Continental Philosophy: ‘working in’ and ‘working on’.

Many philosophers – and I think this is more the case as we survey younger and younger generations of philosophers – wish we could simply move past the so-called analytic-continental divide, and tend to view the whole division as a byproduct of misunderstanding, or even of a the politico-cultural situation of philosophers of a previous generation. Frankly, we disdain the division, and vacillate between wishing the distinction no longer existed and acting as though it in fact no longer did:[1] that is, we pretend to be ‘over it’.

That this is a pretense, however, is shown up in the structures governing the advancement of work that purports to promote dialogue between, or work across, these traditions.

The model followed in nearly all such attempts – and paradigmatically, in the structuring of pluralistic or continental-friendly departments – is that of attempting to achieve numerical proportionality between those working ‘on’ analytic philosophy, and those working ‘on’ continental philosophy. In some departments, the desideratum will be a 1:1 ratio; in others, 1:2; while in others, having even one philosopher working in a tradition differing from that of the majority of departmental faculty would suffice.

What is left unnoticed in these efforts is the way the manner of appropriation itself affects the reception of content.

Since Heidegger, much continental philosophy – and especially that which has grown out of the phenomenological tradition – has been deeply preoccupied with philosophical reflection on the nature of philosophy itself, and especially on the manner in which philosophy qua philosophy supposedly thinks being qua being as a mode of presence. Thus, one finds in the work of thinkers like Levinas and Derrida attempts (whatever merit they may have) to teach philosophy to think something other than the presence which has supposedly pervaded philosophical thinking until today.

And yet, at least in the U. S., hires attempting to bolster this tradition manage to be self-undermining on exactly this point. In seeking hires ‘in’ the continental tradition, advertisements are sent out for specialists ‘on’ continental philosophy. That is, instead of hiring philosophers working in the continental tradition, we hire philosophers who take that tradition, or some attenuated portion of it, as the object of their study.

Inasmuch as the tradition is encountered in the mode of objectness, it itself must become something encountered as what is present-at-hand. To ‘fit the bill’ of a continental hire, one must either work ‘on’ a figure – e.g. Heidegger, Hegel, Deleuze; or one must work ‘on’ a topic of broad interest to analytic philosophers to which continental philosophers have also made ‘contributions’ – e.g. ‘continental’ philosophy of the body (Irigaray, Henri), philosophy of religion (Levinas, Marion), or philosophy of perception (Husserl, Merleau-Ponty). In the case of working ‘on’ figures, the problem is compounded inasmuch as nearly all work in the history of philosophy is partitioned between approaches that either a) construe the object of inquiry as the thought of a thinker, and thereby psychologize it; or b) pay attention only to the ‘tenets’ of the philosopher, and taking this propositional edifice as an object of evaluation in its own right, thereby de-historicize it. While the alternative appropriation of the tradition by way of hot crossover topics falls prey to the same tendency: continental philosophy at the service of a specialization, where the ‘species’ of specialization is all-too-present, is continental philosophy as a philosophy of objectivity, and thus of objectification. Hence, a precondition for the dominant mode of appropriation of the tradition is the rejection of one of the most salient points of that tradition: the critique of any philosophy of objectivity.

In approaching the object of one’s study as that-which-lies-before, one disregards another manner in which it may also show itself: as that-which-lies-behind the inquiry that the philosopher is himself engaged in, the soil from which the very inquiry itself springs. That is, in taking the matter as object, one disregards it as tradition. I shall call the former approach working on a philosophy, and the latter working in one.

There are important differences between working on and working in continental philosophy. And to the degree that hires related to continental philosophy are hires ‘on’ that philosophy, there will be elements in tension with alternative approaches that hire ‘in’ continental. For example, a hire ‘on’ a continental philosopher, given the objectifying structure of such a hire, will rarely be as well versed in the inheritance of that philosopher that is the object as the study as that philosopher himself was. Thus, Husserl scholars will be ignorant of Hegel, Heidegger scholars of Aristotle, Deleuze scholars of Leibniz, and so on.

This is not merely to say (though it says this, too) that specialist hirees are often ignorant of the canon that their favored philosophers worked within; it is rather to say that they typically do not work within that tradition at all. To work within a tradition is to encounter the wisdom received through that philosopher as an inheritance, and not merely as an object. Doing so opens up an altogether different kind of appropriation of the matter of that thinker’s thinking: the understanding of that thought as constituting part of a history. More accurately a past, even my own past. Better, something that has passed, i.e. has passed me by, as the angel of death passed over the house of Israel in Egypt: a structural event that continues to govern the present in its passing. Not a chronology, (which is just a reduction of lived history to a mode of presence), but a history.

This subordination of the philosopher to the matter of thinking as what came before, as opposed to what comes before, is itself something deeply lacking in most work ‘on’ continental philosophy, precisely in its character as work on the tradition rather than in it. And so, in attempting to safeguard those traditions under the continental umbrella, it behooves us to shelter the questions animating that tradition itself and deepen them as part of our own inheritance.

[1] In this respect, the structure of the discourse strictly parallels (in quality, though by no means in volume or gravity) the discourse surrounding the overcoming of racism in societies that remain essentially dominated by white culture.


2 thoughts on “Continental Philosophy: ‘working in’ and ‘working on’.

  1. Reblogged this on The Horizon and The Fringe and commented:
    I do not know if the distinction working-on and working-in are as separate as the author insists. Practically. I’d like to think many of my concerns in Continental philosophy are motivated out of something beyond and in tradition. I am concerned about normativity and themes in ethics—something both the Analytic and Continental tradition both make claims about—but take up these questions by working on Scheler by working in Continental philosophy.

    Also, it may be a little unfair to the phenomenologist if she doesn’t know about Badiou. One doesn’t need to know all areas within Continental philosophy since the category itself was imposed from the outside by others that knew nothing about the concerns of those within Continental philosophy. Continental philosophy is an umbrella term and logically there are some schools within Continental philosophy that are not logically consistent with other parts. In my experience, a phenomenologist will certainly know about Merleau-Ponty, even if they did specialize on Husserl. It’s when we demand competency in the entire thing from specialists in Continental philosophy that it gets a little unfair. But the label was unfair to begin with.

  2. Interesting discussion. I cannot imagine that a “continental philosopher” could dehistoricize the philosopher and the tradition that any one thinker inherits. Hence, and I suspect this was intended, the “working on continental” refers to analytic appropriations of continental, whereas “working in continental” refers to being a continental philosopher, which is work with a mindfulness of the inheritance of a tradition, which is not the same to agree with it. This is just good historiography in general.

    Thoughtful post, both for what is written and especially for what the unwritten reveals.

    p.s., analytic is the only tradition that I can think of that finds dehistoricization to be a legitimate philosophical move, as opposed to ignoring the historical, which is at least tenable for certain pursuits.

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