Billie Pritchett's Reviews > Contemporary Continental Philosophy

Contemporary Continental Philosophy by Robert D'Amico
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May 23, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: philosophy, continental-philosophy, heidegger
Read in May, 2011

Robert D'Amico tells the story of contemporary continental philosophy as one of first trying to construct a theory of knowledge (how people know what they know) to eventually not taking philosophy as a subject or discipline seriously. I will give D'Amico's interpretation. Edmund Husserl founded a philosophical movement called phenomenology, which attempted to understand the world in terms of an individual's subjective awareness of it and which tried to account for the a priori features that make the subjective experience possible. Husserl's student, Martin Heidegger, interpreted the task of phenomenology differently, assuming that phenomenology is the study of being in general. Therefore, by definition, Husserl was doing epistemology, trying to devise a theory of knowledge, whereas Heidegger was doing ontology, trying to devise a theory of what exists, or more precisely what a priori features make existence possible. Heidegger assumes that all the preconditions for what exists are necessarily tied to human beings and their experience because human beings are the only creatures capable of asking about existence. This is a pretty weak and bad argument, but an argument nonetheless. What Heidegger constructs is a theory of ordinary human existence, which seems reasonable and can be interpreted and assessed independently and apart from his overall project.

Jean-Paul Sartre and Maurice Merleau-Ponty come along and, sympathetic to Heidegger, misread Husserl as being concerned with ontological issues when in fact Husserl was only concerned with epistemological issues. Their analyses are regarded by D'Amico as confused and implied in D'Amico's criticism is that these guys just did not do their homework and scholarship with regard the tradition they claimed to be a part of and continuing. Therefore, by this point, there's already a serious discontinuity in contemporary continental philosophy and the purpose of continental philosophy as a research program is not clear.

The research program or collection of research programs is further obscured with the appearance of Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida. Foucault analyzed history and on the basis of discovering discontinuities in history regarding what constitutes, for example, disease or insanity, concluded that such things did not exist. As for Derrida, it is not clear at all what he is doing. Other such figures came along between Merleau-Ponty and Foucault, including Hans-Georg Gadamer and Jurgen Habermas, but I will not write about them. Whatever the case, the point is that contemporary continental philosophy has no viable research program and it is not even clear why the demarcation of continental philosophy from other kinds of philosophy. Even so-called 'analytic philosophy' is in my view tautological. Philosophy seems to be the name for an ensemble of research programs, questions, and putative problems that do not fit comfortably into ordinary scientific domains. Some of them might be misguided, others might be ill-formed, and still some of the questions might be unsolvable. Whatever the case, this seems to me to be what philosophy is. So why entrench oneself in a camp, especially when whatever the camp is doing is not even intelligible to itself?
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