30 Nov

David West on introducing continental philosophy

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David West on the new edition of Continental Philosophy: An Introduction

WestTo set out to write something as ambitious as an introduction to continental philosophy might be thought unwise, to say the least. It is, of course, only possible to write an introduction to such a broad and diverse tradition – or as some would insist, a motley array of traditions – by focusing on the most important figures and ideas. This means inevitably dealing more cursorily with some others. The unavoidable choices made on the way are, no doubt, always controversial.

But even a necessarily incomplete account of continental philosophy makes it easier to access the most diverse thinkers by providing a kind of map of the whole tradition. One major aim of  Continental Philosophy: An Introduction, therefore, is to present major thinkers and ideas in a systematic (but not necessarily synthetic) way. In other words, philosophers are considered through their relationships to one another, even if their views do not necessarily all ‘add up’ to some greater truth. In broad terms, continental philosophers are considered in terms of their critical but varying stances toward Enlightenment or scientific rationalism and European modernity.

Adopting this approach, it is possible to cast light not only on important individual philosophers and their ideas but also on the broader trajectory of continental philosophy. As a result, it is also much easier to understand the point of different approaches – to grasp what these philosophers are doing with all those ideas and arguments. How else, after all, can we begin to understand what philosophy really is? Surprisingly some accounts of philosophy seem to lose sight of this fundamental question – as if it were enough just to list the fundamental questions of philosophy and then some of the most popular answers to these questions.

The systematic approach is the ultimate justification for the particular selection of thinkers in this introduction. But even if some thinkers are left out or, more often, not treated in as much detail as some would like, the overall account should still help to understand their fundamental concepts. Ideas of reason or rationality, knowledge, history and power, mind and body, emotion, experience, and understanding are just some of these key ideas. The concept of philosophy itself is, of course, inevitably at stake both in the very definition of a continental tradition of philosophy as well as in the arguments between different approaches within that tradition.

A number of ‘classic’ thinkers and ideas are essential points of reference for other thinkers in the continental tradition and often in so-called analytical tradition as well (for a brief explanation of this distinction have a look at the introduction). Works of continental philosophy are rarely without some significant intellectual relationship to pivotal thinkers like Plato, Kant, Hegel, Marx, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Husserl and Sartre – even (and perhaps especially) when they attack them.

However, on an encouraging note, pointing to all of the numerous family resemblances – and family disputes – within continental philosophy shouldn’t be taken to imply that you can’t understand one philosopher without understanding all his or her sources and influences. That view leads rapidly to an infinite (or at least very lengthy) regress. What is certainly true is that we will understand more recent philosophers better if we also understand something of what earlier philosophers have thought. So this approach can be taken in a much more encouraging way – the many connections between different thinkers mean that understanding any one significant thinker throws light on many others. Rather than facing the potentially infinite task of understanding predecessors in order to understand successors, we discover instead that on turning to a previously unknown thinker you already know quite a lot.

All that said, it might still be thought that to attempt a second edition of such an ambitious work looks (with apologies to Oscar Wilde) very much like foolishness. The main justification for undertaking such a work – for re-opening what amounts to a considerable can of worms – is, of course, the fact that continental philosophy continues to change, sometimes in quite radical ways. To reflect some of these changes, I’ve added to this new edition a full-length chapter on continental philosophy in the twenty-first century. This chapter focuses on Giorgio Agamben, Alain Badiou, Slavoj Žižek and a number of other related thinkers.

The thinkers discussed in the new chapter, who turn in a variety of ways towards more political concerns (what they sometimes call ‘the political’), often draw on the ideas of Hannah Arendt and Carl Schmitt. So I’ve also added a new section on these thinkers in Chapter 4. All these additions reflect the fact that although postmodernism and associated debates (dealt with at the end of Chapter 7) are still important, they can no longer be regarded as the central and defining focus of current continental philosophy. Other than that I have (I must admit) made minor additions and revisions too numerous to mention – which taken together amount to substantial evidence of the fatal temptations involved in rewriting what once seemed finished and ‘final’.

David West is reader in political science at the Australian National University.