was largely an approach to literary criticism. Is there a "French", or poststructuralist, movement within (particularly American) philosophy departments, or was I correct in thinking that it's mostly limited to the study of literature and history? Is this even a sensible distinction to make?

Short answer: it's like that in the States, because the people who started reading and paying attention to French theory worked in literature departments. Philosophy departments continue to be dominated by the Anglo-American (or "analytic") tradition, which is strongly rationalist. In Europe the theory continues to be seen as philosophy, and even in America these things are changing.
posted by nasreddin at 11:37 AM on April 7, 2008


Many of postmodernism's most strident critics are Platonists or crypto-Platonists of one stripe or another. These people are the supposed heroes of the new rationality, like Daniel Dennett and co. One of the things these people are very careful about is discussing this ideological underpinning, because it is non-falsifiable twaddle. Postmodernism is highly offensive to these people, not because it encourages irrationality,** but because it makes several convincing arguments that Logocentrist searches for absolute underpinnings are garbage.

Like most post-modernists, you don't understand modernism at all, but please, don't let that stop you.
posted by Pope Guilty at 11:39 AM on April 7, 2008


Like most post-modernists, you don't understand modernism at all, but please, don't let that stop you.

Given the detail of your counterargument, you should say it's a quality we have in common, then.
posted by mobunited at 11:50 AM on April 7, 2008


mr_roboto: Nasredding is on it. The other half of the story is that the sudden arrival of all these theorists, who were largely but not exclusively French, resulted in a backlash, both from within literary studies and from American philosophy programs, which saw the new literary theorists as doing weak or absurd philosophical endeavors. So French Theory was tossed out as a condensation symbol of sorts, allowing various camps to identify, positively or negatively, with a certain set of theorists or thinkers (like Derrida, Lyotard, Deleuze, Foucault, Barthes, etc.) and a certain set of claims (uncertainty of truth, the nature of structure, the conditions of emergence and conditions of possibility, and so on).

It hasn't produced the most effective conversation, since it homogenizes a pretty diverse set of thinkers, many of whom have stark disagreements with each other (Derrida's critique of Foucault, for example, or Lacoue-Labarthe's scathing read of Lyotard).

There are real stakes to this, too, but as part of being incorporated in English departments in America, the stakes were altered a bit and extracted from what they were when the conversations and debates were taking place in a more European context. For me, I've always thought the dividing line between continental and analytic thought comes down to a proximity of trauma vis-a-vis the Holocaust, which in one condition is generative of postmodernity and in the other is a case in a series that then relates to the human condition, albeit an extreme case.
posted by hank_14 at 11:54 AM on April 7, 2008 [2 favorites]


does anyone else find it funny that you are criticizing post-modernism on a site called fucking Metafilter?
posted by yonation at 12:30 PM on April 7, 2008 [1 favorite]


I think that it's safe to say that postmodernity as a condition (not in the strictly Lyotardian sense) or cultural phenomena affects most of us--probably daily. That is, we seem to be living in a postmodern world that has a material impact on our everyday lives.
posted by mecran01 at 12:37 PM on April 7, 2008


mr roboto: this will be more than you want here, but I think this confusion (is "theory" a kind of epistemology or a kind of cultural criticism?) arises from the epistemological and cognitivist turn in analytic philosophy as it developed among many anglo-American philosophers: this turn sometimes tended to reduce all philosophical discussion to the question of epistemological transparency, i.e. the question of how truth (or something like it) is verified, qualified and defined. By contrast, the phenomenological and hermeneutic turn in Continental thought was less convinced that all philosophical questions reduce to questions about truth or mind: what mattered here was the play of historical (re: contingent) interpretations, rather than any foundational (Cartesisian/Kantian) logos. Ironically, the fathers of this split (Frege and Husserl) shared, as logicians with a deep revulsion for "psychologism," a notion of eiditic and/or apodictic knowledge that seems remarkably neoplatonic.

***

Now what is seldom remarked is how the radical poles here--Wittgenstein and Heidegger--mirror one another with regards to the centrality of language to thought. But this latent nominalism goes back to the middle ages, and winds up in pre-modern philosophy as well.

The real tension here, as I see it, is between logos/logic and poesis/poetry.

Vico and Hegel side with the latter, but Leibniz and Carnap side with the former. Some (like Whitehead, Polyani, Cassirer) seem to be in between. It's a question of emphasis. Is there a characteristica universalis through which we might formalize language such that it is isomorphic to thought, or is human consciousness riddled through and through with the somatic "dreamwork" of figurative, metaphoric, nonideational thought?

Is metaphysics and perhaps even the qualia of neurophenomenal consciousness simply, absent any more technical or suprascientific language through which to map it, only a kind of "folk psychology?" Or does science, ever changing, just enforce a false sense of epistemological clarity? Other related questions follow:

Is every logical truth, as Nietzsche thought, only a metaphoric insight dressed up for polite society? Is ratiocination a kind of dream, or is the unconscious perhaps dimly reflective of some cryptoplatonic universal ratiocination? Is the "question of being" a question of language, and is the question of language, in turn, a question of logic? In other words, does ontology merely recapitulate philology (Quine's phrase I believe), and philosophy merely clothe physiology, or is there something like a transcendent logos (perhaps mathematics)?

This is the undercurrent and fatal duality that runs through most metaphysical speculation, and it still informs much contemporary work in philosophy of mind and philosophy of language.

Worthwhile alternatives to this seeming impasse (if it is indeed such) are being offered all the time.
posted by ornate insect at 12:42 PM on April 7, 2008 [8 favorites]


I think that it's safe to say that postmodernity as a condition (not in the strictly Lyotardian sense) or cultural phenomena affects most of us--probably daily. That is, we seem to be living in a postmodern world that has a material impact on our everyday lives.

Yeah, and now try drinking yourself out of that one.
posted by From Bklyn at 12:47 PM on April 7, 2008


this will be more than you want here, but

That post was just true beauty

Leibniz and Carnap camp with the former


you can't buy that kinda stuff.
posted by timsteil at 12:56 PM on April 7, 2008


Dude, timsteil, what the fuck? Stop being passive-aggressive.
posted by nasreddin at 1:00 PM on April 7, 2008


ok, so in the NYT blog link I got up to the part where Bacon invented the scientific method to work around people being obtuse windbags and using too many words to describe words. Or something. I think "French theory" takes issue with distinctions Bacon assumed between the observer and the observed, but hell if I can understand how or why. The rest of the article was pretty much downhill from there. It's frustrating because I know there are a whole lot of very smart people in the world who do nothing but have debates like the one in this thread, and I would really like to be informed on the subject, but for whatever reason it just isn't happening for me.

That being said, it is Murakami rather than the Beatles who I think best captures the spirit of postmodernism, and moreso than even Pynchon. To read Hard-Boiled Wonderland or a Wild Sheep Chase is a transformative experience, imho.

I've listened to the Beatles, and I've read Murakami and Pynchon; I thought it was all pretty good, and a lot of it touched me to a greater or lesser extent, and I guess I consider myself more enriched for experiencing them. But as far as drawing connections between them... I just can't see it. I can certainly understand how a novel or an album can transform you, but what is it about these particular works that makes them such beacons of postmodernism?

Seriously, what am I not getting here? Why is there a debate, who is it between, what is it about, and why is it important? (is there even a debate in the first place, or am I wrong about that too?) Can anyone recommend some good introductory sources (online preferred, but print is good too) for a willing and enthusiastic but hopelessly uninformed reader?
posted by xbonesgt at 1:11 PM on April 7, 2008


Zidane's head butt was sublime.
posted by srboisvert at 1:36 PM on April 7, 2008


I bought a Thousand Plateaus and couldn't make it through the introduction. Does it make more sense in French?
posted by empath at 1:36 PM on April 7, 2008


xbonesgt, the comments at the end of the piece are a very good place to start.

One problem with the article is it assumes a fair bit of familiarity with the texts in question, if not in the specific then at least in their general intent and place in context with one another. (This is actually a hilarious statement.)(Alright, maybe not hilarious, but humorous, that their meaning is derived only in context with one another.)

The other problem is that this is all quite academic, and if not your cup of tea, then, well, there's other stuff to do.

But as the name suggests, a lot of it comes out of modernism. So maybe start there, and then go on to "post modernism". Start with Wikipedia, their definitions. I got a lot out of reading Walter Benjamin and Roland Barthes. Clear, interesting writers.
posted by From Bklyn at 1:38 PM on April 7, 2008


xbonesgt: I've listened to the Beatles, and I've read Murakami and Pynchon; I thought it was all pretty good, and a lot of it touched me to a greater or lesser extent, and I guess I consider myself more enriched for experiencing them. But as far as drawing connections between them... I just can't see it. I can certainly understand how a novel or an album can transform you, but what is it about these particular works that makes them such beacons of postmodernism?

A serious question deserves a serious answer and unfortunately I don't have much time to give it. But let's see what I can scatter together in a few minutes. This will be somewhat muddled, but hopefully I'll throw some light onto the subject.

Murakami is postmodern in that:
1) Much of his work, especially The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, is a reaction to the horror of World War 2.
2) He resists giving answers to fundamental questions, preferring to let ambiguity reign.
3) There is a lot of play with various signifiers, such as the Colonel Sanders figure in Kafka on the Shore, releasing them from their usual place in our culture and using them as something else.

The White Album is postmodern in that:
1) Everybody knows it by a name its creators didn't give it.
2) It's an amalgamation of countless styles into a seamless whole (Murakami does this too, especially in Wind-up Bird Chronicle).
3) It respects no boundaries between high and low art, e.g. putting an avant-garde sound collage (Revolution 9) next to a schlocky Hollywood movie ballad (Good Night).

Okay, I've really got to run, and I'm sure I'll think of things I forgot, but since I mentioned Murakami and The Beatles as postmodernists, I felt like I had to answer this.
posted by Kattullus at 1:41 PM on April 7, 2008


Here's a good, stroppy review of Sokal & Bricmont's big book, with lively correspondence: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6.
posted by stammer at 1:50 PM on April 7, 2008


I met Derrida; he's a very nice guy

well, except for the whole being dead part :).
He sat in on a class of mine once when I had to give a presentation, which was intimidating to me at the time, although pretty interesting too (class ran over for like an extra hour because no one was going to interrupt him...)

mr_roboto, there are still at least a few departments in the US that have "continental" style programs, that is, that are oriented toward history, phenomenology, psychoanalysis, french theory, and /or lit crit. There are also a fair percentage of departments that at least try to nominally represent some aspect of continental thought, by having at least one faculty member who can teach that stuff. Also, a fair number of popular analytic philosophers are more and more interested in bridging the divide, and finding the ways that in fact we are talking about the same things. Hegel & Husserl have come up a lot more often in analytic footnotes in recent years, for instance, names which at one time were signs of obvious fringitude. And Wittgenstein's an interesting figure, as he's commonly a favorite of analytics, but his later work really raises a lot of the same questions that continental philosophy grapples with.

But if you look at history, this divide, such as it is, has persisted in one form or another throughout philosophy's career. Some people think philosophy is a series of questions that can be rationally addressed and some people think it's a messier enterprise than that. So whether someone like Emerson should be read in philosophy departments or saved for literature departments depends on what counts as philosophy, and the continental definition is generally broader and less directly graspable. At oxford, continental philosophy gets grouped with theology, while analytic gets (or used to get) grouped with politics and economics.
posted by mdn at 2:04 PM on April 7, 2008


mdn--it may be that Plato was the first continental and Aristotle the first analytic. B/c philosophy has been called, at one time or another, both "the handmaiden of theology" and "the Queen of the Sciences," it's naturally a somewhat schizophrenic exercise. I actually think think the anlaytic/continental divide has been much overstated, and has long outlived its usefuleness (if it ever had any). There are just too many folks who fall between that rhetorical crack. On that note, this little book helps get past a lot of the noise and into the history of how this split emerged.
posted by ornate insect at 2:13 PM on April 7, 2008


mdn--it may be that Plato was the first continental and Aristotle the first analytic.

You are Lyndon Larouche and I claim my five pounds.
posted by stammer at 2:15 PM on April 7, 2008


stammer: you did realize I was speaking metaphorically and not literally?
posted by ornate insect at 2:24 PM on April 7, 2008


I'm not going to get into this debate, because nasreddin (among others) is handling my opinion far more eloquently than I ever could, but just a quick note about the Sokal Hoax, which is some supposedly world-shattering undressing of postmodernism...

Social Text was NOT peer-reviewed at the time of the publication of Sokal's faux-article (faux-rticle?), thus making any claims that it was some sort of seminal moment in modern philosophy tenuous at best. And as Sokal himself has said, his goal was not to debunk postmodern theory, but to criticize sloppy scholarship. Which, to a certain extent, he did (although, give Social Text credit for attempting an experiment with an open editorial policy allowing unconventional work, a risky but potentially profitable venture that, just as it happened to be, worked against them in this situation).
Sokal's follow-up, Fashionable Nonsense, enacts the very moves he criticizes; he says that non-scientists talk about science without understanding it, while he critiques various post-structuralist/-modernist theories without really understanding them, choosing to read them on a deliberately obtuse level in order to point and go, "what's with these kooky weirdos?!"

And anyway, it's not like there have never been prominent cases of junk science getting published.
posted by Saxon Kane at 2:38 PM on April 7, 2008 [2 favorites]


ornate insect: I was only joking.
posted by stammer at 2:58 PM on April 7, 2008


(although, give Social Text credit for attempting an experiment with an open editorial policy allowing unconventional work, a risky but potentially profitable venture that, just as it happened to be, worked against them in this situation)

Wow. You've just proven a point, but not, I think, the one you set out to.
posted by George_Spiggott at 2:59 PM on April 7, 2008


re: the Sokal hoax. If viewed as rigorous epistemology, then most of what falls under the rubric of "postmodernism" as usually discussed (and the word itself is so catch-all as to be utterly misleading, shedding more heat than light), naturally fails. But if viewed as that which broadens what Peter Strawson called "conceptual understanding," i.e. philosophy in its most expansive sense, then "postmodernism" has, like all similarly amorphous "schools" of thought, its plusses and minuses. Most importantly, if literal mindedness, absolutism and dogmatism are the enemies of the imagination (scientific as well as otherwise), then we are better off pulling up our sleeves to wrestle with actual ideas and actual thinkers, rather than with what turn out to be our reflexive presuppositions about academic fashions.
posted by ornate insect at 3:06 PM on April 7, 2008


but since I mentioned Murakami and The Beatles as postmodernists, I felt like I had to answer this.

So maybe start there, and then go on to "post modernism". Start with Wikipedia, their definitions. I got a lot out of reading Walter Benjamin and Roland Barthes. Clear, interesting writers.

great starting points both, thanks.
posted by xbonesgt at 3:16 PM on April 7, 2008


Alright xbones, here's my attempt:

It all starts with Plato. Plato, as classicist Eric Havelock has noted, is the first philosopher of the alphabet, which is to say that he is the first philosopher to grow up with a literate sensibility, and with it the changes that literacy produces on one's psyche. In fact, and no coincidence, it is in Plato that we see the greek term psyche transformed in meaning, from the "spirit that breathes" in earlier use to the "spirit that thinks." Prior to Plato, and even during much of his life, Greek culture still rested fundamentally on an oral sensibility, one governed by mimesis, or imitation. Like modern revivals or church services, they would gather in groups to go through the epic poems, to do theater, and so on - and if you go back and read something like the Iliad, you'll see it's like a set of instructions on how to treat your parents, what you should sacrifice to the gods, the proper role of women, and so on. Anyway, Plato hated this idea, because it didn't separate the thinker from the thought, the knower from the known, which is why he spends so much time condemning and banishing poets in his Republic. The idea, for Plato, is that there exists something out there that is independent of the knower, an idea that makes sense for a literate culture, but much less so for a primarily oral culture, where what one speaks is what one knows. Writing allowed for time for reflection, thought, repetition, etc., for thinking the thing per se, or in itself, which is the foundation for Plato's forms. To understand this idea of the in itself we turn to Plato's infamous allegory of the cave, which is one of the oddest, most absurd allegories in all of philosophy, even odder that the whole brain in a vat thing. Suffice it to say that the prisoner who has seen only illusion eventually sees the light of the real world outside the cave, but of course this isn't enough. Each time, the prisoner thinks he understands the real, but each time it turns out to be illusion. He understands only appearance, not truth, doxa or simulacra rather than eidos or ousia. Now this epiphany-style understanding of the world was fine for the pre-Socratic Greeks, and in fact their notion of truth, the word aletheia, or unforgetting, accurately described an idea that the truth of the world is something we forget and then unforget, a process, not a measurement. Plato instead wanted to stop the cycle of illusion and simulacra, so he proposed jumping off the train of aletheia and getting into a new version of truth, based on orthotes, or the "straight" truth, which could be accessed not by looking at the world, but by looking into the things themselves with the light of reason. For references here, check out The Republic, Timaeus, and The Sophist as dialogs.

Now of course, for as much as we might today think Plato is indebted to writing as a psychological conditioning, he condemns it explicitly as a way of learning (in Phaedrus and the Seventh Epistle, most notably), and instead argues only for philosophical dialog and dialectic as the real way to go. He also links this method to philosophy, so it's all good for him. This isn't so much a contradiction with what I said above, drawing on Havelock - Plato's just saying we need rigorous dialectical conversation and interrogation, not long-winding poetic speeches or epics, and not lifeless book learning. That the benefit of these conversations is the capacity to see the things themselves, even though this capacity is predicated on the psychological effects of literacy, is besides the point.

Anyway, then comes Aristotle, and Aristotle agrees in part and disagrees in part - instead of some transcendental realm of the forms, Aristotle things we can scientifically assess these things, where science typically means taxonomy and observation for Aristotle. We learn of the world, then, by being in the world. And thus the great split between transcendence and immanence is born. Now Aristotle seems more intuitively correct to us, but we have to remember that Aristotle vanished for a while on the Western scene. As empires shifted and collapsed, it was Plato and the Neo-Platonists that survived in the European West, while Aristotle ended up getting taken and appropriated by the Arab Middle East and Africa. It was just a matter of who got what texts. And oddly, the two thinkers weren't really united in the West until quite a bit of time had passed, when Christian Europe was starting to mount crusades that brought them into Arab and Muslim territory, and increased cross-cultural contact. For more on this, check out Rubenstein's Aristotle's Children, where he describes the sort of historical oddity that was Lisbon when the two cultures met back up and started translating. Anyway, you know how you're always told that the Muslims were more scientifically advanced than the Christians of Europe? Well, this isn't really that weird if you think a bit about how Platonism's transcendence model worked as an early Christian influence (think Plotinus), while Aristotle's more scientifically friendly model would have encouraged different ways of thinking the world.

Anyway, when the two come back together, and the West reacquires Aristotle, a number of thinkers end up trying to grasp what it all means, and so you get folks like Descartes and even Bacon trying to come up with theories for how it all works together. Descartes posited the subject that thinks before the subject that experiences, where the latter could be illusions that ultimately testify only to the reality of the former. Whatever. Bacon, with his two books analogy, offered a more interesting formulation (if less philosophically influential), with the idea that we had God's book (i.e. transcendence) and the book of nature (immanence), which would only prove the glory of God's great plan and design and magic ponies and whatnot. Reason would prove the vitality and viability of religion, in other words.

Here we enter fully into modernity as a way of thought. If premodernity tells us that religion makes possible science and reason (we can substitute myth or faith for religion), in effect that the truth is up there, then modernity is the idea, like the X-Files, that the truth is out there, and we'll just need to keep looking for it. Different ways of looking for it are posited, of course, but more or less the idea is that we an use reason to examine the world as it really is. There are so many thinkers one could talk about here, and I feel bad excluding them or just not mentioning them, but suffice it to say that shit gets really interesting again with Hegel. Not with Kant, who is totally over inflated for reasons that are disciplinary and kind of interesting, but Hegel. Hegel comes along and takes all of this thinking and says you know what, this thinking is actually historically conditioned. We are part of the great unfolding of history, of the world, or world-spirit, waking up and recognizing itself. In fact, we can look at all the big philosophical debates and realize they are part of this unfolding, assuming we realize that this unfolding takes the shape of a dialectic, an Aufhebung. The Aufhebung involves three steps: to preserve what comes before, to cancel what comes before, and to transcend what comes before. Or as it is often put, in somewhat vulgar terms, there's a thesis, an antithesis, the two fight, and a synthesis is produced, which is in turn another thesis, provoking another antithesis, and so on and so on, until full awakening or recognition. Now Hegel wrote a ton, and lots of it is great, and some of it reads like comedy, but the big gist of things was to say that philosophy is necessarily the history of thought, not necessarily the purveyor or beacon of absolute truth.


Skipping along, we get Kierkegaard, the theologian who popularized but did not originate the idea of a leap of faith. For Kierkegaard, the debate about reason vs. religion missed the point - it is only when we know that we don't know that faith can begin. The leap of faith requires that we try to learn but learn that we can't know, that epistemology doesn't work. Nietzsche takes this and runs with it, jettisoning the Christian part, and arguing that the same claim works on everything, and that truth is just a "mobile army of metaphors". We develop the concept of the tree, and then look around and say, Holy Shit, a tree! That's not science, that's stupid, self-important and self-confirming. Obligatory note: Nietzsche went crazy, got syphilis and died, and he may have hated Jews (depends who you ask or what you read). Incidentally, cool trivia, Nietzsche was institutionalized a year to the day after reading Dostoevsky's Notes from the Underground.. Anyway, Nietzsche is like a big middle finger to the annals of philosophy, the sort of final nail in the coffin. And he's popular today, and reviled today, for that reason. But the important part is that it was Hegel who really started building the coffin, because he was the one who worked to box philosophy into the walls of historical unfolding.

Jump forward a bundle of years and get to Husserl, who offered a pretty interesting attempt to rethink the subject by way of his experiences. In other arenas, toss in Darwin, whose evolutionary model offered something of an existential threat to the idea that man is where he is by dint of the almighty's gift of reason. Then, of course, add Freud, who invented/discovered the unconscious (again, not really true, but he popularized it) and with it the idea that we are not conscious masters of our reason, much less our fate.

It's hard to really go with the truth is out there mentality after all this, as each leg of the modernity table gets axed at. Enter Heidegger, who (obligatory comment) was a Nazi for a while (like, omg). Heidegger took Husserl (after ratting on him to his Nazi overlords) and said that his transcendental subject still fell prey to one of philosophy's classic blunders. The first, of course, is never get involved in a land-war in Asia, but the second, only slightly less well known is this - avoid what Heidegger called the onto-ontological split, or the idea that the ontic (daily shit) is different from the ontological (the reality behind the daily shit). Once we do that, it makes no sense to investigate our "being" (ontological) by way of our experiences as "beings" (ontic). Instead, for Heidegger, we are Dasein, literally "being-there", subjects thrown into a world not of our own making, who will both influence the world and who will have their capacity to influence that world always already influence by that world. We often fail to ask questions in a reflective manner, instead pursuing calculative and technological/technocratic ends, in large part because that is what the herd does (lots of Kierkegaard/Nietzsche allusions here), or what one (das Man) does to conform. Rejecting the herd, Heidegger argued for a way of being in the world that responded to the call of conscience (later understood as the call of being), where we would be called upon to live our life reflectively, without humanist ends. The alternative, for Heidegger, is to engage the world as if it is a means to an end, standing-reserve, a set of resources to be used instrumentally. This alternative is in fact the playing out, in science and technology, of the Western metaphysical impulse that begins with Plato, and gets refined with Descartes. The modernist impulse to seek the truth out there, a searc conducted by our capacity as reasoning subjects, already prefigures the result, by positing our capacity to reason as independent of the world. Instead, for Heidegger, we must attend to our Being as beings. So for Heidegger, the stakes are technocratic realism, environmental degradation, nuclear war, conventional war, on the side that separates us from the lived reality of our Being, and a more zen-like, reflective approach that involves simple living and peaceful response to the call of being. Apocryphal note: Heidegger supposedly once read one of D.T. Suzuki's summaries of Zen thought and exclaimed that it was what he had been trying to say all along. And yes, there's some tension with his party membership with the National Socialists.

The debate that you're asking about, then, is between a number of different sides, but it's not an even number. What Derrida basically suggested, vis-a-vis Heidegger, was that language all too often decides our relationship to Being, and that even Heidegger for all his efforts to throw off the shackles of metaphysical thinking, still elevated Being to a "transcendental signified," in effect eschewing all transcendentalism except the one required by his own internal logics. So we take all that I've discussed already, and add the wrinkle of language and meaning-systems as determining, and we get to the crux of the issue.

But even then, we can't really understand it without adding in the historical events of Hiroshima and the Holocaust, both of which are technological undertakings. I don't have time to rehearse Zygmunt Bauman's exquisite Modernity and the Holocaust, but suffice it to say that the Nazis were quite modernist in their development, execution, and rationalization of the final solution. As were the Jews and other prisoners who cooperated with the Nazi's (the so-called Canada groups) to help smooth the functioning of first the ghettos, and then the camps.

So you've got Lyotard suggesting that in the era of postmodernity, people have grown reluctant to trust metanarratives of progress and meaning. How does one fit the Holocaust or nuclear MAD into a narrative of progress? How does one make sense of a mass genocide? And yet, despite all the massive disasters of the 20th century, most social sciences and humanities just continued as if it was operations as normal, albeit with a few big fuck ups. Where was the reluctance to embrace certainty? Where were the investigations into how reason worked to enable the Holocaust? Most of the early philosophical investigations keyed on propaganda (the psychoanlytic case for mass manipulation) and the unique character of the German people, thus excusing the rest of the West. Ridiculous, of course, given the popularity of eugenics movements in the U.S. prior to the war. So in one nexus we have all the issues of truth, certainty, the question of whether the world can be (best) understood through science and measurement. If the game is rigged through the structures we invent to explain the outcomes, there can be real doubt about acting on those measures. Murakami makes a lot of this explicit in the way he always teases the margins of the real, in ways that are often not able to be resolved rationally by the reader.

And as Foucault has pointed out, there's a long history of regimes of thought (the conditions of emergence) that have produced results that seemed very certain, very right, under those conditions that today look absurd. One would think this might produce a cautionary tale, but the overwhelming majority seems to think otherwise, and that what is needed is more concerted effort to find and know the truth, out there. So there's still very much the battle between modernism and postmodernism, whatever the sociological condition. And the debate between immanence and transcendence, between knowing and being, and so on. And I haven't even touched on the other offshoot of the Hegelian problematic, namely the question of political economy through and after Marx. But I'll leave that for later.

But French Theory enters the lexicon as a group of people trying to deal with these issues, and more or less doing so in the wake of Heidegger and the Holocaust, which meant a distrust of certain types of reason and so on. Derrida often gets the brunt of the bad press, for reasons that are probably symptomatic, but such is the price of fame. Deconstuction, in a nutshell, is a way of reading a text so sympathetically that it undoes itself. See, meaning is a complicated business, and to put it together requires a lot of work, especially given all its disparate parts. And especially in the context of philosophy. Now the value of deconstruction, the reason why it matters and is valuable, is in what it does - deconstruction doesn't try to show that meaning is arbitrary, and undecided, which is by itself an insipid gesture, but rather attempts to show what strategies helped to fix this condition of arbitrary meaning, and give it the impression and permanence of coherence, or systematicity, of narrative, and so on. With writers like Murakami, and in some sense Pynchon, and with musical groups like the Beatles, they're playing with the arbitrary structures that (at their time) govern how it is these things are done, in effect, they are rewriting the norms by which meaning is producible, is possible, in their particular genre or field. Now those new norms will cease being challenges at some point, and become the new norm (the Beatles demonstrate this), but that in no way invalidates the nature of the original challenge, or the postmodern sensibility that engenders it.

Anyway, I'd like to say much more, but we're on the clock for an ultrasound (twins), so I'll leave it there for now.
posted by hank_14 at 3:16 PM on April 7, 2008 [54 favorites]


hank_14: you would disrupt the birth of a new philosophy for the birth of your twins? Some philosopher you are. (By the way, good post, even if you left out Charles Sanders Peirce and some other giants--such as Hume--who continually intrigue me; although, given your views on Kant, Peirce may not be your bag).
posted by ornate insect at 3:32 PM on April 7, 2008 [1 favorite]


Great summary, hank_14, but I think you underestimate Kant.

xbonesgt:
Without Kant postmodernism would not be possible, because Kant inaugurated (or at least formalized) the distinction between the world "in itself" and "for itself." The world-in-itself is all that stuff that's out there in the world, the stuff that's around if no one is there to perceive it. The problem is, we can never access that world--our perceptions and consciousness always mediate whatever experience we have. We can't even make meaningful statements about the world in-itself. "Critique in the Kantian sense," which is a reference you'll hear a lot of people make, refers to this kind of thing that Kant does: he figures out what the usefulness of a tool (in this case, reason) is, and what situations it is helpless to resolve. In other words, not a rejection, but a recognition of limits.

Postmodernism is in many ways an exploration of just how far this unknowability will extend, which is one reason why postmodernists like the word "critique" so much. (But keep in mind that Kant himself was a hyper-strict rationalist and his head would have exploded if someone told him about pomo. People in Konigsberg, where he lived, used to set their watches by his daily walks.)
posted by nasreddin at 3:50 PM on April 7, 2008 [1 favorite]


And also, a minor quibble:

Deconstuction, in a nutshell, is a way of reading a text so sympathetically that it undoes itself.


Derrida always insisted that he didn't see deconstruction as an action, as an operation the interpreter performs on the text. Rather, it's something that's already there in the text: the text is constantly undergoing a process of self-undermining.
posted by nasreddin at 4:00 PM on April 7, 2008


mdn--it may be that Plato was the first continental and Aristotle the first analytic.

sure, or the other way (Heidegger & Bergson being big readers of Aristotle, for instance, while Plato epitomizes the rationalist... Aristotle's work is constantly reworking, reconsidering, weighing multiple possibilities, whereas Plato often can be read to present one view as winning).
But as you say, the divide isn't nearly as clean as people sometimes like to make it. There have been tendencies among groups, but I agree really it is the inherent nature of philosophy that makes it sort of lean both ways.

However, in my experience, people in continental departments will very often say there's no divide or that it's disappearing, while people in analytic departments will all too often say, "oh, do people still do continental philosophy?" So it isn't quite a done thing. A lot depends on the random politics and so forth of the moment... It feels to me like a kind of pragmatic-postmodern semi-analytic style a la Rorty is pretty accepted, but a properly Husserlian phenomenology, or taking Freud seriously as a philosopher, will not be endorsed. When I attended a "mixed" analytic-continental conference a couple years ago, it meant Dan Dennett was the keynote, and someone gave a paper on Nietzsche, kind of thing (my paper was on Kant's 3rd critique).
posted by mdn at 4:08 PM on April 7, 2008


Biting my tongue on this one.
posted by washburn at 4:14 PM on April 7, 2008


nasreddin: one problem w/Kant's ding-an-sich and noumenon is it can be seen to preserve the transcendent forms of neoplatonic thought: part of the world remains hermetically sealed from the reach of cognition. The noumenon acts as cognitive artefact or representation of perceptual and sensual phenomena. As a limit-concept, noumenalism includes the realm that Kant allows for those metaphysical constructs, like God, that remain beyond the ken of reason. It thus begs the question what is achieved by positing this inter-realm, since it is by definition hidden.

Such a view seems like Kantian crypto-theology, in which the (im)possibility of knowledge-as-such becomes reified as its own holy ghost. If I might offer a slightly different reading, I would say that Kant's theory of cognition attempts, unknowlingly, to synthesize inscrutable knowledge (gnosis and apophasis of ineffible intuition) with transparent, self-evident knowledge (episteme and kataphasis of logical intellection). The former is knowledge-by-experience and the latter is knowledge-by-logical-proposition.

Humean scepticism awoke Kant from his dogmatic slumbers, as we know. And Humean scepticism concerns our possibility of knowing anything outside of a kind of brute inference: causality being Hume's ultimate limit concept, something we cannot, in fact, ever directly encounter. Rather than accept this kind of brute-protoempirical inference (what Peirce w/pragmatism and Polyani and others eventually did) as an essential tacit ingredient of understanding, every fibre of Kant's being wanted to construct a system of egocentric cognition to accomodate both his love of rationalism and empiricism--but ultimately to overcome the potential for nihilism he seems to have read in Hume.

Thus the postmodernists, as you are reading them, are still too enamored, despite their "radical" claims otherwise, of Cartesianism altogether--b/c they cannot just accept that to speak of the "rational cogito" as exisiting or not-existing is in fact besides the point. Peircean pragmatism finds a third way through this by claiming that the ultimate test of truth is its applicability in the real world: not in a facile "anything goes" way, but in a genuine "knowledge has to earn its sense according to its interaction among the world" way.
posted by ornate insect at 4:29 PM on April 7, 2008 [3 favorites]


I think it's funny how the search for truth in philosophy is so contingent on the social process of humans engaging in philosophy.

Since I agree with the epistemological/cognitivist approaches, it seems to me like a lot of these "philosophical" questions are actually psychological or sociological or biological ones, and the Frenchy Theory is mostly people in blank painters hats with crazy hair posturing about who can seem most subversive by claiming that A Thing Is Actually Its Own Contradiction!
posted by sandking at 4:34 PM on April 7, 2008 [1 favorite]


I always wanted to respond to (Heidegger's claim that) "The nothing noths," with "The something soths", but the form seemed somehow wrong.
posted by Wash Jones at 4:41 PM on April 7, 2008


"The something someths"
posted by Kattullus at 4:43 PM on April 7, 2008


The Something Soths: good name for a band though. (Yeah I find a lot of Heidegger and a lot of Deleuze and a lot Derrida mostly impenetrable, but then again I also find some of their work of interest: but man-oh-man do I think some of the largely forgotten "also-ran's" in philosophy deserve more attention than some of the big names).
posted by ornate insect at 4:47 PM on April 7, 2008


ornate insect, I agree with your objection to Kant, and I'm a big fan of the way Nietzsche put it in his one-page history of philosophy:
HOW THE "TRUE WORLD" FINALLY BECAME A FABLE.
The History of an Error

1. The true world — attainable for the sage, the pious, the virtuous man; he lives in it, he is it.
(The oldest form of the idea, relatively sensible, simple, and persuasive. A circumlocution for the sentence, "I, Plato, am the truth.")

2. The true world — unattainable for now, but promised for the sage, the pious, the virtuous man ("for the sinner who repents").
(Progress of the idea: it becomes more subtle, insidious, incomprehensible — it becomes female, it becomes Christian. )

3. The true world — unattainable, indemonstrable, unpromisable; but the very thought of it — a consolation, an obligation, an imperative.
(At bottom, the old sun, but seen through mist and skepticism. The idea has become elusive, pale, Nordic, Königsbergian. [i.e. Kantian])

4. The true world — unattainable? At any rate, unattained. And being unattained, also unknown. Consequently, not consoling, redeeming, or obligating: how could something unknown obligate us?
(Gray morning. The first yawn of reason. The cockcrow of positivism.)

5. The "true" world — an idea which is no longer good for anything, not even obligating — an idea which has become useless and superfluous — consequently, a refuted idea: let us abolish it!
(Bright day; breakfast; return of bon sens and cheerfulness; Plato's embarrassed blush; pandemonium of all free spirits.)

6. The true world — we have abolished. What world has remained? The apparent one perhaps? But no! With the true world we have also abolished the apparent one.
(Noon; moment of the briefest shadow; end of the longest error; high point of humanity; INCIPIT ZARATHUSTRA.)
posted by nasreddin at 4:49 PM on April 7, 2008 [2 favorites]


Speaking as a practitioner of analytic philosophy who wishes he knew more about continental philosophy (and who thinks he is probably sympathetic with some of its general themes), I'm finding the characterizations of analytic philosophy in this thread to be unfair. The word 'rationalism' is being thrown around a lot, as if it were the defining mark of analytic philosophy. But when I look around my department, I see a lot more Hume than Kant. Wittgenstein is being paraded as a defining figure for the analytics, but you'd be hard pressed to find a philosopher more reviled in analytic departments. Continental philosophy is apparently marked by a rejection of "foundational (Cartesisian/Kantian) logos", but analytic departments are filled with holists and anti-foundationalists. Descartes is our whipping boy, too.

Analytic philosophy is just too big and broad and heterogenous to make sweeping claims about. I suspect the same is true of continental philosophy. I think the distinction is probably not one of content, but a sociological one: the tradition splintered, different groups started citing different people and using different vocabularies, and soon enough there was speciation. At this point, it's mostly an academic turf war for funding and respect and such.

Also, for what it's worth, mdn's story sounds right to me. I was surprised to read so many people in this thread saying that analytic and continental philosophy are converging; from my perspective, they're drifting further and further apart. I think that's probably a shame. I definitely hear a lot of that "oh, do people still do continental philosophy?" line. But then, I'm at a department that is as far down the analytic spectrum as you could possibly go.
posted by painquale at 5:13 PM on April 7, 2008 [3 favorites]


painquale--I think certain philosophers (Michael Friedman and Robert Hanna and Barry Smith) are doing some necessary historical revisions to the origins of this split: showing it's a lot less clean than we tend to believe (one thinks here of the frequency with which Husserl/Frege are now often returned to--by Hintinkka or Mohanty, etc--to see what really seperates them and what really connects them, the frequency with which Kant and neo-Kantianism is now thrown into this mix, i.e. is Kant a father of analytic or Continental?[same question about Peirce], the frequency with which the school of Brentano and Meinong is now brought into the mix, or the fact that Husserl himself saw Hume as the first phenomenologist, and the inclusion of world philosophies on both ends of the spectrum, etc)....

in the realm of cognitive science/philosophy of mind, Dreyfous's early contention (echoed by Fodor and others) that cognitive phenomenology (or neurophenomenology) was a fruitful way forward, has been taken up by many: this book and this book are indicators.

In general I see a willingness to accept an historical plurality and lack of resolution ot the many kinds of philosophy now practiced and sanctioned. But it could also be wishful thinking on my part, since I have always been predisposed to want to bridge these tendencies in my readings (and predisposed to be drawn to certain thinkers--like Bateson or Langer or Whitehead or James--who were never fully accepted, at least w/out reservations, by either camp).
posted by ornate insect at 5:31 PM on April 7, 2008


"Anyway, Plato hated this idea, because it didn't separate the thinker from the thought, the knower from the known, which is why he spends so much time condemning and banishing poets in his Republic. "

I thought that Plato's objection was that poets described things not as they were, but as pale reflections of what they were. His poetry hate-on seemed based on the idea that the lies of poets weren't discursive or noble.
posted by klangklangston at 5:48 PM on April 7, 2008


I think it's funny how the search for truth in philosophy is so contingent on the social process of humans engaging in philosophy.

You aren't the only one. The philosophers have thought about it too.


I always wanted to respond to (Heidegger's claim that) "The nothing noths," with "The something soths", but the form seemed somehow wrong.

I would be interested in a consideration of its form in German, which I do not know. Indeed I would prefer it.
posted by Shakeer at 5:58 PM on April 7, 2008


In Die Geschichte des Seyns (1938-39), Heidegger writes:

Das Seyn ist das Nichts.
Das Nichts nichtet.


('Beyng is nothing.
Nothing nothings.')

"Noths" is a silly translation.

'Something' is etwas, so the parallel would be "Das Etwas etwast" ('Something somethings'), but that doesn't sound as good.
posted by languagehat at 6:17 PM on April 7, 2008


I agree with ornate insect about recent much needed revisions in the story of the continental-analytic divide. I also think I may be sympathetic to some recent analytic and post-analytic philosophy. Also...

I would like to return to this question of the political again. What seems dangerous to me about Fish's repeated standpoint in his op-ed pieces (see also his recent piece about not taking political standpoints but arguing logical points) is an assertion that a certain mode of argumentation excuses one from taking a political or ethical stand. (This mode of argumentation is seemingly characterized by analytically (vs synthetically) clarifying or extrapolating a given argument.) If one agrees that:

Either:
We are without any complete metanarrative/metalanguage that will explain and ground any set of assertions about the world
And that such a narrative necessarily cannot exist.
Or:
That a statement exists as an occurrence within broader discursive fields, whose effects extend beyond the intention that produces it.

Then:
You cannot hold Fish's apolitical view about ANY argument, but must, acknowledge that such arguments (especially when they appear in the public sphere) are political gestures.

Fish does not seem to me to be alone in the supposedly apolitical stand that he takes. It is a view seemingly held by many scientists and philosophers today. It seems to me then that one of the most important continued projects of the continental tradition has to be a resistance to any re-naturalization of scientific or philosophical discourses about the body, ethics, morality, mind etc. A resistance precisely to certain strains of cognitive science, moral realism, AND to religious fundamentalism and its presence within institutions of the state.

Finally, it does seem that (see moral realism) there are some branches of contemporary analytic philosophy that hope to find apolitical, amoral, noncultural grounds on which to conduct their research and produce their conclusions. I would argue that such grounds are always nothing less than a hidden abdication of political responsibility. (And, I can't help noticing that analytic philosophy that does take on a political project often goes hand in hand (see Rorty) with contemporary neo-liberal politics. --- not that the phenomenological/existential or structuralist/deconstructionist or psychoanalytic traditions haven't had their own problems in the past (Heidegger, obviously) but at the moment they seem far less a part of global, neo-liberal/conservative, technocratic politics)
posted by huffa at 6:22 PM on April 7, 2008


It seems to me then that one of the most important continued projects of the continental tradition has to be a resistance to any re-naturalization of scientific or philosophical discourses about the body, ethics, morality, mind etc.

Exactly so.
posted by Wolof at 6:29 PM on April 7, 2008


Wow. You've just proven a point, but not, I think, the one you set out to.

Um, that risky, experimental ventures with somewhat admirable goals do not always work out because all possible errors have not been considered?
posted by Saxon Kane at 6:54 PM on April 7, 2008


No, but I'll give you a hint; it's to do with spin.
posted by George_Spiggott at 7:08 PM on April 7, 2008


huffa and wolof--not sure I'm getting what is meant here, please explain:

Why must "naturalism" (and a definition would be helpful that we can agree on) be resisted, if by naturalism all that is meant is the tendency to view "natural" as more or less co-extensive (empirically, metaphysically, and metaphorically, if not always ethically) with all that is?

Is "naturalize" here meant to signal an opposite to "normalize"(or "normativize")?

I take science by definition to be a naturalistic inquiry. I take scientism to be the unhelpful attempt to find science omnicompetant in its both explanatory power and its praxiological application for all of human affairs, and I take humanism to be a series of contested traditions that nevertheless attempt to nonformally normalize/normativize something like the creative human ethical imagination (the psyche).

It seems evident to me that most human life as it lived in the world (the lebenswelt) can be naturalized without difficulty, but I grant you that ethics is problemmatic in this regard. But I'm also weary of the old transcendental/immanent duality, or the abstract/actual distinction, where all this seems to lead.

I don't think "naturalizing" human experience necessarily begets hyper-reductive behaviorism. I am sure that religion does not want to be naturalized. The body? Can't get more natural than that. Mind: well, there's a lot of philosophical ink spilled on that one, I grant you, but even so a largely functionalist (not necessarily computational) approach to that "problem" appeals to me.

I think we may be using different concept-clusters for these necessarily vague terms.
posted by ornate insect at 7:16 PM on April 7, 2008


that’s a fair point about the use of the term naturalization. as I am using it here, specifically with reference to Marx (German Ideology), Althusser’s reinterpretation of Marx (On Ideology), and, less directly Foucault (Archaeology of Knowledge), I am referring to the creation of a picture of the world in which socially, culturally, linguistically determined discourses/ideologies are made to appear as if they are grounded ahistorically. that is, that the existence of a current state of affairs is not the result of either social struggle, material relations, or the contingent development of a particular discourse, but is, rather, the result of something transcendent of any of these determinations.

yes, certainly there are important functions for science in the investigation of the mind/body. however, I don’t think natural science has to assert omnicompetence in order to tread into dangerous political territory. it merely has to assert that it has competence to assert certain facts about the mind/body that are transcendent of social/political/linguistic/material determinations – thus, precluding the ethical/political debate about such assertions by cordoning them off from such questions.
posted by huffa at 7:43 PM on April 7, 2008


Huffa--fair enough, but is human history wholly unnatural? It seems to at the very least be semi-natural, because human beings are at the very least semi-natural. I'm not sure why ethics needs recourse to metaphysics in any case, since we could say that ethics needs to be driven according to some wholly natural and pragmatic desires shared more-or-less among all humans: chiefly, the desire to know, the desire to be free (in an ethically reasonably sense of "free"), and the desire to be treated fairly. Rather than attempting to "transcend" what is natural for fear of some hollow dog-eat-dog Spencerism or whatnot, might it not make more sense to establish the reciprocal naturalism that accords the quite real-world modality that great disparities between, and conflicts among, homo sapiens, have potential ripples to be detrimental to all? This is a pan-ecological approach to social justice, rather than a 19th century material dialectic or whatnot.
posted by ornate insect at 7:52 PM on April 7, 2008


Nas, yeah, deconstruction is already going in the text. I'm not implying it's a methodology, but it is a perspective, and that perspective is reading the text so sympathetically that we see how it is being undone, by itself.

As per the analytic/continental divide, it really does depend on who you ask. There are some folks in the Davidson style camp, that try to do continental "French" thought analytically, and there are some who have made a name for themselves doing analytical thought "continentally" - I'm thinking of Badiou's, umm, work. But for the most part, my conversation with analytical folks (a small sample) goes along the lines of other comments/reports: "oh? people still do continental philosophy? right, in lit departments..." Or as one philosopher acquaintance put it, "we do the heavy lifting, and then the lit people try to use our work to look sexy."

Klankklangston: Yes, Plato does have that objection. It's the same objection he puts to the sophists. But take a look at The Republic, as it turns out that's not his only objection, and perhaps not his most germane. He condemns oral/poetic mimesis in three different sections of the Republic, and he argues that it is because of poetic mimesis that people believe the false images and pale copies of the truth. And while the sophists were merely annoying promoters of evil for Plato, the poets required banishment - about as severe as you could get in Greek society, where city-state identity and affiliation were pretty much everything. There have been a number of discussions of Plato on mimesis, but for clarity and insight, I'd recommend Havelock's Preface to Plato, which is considered a pretty seminal text.
posted by hank_14 at 7:53 PM on April 7, 2008


Re: Kant. I have a friend who does a ton of work trying to argue for the postmodern interpretation of Kant, that Kant is really the mac daddy of ethical obligation to the universe, precisely because of the field in which the subject and its unknowability is placed. So he argues that in most ways it is Kant that makes possible the thought of Levinas or Nancy. I like his work, but I'm not convinced. It seems to be charitable to an extreme. Kant definitely hits the axis you're talking about, nas, with the split between the unknowable and the knower, but to my eyes, that condition isn't the starting point for a thought on the unknowable but a reaffirmation of the subject because of his epistemological limitations.

That being said, I'm sure I'm uncharitable on Kant, and not for good reasons. I'm actually pretty uncharitable toward Nietzsche, too, if only because he's so damn trendy, and everyone reads him and then thinks they have stunning new insight into life, the universe and everything, and really they're just annoying. I knew this philosophy major in college who kept quoting Nietzshe randomly, apparently because he thought it germane to nearly every conversation - my god it was horrible.
posted by hank_14 at 7:58 PM on April 7, 2008


“chiefly, the desire to know, the desire to be free (in an ethically reasonably sense of "free"), and the desire to be treated fairly.”

treating these desires as natural (under my previous clarification) may be precisely where we diverge (on lines not entirely dissimilar to this debate). admittedly, I am not a pragmatist, nor a peircean, and have trouble getting behind an idea of any ‘natural desire’. in fact, vis a vis foucault in History of Sexuality, I would argue that desire itself (as we understand it today) is a product of a discourse that comes into its own in the 19th century. (BTW, I am also not terribly sympathetic to a Habermasian standpoint that would rely on some ideal communicative relation that is merely being hindered in the contemporary moment.)
posted by huffa at 8:10 PM on April 7, 2008


but...I do think there are times when arguments for universal human rights (which depend upon a certain kind of natural human being) are almost unavoidable (so I am partially sympathetic to your point)...and, thus, I don't think this is a question that is easily answerable...but...precisely because of that, I think it is really one of the most important and most open questions of the contemporary moment
posted by huffa at 8:14 PM on April 7, 2008


Natural non-ethical human desires would seem to include the desire to eat and to have sex, and probably the desire to socialize. I understand the hesitancy one might have (I have it too) to assigning any desires for states-of-being like the kinds I listed. After all, it may be that people desire not-to-know and not-to-be-free, just as much as the opposite (it would sure help explain a lot). Or it may be there are no universal desires of this kind, unnatural or otherwise. I understand this further b/c we have seen negative illustrations these past few years of trying to rationalize and "enforce" pseudo-democracy or "instill militarily" the desire for political autonomy upon a people and a place. So that point is well taken. But if we cannot base our ethics on what we perceive as possibly natural (i.e. immanent in the world), then why do appeals to transcendent or idealized realms of abstraction help us any more? At a certain point perhaps "the good," like "the true," is a leap of faith, and if we forego them both completely then have we merely begged the question? I certainly don't have any answers here, the road to hell is paved and all that, but where there is a moral vacuum or pure unfiltered relativism all sorts of dubious possibilities arise as well. I favor a minima ethica for the most part, but I'm not sure how we get to even that if we cannot agree that human beings are alike enough to have anything like a "moral law within."
posted by ornate insect at 8:23 PM on April 7, 2008


huffa--just watched the Chomsky/Foucoult debate (1st part) you linked to, and they seem to be taking two sides of the same coin: Foucault is taking the negative and deflationary stance that power is invasive and can morph in subtle ways through institutions that claim to be neutral or benevolent, and Chomsky is taking the positive and expansionist stance that certain ideals (freedom, justice, etc) are necessary as creative poles of potential (towards which homo sapiens as social animal must continually re-orient and find its bearings). The danger of Foucault's stance is jaded nihilism, and the danger of Chomsky's is wide-eyed naivete. Seems to be a middle way here after all.
posted by ornate insect at 8:43 PM on April 7, 2008


Dreyfous's early contention (echoed by Fodor and others) that cognitive phenomenology (or neurophenomenology) was a fruitful way forward

That's Dreyfus's contention, yeah, but Fodor surely hasn't echoed him. The man hates the consciousness and phenomenology literature and by his own admission has nothing to say on the topic.

I do agree that continentals are more attuned to the influence of political and social considerations on philosophical thought. There are exceptions (Stich, Hacking, Prinz, even Quine). Even so, none of these guys discuss the cultural and political atmosphere that led to their own positions, and I take it (from my malnourished and underdeveloped understanding of continental philosophy) that continentals are more explicit about the cultural situation of their own writings.

One of my past professors characterized the difference as follows: analytics think that philosophical progress is possible; continentals treat philosophy, like Wittgenstein, as a kind of personal therapy. That seemed like a poor characterization of continental philosophy to me. It is, right?
posted by painquale at 8:51 PM on April 7, 2008


Yep. Arguable the idea that progress is possible seems just as easily therapeutic (what I do matters, no really it does). I think continental philosophy, and again the homogenizations are difficult on both sides, tend to want to think the possibilities for thought as part of a political, social, and historical condition (this can include politics, history, language, culture, media, etc.), whereas analytical types tend to think about thought as an ideal type, and look to progress it in a way that these conditions need not interfere, obtain, or delimit what is philosophically possible or productive. That's why I said earlier that the knife's edge between the two traditions seems to be the approach to the truly massive disasters - the Holocaust, the Gulag, Hiroshima, and so on.
posted by hank_14 at 9:19 PM on April 7, 2008


painquale--In the book "Husserl, Intentionality and Cognitive Science" (1982, MIT Press) that Dreyfous edited, the last essay "Methodological Solipsism Considered as a Research Strategy in Cognitive Psychology," Fodor outlines both "representational" and "computational" models of cognition, but seems to leave open the possibility of a quasi-phenomenological approach. His later work, while far from being phenomenological in any mainline sense, is, in its anti-conceptualist approach, not at all unlike phenomenology as I understand it. But a better case would be Searle, who seems in his work (the book "The Rediscovery of the Mind," etc) to be seeking a way through the mind/body "problem" with a method that has Husserlian (or Merleau-Pontyean) overtones.

B/c I tend to think the analytic/continental distinction as a misleadingand false binary, I will resist the need to come up with an ad hoc approximation of any difference. However I think if one must think of a difference it is a metaphilosophical difference for what is at stake: for the analytic what is at stake is often cognitive knowledge and conceptual accuracy, while for the continental what is at stake is often creative freedom and existential possibility. Clearly, the best philosophers blur such distinctions.
posted by ornate insect at 9:21 PM on April 7, 2008


And by blur those distinctions, he means ignores the analytical side ;P

Ornate, how do you feel about Badiou?
posted by hank_14 at 9:25 PM on April 7, 2008


hank_14: the problem w/this--"the knife's edge between the two traditions seems to be the approach to the truly massive disasters"--is that it just creates "two traditions" in retrospect as if they were more real than they are: they are really massive and recent simplifications that fall apart under any close inspection. It's just a wild over-reach.
posted by ornate insect at 9:31 PM on April 7, 2008


Look, ornate, I can't speak to your experiences, and I would like to agree, in an ideal sense, that the things that unite them are greater than the things that divide them, but when I talk to people who have a disciplinary stake in the matter, be they profs or grad students, they seem very keen to encourage the idea that these are indeed two very different traditions.

I'm not sure if the knife's edge analogy communicated what I hoped, as I'm not sure what you're thinking overreaches. Again I'm only talking from my experience, but I find that the difference in perspective, in what is inherited and makes possible a way of thinking and a subject of/for thinking, the question of how one approaches major historical events or traumas, like the ones I mentioned previously, is often where it is you see the difference in traditions play out. Analytical philosophy tends toward one set of responses and incorporations, and continental tends to go a different direction. For the latter, these events are often seen as the triumph of a certain type of modernist, calculative reason, whereas for the former, they are often seen as aberrations. For the analytical side, dealing with something like, say, virtue ethics, the Holocaust (the actions that comprise it) supplies one case among many other ethical infractions, like lying to your spouse, and the difference in degree matters less given the similarity in kind. The continentals tend to react differently, and see in these events something more profound than the continuation of a series. Hence the adage that postmodernity begins with the dropping of the atomic bomb. I don't think I'm being overreaching here, as I'm not suggesting that all who self-identify with particular philosophical inheritances are somehow anathema to those with a different set of inspirations, but it's silly to act as if the traditions don't exist and as if people don't put much stock in them. And if you're really sure this is the case, let's get a bunch of undergrads to apply to analytic PhD programs across the country, while writing favorably about Gadamer or Baudrillard or Zizek as their writing sample.
posted by hank_14 at 9:41 PM on April 7, 2008


Your appeal to authority is less than convincing, hank_14, b/c it removes the very real possibility that so many folks in academia subscribe to this dichotomy out of a kind of intellectual laziness as much as they do out of any historical accuracy or philosophical clarity.

We can spin out all sorts of sweeping hindsight narratives based on this fashionable distinction, largely b/c we are practicing a form of free association--unfettered by the facts. When Ryle reviewed Heidegger's Being and Time (a review worth reading), we might be tempted to think we're coming up against these two tempermental predispositions and philosophical languages. But then one realizes Ryle is also largely out of favor now among "analytic" philosophers, his dismissal of mind no longer assumed. But even if the review offered more, we would be saying little except how certain academic musical chairs are played. The scholastics thought there were massive differences among them, but now only a specialist can tell you why Suarez is different than Occam on the question of the syllogism or what-have-you.

There are many for whom the distinction is largely irrelevant: Brentano, Max Scheler, Bolzano, Natorp, Royce, Nicolai Hartmann, Lady Victoria Welby, Elizabeth Anscomb, Mary Midgley, Ernst Gellner, Simmel, Meinong, Alexander MacIntyre, Sorabji, etc.

The best evidence that the distinction is mostly meaningless may be the very fact that so many grad students and profs still believe in it: it fufills a certain very recent easy way of thinking and makes philosophy seem better defined than it in fact is, and although mostly unfufilled by the actual historical detail (throughout this thread I've pointed to exceptions and complications), like all dualism is serves as a habit that's hard to kick.

Peirce, arguably the most important American philosopher who ever lived, has been taken up by those (Karl Otto-Apel, Umberto Eco) who are usually lumped one place, by those (Wilfred Sellars, Hilary Putnam) who are usually lumped another place, and by those (Charles Hartshorne, John William Miller) who are unfortunately largely forgotten.

If anything is hurting philsophy right now it's the kind of insularity that such a distinction, if pressed upon too hard, tends to encourage. The sooner we bury it the better.
posted by ornate insect at 10:17 PM on April 7, 2008


Or that, as an unrepentant ecclectic by both taste & learning, is my view, at any rate.
posted by ornate insect at 10:24 PM on April 7, 2008


Actually, my appeal to authority (really?) is pretty convincing precisely because it describes a situation where people ascribe to a set of beliefs/traditions for reasons of intellectual laziness, which is to say it's a descriptively accurate statement. Your appeal to whatever (your choice) is convincing as a normative claim about the problem you (and others) have regarding the choice all these intellectually lazy people make. (Though we should retain the possibility that some folks believe in the split for reasons beyond their own intellectual insufficiencies.) Which is to say that yours is hardly a rebuttal of my claim, as much as it is a statement of preference and a desire to see my claim about what is reconciled with your claim about what should be.

I can't say I share your enthusiasm about Peirce, but my exposure is limited, as the stuff I read didn't excite me to read more. I don't find much intriguing about the American pragmatists, though of course that's not to say that Peirce isn't teh. greatest. American. philosopher. ever., as much as it is to say that the pool of impressive American philosophers isn't particularly deep in the historical sweep of things.
posted by hank_14 at 10:25 PM on April 7, 2008


Oh, wait, I just remembered - Samuel Weber was born in the states. I'll put him at the top of the American philosophy pool. That dude is fucking brilliant.
posted by hank_14 at 10:31 PM on April 7, 2008


My main point is that it's largely a contrivance that tends to streamline the myriad positions, individulas, schools and schisms that flourished from about 1840 to about 1920 (neoHegelians like Green and Bradley, neoKantians like Cassirer and Cohen, neoPositivists like Mach and the Vienna Circle, Polish logical formalists, Frankfurt neoMarxists, neoBrenatanians like Husserl and Meinong, language philosophers, etc): this is a very fluid time in philosophy, when the births of modern psychology, sociology, physics, etc are all swriling around. This is a rich time that rewards those who return to it to fill in lost or neglected avenues of thought. That is all.
posted by ornate insect at 10:36 PM on April 7, 2008


Oh, and Ornate, if you have a rec re: Peirce that you think will blow my mind, feel free to pass it along, and I'll give it another shot.
posted by hank_14 at 10:36 PM on April 7, 2008


For the analytical side, dealing with something like, say, virtue ethics, the Holocaust (the actions that comprise it) supplies one case among many other ethical infractions, like lying to your spouse, and the difference in degree matters less given the similarity in kind.

I really think virtue ethics, specifically the way Alasdair MacIntyre looks at it, is not entirely on the analytic side, even though it's often practiced by analytic philosophers (often those of a Catholic bent). MacIntyre is pretty explicit about presenting his neo-Aristotelianism as a kind of third way, and yet he is a lot more sympathetic to the continentals (at least the good ones) than he is to the positivists.

I'm actually pretty uncharitable toward Nietzsche, too, if only because he's so damn trendy, and everyone reads him and then thinks they have stunning new insight into life, the universe and everything, and really they're just annoying. I knew this philosophy major in college who kept quoting Nietzshe randomly, apparently because he thought it germane to nearly every conversation - my god it was horrible.


I read Nietzsche and that happened to me, too. I have to physically stop myself from quoting him at random moments in conversation, and I continue to think I've achieved a grand insight into life, the universe, and everything. But I don't think that's a reason to dismiss him; isn't that sort of what philosophy is about? It's a testament to Nietzsche's power as a thinker and as a writer. How many people are going to read, say, Paul Virilio in a hundred years and laugh or rejoice?

how do you feel about Badiou?
Badiou is the kind of useful idiot whose continued existence is due only to the willingness of the French to lap up May '68 nostalgia. And of course that whole dog's breakfast then gets exported to the US, where every thinker with a French name has just about equal authority in some circles.

I've also had a nagging feeling that Badiou uses set theory not because it helps philosophy, but because it insulates him from criticism.
posted by nasreddin at 10:48 PM on April 7, 2008


The one volume Selected Philsophical Writings of Peirce is a good place to start.
posted by ornate insect at 10:59 PM on April 7, 2008


Nas, dude, we should get together for a beer sometime. You and I have very, very similar suspicions about Badiou.

I'm not saying I dismiss Nietzsche, I actually find him very interesting. I'm just not very charitable about him. One too many, "hey dude, you know what's perfect for that argument? there's a passage in twilight of the idols about ____" from Nietzschefied colleagues.

Alright, Ornate, I'll order a copy tonight. My faith in the insect is high, my friend, very high, but my hope is not, well, audacious :)
posted by hank_14 at 11:09 PM on April 7, 2008


These kinds of threads make me realize I'm an idiot! Thanks mefi!
posted by snwod at 11:47 PM on April 7, 2008


ornate insect: In the book "Husserl, Intentionality and Cognitive Science" (1982, MIT Press) that Dreyfous edited, the last essay "Methodological Solipsism Considered as a Research Strategy in Cognitive Psychology," Fodor outlines both "representational" and "computational" models of cognition, but seems to leave open the possibility of a quasi-phenomenological approach. His later work, while far from being phenomenological in any mainline sense, is, in its anti-conceptualist approach, not at all unlike phenomenology as I understand it.

Well, Fodor has pretty much recanted methodological solipsism since 1994 (with the publication of The Elm and the Expert). But in any case, the view that Fodor touts in that paper, methodological solipsism, doesn't directly concern phenomenology at all. It's a proposal about how psychologists should characterize representational mental states. The general idea (to be quick but sloppy) is that psychologists should characterize mental states just by looking inside the organism and not by looking at anything in its environment. If you form a belief, then change whatever about the environment you want: the content of your belief will not change. This is a form of what is known as content internalism. I guess this "leaves open the possibility of a quasi-phenomenological approach" insofar as it's not about phenomenology at all. Most philosophers (I think) don't think that phenomenal states even have content. And one could form a representational theory of phenomenal content either adhering to or not adhering to the thesis of methodological solipsism. It's pretty much orthogonal.

I'm not sure what you mean by Fodor being "anti-conceptualist"; I'd guess you mean that he doesn't think that concepts can be analyzed because they're nearly all primitive and atomic. Again, that's pretty much orthogonal to anything having to do with phenomenology (he's not talking about concepts we hold consciously). Believe me: Fodor hates phenomenological studies. But you're certainly right that Searle is sympathetic.

hank_14: I've always thought the dividing line between continental and analytic thought comes down to a proximity of trauma vis-a-vis the Holocaust

You know, it's interesting to me that you place proximity to the Holocaust at the center of the analytic/continental divide. I've heard it said that the advent of the Third Reich was a primary cause of the rise of analytic philosophy in America. As Germany became increasingly repressive, a primarily Jewish diaspora settled in the U.S., and this included some extremely influential Polish and Austrian logicians (Tarski, Goedel), as well as a lot of logical positivists, many who were members of the Vienna Circle (Hempel, Carnap, Schlick, etc.). Many struggled to try to bring their families abroad. The influx of logicians melded together with the American pragmatists already floating about, resulting in the sort of analytic philosophy that's practiced in America nowadays. (Quine did a lot of work in bringing his colleagues over from Europe and getting them settled in universities -- there's a real sense in which he dictated the direction that philosophy in America was to take). Analytic philosophers might not explicitly write about the Holocaust as much as continental philosophers like de Beauvoir do, but the history of analytic philosophy really is steeped in the Holocaust.
posted by painquale at 11:51 PM on April 7, 2008 [1 favorite]


and I'd like note that this thread has reinvigorated my enthusiasm for philosophy as interesting aside from its applications in my own field. Thanks dudes!
posted by Shakeer at 11:55 PM on April 7, 2008


I'd also like to thank everyone for making this a fascinating thread (despite nasreddin's prediction).
posted by generalist at 8:15 AM on April 8, 2008


I for one will seriously miss our French theory overlords. Derrida and Foucault and Lyotard and honorary Frenchman Umberto Eco, prominently carried around in paperback, have figured in so many uncountable thousands of coffeeshop encounters between intensely hip-looking male students (slightly older, usually; dressed in black, frequently; with a good line in memorized buzzwords) and coeds (slightly younger, usually; somewhat less hip-looking perhaps, but working on it really hard) that I'm certain sexual competitiveness forms an unmentioned-elephant-in-room part of the resistance to both pomo's substantive ideas, such as they are, and its characteristic bafflegab. I will, as I say, seriously miss this game because as a French-speaking American I got to carry around untranslated editions without any risk of having my bluff called, and therefore instantly rated over other playas limited to French intellectuals' books translated into 'murican. I will miss it, that is, if it's really over--which I don't believe for an instant. We just don't yet know what bleeding-edge schools of thought we'll be namechecking in 2020.

P.S. the game's been going on for quite a long time, it has a deep history pre-pomo. Back when I looked young 'n' hot (as contrasted with today's professorial 'n' hot) the big thing was structuralism and I carried really gorgeous oversize printed-in-France paperbacks (Agrandissez cette image.) ( And then, y'know, fermer la fenêtre. Jeez, gotta tell these people everything) by Claude Levi-Strauss. Tuesday, Le Cru et le cuit; Wednesday, Du meil aux cendres; Thursday, L'Origine des manières de table; Friday, the very Friday-night-appropriate L'Homme nu ; Saturday, if I have a date, especially with a freshman, maybe Piaget's for-beginners overview Le Structuralism; or if I don't, as a break from the oppressive present maybe Huis Clos (in college coffeshops Sartre is forever); or some early Baudrillard (structuralism won't last forever, better be ready for whatever's next.)

Sundays I rested. Comic books, if I read anything at all. (Scrooge McDuck--fuller lets his inner capitalist/colonialist oppressor out to play.) Mondays... did I ever see a Monday while I was a student? No, I don't think I did. Mondays were a thing of Later Life.
posted by jfuller at 8:34 AM on April 8, 2008 [3 favorites]


> 'Something' is etwas, so the parallel would be "Das Etwas etwast" ('Something somethings'), but that doesn't sound as good.

I translate it as plop.
posted by jfuller at 8:51 AM on April 8, 2008


i take exception to this writing. i think it has an undue number of character attacks towards continental theorists.
posted by flyinghamster at 9:08 AM on April 8, 2008


jfuller: what, no Bataille, Kristeva, Althusser, Cixous, Canguilhem, Blanchot, Genette, Klossowski: what kind of lightweight are you?
posted by ornate insect at 9:11 AM on April 8, 2008


Here's a small glimpse.
posted by flyinghamster at 9:21 AM on April 8, 2008 [1 favorite]


flyinghamster--cool video; starts out as snark but then actually makes a valid argument against Derrida's pretentious impenetrability. One thing that worth mentioning again on this thread is that the so called "lingusitic turn" that afflicts both "modern" analytic and "postmodern" continetnal philosophers concerns a question as old as philosophy itself: i.e. is language capable of transcending itself, or are all the claims upon such categories as truth either at best contingent and limited or at worst fundamentally misleading? Clearly anyone who speaks about anything near and dear to them invests what Emerson called "enthusiasm" into their words, and yet it's often difficult to discern through the layers of relativistic jargon what if any enthusiasm for language or thought remains in either the "deconstructive" tendency/"hemreneutic circle" of postmodernism or the "language games" view of Wittgenstein and others. The hermeneutic circle often seems vicious, and the language games often seem joyless.
posted by ornate insect at 9:40 AM on April 8, 2008


> no Bataille, Kristeva, Althusser, Cixous, Canguilhem, Blanchot, Genette, Klossowski:

Recall, eh? that the game I described was cruising college coffeeshops for young women who themselves are scanning the mob for a particular kind of guy: hot, of course, but also not ignorant. The feathers the male bird wears in this particular jungle have to be recognizeable by interested nonspecialists. Althusser may have a trace of a recognition factor; for the rest of them you might as well be carrying a book about systems of partial differential equations. (Which, if you were actually reading it, would say considerably more about your mental capacity and discipline; but it would not--ever--count as date bait.)
posted by jfuller at 9:57 AM on April 8, 2008


...a book about systems of partial differential equations... would not--ever--count as date bait.

Funnily enough, this was my experience as well. Analytical mechanics or quantum mechanics, on the other hand, well...
posted by bonehead at 12:18 PM on April 8, 2008


bonehead--you got some action at a distance?
posted by ornate insect at 12:30 PM on April 8, 2008 [1 favorite]


It's true the debate over the status of language is a long one. Gorgias, even before Plato, put it this way: Nothing exists, we wouldn't know if it did, and we couldn't communicate its existence to others even if we knew it.
posted by hank_14 at 1:49 PM on April 8, 2008


Transitions to entagled states did happen, though they tended to collapse quickly.
posted by bonehead at 1:52 PM on April 8, 2008


hank_14: Ricoeur said that the aim of philsophy is to "keep open the width of language."

I don't know if that phrase is properly translated, but assuming it is (and since we're being pomo we can only misread), I find the word choice provocative: depth, precision, verisimilitude, promise, referential transparency, epistemogical accuracy, ontological opacity, consistency, ambiguity, disambiguity, hieratic wisdom, demotic familiarity--these were not the choices Ricoeur chose here. Instead, he chose a word (width) that implies horizontal expansiveness rather than vertical decisiveness, openness rather than definitional certitude. It seems just about right (to me).
posted by ornate insect at 2:12 PM on April 8, 2008


ornate insect - just wanted to respond quickly about the foucault chomsky vid. as I read it it is less a question of nihilism vs naivete. I would agree with you that foucault is arguing for the possibility of power morphing in subtle ways that seem to become simply benevolent. however, even more than that foucault is arguing that it is precisely our inabillity to speak outside of discourses that are absolutely infused by such power that makes it impossible to articulate a utopian project (or, by implication, a natural desire or morality) except under the terms of the discourse in which one exists. chomsky hopes to articulate just such a possible utopian future on the basis of 'natural', real human desires and rights that exist above and beyond any such discourse. foucault (although he is often accused of this) is not saying that there is no resistance to the discourse in which one speaks and through which one lives. rather, he is saying that any such resistance cannot hope to find safe ground in the existence of a utopia/morality/human nature that exists outside of that discourse. the only hope is to play within the game. the danger for foucault is that any attempt to posit a political project on the basis of a human nature that exists above and beyond the discourse in which one describes risks simply repeating the very understandings of 'the human', 'the body', 'morality' that it hopes to resist. this does not mean that there is simply no resistance to a given discourse, but that all such resistance can never escape always coming to terms with the fact that it must speak through and with the power it works against.
posted by huffa at 3:01 PM on April 8, 2008


huffa--this is a question of language. To say we cannot "speak outside of discourses" is trivially true, since we cannot, literally, speak outside of language. But is there some more "profound" way of thinking about such a statement? Foucault would say yes, presumably: he feels it especially important that we recognize the contingent, non-universal "language-limits" of our concepts. But how is understanding that the word "toothbrush" may not apply in all cultures any different than understanding the word "justice" may not apply? If you say "b/c more is at stake, the implications are greater," I would argue that you have already conceded that not all concepts are semantically equal? To speak of "the danger" that "exists above and beyond the discourse" is to say literally nothing. For the danger is either trivial or nontrivial. If it is nontrivial, than one has already conceded that not all terms are semantically equivalent. In his rush to prevent ideological over-reaching or conceptual imperialism, Foucault may have created a theoretical problem that is even more dangerous: flattening thought in such a way that all distinctions become effectively irrelevant, and we are all at the Orwellian mercy of whatever arbitrary "discourse" is forced upon us.
posted by ornate insect at 3:14 PM on April 8, 2008


An interview about Badiou's recent work, with vids. Btw, Badiou celebrates "mai 68". So did Deleuze. For obvious reasons. Look around.
posted by nicolin at 1:18 AM on April 9, 2008


nicolin--the events of may '68 are to ageing French intellectuals what the summer of love is to ageing American hippies: a foundational nostalgic mythology of fresh, arcadian beginnings that has clouded discourse and remains far removed from today's world. And I say that as a left-wing progressive with deep sympathy for anarcho-synadacalism and other forms of spontaneous communal political ecologies.
posted by ornate insect at 9:44 AM on April 9, 2008 [2 favorites]


One of my past professors characterized the difference as follows: analytics think that philosophical progress is possible; continentals treat philosophy, like Wittgenstein, as a kind of personal therapy. That seemed like a poor characterization of continental philosophy to me. It is, right?

That would certainly mean John McDowell wouldn't count as an analytic - (but maybe he doesn't where you're from...) I think the potential grain of truth to this statement is more to do with the role of language to begin with, which is to say, analytics tend to believe language is systematically representative in such a way that we can logically construct the truth and work out answers, which can either result in making progress, or in McDowell's answer, that we already have "the truth" and philosophy is basically unnecessary - language represents it directly, that's all there is to it.

For the continental philosopher, stereotypically, language is a much messier system, and our work isn't about working out logic or recognizing conceptual inherence, but rather about working through the complexity of meaning we attempt to convey by the use of endless symbols, and seeing whether we can understand one another. So for the continental philosopher, there is no more likelihood that a contemporary guy will come up with a theory of epistemology that is "accurate" than that returning to heraclitus will be "accurate" because it's all about the way we try to talk about what isn't really fully translatable to language. It's that excess of meaning, the "very little, almost nothing" we're always chasing after, and it's the same chase every century, just in different contexts, with different languages, societies, technologies, etc.

So it is more like art or literature in that there is not an expectation of, "aha! got that one figured out" - it will always be a dialectic, there will always be the moment of desire and the moment of satisfaction, the doubt and the certainty, the skepticism and the rational argument. But we'll never stay satisfied, because it's always representative, like art is - it's trying to use words to display truth, as poetry could be said to use words to display beauty (and if you think the two the same ultimately, then yes, literature & philosophy crossover). But to think philosophy could be completed would be as silly as thinking art could reach its perfection, a final display of beauty that made it unnecessary to continue trying, as it were.

Its purpose is different, but the kind of progress is the same, because it is humans trying to represent things, not trying to discover or invent things.
posted by mdn at 10:21 AM on April 9, 2008


mdn (or anyone still reading at this late stage):

The turn to language, from any perspective, is both illuminating and unsatisfying.

It is illuminating for helping us appreciate how "bound up" in language our basic concepts are, but it is unsatisfying for denying us any obvious connection between our thought and the world. Language becomes, potentially, a solipsistic prison house if all thought reduces merely to the discursive practices or games through which it (thought) is expressed (in language). Such an extreme theoretical cul de sac, in which any given articulation of thought (in language) is no more or less accurate than any other as an articulation of reality (in fact), is untenable.

Clearly we do not think only through language (we also think in images and in what is often now called "nonceonceptual content"), and clearly language is not only a system of signification internal to itself (i.e. not an autonomous realm removed from mind-independent reality). Thus the obsession among analytics w/how language "hooks on" to the world, and the contintental tendency to point to how a phrase such as "hooks on" is a "merely" a metaphor, are both leaving out quite a bit that matters here.

The pragmatist-semiotic view might be that "hooks on" is indeed figuartive, as the continental says, but that it is also of extra-semantic value for pointing, analytically, to the world and not just back in upon itself. Thus every sign points in three directions: towards the world, towards itself (the logical primacy of self-identity), and towards the other signs it relates to. This triadic (Peircean) reltional structure is the meta-semiotic prism of cognition through which all purposive activity generates its own self-sufficient meaning. It avoids the dualisms that infest the dialectic of continental metaphysic, and also avoids the chimerical singularities of logical self-sufficiency that inspire the anayltic quest for a parsimonious "truth-language" so removed from the world.
posted by ornate insect at 11:17 AM on April 9, 2008


ornate insect, it's not that language is the only way to think or experience, not at all - it's just that language is the only mode through which we do philosophy. If you want to be a painter, or just meditate and enjoy nature, or - etc - then that's fine, but if you are doing philosophy, you do have to deal with the mode through which you are expressing things. That's why I think the poetic language, or the attempt to recognize the "more than the sum of its parts"-ness of language, is important, and reducing it to simple logical analysis is where we get screwed.

I didn't mean to suggest that any articulation is equivalent, just that I don't think philosophy is a historically progressive model, i.e., that we have advanced over time to better methods of doing philosophy. I think the more accurate models are precisely those which are self-aware of their own use of language, and take care to retrace the premises and understand what is being assumed. I took one class at a very analytic program through a consortium at my school, and my biggest frustration with the readings there (which were almost entirely short contemporary journal articles) were how regularly the authors did not seem to notice that they were essentially making circular arguments. They would invest their premises with their conclusions through certain vocabulary choices, and act like it was all straight logic. The class was on an idea which is difficult enough to talk about ("Nothing") and almost none of the authors we read acknowledged this (at least I would have thought they would clarify a Fregean Sinn/Bedeutung distinction...)

The point is just that there have always been more careful and less careful writers, and this is really the key. It isn't that we're going to figure out an answer; we're just going to be better and less better at explaining what we understand

and unsatisfying? well, I think that's inherent to philosophy, I guess - we are never going to be satisfied. I take that as part of the deal. That doesn't mean it doesn't mean anything, though. That's why I compare it to art. I am not saying philosophy is art, as I think there are serious differences as well, but I think in this way they are comparable.
posted by mdn at 1:00 PM on April 9, 2008


mdn--my post was not specifically written to address your previous points, all of which to me seem sound. Rather, I was attempting to tackle the old philosophical-nominalist problem of how to think about language and its relation to the world.

The overwhelming tendency in philosophy has been to present a misleading either/or dichotomy between an internalist/constructivist view (that language does not hook on to the world) and a extensionalist/analytic view (that language hooks on, but that our logical syntax is only provisional and inferential).

This is a half-empty/half-full view that pits logic and poetry against one another, and asks philosophy to mediate the two through natural language. I maintain there is a third way, that of revealing the triadic semiotic expounded by Peirce and Morris and others: this way posits that semiotics is neither metalogical not metapoetic, since it is not strictly language, but rather is reflective of a genuine structural attribute of all human signification and semiotic cognition (different from language per se).

This theoretical framework has the benefit of being potentially applicable to mathematics, music (music perhaps being a semiotic of pure feeling), visual art, poetry, formal logic, dreams, what have you, because it removes the content-specific qualification and semantic prejudices we have about truth. It sidesteps epistemology and metaphysics by looking at the way in which language actually engages the world.
posted by ornate insect at 1:19 PM on April 9, 2008


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