Over a the long dormant Planomenology, Reid Kotlas has just announced his return to the blog with a very frank and eloquent post on his continuing philosophical development (here). In it he promises to take us all through his foray into the analytic tradition, including a number of it’s more important thinkers. I’m looking forward to reading these posts immensely, and I’m sure that others who’re unfamiliar with, but curious about, this material will find Reid’s thoughts on the matter useful. Despite the humility he displays in the post, I know Reid will provide some top notch analysis, so watch this space. Reid also touches on a number of interesting themes in his post that I’d like to briefly address.
In his post Reid describes a perspective shift that he’s undergone over the last couple years, and I have a great deal of empathy with him on this point, as I went through a very similar perspective shift myself a few years ago. I was not always the unabashed transcendental philosopher I am now. I was once a thoroughgoing correlationist/relativist, initially under the spell of Wittgensteinian quietism (anti-metaphysical), and then of radical materialist/anti-transcendentalist Deleuzianism (metaphysical). What united these different and seemingly incompatible phases was a certain commitment to the primacy of practice over theory, or the idea that theory is just another form of practice. This vulgar pragmatism is what Reid calls soft-Nietzscheanism.
This kind of position (exemplified also by certain strands of Derridean and Heideggerian philosophy) can be motivated from a number of different directions (for an example of one such path, see Brandom’s excellent paper on Rorty, here), but it inevitably ends up either chasing its own tail theoretically speaking (i.e., theorising the practice of theorising the practice of… etc.) or devolves into mere poetico-practical gestures, usually steeped in eschatology and negative theology (see the Derridean/Heideggerian axis alluded to above). In essence, all these positions strive for a kind of humility that is so radical as to be vacuous. False epistemic humility (‘but we can’t be certain that…’) can lead us from fear of error into fear of truth, in precisely the way that Hegel so perceptively criticises in the introduction to the Phenomenology, whereas false ontological humility (‘but we can’t be special…’) can lead us from deflating our own metaphysical standing to inflating the metaphysical standing of everything else (e.g., the universalisation of thought in panpsychism and the universalisation of agency in some forms of neo-Spinozism).
Again, as Reid notes, there are many worthwhile insights in the thinkers that inspire this loose conglomeration of positions. Despite my own transcendental turn, I still acknowledge (and intend to do more work on) penetrating insights to be found in Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Deleuze, Heidegger and others (though I’ve yet to find much use for Derrida, personally). However, the most insidious aspect of this loose conglomeration is that it tends to discourage us from adopting these specific insights, precisely because of their specificity. Despite the simultaneously detailed and systematic approaches of many of the great thinkers of the ‘continental tradition’, such as Hegel and Husserl, there is a pervasive trend among some members of this tradition to ignore details in favour of overarching insight. This is nowhere more obvious than in the gradual diminution and ultimate abandonment of the detailed analyses of the structure of reason found in Hegel’s logical project and Husserl’s phenomenological one. That the overarching insights of their successors (Heidegger and Derrida) are used to legitimate ignorance of such details (e.g., by denying the possibility of universal structures of reason) merely demonstrates how far they have fallen in this regard. There is most often a vicious circle hovering in the vicinity of these arguments (e.g., that it is absolutely true that there is no absolute truth), which true to form is taken to indicate some deeper poetico-practical horizon.
There are of course those in the continental tradition who are willing to deal in details, and there are increasingly more of them (say what you like about Badiou, but he has been a good influence here in a number of respects). As Reid notes also, there is an equally pervasive trend within the opposing ‘analytic tradition’ to focus on detail at the expense of systematicity. This trend manifests itself both in the philosophy of thought (i.e., logic, semantics, and epistemology) and in metaphysics (which is much less well defined), where myriad debates have done a good job of feeling their way around the conceptual terrain to be explored – uncovering problems, developing analytical tools, and making connections between seemingly disparate issues – without thereby necessarily identifying what their subject matter is (e.g., what we mean by ‘thought’ and ‘reality’) or the appropriate methodology for exploring it (e.g., whether it is empirical or otherwise). If we are to set out on such explorations, we must be willing to make use of the problems, tools, and connections these more or less haphazard expeditions have stumbled upon, but we must equally aim to be more regimented in our own pursuits.
What this means is that we must be able to properly combine systematic scope with analytic detail, or to exemplify the virtues of each philosophical tradition while avoiding their vices. However, in truth, the best way to go about achieving this is to recognise that these virtues do not really belong to either ‘tradition’, but to philosophy as such. We do not need to ‘build bridges between traditions’ by translating their ideas into one another’s favoured terminology, but rather to strive to do philosophy as such, as it should be done. We will find our inspiration and our tools wherever they lie. What is important is what we can do with them, not in the vacuous sense of what effects we can produce (philosophy as pure praxis), but in the sense of what further arguments we can construct, and what further insights we can deduce with them (philosophy as theory).
Luckily for us there are many who are already striving to do just this. I find the renewed interest in German Idealism in analytic circles (e.g., in Brandom and McDowell) and the renewed interest in logic and mathematics in continental circles (e.g., in Badiou and Meillassoux) to be good indicators of this. This way of going about things is of course more difficult in many ways, but no one ever said philosophy should be easy.