Carl, over at the marvelously named Dead Voles, has an interesting post up on the so-called “new philosophy” and its relationship to the history of philosophy. As Carl writes:
As I’ve remarked recently, finding repetition in history is subject to a variety of difficulties of fact and interpretation. Context matters, and we may also recall Marx’s quip in The 18th Brumaire that while the first time is tragedy, the second is farce. Still, while philosophers as such are under no obligation to take history seriously, for historians of philosophy it’s important that philosophical ideas claim universality unlike almost anything else in history, so taking philosophy seriously also involves putting decontextualized comparison in play. This procedure does reveal some striking similarities; it seems that folks have been asking roughly the same questions and coming up with roughly the same answers for a long, long time. Apparently none of them have been fully satisfactory.
For historians this is no worry; we find our kicks in context and we’re not so much concerned with what Truth Is as what people think it was at particular places and times. For reflective philosophers who aren’t just interested in joining an intellectual gang it may be more concerning, although in the several thousand years of recorded philosophy any number of soothing ideologies have been invented to cope with its disappointments. And there’s always context to make the difference. As for Mikhail, Graham asks “Could it be that philosophy is starting over again?” There you go, Mikhail. Just be patient. If you wait a couple thousand years, we’ll come back around to Kant again.
Read the rest here.
I’m gratified to hear reference to a “new philosophy”, rather than the conclusion that those developing these positions are just a few crackpots on blogs and out of the way places. I think Carl hints at something important in this post without quite making it explicit. In other word, in addition to approaching new philosophical movements at the level of their content and philosophical claims, I think it’s important to approach philosophy as a social assemblage embodied in entities called universities, colleges, journals, and conferences, that link people together in a particular way and which strives to (re)produce certain form of thought among those lodged in these networks. In short, philosophy should not be examined simply as a body of texts and dialogues, but also as a set of institutional practices that vary from milieu to milieu, historical setting to historical setting. We should take the manner in which job interviews are organized at the APA, how journals function, what bodies are brought together, etc., as we should the texts which are discussed and written.
I think a lot of what’s going on is difficult to understand without understanding the institutional context in which it’s taking place. I am not suggesting that this is the only explanation of the emergence of new orientations of thought, but it is an important one that often gets ignored by philosophers due to their discursive mode of thinking which tends to displace the sociological and institutional as a relevant dimension of analysis. Here I think the sorts of analyses folks like Gramsci, Foucault, and Bourdieu (especially the sublime Distinction and Homo Academicus) do are highly relevant to understanding what is going on.
For me, Kant is not the real target, but rather social constructivists and linguistic idealists, whom I believe to be descended from a certain Kantian tradition. However, while there are real philosophical disputes in this issue, a lot of the things Mikhail is sensing have less to do with straight philosophy and philosophers, but with how Continental philosophy is taught in the United States and the Anglo-Speaking world. It would be no exaggeration to say that graduate students are literally terrorized by the history of philosophy over the course of their education. They are taught to be careful readers of texts in the history of philosophy, to write articles on thinkers in the history of philosophy, to present papers on the history of philosophy, etc.
Moreover, Continental journals and conferences are set up in these terms as well. It is very difficult to get anything published as a Continentalist if it is not on Heidegger, Kant, Deleuze, Husserl, Sartre, etc. Where students get into philosophy because they want to grapple with certain sets of questions and problems, they end up having to filter all these questions and problems through another thinker in order to have any place in the academy. Moreover, Continentalists, unlike Analytics, are not taught to develop arguments or concepts, but rather to take positions through another thinker. That is, you are enjoined to side with Heidegger or Kant or Hegel or Husserl or Deleuze, etc. Generally the Europeans provide the philosophers (i.e., those authorized to do philosophies) and Anlo-American Continentalists are required to be scribes that comment on these master-thinkers, expanding and developing their thought in a variety of ways.
As some readers of my blog know, I teach at a two year college. It is a very good and unusual two year college with terrific colleagues (especially in philosophy), but a two year college nonetheless. Right out of the gate in grad school, I received a number of interviews from universities with graduate programs, and I have received interviews with graduate programs every subsequent year that I’ve applied for positions. However, if I was willing to take a position at a two year school, it wasn’t simply for money and a stable position– though that was certainly a serious consideration –but also because I would have absolute intellectual freedom to pursue my thoughts and interests as I saw fit. In other words, I would no longer have to worry if my approach fit with the primacy of the history of philosophy dictated by the Continental conferences, journals, and presses. I would no longer have to worry whether my interest in psychoanalysis, sociology, media studies, rhetoric, etc., fit with the Continental institution and was relevant to getting tenure or getting published (generally these things have very little place in philosophy departments around the country, with notable exceptions like Johnston). I could do what I wanted. It’s notable, in this connection that a number of those worked up about the “new philosophy”, are either in exile or out of the way places with respect to the most prestigious Continental positions, or are outside of philosophy altogether. There’s a reason for this, and I suspect it’s not a philosophical reason.
I believe that my book on Deleuze, Difference and Givenness, shows my bonafides where the history of philosophy and, in particular, Kant, are concerned. There I tried to show that the real hero for Deleuze is not Hume or the British Empiricists, but rather Kant’s critical philosophy. In short, I tried to show how Deleuze’s thought was a radicalization of Kant’s transcendental idealism, that went beyond this position while working through it. This required a close analysis of much in Kant (as well as a number of other philosophers from the tradition). But at a certain point one grows extremely weary in speaking through others. This is not to say that my thought is original or new, that it isn’t influenced, or that it doesn’t reinforce the wheel, but at least it’s my piece of shit and tries to speak directly in my name. It’s better, after all, to have your own piece of shit than to always linger on about the shit of others. In other words, at least what I’m trying to develop addresses the sorts of questions I asked myself when I first began studying philosophy at the age of fifteen, rather than constantly trying to find other philosophers asking the sorts of questions and developing the sorts of answers that I would like. In other words, I can sleep at night, even if what I’m developing is facile through and through. And none of this precludes influence or taking the history of philosophy seriously. It does preclude writing books like Difference and Givenness.
In addition to this, as far as philosophical alliances go, I think there are a lot of extra-philosophical considerations that go into which philosopher or philosophers a graduate student decides to dissertate on. In this respect, I’m proud of my decision to write on Deleuze, because it was pretty much career suicide and therefore marked a genuine interest. There is generally very little place for Deleuze in philosophy departments around the country. If you’re a Continental, your prospective position will either be at a four year school in a “sleepy little liberal arts college” where they basically want you to be capable of teaching existentialism, phenomenology, the history of philosophy, and some nebulous thing they sometimes advertise as “postmodernism”, or you have a shot of being a superstar and landing a position at some place like Penn State, Suny Stoneybrook, and a host of others. The latter schools tend to be dominated by Germanists, such that French thought, with the possible exception of Derrida and a few French Continentalists, are relegated to lit departments or language departments. Game theoretical reasoning becomes predictable. If you’re going to land a position you must either work on some canonical figure that will be marketable to programs that have a strong history of philosophy component (Plato, Aristotle, various medievals, rationalists, empiricists, Kant and German Idealism, or respected and canonical phenomenologists). There are always exceptions, of course, but they are few and far between. The net effect is that in order to do philosophy as a Continentalist, you have to make a detour through some other figure in the history of philosophy because you have to consider what will allow you to eat or land a position. The devil’s wager you make is that once you finally land the position then you’ll be able to set to work “doing” philosophy. However, you then face a grueling six odd years of trying to land tenure, when again you have to give your pound of flesh to the history of philosophy machine to land your tenure. By the time you’re done, after doing seventy hour weeks in your chosen area of research, after reading everything that has ever been written on say Husserl and by Husserl, you have forgotten how to think in anything but these sorts of terms because writing and research are processes of individuation that create particular forms of subjectivity. In addition to this, you become extremely defensive against any form of thought and research that does not proceed in this way because, perhaps, you remember what first drove you to enter philosophy in the first place and harbor resentment towards a machine of subjectivization that required you to sacrifice that, while also recognize that your livelihood and being are dependent upon that institutional apparatus. This problem is exacerbated at the interview level. Because Continental philosophy is organized around texts and thinkers rather than problems and questions, potential candidates face a daunting situation in which they must be capable of explaining very singular texts and thinkers to an audience that is thoroughly unacquainted with that work (for example, small liberal art school committees that aren’t aware that Continental thought continued after Sartre and Heidegger). As a result, there is a feedback effect where philosophical projects have to be explained in terms of canonical figures that cross the Analytic/Continental divide and that any educated philosopher is reasonably acquainted with. So it goes.
I must add that it’s been far more fulfilling– and surprisingly peaceful (why is that?) –to debate about whether a particular position is coherent, whether it can deal with a particular phenomenon, whether a particular implication follows, etc.; than to argue over whether one would be better served in siding with Deleuze, Badiou, Kant, or Heidegger, whether Lacan offers more than Foucault or Bourdieu, and so on. I am not sure why this is so much more fulfilling, but minimally it seems that rather than maintaining tribal lineages (the Deleuzians against the Lacanians against the Badiouians) it’s a question of working through problems where some or all of these thinkers might be relevant and important in some respects, but where the issue is squarely focused on trying to make sense of the world and our place in it.