When Rocket Man and I were in college, we majored in philosophy. Dartmouth’s philosophy department favored British and American philosophy. In fact, it had no time for “Continental” philosophers after Kant, other than Wittgenstein, who was Continental only in the sense that he came from Austria. If you wanted to study Hegel, you had to find a Marxist in another department. If you wanted to “dabble in Kierkegaard,” best try the Comparative Literature department (I do seem to recall, though, that Rocket Man and I roped an “empiricist” admirer of Thomas Reed into giving us a tutorial on Schopenhauer, of all people). There was an old Scottish professor who had studied under Heideigger in the 1930s, but it was impossible to understand what he had to say about his mentor. At the time, I blamed the Scotsman, not the German.
After leaving Dartmouth, I tried to study some of the leading 20th century Continental philsophers on my own. However, I could not penetrate what they were saying. My jurisprudence professor at law school told me this was normal for anyone trained in the British/American tradition. He told the story (possibly apocryphal) of an English philosophy department that used to send top students to the Continent so they could absord the philosophy being taught there and come back and explain it. The story goes that, to the extent the students were successful on the Continent, the English professors found it impossible to communicate with them when they returned.
Eventually, though, I found a philosopher who could make the Heideiggers and Derridas fairly comprehensible to me. This was the leftist American pragmatist, Richard Rorty. But the increased comprehension did not lead to an increased appreciation. It’s now about 15 years since I’ve made any attempt to engage modern Continental philosophy.
Lucky me. In catching up with back issues of The Weekly Standard, I came across a piece in the August 18 issue on the coming together of the two leading schools of Continental philosophy. One school is the leftist Frankfurt school led by Habermas. The other is the postmodernists led by Derrida. The major post-modernists complaint against Habermas and crew, it seems, has been their “Eurocentrism.” Yet now Habermas and Derrida have joined forces to call for the development of a Europe that can serve as the global counterweight to the U.S. The Standard comments: “Quite how Derrida can now embrace a European world-power is a little hard to grasp, but it turns out that leftist modern philosophy is subject to ridicule only when that philosophy is winning. When the world looks as though it might not actually be turning into a global Sweden — with socialist economics, high secularism, and sexual libertariansim all triumphant — the postmodernists scurry back into the leftist fold. Anything, even Habermas, is better than the United States.”
But here’s the good part I promised — the essence of Continental philosophy and politics rolled into one (and best read aloud with a fake French accent), a statement by Derrrida on the September 11 attacks against the United States:
“You are inviting me to speak here by recalling, as if in quotation marks, a date or a dating that has taken over our public space and our private lives. . . .’Something’ took place, we have the feeling of not having seen it coming and certain consequences undeniably follow upon the ‘thing.’ But this very thing, the place and meaning of this ‘event,’ remains ineffable, like an intuition without a concept, like a unicity with no generality on the horizon or with no horizon at all, out of range for a language that admits its powerlessness and so is reduced to pronouncing mechanically, a date, repeating it endlessly, as a kind of ritual incantation, a conjuring poem, a journalistic litany or rhetorical refrain that admits to no knowing what it’s talking about. We do not in fact know what we are saying or naming in this way: September 11, le 11 Septembre, September 11. The brevity of the appellation (September 11, 9/11) stems not only from an economic or rhetorical necessary. The telegram of this metonymy — a name, a number — points out the unqualifiable by recognizing that we do not recognize or even cognize that we do not yet know how to qualify, that we do not know what we are talking about.”
Speak for yourself, Frog.
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