Tuesday, July 11, 2006

The Many Senses of Continental

Against all better judgement, I am going to write a rant against today's post in the Leiter report. I have come to value much of what appears on Brian Leiter's blog, and so it is disappointing to me that he published this ridiculous screed, in which he takes to task a 20 year old for not being a subtle enough reader of philosophy, and, in particular, his works. I would've let it go, if I didn't know what his Philosophical Gourmet Report (PGR) did to my own sense that I had any business being in philosophy or any hope of future employment. But, when I first read a copy of the PGR, I felt ready to slit my wrists. I had been far too naive at the time to realize that the only hope I had for making it in the world of philosophy, at least according to his standards, was to study with the right sort of folks, all of which resided at Analytic programs. I cannot remember the exact text anymore, but he had written something about feminist philosophy, and in particular, Continental feminist philosophy (my specialty), and begrudgingly approved only of Linda Alcoff, who, afterall had attended Brown (the right kind of school).

I was reading this just as I prepared to go on the job market, already with a few interviews in hand, scheduled at the Eastern APA. When I read the PGR I panicked. I had no idea who had put this together, what the methodology was, but what did come across was that whoever had put this report together, he was the authority on what programs mattered and what programs were a waste of time and money. I had already attended Boston College and was finishing my Ph.D. at Stony Brook in order to work in a department with more women (I could tell you stories about BC when I was there!). I had excellent teachers, classmates, and was given a great deal of freedom at Stony Brook to pursue my interests. I thought I had made a good choice of graduate programs given my interests and Stony Brook's offerings. But, no, the minute I perused (and, yes I mean that literally) the PGR, I was informed that I had very little chance of finding future employment thanks to the low quality of my graduate education. How arrogant! This was all happening at the same time that Alan Sokal had published his spoof of cultural theory in Social Texts. The writing was on the wall: Continental philosophy, or at least the kind of Continental Philosophy taught at programs like Vanderbilt, Stony Brook, Penn State or De Paul, was simply "fashionable nonsense." Alas, towards the end his post, he writes:

"Continental" for these folks does not mean "Continental philosophy," as Ms. Heifetz's spectacularly ignorant remarks well illustrate: she obviously hasn't a clue about the thinkers, ideas, and arguments that constitute the glorious traditions of post-Kantian philosophy in Germany and France over the last two hundred years. "Continental," rather, is more of a non-cognitive term, expressing something like the following: "yeah for left-wing opining about culture and politics, that's philosophy." As readers know, I'm a big fan of left-wing opining, but it ain't philosophy, Continental or otherwise. This juvenile usage of "Continental" is widespread, I fear, among those who are philosophically illiterate but fashion themselves culturally sophisticated.

I quote this text because here Leiter is playing unfair. In most of his post he takes pains to demonstrate why he is a Continental philosopher, why he values it, and who the other Continental philosophers are who sit on his advisory board for the PGR. And yet, here, at the end of the piece, he makes plain where the real source of Ms. Heifetz's muddled thinking comes from, namely, she has invoked 'Continental' in a sort of "fashionable nonsense" way, which is, dear readers, different from what true Continental philosophy is. And true Continental philosophy, according to Leiter, is the stuff that he and his friends do, all of which are people trained at Analytic programs.

I have a hard time believing that Leiter really thinks that he has always been fair-minded when it comes to evaluating Continental programs. Sure, he has been far more inclusive lately, but that was not always the case. I don't think it is unexpected or even unreasonable for a young person to get the impression that he values Analytic programs over Continental programs. I also find it frustrating that he defines what Continental Philosophy is. When you say, for example, that Continental Philosophy is "the thinkers, ideas, and arguments that constitute the glorious traditions of post-Kantian philosophy in Germany and France over the last two hundred years, " how exactly are you clarifying matters? After all, the understanding of the word 'Continental' that he attributes to Ms. Heifetz is surely included in this definition, even if it is "juvenile." Cultural studies falls out of post-modern thinkers like Derrida and Foucault, and both of these French thinkers are post-Kantian. Why does he suggest that some cultural studies work is juvenile, while what he does is the real deal? It seems like a lot of work to not fess up to the fact that he doesn't have a lot of respect for what many Continentally trained philosophers do (assuming that I can fairly call folks who were not trained at largely Analytic programs by the folks he mentions Continental philosophers).

I think I would've respected his post more if he just said, yep, Ms. Heifetz, I think that a lot of what you are doing under the name "Continental" is crap and here's why . . . Because he doesn't, he just comes off as defensive and haughty.