I realize this is not a popular view, but I think there’s something deeply amiss with Continental “philosophy” as it’s practiced in the United States. In my view, much of what passes as philosophy is really intellectual history. We are suffocating in a culture of commentary. Europe provides the thinkers (Heidegger, Merleue-Ponty, Derrida, Deleuze, Doucault, Husserl, Levinas, Badiou, etc.), and we provide the exegesis. The major American Continental conferences are, in this respect, little more than hagiography. I find this state of affairs quite perplexing. The analytic, Anglo-Americans seem to have little problem owning their own voices, so why is this so difficult for the American Continentalists?
Whenever I express views like this people get quite defensive and the straw men begin to fly. No I am not suggesting that we should ignore the history of philosophy or that the culture of commentary should cease. I do, however, believe that philosophy departments should strongly discourage graduate students from writing dissertations on other philosophers and that presses, journals, and conference committees should follow suit. The criteria for a dissertation on another thinker (and please note that I wrote a dissertation on another thinker and would not meet this criteria) should either be a) that the dissertation shows the highest level of historical scholarly rigor, or b) is an incredibly unique and original reading of the thinker. Examples of a) for me would be works lkke Kiesel’s study of the genesis of Heidegger’s thought, Allison’s work on Kant, or Gasche’s work on Derrida. Examples of b) would be texts like Derrida’s Speech and Phenomena, Deleuze’s study of Foucault, Hagglund’s book on Derrida, Zizek’s work on Lacan, and the work of some of my colleagues that I won’t mention as it would look slavish. In other words, the bar should, in my view, be incredibly high for those seeking to do dissertations, or publish works or give presentations on other thinkers. It should be more difficult to do such work than to do work on a question or a problem.
I have sometimes said that the real work of philosophy is generally done outside of philosophy. Here I have in mind work by people like Jussi Parikka or Ian Bogost in media studies and game studies respectively, work by people like Judith Butler or Donna Haraway in queer theory and theory of science, and so on. People such as this are the ones broaching fields of phenomenality and constructing the basic concepts necessary for the investigation of these domains of phenomenality. They are asking questions, posing problems, and generating the concepts required as a function of the questions the ask and the problems they pose. Give me a page from Blanchot next to a page of the average commentator on Heidegger anyday. These thinkers have an object other than the history of theory that enables them to produce theory. Unfortunately, philosophy, making a Faustian wager to support “philosophers“, ended up with only the history of philosophy as its object. It thereby became sterile. Is it a mistake that our greatest philosophers, until the 19th century, were never professional philosophers, but always physicists, wanderers, chemists, alchemists, statesmen, etc? Is there something about this absence of an institutional place for philosophy that is a necessary condition for philosophy?
It’s here that the straw men emerge. We first get the voices that defend the importance of commentary (I don’t disagree!) who seem to believe I’m suggestingthat this practice should be avoided (I’m not), all the while failing to recognize that we’ve created an institutional space in university training, journals, and conferences that is extremely Oedipal and where commentary enjoys a hegemonic status (philosophers, it seems, have a hard time recognizing the institutional dispotifs of their own practices even as they write about Foucault). Next we get those tiresome souls that make charges of re-inventing the wheel, as if a de-emphasis on writing about father-figures– whoops, I mean philosophers –entails the disappearance of critical and careful engagement with other thinkers. Somehow we forget how Aristotle did it in the first book of the Metaphysics or how Deleuze does it in the first chapter of Difference and Repetition. Isn’t this kind of response a massive symptom, indicative of the swerve of the Imaginary Lacan discusses when talking about how we draw on formations in the Imaginary to avoid unpleasant betrayals of our desire?
We’ve created this massive dispotif that hinders philosophy even as it claims to promote and preserve it. Many of us are neither good historians nor are we philosophers. We are, instead, those doing all we can to prevent philosophy from taking place or happening. I hope this is a temporary historicial bottleneck that arose momentarily to preserve something precious that was in danger of being destroyed. I hope this is now beginning to change.