Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Reconstruction, har har (sure, why not)

Alexandra Heifetz:
...Among the real philosophers and career academics, things are worse. In 1989, Brian Leiter, now an analytic philosopher and law professor at the University of Texas at Austin, declared open war on continental philosophy by launching the Philosophical Gourmet Report. In the PGR, Leiter offered a ranking of the top philosophy programs in the US. At first hard copies of the rankings were distributed; then in 1996 the PGR went online. Geared toward prospective undergrads and based on the “quality of faculty” factor, the rankings were clearly, profoundly biased toward analytic programs. Some continental-leaning departments hung near the bottom of the list; most didn’t make it at all.

On the PGR website, which is now very fancy, there’s a section called “Continental vs. Analytic Philosophy,” a concise version of the introduction Leiter wrote for the book A Future for Philosophy. Here he distinguishes between them as two styles of doing philosophy, rather than categories for the kind of books to be read:

Continental philosophy is distinguished by its style (more literary, less analytical, sometimes just obscure), its concerns (more interested in actual political and cultural issues and, loosely speaking, the human situation and its “meaning”), and some of its substantive commitments (more self-conscious about the relation of philosophy to its historical situation).

Leiter seems to think he’s dropping a bomb—note the disparagements of “obscure” and “loosely speaking”—but the house of philosophy had begun to self-destruct half a century before. Since the 1950s analytic philosophers have made the same complaints: that continental philosophy has a messy literary quality, that it wastes time with “concepts-in-quotations,” and that it bothers itself with cultural things like genocide and the Internet. And yet, boom! Like a frantic seven-year-old, Leiter defends his kind of philosophy by pushing out people who don’t agree with him.

Not all continental scholars are concerned with historicity. Some are: the postmodernists, the feminists, the critical race theorists. But what the continental has tried to preserve (and what the analytic has tried to run from) is a sense that, even while pursuing self-preservation, philosophers should never give up on answering questions that are important and interesting to everyone. The analytic philosopher takes his scalpel to the concept of democracy; the continental presents us with an account of the brutal pacification of the east. One is not more philosophically interesting than the other, but certainly the second is more interesting to real people. And after all, there are still real people asking questions—for instance, the undergraduate who takes a course on ancient Greek philosophy and wonders why the platonic philosopher-king banished poetry while on television presidents use the highly poetic rhetoric of wartime. In universities with hard-core analytic cliques, like NYU or Princeton, continental philosophers end up outside of the philosophy department and find a home in comp lit, women’s, or African-American studies. In those settings they won’t be the ones to teach classes on the western philosophical tradition, and the task of teaching the ancients (and the recents) is left to the analytic philosophers. In their classrooms, “meaningful” words are more important than rhetoric, “sophomoric” everyday questions are banned, and in place of natural curiosity a student learns pragmatic methodology.

Continental philosophy isn’t obsolete. But the continental education, that ideal classroom in which Wittgenstein and Foucault are both taught, is becoming very difficult to find. This should worry us more than the fates of individual graduate students, whichever gang they choose. Today’s missiles are being dropped east of the Holland House Library.

Food for thought, as one revisits such things in turning to America.

Update: It has come to my attention that this polemic, excerpted above in the general interests of Internet communism, may be, as indeed polemics often are, slightly unfair, in this case to Brian Leiter, and furthermore that it may even contain factual inaccuracies of one degree or another. Please feel free to read his partly tangential, partly confirming, in any case blustering reply (linked several times by one "anonymous" soul in comments below) and come to your own well-nuanced and adult conclusions as always, needless to say.

Update 2: Also, dear fellow "random morons" if you will: please do take a look at this, and this. Thanks.


m. said...

Great find with this article. It was a joy to read in its entirety.

I've heard similar grumblings from a few different continentalists I know, and in all cases the discontent was tabled due to professional concerns. Yet these minority voices do harbor a faint glimmer of hope that the reign of the analytics will be short-lived. We'll see.

Leiter's list is maddening, and I'm glad to see Heifetz call it out. Though I have to say it thrills me to no end that the department I'd most like to enter (Rice) if I ultimately go the continental route (and don't fall victim to employability concerns and shoot for comp. lit. instead) doesn't register on his rankings -- easier for me.

Though I wonder: is there a better fate for the American student with a hankering for the interdisciplinary route than starvation? How about overseas? If one is willing, is relocation possible? Not necessarily in western Europe, where I hear landing a teaching gig as a foreigner is no easy feat, but perhaps elsewhere?

m. said...

ps: I think this is the photo of Holland House that she references in the piece. A great shot.

mc said...

yes, that's a nice copy of the photo.

and suppose there's always ESL...

Anonymous said...

Brian Leiter comes and goes on the sidebar, i notice

Anonymous said...

okay, except Leiter is not an analytic in any strict sense. for the past several years he has taught primarily 19th century continental philosophy (Marx, Freud, Nietzsche, etc.) Moreover this article seems to be more a caricature than a depiction of the American philosophical academy, perhaps by a disgruntled former graduate student.

Anonymous said...

is it an accurate caricature?

if not, how not?

Anonymous said...

...in place of natural curiosity a student learns pragmatic methodology.

So in the continental classroom a student learns natural curiosity?

Anonymous said...

it may be good to read this with an open mind before evaluating further:


Anonymous said...

Leiter responds to this article, and links to you, here.

jg said...

Yes of course Leiter teaches Nietzsche, and a bit of Marx. He also wages war, as any visit to the PGR makes clear enough. These two things are hardly mutually exclusive - indeed as the article suggests they are, these days, all too common.

One might say he wages a war of convenient avoidance on everything post-Heidegger, whether it begins by rejecting phenomenology and trying to brush off all trace of transcendental thought (as with Foucault & Deleuze) or otherwise (as with Derrida, Nancy, Lacoue-Labarthe).

Or, are we to suppose his genuflecting before a mirror, as predictable as it is merely defensive, not to mention largely evasive of the article itself, or his regression to name-calling of utter strangers...open-mindedness?

Obviously Heifetz was bound to be attacked, for poor word choice if little else (one can reasonably imagine more charitable ways of reading "natural curiosity" - clealy itself a polemical barb to some degree). And the objections Leiter makes are not entirely unreasonable (though his tone may border the unbearably smug). But where is the justification for the ridiculous bias of the PGR? (And the more appropriate larger question, as always: if Leiter seems to have the gall to imply he is a "continental" philosopher (in addition to an analytic? the perfect incarnation of the bridged divide? really??) then where is the demonstration of knowledge, or the authoritative reading on the tradition, post-Heidegger and post-Sartre?)

Mostly however, the fact that Leiter has never apologized (at least not visibly) for his merely opportunist, know-nothing hate-piece regarding Derrida on the occasion of the man's demise, speaks rather clearly for itself.

Anonymous said...

Leiter's tone, at


as usual, leaves a lot to be desired. But his points are right and convincing. Do read the post -- and try (know it's hard) to see past Leiter's over-the-top combativeness.

Anonymous said...

Why, in the quotation from Heifetz, do you use an external link to a text by John Holbo as evidence of the alleged tendency of analytical philosophers to monopolize the teaching of Western philosophy in universities with 'hard-core analytical cliques'? As far as I know, Holbo teaches at the University of Singapore -- whose Philosophy department impresses, if anything, by its diversity of philosophical approaches (and clearly isn't dominated by a 'hard-core analytical clique'). Seems to me there is quite a bit of ignorance on both sides!

Matt said...

anonymous (if that is your real name),

the link was not intended as evidence of a "hard core analytic clique" in Singapore but only as one example, undoubtedly among many, of a teacher with largely analytic sympathies taking on the role of authority (who knows, perhaps the sole exposure certain students will ever have) with respect to "continental" philosophy (I think it's safe to assume both schools are "Western," don't you?).

But you're right that is another conversation.

Matt said...

anyway you sound like you are more familiar with universities in Singapore than I, so your point is well taken.

and, i certainly agree the Heifetz piece is weak. one might even say (more charitably, perhaps, noting how such things tend to go), "bloggly," or popularly so.

however, i do agree that it still pales in comparison to Leiter's remarks on Derrida, which are simply shameful, by any standards.

Anonymous said...

can of worms

m said...

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