Tag Archive: Continental philosophy

Anti-life… (?)

So what’s all this anti-vitalism wafting on the (post-) Continental wind? What’s it working from? (Thacker? Others?)  Is it anything more than another round of vanguardism (“not enough to revitalize matter, let’s devitalize life while we’re at it” — another version of the old Stalinist jingle about not being able to make an omelet without breaking some eggs)?

Anyone who was at the conference, or with the time (and a strong enough internet connection, which I don’t seem to have at the moment) to listen to the audio recordings from it, care to summarize?

The beatnik brotherhood

Graham Harman’s note reiterating his position that Whitehead, Latour, Deleuze, Bergson, and Simondon (among others) do not make up a coherent philosophical “lump” — “pack” or “tribe” might be more colorful terms here (if philosophers were cats, how herdable would they be?) — makes me want to clarify my own position on these thinkers.

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There’s something about the flare-up over Carlin Romano’s Chronicle of Higher Ed article “Heil Heidegger!” that manages to crystallize both the virtues and the potential utter barrenness of the web as a site for direct philosophical action (i.e., constructive debate that contributes, however marginally, to philosophy).

Romano’s article takes advantage of the forthcoming publication of a translated text by Emmanuel Faye to deliver what he imagines will be a death-blow to Heideggerian studies. Heidegger, Romano claims, was not only a Nazi, in a brief and passing phase of his career, at a time when many Germans were caught up with the political zeitgeist astir in their country and before the really twisted stuff started happening (pogroms and death camps and all). No, he was the philosopher of Nazism, somehow responsible for it through and through.

To anyone who has taken time to study Heidegger, it sounds like a silly argument, or at least a dramatically overdrawn one. So it fails — if one reads the readers’ comments, which at the time of my writing this post have nearly reached a hundred. But if one doesn’t read the comments — which is more likely the case with readers of the Chronicle – or if one reads them with that skepticism that, among American readers, is all too typically directed at pointy-headed philosophers, “continentalists,” theory-headed “academic leftists,” and the like — then the article succeeds. CHE has made its point: Heidegger is out.

The reactions the article has elicited, both in the comments and on other philosophy blogs, have been understandably steaming hot. Reading them makes one feel like a bicyclist silently passing by a massive car pile-up, at which drivers are screaming at each other, taking sides and forming alliances, lobbing pieces of glass and metal at each other, or throwing remains of broken-up cars into a big bonfire and waiting for a cop or an ambulance who, like Godot, will never materialize. It’s a little like the eight-minute traffic jam in Godard’s mock-apocalyptic Weekend (see above).

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Responding to a post on this blog, Kvond, a little while ago, raised the question of the relationship between Arne Naess, originator of “deep ecology,” and Spinoza – which made me think of the interesting if sporadic/uneven/episodic relationships between the main traditions of continental philosophy and environmental thought. A glance at the changing editions of Environmental Philosophy, a reader originally edited by Michael Zimmerman but now collectively edited and in its fourth edition, shows us how the place of continental philosophy has grown from barely a mention in the first two editions (1993, 1998) to an entire six-chapter section in the fourth. How that came to be is a story that has yet to be written, though a few brief accounts exist, such as Michael Zimmerman’s chapter in Rethinking Nature , comments scattered through Zimmerman’s Contesting Earth’s Future, and Bruce Foltz’s brief but excellent piece in John Protevi’s Dictionary of Continental Philosophy, which I discovered as I was wrapping up this post.

What follows is a highly selective and episodic overview of key moments in that unfolding relationship. But I start with a few caveats.

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Deleuze, Whitehead, Bergson

Keith Robinson’s introduction to the collection Deleuze, Whitehead, Bergson: Rhizomatic Connections, just published by Palgrave Macmillan, provides an excellent and much needed overview of the reception histories of these three thinkers. Robinson’s contextualization of them within the analytical and continental philosophical traditions makes clear why each has been marginalized or misunderstood to varying degrees in recent decades. Bergson had been extremely popular in the early years of the last century, but became almost a non-entity in the Anglo-American world until Deleuze revived him in the 1970s, while Whitehead, an acknowledged founding figure of twentieth-century analytical philosophy alongside Bertrand Russell, became an object of suspicion after his metaphysical ‘turn’ (represented in part by the mammoth Process and Reality).

Robinson argues that Russell played a key role in marginalizing both and, in the process, in reducing analytical philosophy to the logically and mathematically oriented philosophical style it has become. Deleuze, meanwhile, was welcomed as part of the wave of French poststructuralists and ‘postmodernists’ — not so much by Anglo-American philosophers as by social and cultural theorists — but, in the process, his thinking was misunderstood and caricatured as a form of psycho-political anarchism, and the nuanced thinking about science, time, metaphysics, life, organism, and all manner of other traditional philosophical themes was largely left aside.

Now, Robinson argues, as the distinction between the analytical and continental traditions is becoming increasingly irrelevant, with each caving in under the weight of its own limitations and of internal and external critiques, this threesome is finally being seen as representative of a process philosophical tradition that offers much-needed alternatives to some of the philosophical conundrums we’re facing (such as the mind-body problem, the relationship between philosophy and science/technology, life and the biopolitical, etc.). This shared focus on process — a term most closely associated with Whitehead, though it’s often taken by Whiteheadians in religious/theological directions that many would find less germane — is, according to Robinson, combined with a “methodological constructivism” that seeks to create concepts with which to think experience and life in novel ways.

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This is a summary I provided to a grad student who was starting to get into this area. It’s very introductory and far from complete in its coverage, but since there’s so little out there on this topic, I thought it would be useful to post it. It’s also a bit biased towards literature that’s relevant to religion and religious experience (since this is what the student was working on). Comments are welcome.

The topic of the imagination had been out of fashion for a while in the humanities, especially as textual and semiotic approaches (structuralism, poststructuralism et al) came to dominate cultural theory in the 1970s and 1980s. Gradually it’s been coming back, but without any consensus on what it means or how it should be dealt with. The following are some of the threads of thinking that, to my mind, need to be drawn together in a coherent way in order to make contemporary sense of ‘the imagination’ or, as I prefer to call it, the imaginal. They are pieces of a much larger puzzle that is far from being solved.

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