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Continental Philosophy - Study Notes


This book deals with a complex subject-matter, namely the wide gulf between philosophy as it is studied in the English speaking world (UK, USA and Australia), and philosophy as it is studied in Continental Europe. Critchley suggests, in the Preface to his book, that this rift could be explained in terms of the cultural divide between Continental Europe and the English speaking world. Possibly so, but I think there’s more to it than that, and over the past three or four centuries philosophers in the British Isles have in fact been very receptive to many ideas which originated on “the Continent”.

Critchley states that Continental philosophy can be ‘well defined’ and deals with a ‘compelling range of problems all too often ignored or dismissed by the Anglo-American tradition’. However, it can be argued equally cogently that philosophers in the English speaking world deal with a range of problems all too often ‘ignored or dismissed’ by their Continental counterparts. Although I agree with much of what Critchley says in his book, I do not agree with everything he says.

Chapter One is “The Gap between Knowledge and Wisdom”.
The word ‘philosophy’ derives from the Greek words for ‘love’ and ‘wisdom’, so its original meaning was ‘love of wisdom’. For the ancient Greek philosophers, philosophy should study and teach what is meant by living a good human life. Of course, there are probably millions of wise people in the world who have never read a philosophy book in their lives, but let us not digress. Critchley’s point is that for the ancient Greek philosophers philosophy was a practical activity concerned with how to live, ‘which is markedly different from the overwhelmingly theoretical enquiry it has become since the 17th century’. This is a perfectly fair point.

Critchley notes that many people outside academic philosophy believe that philosophy is about ‘the meaning of life’, a conception of philosophy which is rejected by academic philosophers in the English speaking world. So – what do academic philosophers do and how and why is academic philosophy so divorced and detached from life and its problems? I do not agree that academic philosophy is quite so detached from life and its problems as Critchley seems to suggest, but I’ll come back to this point later with some counter-examples.

Critchley goes on to say that if philosophy is not, or is no longer, concerned with ‘wisdom’ then is it concerned with knowledge? Obviously not – knowing and understanding how things are they the way they are falls within the domain of science which can offer evidence in support of its theories. Until the 17th century science was a branch of Philosophy, but after the scientific revolution in that century it became an autonomous subject. So – this raises an interesting question: what is the role of philosophy? As you might expect, different answers emerge as between different philosophers, ranging from philosophy as ‘conceptual and logical analysis’, through to ethics and socio-political commentary.

Since the 17th century philosophers have given close attention to epistemology which means ‘theory of knowledge’. John Locke in England, René Descartes in France and David Hume in Scotland all gave close attention to epistemology. It is not about how we perceive things; epistemology seeks to define what knowledge is in a way that distinguishes it from belief, opinion, guesswork, speculation, surmise, theory, conjecture, rumour and so on. It is therefore concerned amongst other things with the criteria we use to decide between alternative explanations of how things or events are the way they are. This merges into ‘the philosophy of science’. But no answer is given in any of this to the question of ‘wisdom’.

Here I would mention that if ‘wisdom’ is about how we should live, analytical philosophers in the modern era have given close attention to ethics as well as to epistemology. For the time being Critchley notes that the scientific conception of the universe only gives us physical laws, so that ‘the universe is vast, cold, inhuman and mechanical..... without meaning or final purpose’. The problem for the modern outlook is that ‘we experience a gap between knowledge and wisdom that has the consequence of divesting our lives of meaning’. This leads to what Critchley calls ‘the 57 varieties of filling the meaning gap available in the supermarket of esotericism – astrology, yoga, sitting under pyramids holding crystals’ and so on which he dismisses as obscurantism. And in Continental philosophy we have ‘Hegel on the life and death struggle for recognition as part and parcel of the ascent to absolute knowing; Nietzsche on the death of God and the need for a revaluation of values; Karl Marx on the alienation of human beings under conditions of capitalism; Freud on unconscious repression.... Heidegger on anxiety.... Sartre on bad faith....’ – and so on.

In Chapter Two Critchley embarks on an account of the origins of Continental Philosophy.
This can be done in different ways, and the first one he summarizes is the close relationship and subsequent divergence between two important German philosophers, Edmund Husserl (1859-1938) and Gottlob Frege (1848-1925). Husserl was the ‘founding father’ of what is called ‘phenomenology’ and Frege was the ‘grandfather’ of modern analytic philosophy as it now exists in Britain, the USA and Australia. Frege’s input was crucial, for which we have to thank Bertrand Russell who drew attention to Frege, an obscure professor of mathematics who was in fact the greatest logician since Aristotle.

Starting with Husserl, phenomenology is the philosophical method of starting from one’s own consciousness exclusively, rejecting all reference to wider, external criteria or to any other influences on one’s own thoughts. This was closely related to ‘psychologism’, the view that all questions of logic and reasoning resolve themselves, basically, into psychology, the study of how we think. But Frege specifically rejected psychologism as misleading. For example a number such as ‘4’ has an objective, determinate meaning which denotes a specific quantity, and a mathematical statement such as ‘4+1=5’ is objectively true by virtue of the meaning of the terms within it. It is not true because it is ‘true for me’. That would reduce it to opinion, which can mean anything at all or nothing at all.

Husserl, to his credit, accepted Frege’s criticisms of psychologism and modified his views accordingly. Nevertheless, it would appear that Husserl’s phenomenology had a major influence on Continental Philosophy as it subsequently developed. Maybe Frege’s criticism of psychologism was ignored as merely a quibble; one can only speculate. For the important point he was making (always in danger of being overlooked) is that what we believe to be ‘true’ must be subject to external criteria, otherwise there is no such thing as ‘truth’ at all. Frege was a Continental Philosopher fully accepted in British/American philosophy, and today he is still held in the highest regard.

Most of Chapter Two is devoted to tracing the history of Continental Philosophy back to Kant and to differing interpretations of his philosophy. It is very difficult to summarize this briefly; in fact, to do justice to the complexities of Kant’s philosophy would require a separate meeting some other time. But putting it very briefly, a lot depends on how you interpret his Critique of Pure Reason (1781) or his Critique of Judgment (1790). The First Critique seeks to answer David Hume’s scepticism on knowledge and causality. It provides, if Kant is correct, a firm, confident foundation for objective knowledge, epistemology and the philosophy of science. The Critique of Judgment, however, is concerned with practical reason, that is, ethics – the question of what we ought to do. But if this is determined by ‘reason’, a paradox arises – if reason is primary, why shouldn’t reason criticize its own basis, so to speak? This would appear to lead to total scepticism, and on Critchley’s account this seems to be what happened in the minds of various nineteenth century thinkers. Hegel, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and others became obsessed with nihilism and went off in different directions, largely metaphysical and speculative.

In Britain this did not happen, thanks to the ‘British Empirical Tradition’ firmly rooted in the thinking of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, George Berkeley and David Hume. Nothing to do with ‘empires’, the word ‘empiricism’ simply means that knowledge can only be based on observation, research, test, investigation etc. as distinct from speculation, conjecture, abstract theorizing and so on. British philosophers were cautious and reluctant to embrace the metaphysics which seemed to flourish on the continent. Instead, we had empirical thinkers such as John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham. And this seems to be origin of the schism which continues to the present day. Critchley traces most of it back to the unreconciled ambiguities inherent in Kant’s philosophy which set in motion, on the Continent, the search for some sort of ‘unifying principle’ to overcome them.

So with Fichte ‘the dualism of theory and practice is unified in the self-reflection of the subject, its consciousness of freedom’. For Schelling the unifying principle was the notion of force, or life. ‘For Hegel, it was the notion of Spirit, for Arthur Schopenhauer it was the notion of the Will, for Nietzsche it was Power, for Marx it was Praxis, for Freud it was the Unconscious, for Heidegger it was Being.’
(Before moving on, an interesting point about Chapter Two is that on p13 Critchley provides a tabulation of the key ‘movements’ in Continental Philosophy. It includes for example existentialism, hermeneutics, structuralism and so on, but it does not tell us what exactly these terms mean. I therefore append a Glossary of Terms which might be helpful).

In Chapter Three Critchley elaborates some of the problems with the distinction between analytic and Continental philosophy.
It is not a clearcut distinction, with many counter-examples and instances of overlap. And as he says, Continental philosophy ‘is a highly eclectic and disparate series of intellectual currents that could hardly be said to amount to a unified tradition’. He suggests that ‘Continental philosophy’ is an invented term produced by outsiders, these being, of course, British/American/Australian analytic philosophers.

Equally, there are problems if ‘Continental philosophy’ is defined geographically. In the twentieth century alone, Frege, Carnap and Wittgenstein were three continental philosophers whose influence on British/American philosophy was profound if not definitive. Another notable example is Karl Popper who emigrated to the UK from Austria in the 1930’s, later adopting British nationality. Philosopher Michael Dummett even suggested that ‘Anglo-Austrian’ would be a more accurate term than simply ‘analytic philosophy’.
Bernard Williams noted that whilst ‘Continental philosophy’ is a geographical definition, ‘analytic philosophy’ denotes a method of philosophizing and adherence ‘to certain standards of argumentation, clarity and rigour’. But there is no single category that can meaningfully include thinkers as diverse and opposed to each other as Hegel and Kierkegaard, Freud and Martin Buber or Lacan and Deleuze. Again, it is inaccurate and misleading to use stereotypical labels such as ‘British empiricism’, ‘German metaphysics’ and so on.

Critchley’s conclusion in this chapter is that there are ‘two cultures in philosophy’, a deep divide between differing and opposing habits of thought: the ‘empirical-scientific’ and the ‘hermeneutic-romantic’ (I’ll explain hermeneutics in a moment). The answer, he suggests, is not to be found by taking sides, but seeking to comprehend the whole (which sounds like Hegel, of course). However, he seems to be pessimistic that this will ever happen.

Chapter Four is entitled ‘Can Philosophy Change the World?’.
I think the short answer is ‘yes, it has often done so’, and not always for the better, either. The past century has seen how various ‘isms’ of one sort or another have brought war, tyranny and enslavement to millions of people. Critchley’s aim in this chapter, however, is ‘to explain why so much philosophy in the continental tradition is concerned with giving a philosophical critique of the social practices of the modern world that aspires towards a notion of individual or societal emancipation’. He uses three special terms: ‘critique’, ‘praxis’ and ‘emancipation’.

He spends the first few pages of the chapter noting how Continental philosophers tend, in the main, to write books not so much about philosophical problems in themselves but about what other philosophers have said about them. Analytic philosophers, he notes, ‘maintain that continental philosophers are only doing commentary and not original thinking’, but Continental philosophers say that ‘systematic philosophical argument cannot be divorced from the textual and contextual conditions of its historical emergence’. We can reasonably ask why not, exactly? It’s not obvious. A key word, and a very revealing one, is ‘hermeneutics’. This is the art of correctly interpreting a text so as to bring out its ‘true meaning’ by understanding the context (social, political etc.) in which it is written. One can even discern its ‘true’ meaning better than its author, but critics have said that ‘hermeneutics is the art of finding something in a text that is not there’. If that is so, it could be misleading or even prejudicial. In analytical philosophy by contrast the validity of an argument depends upon its logical structure, not who said it or why.

On the other hand it is perfectly reasonable that the continental philosophers should seek continuity in the history of their thinking and hermeneutics is seen as the way to do this. Analytical philosophers like to see continuity in their own thinking too, but they distinguish between philosophy and the history of philosophy. For the Continentals, however, ‘historicity’ is important for they are seeking a common theme. And this is that once the individual is seen as ‘a finite subject embedded in an ultimately contingent network of history, culture and society’, there follows ‘the demand that things be otherwise’. Freedom of the individual is a recurrent theme.

The analytical philosopher might very well agree that the world is a very unsatisfactory place, but could remark that this is a practical problem. For example if ‘alienation’ is an issue, does this not more appropriately fall within the purview of psychologists who have the professional expertise to analyse the problem and propose solutions? Again, freedom and equality may be difficult to achieve in practical terms, but this is a political problem, not a ‘philosophical’ one. On the other hand analytical philosophers seek to define the words ‘freedom’ and ‘equality’ which hopefully can aid clear thinking and debate. But for the Continentals, the purpose of philosophy is social criticism (critique) and determining what to do (praxis), so they are expected to hold views ‘as philosophers’ on various issues.

In Chapter Five Critchley discusses Nihilism and responses to it by various philosophers including Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche and Schopenhauer.
It is impossible of course to go into detail about any of these here and now. But the basic problem seems to be, if I read him correctly, that if ‘nature’ is governed by causality and is ‘mechanistically determined’, how can ‘freedom’ have any effect in the world? What if ‘freedom’ is illusory and only an abstraction, or a fiction, if our own actions as part of ‘nature’ are also predetermined? We encountered this puzzle some weeks back when we looked at “Free Will” by Thomas Pink. And the answer seemed to be that the puzzle we have just outlined is really a pseudo-puzzle because we are ourselves causal agents, not simply the effects of other causes beyond our control. Freedom of the will is perfectly real.

But to many 19th century thinkers it did not seem that way. In particular, they could not see how anything could have ‘value’ in a ‘mechanistic’, purely physical world. And this seemed to lead to nihilism, which taken literally means to believe in nothing. But from my reading of Critchley, nihilism is not a coherent set of beliefs other than negative ones; it is an attitude to the world, making it more akin to a feeling than to anything else. There is another point. If nihilism is true as a theory or a doctrine, then it follows that nothing is true. But if that is so, then the sentence ‘nihilism is true’ is not true either, so it is false - in which case nihilism is self-refuting. And that is how analytic philosophers would dispose of ‘nihilism’, an observation which I think Critchley could have made himself, but didn’t.

On the other hand Critchley makes the interesting observation (p87) that ‘the problematic of nihilism begins to explain why so much Continental philosophy is concerned with relations to non-philosophy, whether art, poetry, psychoanalysis, politics, or economics.’ I would simply add that apart from political theory, these are areas in which analytical philosophers show little interest, not when they’re doing philosophy at any rate.

In Chapter Six Critchley provides a ‘case study’ in the radical misunderstanding between Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) and Rudolf Carnap (1891-1970).
Heidegger represented the existential or ‘hermeneutic’ experience of the world; Carnap represented the views of the Vienna Circle, also known as the ‘Logical Positivists’. In the 1920’s and ‘30’s this was an association of philosophers, physicists, mathematicians and logicians who based their views on the scientific conception of the world.

The dispute between Heidegger and Carnap started with an important lecture which Heidegger gave in 1929. He held that the primary question in philosophy is to answer the question ‘what is being?’. Science, he said, should be based in metaphysics. The sciences deal with particular things, or objects, but beside that science is concerned with nothing. Then he asks, ‘what is this nothing?’, but in Carnap’s view this is a nonsensical question. Insofar as the word ‘nothing’ does not by definition denote any sort of ‘object’, it is meaningless to ask what it is or to enquire as to its attributes or characteristics. One is reminded how teachers explain to children why the figure ‘0’ does not denote a quantity.

Heidegger never replied to Carnap’s critique. He recognized that the word ‘nothing’ is a pronoun arising from the concept of negation, but this he said is only to understand it ‘intellectually’. But there are ways of conceiving of things other than ‘intellectually’, that is, affectively or emotively in the form of moods which ‘define the way in which human beings experience their life in the world’. Heidegger said the mood that ‘reveals the nothing’ is anxiety, leading to the question ‘why are there beings at all and why not rather nothing?’ The Logical Positivists would have regarded this as a pseudo-question since one cannot even formulate the criteria by which one could obtain an answer. Others might query why pondering nothingness should necessarily produce anxiety. Why not simply wonder, or amusement, or indifference? Or why should knowledge of our own freedom necessarily produce anxiety? Why not excitement, or exhilaration? Many have said that Heidegger was really writing an essay in subjective psychology about his own feelings.

Critchley goes on to summarize how there turned out to be shortcomings in Carnap’s verificationist theory of meaning. He correctly records the critiques of Karl Popper and American logician Willard Quine, but does not mention how these show that analytical philosophy is capable of change and development and can respond to criticism positively. Critchley concludes Chapter Six with a very brief summary of Wittgenstein’s views on Heidegger but, as ever, Wittgenstein’s views are susceptible to differing interpretations.

In Chapter Seven Critchley seeks to overcome the polar opposition between ‘scientism’ and ‘obscurantism’ as alluded to earlier.
‘Scientism’ is the belief or assumption that the methodology of the natural sciences provides an adequate model for the way we experience and understand life as it is lived. It is mechanistic and reductionist (as in ‘we are really nothing more than bundles of atoms’) and it gives no account of freedom. He mentions ‘the role that science and technology play in the alienation of human beings from the world’ although this is of course an empirical hypothesis which can be disputed. Some would say that science has revolutionized communications technology to the extent that it does the exact opposite of ‘alienating human beings from the world’.

Critchley seeks, however, to avoid an anti-scientific attitude by defending a version of phenomenology that ‘undermines scientism without falling into obscurantism’. And with that proviso in place, what he says is interesting. Of course, it is to be hoped that his version of phenomenology avoids the pitfall of psychologism as explained earlier on.

He quotes French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908-1961) who ‘describes the task of phenomenology as unveiling the pre-theoretical layer of human experience upon which the theoretical attitude of the scientific conception of the world is based’. In other words, we have to deliberately ‘take for granted’ the validity of our everyday perceptions and experience of the world around us and then we apply scientific criteria when we are doing science but only when we are doing science. Otherwise we lose ourselves in intractable and absurd muddles such as always doubting the evidence of our senses only because science shows that sometimes they deceive us. But the most important point is that the scientific conception of the world is ‘parasitic’, as he puts it, upon the validity of our everyday, practical conception of the world in the first place. Instead of ‘parasitic’ I think I’d have preferred another word such as ‘contingent’, but that’s only a quibble.

I think few present-day analytic philosophers would disagree with Merleau-Ponty. In fact it is remarkably reminiscent of ‘ordinary language philosophy’ which (scarcely mentioned by Critchley) was the successor to logical positivism in the 1950’s. In the UK philosophers such as Gilbert Ryle and J.L. Austin emphasized that the twin concepts of ‘meaningful’ and ‘meaningless’ are more appropriately defined within the ‘paradigms’ of ordinary, everyday language. This replaces the rigid, artificial straitjacket of logical positivist ‘verificationism’ which left the philosopher as nothing more than a ticket-collector on the logician’s tramcar, as Ryle put it. But this does not mean that Ryle, Austin and others were imprecise in their reasoning, far from it. They were very precise, but ordinary language had its own ‘logic’, not the same as textbook symbolic logic, but it still followed rules and there was no question of allowing non-sequiturs, conjecture or woolliness etc. to creep in through the back door.

There was a remarkable congruity between the views of Merleau-Ponty and those of Ryle. In 1953 Ryle gave a series of lectures with titles including ‘The World of Science and the Everyday World’, ‘Technical and Untechnical Concepts’, ‘Formal and Informal Logic’. It is astonishing therefore that at a philosophical conference in France in 1960, when Merleau-Ponty said to Ryle, ‘Are not our programmes the same?’ Ryle responded ‘I hope not.’ Critchley suggests that that this can only be explained in terms of ideological prejudice. On the other hand maybe Ryle simply didn’t like French philosophers’ involvement with celebrity culture, who knows?

However - ordinary language philosophy was particularly relevant to ethical discourse which logical positivism had ruled out as ‘meaningless’. Because ethical statements (such as ‘it is right to tell the truth’) could not be verified or falsified as ‘facts’; they were ‘only’ value judgments, or opinion. But once analytic philosophers recognized that the ‘logic’ of ethical discourse is not to ‘state facts’ but to express imperatives about how people ought to behave, this was how they had ‘meaning’. An important book which came out in 1952 was “The Language of Morals” by R.M. Hare. This brings us back to the point made earlier that analytic philosophers have in fact given close attention to ethics, which is at variance with Critchley’s complaint that analytical philosophy is detached from life and its problems.

Consider two other important examples. The first is A Theory of Justice (1971) by American philosopher John Rawls (1921-2002) of Harvard University. This is a very long, complex work in which Rawls shows (inter alia) how social justice as a concept is incompatible with ethical theories such as Utilitarianism which define ‘good’ or ‘right’ in terms of ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number’ so that the concerns and interests of the individual are necessarily subordinated. This is putting things very simplistically, for the main authors of utilitarian ethical theory, Bentham and Mill, were perfectly well aware of the dangers of ‘majoritarianism’. But Rawls, by a process of long, complex and sometimes rather convoluted argumentation seeks to put the concept of ‘social justice’ onto a more secure footing than utilitarianism. Rawls’ contribution to ethical and political theory has been major, sufficient in itself to refute Critchley’s claim that British/American analytic philosophy is ‘detached from life and its problems’.

Another example is The Realm of Rights (1990) by Judith Jarvis Thomson, Professor of Philosophy at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Her book is not a catalogue of complaints about rights abuse by governments or corporations, instead it is a methodical, analytical and highly detailed study of what a ‘right’ actually is. She therefore explains how rights subdivide into different types – claims, liberties, permissions, prerogatives etc. – where each has its own ‘logic’ and rationale. It might in some senses be rather abstract, but it is through her patient analysis and exposition of a difficult, complex set of concepts that we can understand the reality of rights. I think that’s quite important.

To say that this is ‘detached from life and its problems’ would be grossly inaccurate and it has to be recorded that Critchley has not given one mention, anywhere in his book, to the major contribution made by analytical philosophers (on both sides of the Atlantic) to ethics and to ethical theory.

Postscript – I have subsequently learnt (2013) that a number of British university philosophy departments are including studies of Continental philosophy, and analytical philosophy is likewise being given more attention on the Continent. An advance on the 1960’s!

abandonment (in existentialism) – if God no longer exists we are on our own, with no objective values or meaning to life.

absurdity – human existence is absurd because it lacks an ultimate purpose and is therefore meaningless.

alienation – estrangement from or isolation in society; powerlessness.

Angst (German) – anxiety arising from uncertainty

aporia – perplexity, from questions without answers

bad faith – (in existentialism) (i) attempts to rationalize human existence through religion or science; (ii) to disclaim responsibility for spurious reasons (such as “other people”).

Dasein (German) – self-consciousness of one’s own predicament.

deconstruction (Derrida) – theory that key concepts used in texts suppress an opposite concept which in fact they presuppose. If this is applied to ‘deconstruction’ itself, this has the unfortunate consequence that Derrida’s theory of deconstruction is self-refuting.

difference, metaphysics of (Deleuze) – a conception of reality in which difference is the primary term, so that we must reconceptualise identity and similarity as secondary notions.

discourse ethics – thesis that the right moral or political principles can only be established through communication with others.

existentialism – (i) a blanket term denoting a philosophical trend or attitude, not a particular dogma or system. (ii) Generally, each self-aware individual must understand his/her own existence in terms of their own experience and situation.

‘Frankfurt School’ – theoretical Marxist group founded 1923 which rejected positivism, value-freedom and crude materialism.

German Idealism – belief that if human experience is a ‘contingent’ creation, then it can be recreated in other ways.

Hegelianism – the application of Hegel’s controversial and contentious metaphysical philosophy to socio-political problems and how to change them.

hermeneutics – a methodology of textual criticism which takes into account the context (social, political etc.) in which a text being studied had been written.

metaphysics – belief in the reality of abstract entities, not through observational evidence but abstract theorizing.

modernism – the beliefs and ideals of the Enlightenment, esp. Reason.

nihilism – various meanings including rejection of all moral restraints, apathy in general, indifference, the theory that nothing is true (which is self-refuting therefore logically false).

phenomenology - philosophical method of starting from one’s own consciousness exclusively, rejecting all reference to wider, external criteria or to any other influences on one’s own thoughts. NB must not be confused with phenomenalism, an empirical theory of objective knowledge.

post-modernism – to reject the beliefs and ideals of the Enlightenment as spurious.

post-structuralism – abandonment of ‘structuralism’ (see below).

praxis – (Marxism) - creative activity directed towards a new social order.

romanticism – early 19th cent. rejection of the empiricism and rationalism of the Enlightenment; belief in the self as primary.

structuralism – belief that ideas and social and political phenomena should not be taken at face value for they are determined by ‘structures’ hidden from view.

RHS, 2013