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The Lost Continent of Europe

John Mann reviews An Introduction to Metaphysics: The Fundamental Questions edited by Andrew Schoedinger.

This book is a symptom of the divide between continental philosophy and anglo-american philosophy that has existed since the angloamerican rebellion against Hegel and idealism at the beginning of this century.

On the surface this is another ‘introduction’ style book, giving selections from the major philosophers on the usual topics of metaphysics – universals, causality, free will and personal identity (in fact Schoedinger also adds a section on Artificial Intelligence) – however the choice of philosophers follows a very rigid tradition: after Descartes continental philosophy ceases to exist.

This means that in a book on metaphysics we get no Leibnitz, Spinoza, Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Bergson, Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre or Derrida. Instead we get Locke, Berkeley, Hume, J.S.Mill, Bertrand Russell, Rudolf Carnap, R.G.Collingwood, Antony Quinton etc. No reason is given for this; the continent of Europe is simply lost without explanation.

But could Schoedinger have given such an explanation? What has characterised the relations between continental and anglo-american traditions is exactly this silence, the inability to speak of the other. The extraordinary recent case of Derrida at Cambridge has spluttered into life a debate that has been unable to start for 90 years.

Philosophy in particular should not be rendered silent, for out of the silence of the philosopher’s gaze must come the rumble of incessant questions. It is those who are not philosophers who fall into silence. When the Bishop of Durham explains his beliefs on Wogan, our Tel replies “I didn’t understand a word of that” and is reduced to silence. When David Icke says on Through the Keyhole “we are all eternal” David Frost can only reply “oh good” then sit in silence.

But philosophers’ should not be bound in silence. When they sit silent it means they have no questions, they have lost the ability to see strangeness and articulate it as “why?” This relates to the letter to Philosophy Now from the Doctor who complained that the articles are not about wisdom and the meaning of life (“tell us what we are”). There is too much that philosophy refuses (in the psychoanalytical sense) to talk about, too much about which it is silent. Why has the conceptual movement in philosophy slowly been spreading silence? Philosophy is being silenced not by philosophy departments being closed down but through abandoning the task of thinking.

I would identify two areas which might suggest solutions.

Meaning of life questions were reduced to silence by procedures such as the verification principle, which had an answer to such questions but it was always the same (not very interesting) answer – you’re talking nonsense. Continental philosophy had a different response, to look at the function such questions and beliefs played in other contexts but not to look directly at the questions themselves. In both cases philosophy was unable to actually engage with thinking about the meaning of being. Instead other areas worked on creating the right awareness for such questions: in particular art and to a lesser degree theology (in its more radical post-ecclesiastical forms).

Here is an example of this silence. Only a poet in the twentieth century knows what to ask a clairvoyant. Someone who was neither a poet nor a philosopher may ask “who will win at Newmarket tomorrow?”, a philosopher may ask “what is the empirical evidence to justify your epistemological claims?” But the Swedish poet Gunnar Ekelof asked “who is my spiritual self?” Philosophy needs to discover the questions appropriate to the task of thinking about the meaning of life.

Continental philosophy seems more aware of the importance of such questions, not being afraid to cross the boundaries between literature, art, psychoanalysis and philosophy in order to feel the force of such investigations. Yet angloamerican philosophers, sometimes rightly, see such manoeuvres as concentrating too much on experiencing such questions and too little on thinking and (yes) analysing such issues.

Therefore the second area that may suggest a solution is that truth understood by angloamerican philosophy that questions cannot simply be experienced through symbol, myth, the unconscious, the unknown, the undecidable, the differed, the trace, difference and the ineffable. They must also be felt through reason, logic and conceptualisation – something understood to an intense degree by Wittgenstein. Logic cannot silence such questions, yet neither can such questions silence logic. It is this double silencing that has held the two traditions apart for so long.Only when this silence can be questioned by them will philosophy – both continental and anglo-american – be resurrected.

Schoedinger’s additional section on Artificial Intelligence (AI) was itself a missed opportunity to address the above issues. A bizarre feature of the whole book are the references being almost wholly dated in the 1950s and 60s – even older philosopher’s are quoted from books of the 50s and 60s. In the area of AI this is particularly unfortunate since the most interesting work in this field is certainly post-1960s, for example Searle’s classic ‘Chinese room’ argument that rejects Turing’s definition of intelligence (J.R.Searle, ‘Minds, Brains and Programs’, in The Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 3 1980 pp 417-457). Since Schoedinger’s book was first published in 1991 there seems no reason why there are no references to books in the 80s and only a mere handful from the 70s.

There are a new group of thinkers addressing questions of AI that may eventually combine the best of the two traditions. Books like Hofstadter’s Godel, Escher, Bach and Hofstadter and Dennett’s The Mind’s I combine logic, paradox, parable and art; the work of Martin Gardner in this area is also of interest.

This breaking down of the barriers between the two traditions can be seen in other areas also. Richard Rorty calls himself a liberal ironist working in the American pragmatist tradition, yet also uses the work of Derrida and Heidegger. The British radical theologian Don Cupitt similarly manages to make reference to the two traditions. I was interested to note that in arguing against Derrida on The Late Show, Michael Tanner said “I am threatened by the infinitely greater figure of Nietzsche” – when an English philosopher refers in such terms to the post-structuralist’s favourite philosopher things certainly are changing!

On the continental side, Derrida himself has been out of fashion for many years in France. It could be argued that continental philosophy, like the lost tribes of Israel in Mormon mythology, has emigrated to America. French philosophers are today more open to anglo-american philosophy than perhaps they have ever been this century.

Perhaps then Schoedinger’s book is already a product of the past. It seems the Derrida debate could only start when the protagonists themselves had ceased to exist, and the discussion could only be conducted by those enacting the parts of the opposed parties. I hope the debate will be therapeutic, like the talking through of a trauma, but the philosophy of the future belongs to neither side.

© John Mann 1993

Introduction to Metaphysics: The Fundamental Questions edited by Andrew Schoedinger is published by Prometheus and costs £13.95 (paperback).

John Mann is a Software Analyst and lives in Hadleigh, Suffolk

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