Home > Uncategorized > Continental Philosophy, Difficulty and Obscurantism

Continental Philosophy, Difficulty and Obscurantism

One of the more well-known and oft-repeated accusations against ‘continental’ thinkers by those in the analytic tradition is that of “deliberate obscurantism”. As far as I can tell the accusation is basically that the notoriously difficult prose of thinkers like Derrida, Lacan, Deleuze, et al, is intended to create an impenetrable barrier between the reader and the meaning of the text. The accusation implicitly equates this with intellectual dishonesty: First, in that it allows the author to avoid criticism (Foucault and Searle alike find Derrida guilty on this count, referring to his rhetoric as a “terrorism of obscurantism”). Second, in that it mystifies the thinker, creating the illusion that his work is more substantial than it actually is. On this latter point, I admit that Slavoj Zizek has often been an object of fascination for me, despite (and perhaps because) I don’t fully understand him (In an ironic way, Zizek himself becomes a kind of “sublime object”)

That this criticism can be extended to the entirety of “continental” (read: non-analytic) philosophy is unlikely. Nevertheless, something like a “deliberate obscurantism” seems to be a more or less explicit aim in the work of Kierkegaard. In both the preface and the epilogue to Fear and Trembling, he draws a comparison between the world of commerce and the world of ideas, referring to an incident in which some spice-merchants deliberately sunk some of their goods at sea in order to inflate the value of the goods back home. Kierkegaard maintains that, “we need something similar in the world of spirit”. Kierkegaard clearly perceives a decline in the value of faith among his contemporaries, which is related to the ease and simplicity with which the concept is commonly associated. In other words, because everyone assumes faith is easy, it is cheap; and because it is cheap it is of little value. His aim throughoutFear and Trembling is to cause the reader to question her assumptions about the ease of faith. He seeks to make faith more difficult and so to make it more valuable. Not only is this difficulty present in his exegesis of the story of Abraham, but it is also accomplished at different levels of the text in, for example, his use of pseudonyms, multiple beginnings, “attunements”, and prologues, mysterious epigraphs, and odd chapter titles. All of this is intended to create difficulty for the reader, to arouse his audience from complacency.

Perhaps, if there is any “deliberate obscurantism” in the works of other “continental” philosophers it is not so simply a matter of intellectual dishonesty. Perhaps, if the difficulty is calculated as it is in Kierkegaard, then it serves a purpose – like pointing to a kind of truth that would simply be lost on a facile, reductive explanation. (If this is the case, then it’s too bad that Derrida’s counter-accusation of superficiality on the part of Searle was not more aptly directed at, say, Dennet or the Churchlands. At least Searle doesn’t just ignore problems because they’re difficult).

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  1. Tyler Scott Anderson
    June 25, 2012 at 11:09 pm

    That complaint has often been directed at Heidegger too but apparently recent philosophers have been much more friendly towards continental philosophy. I think the whole analytic and continental distinction has been breaking down.

    • Allen G. Anderson
      June 25, 2012 at 11:30 pm

      It really has. Although one still finds strong resistance to non-analytic philosophy in many American philosophy departments, the distinction has been breaking down at least since philosophers like Putnam, Davidson, Charles Taylor, and (especially) Richard Rorty started explicitly drawing influences from both the Anglo-Saxon and Continental traditions. It seems that while this dissolution of dividing lines has been realized for some time within certain circles (Brian Leiter’s blog is one example) the news has yet to really penetrate most institutions in the U.S. (many of which still seem to be under the impression that logical positivism is still a viable, even invulnerable philosophical framework).

      • Tyler Scott Anderson
        June 25, 2012 at 11:49 pm

        Yeah. I’ve heard that Richard Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature has been an important influence for analytic philosophers’ acceptance of the legitimacy of continental philosophy. Leiter has argued that there is no real distinction between continental and analytic philosophy.

      • Allen G. Anderson
        June 26, 2012 at 12:05 am

        For Leiter the only real distinction is between good philosophy and bad philosophy. And I’d tend to agree. You asked me in a previous conversation why I favored continental philosophy. I think why it appears that way (at least right now) is partly because my exposure to thinkers outside the analytic tradition has been/will be sparse as a philosophy undergrad. As a result I find myself scrambling out of curiosity and confusion to understand what (if anything) there may be in thinkers like Derrida, Foucault, Levinas, Badiou, Agamben and Zizek etc. Often, I find that these thinkers have developed and employed certain methods of analysis and argument that at least parallel those developed by analytic philosophers. For my own part the main difference (at least as far as method goes) is that those trained in the “analytic” mode tend to treat arguments in the abstract, isolated from their historical/social/political/literary context, while thinkers in trained in the various “continental” traditions often spend most of their time explicitly tracing the developments of certain concepts and forms of thought in and through such contexts. Both ways of doing philosophy have their strengths and their weaknesses, and it’s because of this that thinkers like Rorty, and Taylor, and Cornell West (to name only a few) have called for a way of doing philosophy that can draw on the strengths of both traditions.

  2. Tyler Scott Anderson
    June 26, 2012 at 2:47 am

    Oh I see, I can’t wait to get to reading more philosophy and to figure out these questions for myself. Are you reading any articles or books lately? Have you gotten to the Critique of Pure Reason yet?

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