Tuesday, April 26, 2011

A little bit Rorty, a little bit Rock 'n' Roll

What, then of the place of the philosophical profession in the culture as a whole? For philosophers who think of themselves as quasi-scientists, this is not an important question. Analytic philosophy has little influence on other academic disciplines, and little interest either for practitioners of those disciplines or for the intellectuals. But analytic philosophers are not distressed by this fact. It is natural, given their scientific metaphilosophy, that analytic philosophers are content to solve philosophical problems without worrying about the source of those problems or the consequences of their solution.

By contrast, non-analytic philosophers typically dislike the thought that philosophy is (or is only) an academic discipline, merely one more Wissenschaft. They would like their work to be continuous either with literature on the one hand or with politics on the other, or both. Insofar as they succeed in making their work continuous with literature, they cease to belong to a separate institution: they are simply writers who happen to be familiar with a certain literary tradition (a tradition that starts with Plato and runs up through Hegel to the present). Thus there is little point in drawing institutional lines between the study of Sartre's treatises, of his critical essays, and of his stories. There is equally little point in worrying whether Nietzsche counts as a figure in the history of German literature (as he used to, before Heidegger helped him to a place in the philosophical canon) or in the history of philosophy. Anyone who is interested in Derrida's treatment of Socrates in La Carte Postale is likely to be interested in ValĂ©ry’s treatment of him in Eupalinos and Nietzsche's in The Birth of Tragedy, and is unlikely to know or care that only one among these three great writers earned his bread as a philosophy professor.

When it comes to attempts to make non-analytic philosophy continuous with politics, however, things become more complex and problematic. For non-analytic philosophy is, with some exceptions, dominated by a Heideggerian condition of the world rather than by social hope. Because the typical member of this tradition is obsessed with the idea of ‘radical criticism’. when he or she turns to politics it is rarely in a reformist, pragmatic spirit, but rather in a mood either of deep pessimism or of revolutionary fury. Except for a few writers such as Habermas, ‘continental’ philosophers see no relation between social democratic politics and philosophizing. So the only sort of politics with which this tradition is continuous is not the actual political discourse of the surviving democratic nations, but a kind of pseudo-politics reminiscent of Marxist study-groups or of the thirties - a sort of continual self-correction of theory, with no conceivable relation to practice.

Rorty, Richard
Essays on Heidegger and Others.
Cambridge University Press, 1991;

This is why we can't have nice thoughts; this is why some Analytic philosophers take pride in not having read Nietzsche and why Continentals prate on about Late Capitalism. It also shows that Rorty was smarter than the lot of them.


George D said...

Rorty? What does he know about practice?

Megan Clayton said...

I love Rorty's writing and his ability to cast an overview. I cried when he died. (I also cried when the Princess of Wales died, but that needn't discredit my enthusiasm for Rorty.)