Thursday, March 12, 2009

What Should We Be?

Readers of this blog know my main interests lie in the area of contemporary philosophy of mind and metaphysics. However, I enjoy, through my teaching duties, the luxury of regularly studying any number of other topics. Spring semesters one of my regular courses is Contemporary Philosophy. This spring I decided to conduct a survey of the 19th and 20th centuries in "two movements," an effort to get to the bottom of the so-called "Continental/Analytic" distinction, a polarizing categorization towards which I am generally skeptical, and of which I warn my students off (and I do feel that anyone who comes on as a strong partisan one way or the other is probably a mediocre philosopher, definitely a mediocre reader). The course outline can be found two posts previous to this one.

I started the first "movement" (in the compositional sense) with Kant, moving through the German Idealists, Hegel (and Kierkegaard presented as a reaction to Hegel), Marx (who I believe straddles the two so-called traditions), Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Freud, Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, De Beauvoir, the "Critical Theory" of the Frankfurt School (Marcuse, Habermas), "Structuralism" (Foucault, Lacan), and finally, yesterday, Derrida. Now we will go back to the 18th century and start all over again with Hume, moving through a similar survey (this time composed almost entirely of English-language philosophers) through to the metaphysical revival of David Lewis and Alvin Plantinga.

So this week we are discussing and evaluating so-called Continental (I insist on the "so-called" when using either name). It was, I think, a very useful survey, illuminating a striking continuity of concerns and affirming the truism that there is "nothing new under the sun"; virtually the entire conversation called "Continental" philosophy follows in a thoroughly formulaic way from Kant and Hegel (I don't say that pejoratively).

What I want to discuss today (thinking about our classroom discussion tomorrow) is the question that emerged for my students in a persistent way starting around Nietzsche and Freud. (I argued that these two taken together represent the bridge from Romanticism to Modernism.) Even earlier Kierkegaard insists on the essential absurdity of our life-choices, and the real sense in which Schopenhauer is a "pessimist" is in his advice that we simply give up the existential struggle and find peace by sinking down into thinghood (the worst sin for existentialists like Nietzsche and Sartre). The question is: if so-called Continental philosophers have worked so hard to establish our fundamental freedom and to deconstruct our assumptions about our own natures, than what should a body do?

My student Kristian Rullan raised the question during the discussion of Sartre: if Sartre is right that consciousness is negation and nothing but negation, and that therefore (as Nietzsche also argued) we are entirely responsible for the most "essential" aspects of our own identities, then what is/would be the "existential person"? What would the existentialist have us do/be? My student Yasmin Zapata, chaffing a bit perhaps under the insistent subversiveness of de Beauvoir's existential feminism and the "permanent revolution" prescribed by modern Western Marxism, asked why it was necessarily so terrible, after all, to be a product and a creature of an historically conditioned and socially constructed culture? And it does appear that starting at the very beginning with Kant's distinction between a noumenal world-in-itself and a phenomenal world-of-experience, there is nothing less than a fetish in the so-called Continental tradition with the idea that "ordinary" people are trapped in an illusory world and that "enlightenment" would consist of a breaking through the wall of illusion into authenticity. And this fetish is still wholly present in the Althusserian notion of the "prison-house of language" that is the basis of Derrida's work. (I don't necessarily have anything against fetishes, by the way!)

This is the basic question that we will be discussing in class tomorrow. I have two thoughts about it just now (and of course I have no agenda of defending or promoting so-called Continental). First, it is of the essence of existentialism (pardon the pun) that there is no prescription: there is precisely no Existential Man the way there was supposed to be, say, a Soviet Man (and indeed the Western Marxists reject the idea of a Socialist Man as well). Sartre's gift to us of an argument for freedom, whether it is effective or not, necessarily precludes any prescription as to what we ought to be (and before him Nietzsche wants us only to "go over and go under" the sickly essentializing of "human nature," and Heidegger defines thinking as moving towards what is not known and cannot be said). The existential version of feminism developed by de Beauvoir and explored by subsequent French psychoanalytic feminists such as Kristeva similarly rejects the conception of feminism as a mere power play between the given "masculine" and "feminine." All of psychoanalysis, for that matter, is properly understood as emancipatory rather than prescriptive. And Derrida claims to write on "the margin," outside of the logocentric tradition of "metaphysics," the function of deconstruction being entirely to throw us into the necessity of self-creation.

Speaking critically, I find all of this tradition to be something of a "prolegomena to some future act of self-creation": they all insist on the reality of choice and the virtue of authenticity above all, but one rarely sees them actually choosing anything. This is why I have some affection for Kierkegaard: he out of the whole group actually manages to digest and embrace the conclusion and makes a choice.
My second thought is this: Socrates tells us that human nature is to think about what it is that we believe to be true, and that philosophy is to state that belief as clearly and courageously as possible. Try as you might, he taunts his relativist antagonists in the Theatetus, your arguments will never free you from this human condition. In a way the so-called Continental tradition draws a similar moral: the permanent revolution, the overcoming and the going under, is otherwise known as living. It is nothing more or less than having a life, and when we cease to interrogate ourselves in this way we have ceased to be persons.

(Footnote: If you are moved by existentialist discussions of the nature of consciousness, try reading some Buddhism. It is a much older tradition that elaborates these ideas to a much deeper level.)


  1. Hello, Dr. Brown:

    You wrote of Kierkegaard: "he out of the whole group [of so-called Continental figures] actually manages to digest and embrace the conclusion and makes a choice."

    Do you mean he embraced some course of action with regard living an authentic life or in some way being self-creative? Also, what choice is it you think he made?

    I am, of the so-called Continental figures, interested in early phenomenology, and probably about as radical as I get is Heidegger. By the way, I think Heidegger can be read in Being and Time, even if it isn't exactly true to the nature of the work (whatever that might be), as laying down some basic intuitions about what it means to be a person. The best summary I've found of this view is John Haugeland's essay "Heidgger on Being a Person."

    Anyway, I always enjoy reading the posts.

  2. Billie, Nice to hear from you again. Kierkegaard's choice is to be a Christian. He argues (against Hegel) that this is only an authentic choice when its fundamental absurdity is recognized. In a way (just writing off the top of my head) this is similar to Descartes: radical new methods producing conservative conclusions.

  3. Hi Andy,

    Very nice piece. Enjoyed reading it and looking forward to reading more.