It isn’t so uncommon to meet someone who thinks that continental philosophers don’t make arguments. I suspect that often this is the result of not having read much, if any, continental philosophy. But of course that isn’t the whole explanation. Perhaps some people have picked up the notion that continental philosophers don’t make arguments from others, but then those others, at some point, must have picked up the notion somewhere. So here I want to briefly say that the answer is: yes. Continental philosophers do make arguments. I am happy to refer anyone who doubts this to, e.g., sections 19-21 of Heidegger’s Being and Time, which feature his phenomenological critique of Descartes. Or to Badiou’s critique of Levinas in his Ethics (pp. 18-23 in Verso’s English translation). The real question is, why might it seem like continental philosophers do not employ arguments? The answer, I think, is that readers trained to recognize the analytic style of argument might often read a continental argument without noticing that it is an argument at all. I have already pointed out one reason for this in a previous post: continental philosophers have a tendency to embed their arguments within a wider conceptual scheme, in such a way that the arguments for the scheme and the arguments within the scheme are co-dependent.
But I think there is another reason why continental arguments often get missed, and this seems to me to reflect a general difference in the way analytic and continental philosophers understand the purpose of argument (an obvious but important point before I start: I am not describing a methodology common to all continental philosophers; nor am I describing a methodology that no analytic philosophers apply). Let me start this train of thought by saying something about arguments, which I hope will not come off as overly controversial or anti-rational: Knock-down arguments, at least against widely accepted positions, are exceedingly rare. Strong arguments, of course, are not all that uncommon. But strong arguments are not knock-down arguments; they are not, in other words, arguments the conclusion of which pretty much any reader must accept under pain of contradiction. Philosophers generally spend some time—a lifetime, or perhaps a week—thinking out a position, and they don’t abandon it lightly. If the position is at all cogent—or, sometimes, even if it isn’t but provides support for another position that many people want supported—it is unlikely to be dropped instantly in response to an argument.
The obvious point that philosophers generally tend to hold on to their positions has ramifications as well, ones that are familiar to anyone who opens an analytic journal. What typically happens when a strong argument is presented is not that the target of the argument rolls over, but that the target comes up with a defense, or a way of preserving her original position by either undermining the critique or avoiding its implications. This need not be understood as the product of simple ego inflation, though there is some of that, coupled with pressures to publish (I am, for example, somewhat at a loss for how else to explain the decades of literature about Frankfurt Examples). There are certainly solid philosophical reasons for maintaining an established position—it is, after all, established for a reason; presumably, it provides a particularly strong approach to some problem, or it lacks the deeper difficulties of its competitors. The point, though, is that a debate can often go back and forth indefinitely, and the waning of such a debate or the prominence of a position is often attributable to factors that have little to do with the rational force of particular arguments.
And here I want to suggest that one typical (though not universal) continental approach to arguments arises out of this recognition: arguments are viewed not so much as techniques used to demonstrate an opponent’s flaw, but rather as attempts to make intelligible underlying issues. An example (though not a continental one): Galen Strawson has argued that moral responsibility is impossible, because it requires of an agent that she be capable of self-creation. Certainly both compatibilists and libertarians have replies to this argument. But the strength of the argument seems to me to lie not in its point (since its point is, really, just the restatement of a very old problem and, as such, hardly worth restating again), but in its ability to make that old point—a point that, in its longevity, seems to reveal a deep underlying philosophical concern—intelligible within a different idiom and conceptual scheme. So while an analytic philosopher might take the arguments primarily as something to be defended or refuted, a continental philosopher may be more likely to look at the context of the arguments on both sides and to search for the deeper conceptual problems involved. Often this involves a method of looking for aporias (a method Ricoeur calls “aporetics”)—points at which both sides have been so thoroughly defended that the fruitful response is not to contribute to one side or the other, but instead to take the problem to be for all intents and purposes insoluble, and to seek the reason for this insolubility in the conceptual scheme common to both sides.
The goal of a continental argument, then, is often not to attempt to resolve a philosophical problem directly, but to try to make the problem itself clearer by providing an intelligible picture of why the problem appears so intractable in the first place. This may seem unphilosophical and, really, unsatisfying to those committed to solving the problem; but it involves the recognition that some problems cannot be solved, and they cannot be solved not because the terms of the problem are badly defined, or because a master argument has not yet been found, but because the problem itself arises out of a mistaken schema. One consequence is that this tends to make continental writing less contentious and more conciliatory—another reason that arguments might seem to be lacking. It is conciliatory in the sense that often continental writing proceeds not by attempting to show that a particular view is wrong, but instead by showing that it is inadequate to grasping a deeper problem. But instead of simply rejecting the view, the method often goes on to seek the truth of the position, roughly, what is right about the position in the sense that it can be used to make sense of the underlying issue.
(An excellent example of this is Ricoeur’s writing in Oneself as Another—he begins by showing that P. F. Strawson’s account of persons in Individuals, according to which persons are the bearers of physical and mental properties, is insufficient for an account of selfhood, and yet throughout his argument in the book he returns to Strawson, reminding us that this dual attribution has to be kept in mind throughout.)
I suppose this mode of argumentation comes from an assimilation of Hegel into the philosophical culture. What may make this continental approach hard to recognize as argumentation, then, is that it lacks two features common to analytic argumentation:
- Problems are often approached not by addressing them head-on, but instead by examining their context.
- Positions shown to be “wrong” or inadequate are not simply rejected, but partially incorporated into a wider narrative.
This is, to be sure, a different way of doing philosophy, yet its credentials to legitimacy, especially as a form of argumentation, strike me as well-grounded. Update: There's been some further discussion, and a very nice reading that makes my point sound much better than it is, over at Rough Theory. at 10:19 PM Labels: philosophy 16 comments Philosophy Blogs Power Blogroll The Garden of Forking Paths PEA Soup Ethics Etc The Splintered Mind Ideas of Imperfection fragments of consciousness Thoughts Arguments and Rants Leiter Reports The Chasm Selbsttatigkeit Now-Times The Space of Reasons
Richard Crary of The Existence Machine muses about the difficult reading: We expect writing to speak plain truths–we assume truths are plain. We want the language, in general, to be plain-spoken. If a book cannot be simply opened up and read and grasped by an uninitiated reader, then it must be bullshit (”gibberish”). Writing that is not plain-spoken is difficult and therefore pretentious. People who claim to enjoy supposedly difficult writing are poseurs (or, possibly, elitists). Philosophy is suspect.
I have been thinking along the similar lines recently as I was revisiting the old issue of trying to use “difficult texts” in my Intro class: the rationale for me has always been that I will expose my students to a type of writing that in itself will allow me to teach them a skill. For example, even though Plato’s dialogues are quite “easy” to read, or at least I can say that most college students find the form of a conversation between several people to be quite easy to grasp, we spend a lot of time trying to explain why it is important to ask about the essences of things like “justice” or “piety” - the style of a dialogue itself is never really an issue, because the subject matter is what is most important. Is it possible, for example, to use a text by Deleuze or Derrida or Blanchot as a way of exposing a group of students to the style of philosophizing that, because it is impossible to clearly see the actual subject matter, would draw attention to itself?
Assuming that the students actually read, or try to read the difficult text, is it possible to coherently argue in favor of such an experience of confusion? Does it make sense to say:”Yes, I know some of you told me in private that you tried to read the text but you couldn’t understand anything, but that is precisely what I expected would happen. Now that we are in class we can read the same text together and see if we can figure it out, because that is the skill we are trying to acquire in addition to being introduced to a contemporary thinker.” In a sense, if students could read and understand an essay by Derrida, they wouldn’t need to be in an Intro class.
In a sense, reading a difficult text is an exercise in slowing down the usual speed of reading and comprehesion and thus of training through repetition - reading and rereading, thinking through, connecting one clear idea to another, situating unclear passages in the context of the understood, working through a text in such a way is a philosophical skill, isn’t it?
The post continues: My instincts tell me that this problem has to do with the culture of capitalism (and of course it has everything to do with education), but I have neither the time nor the energy to expand on that notion right now. (Having neither time nor energy being intimately related to said culture.)
I am not sure about this - it seems to me that the culture of plain truth comes before, and makes possible, the culture of capitalism. Think, for example, about Descartes: his Meditations on First Philosophy are written in a very commonsensical style, a sort of a “thinking aloud” style - that simplification of philosophy (vis-a-vis heavy Aristotelian style of pre-Cartesian thinking) constitues, in a way, a philosophical break. Such simplicity encourages seeking out “plain truth” - every time I dare to ask a simple question such as “What Is Thinking?” in my class, I usually get something very plain and simple like “It’s an ability to analyze, break things down, mentally take them apart” - the very possibility of “taking apart” assumes that thinking is all about simplification, about slowing down the act of actual thinking, about simple procedures, calculations, steps… A kind of thinking machine, a calculator, a computer…Posted in Craptasitc Academic Drek, Philosophy Tagged Difficult Texts, Ramblings, Teaching Philosophy 6 Comments 6 Responses to “The Plain Truth, Please!” 6 Style « Larval Subjects . Perverse Egalitarianism has an interesting post up on “difficult books”. Blogroll 3 Quarks Daily Able Arrt Acephalous Blah-feme Censura Chimères Continental Philosophy Crooked Timber Cultural Parody Center Dialectic: University of Newcastle Philosophy Club Discourse Notebook Dreaming Without Memory in Strangled Sleep Философский Штурм Feel Philosophy (India) Fido the Yak ForaTV How the University Works ibitsu Immanent Frame In Socrates’ Wake Infinite Thought Jewcy John Protevi’s Blog Jon Cogburn Joyous Inquiry La revue des ressources Larval Subjects Lectures Archive Leibniz Translations Leiter Reports: A Philosophy Blog Meta-Philosophy Metastable Equilibrium Naught Thought Notebook eleven Now Times Outside Philosophy Pharyngula Philosophical Conversations Philosophical Reviews Philosophy Job Market Blog Philosophy Talk Public Reason Rate Your Students! Rough Theory Sadly, No Side Effects Societas: The Blog TalkingPointsMemo The Existence Machine The Pinocchio Theory The Psychoanalytic Field The Valve Voices from Russia What In The Hell… Wildly Parenthetical Writing for Ants