Something peculiar happened at the Louisiana State University Philosophy conference I attended last week. Despite the fact that most of the participants and attendees were analytic philosophers, I felt more at home among this bunch than I’ve ever felt at a conference (aside from the SR and psychoanalysis conferences). Here I felt that we were discussing issues, problems, and positions rather than figures. To be sure, we all discussed figures, but it was the way figures were discussed: They were subordinated to problems and issues that one could take a stand on, a position on, rather than being involved in interpretive disputes. The frustrating thing I encounter among continentals again and again is that all too often (a statistical claim), it seems impossible for there to be a genuine disagreement over positions. If one says “I disagree with X on Y because of Z”, the general response is “you’ve misinterpreted X.” In other words, it seems as if the texts of figures are endlessly transformed into Midas’ labyrinth, where the figure being discussed is granted sovereign authority and is the only one permitted to articulate positions and where any evaluation of positions is infinitely deferred behind interpretive disputes.
At the conference, I didn’t get this at all. People took positions and discussed positions. After my paper one attendee even asked me “where’s the Continental philosophy in your work?” I responded that I don’t think the difference between Continental and Analytic philosophy is a philosophical difference, but a socio-geographical difference. The audience gasped. I then outlined my Continental influences.
At any rate, after all of this I found myself reflecting on why I don’t read more Anglo-American philosophy. After all, I do get a lot out of the Anglo-American thought I do read, so why not read more? And if I’m being entirely honest, I think I’d have to say that it comes down to style. The fact of the matter is that when I do read Anglo-American philosophy I often feel as if I’m reading tax law or a congressional bill. I literally find it mind numbing. It’s style– for me –is all too often just plain offensive.
So what, then, would be my ideal style? Harman has repeatedly argued that philosophical writing should not so much be clear as vivid. A number of us Continentals have abominable style as well (I’m looking at you Hegel, Derrida, Lacan, Deleuze, and Adorno). Yes, yes, I know some folks delight at the “poetry” of these guys. I don’t. I generally read these thinkers despite their style, not for their style. In this regard, it’s perfectly appropriate to ask for clarity. I know the arguments as to why these styles are necessary. Nonetheless, you’re still asking readers to invest their time. You should take some time in return.
So what, then, would a vivid style be for me? A vivid style– and I doubt Graham will agree here –would be something between the arresting and mind thrilling pyrotechnics of Zizek, Dennett, and Bennett with their examples, humor, and thought experiments, the poetry of Lacan, Derrida, Deleuze, and the rigor and clarity of Hegel, Quine, Sellars, Spinoza, Parfit, and Priest. Somehow it would manage to synthesize all of this in writing. However, above all, such a writing would also always be centered on the extra-philosophical importance of what it is discussing: the ethical, the political, the existential… The “why it matters”. Perhaps this is one of the central things that irritates me about much of the Analytic thought I read: it focuses on very rarified discipline specific disputes (belief de re, belief de dicto) without really addressing why it all matters. Yet for me thought should always make some existential difference: some difference in how we live, feel, act in the world, what we ought to do, etc. Philosophy should always open beyond itself to practice; the practice of living, of living together, of living in the world.