As I have recounted in previous posts, I had a rather schizophrenic experience in my philosophical trainng. As an undergrad at Ohio State, I was trained in both the analytic and Continental traditions; and, in fact, most of my 116 hours of course work in philosophy was in analytic and Anglo-American philosophy. Although I found a great deal of value in this style of thought, I often found myself dissatisfied as the problems this style of philosophy dealt with often struck me as remote from the sort of “existential” concerns that first drive one to philosophy. Consequently, when I began looking for graduate schools– and deeply in the midst of an addiction to all things Heideggarian and Foucaultian –I looked for a Continental program that also had a healthy dose of Anglo-American philosophers in its faculty. As a result, I finally decided on Loyola of Chicago, where I would get to study with philosophers of mind like J.D. Trout and Moser, philosophers of science like Blachowicsz, Kantians like Paul Abela, and Continentalists like Thomas Sheehan, Patricia Huntington, Andrew Cutrofello, Adrian Peperzak, and David Ingram. Loyola also offered an excellent grounding in the history of philosophy which I believed vital to any philosophical education.
When I got to Loyola my coursework quickly became focused on Continental thought. I must have taken six courses with Peperzak, ranging from Kant, to Hegel, to Heidegger, and Levinas, whose mannerisms I still remember with great fondness and a slight smirk. I took a number of seminars with Cutrofello on Deleuze, Foucault, Kant, and Derrida. I took a number of courses with Huntington on postmodern feminist theory, Heidegger, and various existentialists. However, in the mean time I was reading a great deal of biology, physics, complexity theory, and neurology. I’ll still never forget the look of horror on the faces of my peers when they found out I was reading Dennett, Dawkins, and Gould. “Why”, they exclaimed, “would you possibly read that?” “What are you thinking reading Paul Churchland?”
Although I worked heavily on Deleuze throughout my five years in graduate school, the best description of my philosophical orientation at this time would be phenomenological. I think, maybe, I’m one of five people in the world that actually devoured Husserl’s various texts and lectures with delight. I suspect that means I’m cracked in some way. It is certainly a good thing that I eventually entered analysis with Bruce Fink. I delighted in the work of Merleau-Ponty. I thought Levinas was perhaps the most beautiful stylist of all the philosophers who had ever written. I shivered with pleasure at Jean-Luc Marion’s discussions of givenness. I ravenously read the work of Ed Casey. I guiltily read Sartre throughout, believing him to be gauche at that time, but still secretly loving his work. For some reason I had largely lost interest in Heidegger, wondering why I had been so enchanted with him. Perhaps it was his style. At any rate, my friends would joke that I was living in a permanent “transcendental epoche chamber”.
However, while I delighted in all of these things, I nonetheless felt a deep fissure in my thought. On the one hand there before me was all of this fascinating science. On the other hand, in the world of academic philosophy, there was the new dominant variants of correlationism in the form of the Linguistic Turn, phenomenology, and the semiotic turn. How to reconcile these two things?
Rather than taking a stand on realism and anti-realism on epistemological grounds, perhaps it would be better to evaluate these competing positions on pragmatic grounds. That is, since Kant effected his famous Copernican revolution, what have we seen in Continental thought. While there are certainly always exceptions, the exception does not make the rule. When we look at the two reigning orientations of thought in contemporary Continental philosophy– phenomenology and the linguistic turn –we notice that they are almost entirely mum where the developments of the last 300 years since Galileo are concerned. Here we are living in the midst of some of the most profound upheavals in our understanding of what we are as human beings, of our world, of the nature of our social relations as a result of post-Galilean science, the new technology, the transformation of communications, the advent of capitalism, etc., and the most dominant orientations of Continental thought hardly reflect on these sorts of things at all.
Why is this? Were historians to discover the most significant works of Heidegger, Husserl, Derrida, Levinas, Marion, even Lacan and Badiou two thousand years from now– were it these works alone that they discovered –would they be able to discern of the impact that Darwin, neurology, genetics, quantum mechanics, relativity, capitalism, and technology had on our age? Would they even know that these things had taken place based on these texts? One can protest that these things are not the proper domain of philosophy, that they fall outside of philosophy. Certainly Sokal and Bricmont have us all running scared these days, and we have enough research to do as it is without having to make forays into entirely disciplines.
However, there is something internal to the key presuppositions of Continental thought that seems to prevent, a priori, any engagement with the most significant historical transformations of our time. Despite all that phenomenology has done in teaching us about the nature of our relation to the world, our affectivity, our bodies, and our relation to others, the methodological operation of the phenomenological reduction and the focus on the given and givenness largely excludes any deep or sophisticated engagement with these things. The suspension of the natural attitude and the reduction to pure givenness is nothing less than the exile of causality. As a consequence, the findings of biology and neurology can’t even make it past the door as they’ve already fallen before the reduction. To discuss these things is to regress back to the natural attitude and, by extension, dogmatism.
The Linguistic Turn carries out a “reduction” similar to that of the phenomenological reduction or epoche, but with respect to texts, signifiers, and language. Having learned the lessons well of how it is language that precedes the referent, how language produces its referent, one is guilty of the worst sort of naive dogmatism if they continue to speak of the referent or claim that we can have knowledge of the referent. As a consequence, we must instead restrict ourselves to an endless engagement with texts, whether to deconstruct them or to engage in the hermeneutic work of retrieving them, bracketing anything to do with the referent. Not only does it become impossible to take a position within such a framework as we only have competing texts, but all of science is bracketed out of existence as a sort of naive dogmatism that does not recognize how it constructs its referent through the play of the signifier.
These, I think, are high prices to pay for the sake of critical rigor. It seems to me that one of the primary vocations of philosophy is to think the essence of its time. It is not by mistake that philosophy seems to arise in periods of profound upheaval– whether that upheaval be political, scientific, or technological –and that part of the social and cultural role of philosophy is to navigate and articulate the newness of that which is in the process of being born. Yet through the decisions made by Continental thought within the last three hundred years, we have created a series of blocks and inhibitors that prevent philosophy from engaging this world. Even if realism proves to be an epistemically unsupportable position– and I don’t think that’s the case –there is nonetheless a case to be made for realism as a regulative ideal within philosophical discourse. Such a regulative ideal at least opens philosophy to a much broader range of issues and topics, giving it the means to reflect on its time.