20 TRAITS OF CONTINENTAL PHILOSOPHY

An alternative title for this piece is  “Zizek for Chomskies”.

Update: I am publishing here a pdf article, twenty-traits-of-continental-philosophy, which includes the explanations that accompanied and explained the traits.

What are the characteristic features of contemporary Continental philosophy that give it its distinctive style of rationality? A year ago in response to Noam Chomsky’s demagogic and tendentious dismissal of Slavoj Zizek as “irrational”, and also in response to the publication of Zizek’s book LESS THAN NOTHING, I set out in a series of blog posts (beginning here) 16 traits typical of the rationality of Continental philosophy that the book exemplifies, from even a cursory scanning of its first pages. I list the original 16 traits here, now augmented to 20, and for further explanation one can consult the developped articles.

1) creation of concepts: one cannot set out from familiar ideas, concepts must be constructed to give us new perspectives. Zizek constructs an explicit and contextual definition of one form of stupidity, that he will go on to oppose to other forms.

2) conceptual personas: concepts are not just given in abstract definitions, they are embedded in figures that give intuitive and imaginative content to what could otherwise remain an empty verbalism. Zizek associates his abstract definition of stupidity to various figures of the stupid person, including himself

3) analogical resonance and transversal application: concepts are not limited to one domain but are constructed to show up features occurring in a diversity of domains. Zizek uses his concept to follow analogies between an abstract definition, an everyday life situation, the biography of a famous mathematician, a famous Czech anti-war novel (published in 1923), a well-known fairy tale, and a popular humorists take on it

4) reflexivity: the commitment to immanence implies that the Continental Philosopher is not outside and judging the field of application of his concepts, he is himself subsumed under them. Zizek includes himself and his text in the domain of application of his concept of stupidity.

5) pulsation between concept and image. Often this is what is meant when one calls such texts “poetic”. In fact it is a way of pluralising the applicability of the concept without giving it universal scope. Zizek passes from abstract concepts to “illustrations” in film and literature and life-experiences and jokes, where each enriches the other in both extension and meaning.

6) beginning in the middle: positioning oneself at the outset inside the conceptual world that one is arguing for, in medias res . In LESS THAN NOTHING Zizek begins with “stupidity” defined in terms of different figures of rationality and differing positions in relation to the Big Other. His style, his defintions and his allusions presuppose the conceptual world he is elaborating in the book.

7) incommensurability: the poststructuralist philosopher typically takes the existence of incommensurable breaks as a banal and ultimately positive feaure of differences in understanding; The idea is that many philosophical differences of opinion are subtended by radically different “paradigms” or contextual rules, not all of which can be stated explicitly. Chomsky uses common sense concepts to make his claims, Zizek requires us to leap into a different set of concepts before we can even begin to recognise and to make sense of his claims.

8) typological thinking: one assembles a sort of composite image of a particular mode of thinking that one wishes to consider (Zizek’s LESS THAN NOTHING begins with a typology of the stupid: idiot, imbecile, moron)

9) cognitive posture: Continental Philosophy explores, and proposes, background rules and conditions for the conduct of thought. Deleuze calls this the “image of thought”, and claims that every philosopher proposes such an image (the typology of stupidity cited above is also a typology of cognitive postures, and Zizek situates his own thought in the highest degree of the “imbecile” posture, where it becomes thought of movement).

10) hermeneutic pluralism: Continental Philosophy supposes not just a plurality of interpretations, but of “régimes of truth” and of modes of existence. (Zizek has a concept of what Chomsky is doing, Chomsky has no such concept for Zizek’s work, and “sees nothing” in it).

11) deconstructing the question: any question or comment comes with a set background presuppositions which must be made conscious, examined, and transformed, before responding. This is one reason why Continental texts, and even dialogues, are not simply “conversations”.

12) thinking in problematics: deconstructing the question already includes constructing the subjacent problematic of the view one is responding too. But one is at the same time obliged to construct one’s own problematic. Continental Philosophy “sees” in terms of problematics, otherwise it would see nothing at all.

13) postmodernism: (in Lyotard’s sense) scepticism with respect to totalising narratives of legitimation, unified subjects of history, and with respect to the regulative ideal of convergence of the plurality of perspectives of interpreatation, and of the multiplicity of modes of existence, towards a monist final framework.

14) alterity: Continental philosophy has a place for and embraces an Other that is not on the same model as me, whose basic principles and (cognitive, affective, perceptive) postures are different

15) pluralist dialectics: Continental philosophy takes from Hegel’s dialectics the plurality of figures of consciousness and modes of being, and also the treatment of concepts as ambiguous, fluid, and in movement. Some prefer to drop the name “dialectics”, arguing, like Deleuze, that “Movement is stronger than the dialectic”. Others are content to redefine the word “dialectics” in a way that subtracts the dogmatic notions of inevitable progression and cumulative synthesis.

16) transformations of the subject: Continental philosophy does not think in terms of an already constituted subject, but of a subject that is constructed and can (and must) be transformed. This transforming subject does not fall under the critique of a supposed “correlationism” that seems to exist only in Meillassoux’s imagination.

17) anti-essentialism: Continental philosophy rejects the idea that we must confine ourselves to using only familiar language and concepts, as that amounts to enshrining a principle of meaning invariance and of stable essences, which must be discarded if progress is to be possible. This is not a wholesale advocacy of the use of “unfamiliar” language and concepts, as that would presuppose that unfamiliarity itself is a stable property, and not a relational predicate predicate containing social, geographical and temporal aspects.

18) conceptual ascent and 19) existential descent: a Continental philosopher will often take a concrete situation and extract out or extrapolate some new and very abstract concepts that they will develop in relation to other equally abstract concepts, and then apply them in a surprisingly concrete way. And they will do this over and over again in a single text. This will result in such a text being strangely both much more abstract, and so more obscure, than a comparable analytic text, and also at moments much more concrete.

20) semiotic turn: French Continental philosophy, and here I am including both structuralism and poststructuralism, underwent massively a “semiotic turn” (in the sense of Greimas’s semiotics and also of Culioli’s enunciative linguistics), whose imprint can be found in Lacan and Derrida, Deleuze and Latour, Foucault and Badiou. German “hermeneutics” was adopted but reworked from the semiotic point of view, and the hermeneutico-semiotic decomposition of competences into performances is a good definition of a general idea of deconstruction such as it can be found in all these thinkers.

Conclusion: Continental philosophy is strange and fun and also deep and moving, its proponents do not write and reason like analytic philosophers, but it can change your life.

PS: a prior version of this post led Brian Leiter to snub me, story here.

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10 Responses to 20 TRAITS OF CONTINENTAL PHILOSOPHY

  1. Waldgaenger says:

    Reflexivity in continental philosophy? If only…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Waldgaenger says:

    Subsumption of yourself and your praxis – in casu philosophy, under your own philosophy, is the thing I find most lacking amongst continental philosophers, whether American or actually continental. They seem to forget that if their theory is to hold true, it has to find a way to explain both itself and other, allegedly fallacious philosophies. It’s very rare to come across the anxiety and doubt such requirements should inspire amongst continental philosophers. There’s lots and lots of talk (and extolment?) of doubt and anxiety, but is it actually felt? Rather, it seems they leave the material/sociological/economic etc. reality of their philosophies to its own device, while they amuse themselves with their phony wars. I might exaggerate somewhat, I might miss something, but this is the way I see it.

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  3. Waldgaenger says:

    It reminds me, philosophers who do not spare their own philosophy from a philosophical interpretation, tend to be off the depressive realist type. Think of Peter Wessel Zapffe for instance, who qualifies his own philosophical activity as a form of, what he called, sublimation. How nice wouldn’t it be if philosophers started their august tracts with some sort of disclaimer to the extent of, yes, I too am just an egoistic animal of the human species and this philosophical product serves but to gratify my narcisistic need for attention, fame or at the least recognition. Like I said, however, this brutally honest view of one’s own motives tends to lead to depression and improductivity. It doesn’t have to, but generally it’s the starry-eyed who are more productive and more likely to capture the attention of the masses. Most continental greats would fall into that category.

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  4. terenceblake says:

    This is an important point to recall, but I think you may be over-generalising. Among the philosophers that I like and discuss on this blog, many apply their philosophical interpretation to themselves. Lyotard in LIBIDINAL ECONOMY and in various articles, Deleuze in LETTER TO A HARSH CRITIC, DIALOGUES, and his ABC Primer, and Feyerabend in his autobiography KILLING TIME. The most uncompromising in this sense is Michel Onfray, who insists in all his books on the autobiographical nature of all philosophy.

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    • Waldgaenger says:

      Fair enough. As Borges said, no book is complete without its counterbook. It would be an interesting exercise for continental philosophers to write counterbooks to their own magna opera.

      Liked by 1 person

      • terenceblake says:

        I like your idea of “counterbook”. I think Feyerabend managed to do it with KILLING TIME. Deleuze did it in only a few asides. I think with you that Laruelle, for all his talk of non-philosophy and non-standard philosophy, owes us a “counterbook”. Either you write a counterbook at least once somewhere in your career, or you manage to make each book contain its own counterbook, which Nietzsche did in the second half of his production. Something that Heidegger never did, and has forced us to do after him.

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