There is an old joke that goes "the Anglo-Saxon philosopher will accuse the continental of being insufficiently clear, while the continental philosopher accuses the Anglo-Saxon of being insufficiently."
Over lunch a while back, a young friend asked me what I thought of Zizek. "Not much," was my reply. Here is a bit of justification, an old post (20 September 2004) from my first weblog.
Slavoj Zizek in On Belief (Routledge, 2001, pp. 143-144) has this to say:
What is perceived here as the problem is precisely the Christian universalism: what this all-inclusive attitude (recall St. Paul’s famous "There are no men or women, no Jews and Greeks") involves is a thorough exclusion of those who do not accept inclusion into the Christian community. In other "particularistic" religions (and even in Islam, in spite of its global expansionism), there is a place for others, they are tolerated, even if they are condescendingly looked upon. The Christian motto "All men are brothers," however, means ALSO that "Those who are not my brothers ARE NOT MEN." [Emphasis in the original.] Christians usually praise themselves for overcoming the Jewish exclusivist notion of the Chosen People and encompassing all of humanity – the catch here is that, in their very insistence that they are the Chosen People with the privileged direct link to God, Jews accept the humanity of the other people who celebrate their false gods, while Christian universalism tendentially [sic! tendentiously?] excludes non-believers from the very universality of humankind.
What a delightfully seductive passage!
What Zizek is saying here is that the Christian universalism expressed by "All men are brothers" excludes non-Christians from the class of human beings. Zizek supports this surprising assertion with an argument. Made explicit, the argument is that
1. All men are brothers Therefore 2. All who are not my brothers are not men. But 3. All who are not Christians are not my brothers. Therefore 4. All who are not Christians are not men.
Having made Zizek’s argument explicit, we can easily see what is wrong with it. The problem is (3). Without (3), one cannot validly infer the conclusion (4). But (3) is false: no Christian holds that all who are not Christians are not his brothers; they are his brothers whether or not they accept Christianity. For whether or not they accept Christianity they are sons of a common Father, God. Or if you insist that (3) is true, I will say that there is an equivocation on ‘brother’ as between (2) and (3). In one sense, two people are brothers if they have a common father. In this sense, all men are brothers if they have a common father, i.e., God. In a second sense, two people are brothers if they are members of a common organization or religion. Two teamsters, for example, are union brothers even if they do not share a common earthly father. The same for two members of the Muslim Brotherhood.
In sum, Zizek makes a highly dubious assertion and then tries to support it with a worthless argument.
It is important to see that he really is giving an argument in the above passage, but that, like many Continentals, he argues in a slip-shod, half-baked way. It’s as if he wants the advantange of an argument without having to do the hard analytic work. In this regard, the above passage is characteristic of a lot of Continental philosophy.
If you are going to throw Latin, then you ought to try to get it right. One of my correspondents sent me an offprint of a paper of his which had been published in American Philosophical Quarterly, a very good philosophical journal. The title read, Creation Ex Deus. The author's purpose was to develop a notion of creation out of God, as opposed to the traditional notion of creation out of nothing (ex nihilo). He knew that 'God' translates as Deus, and that 'out of' is rendered by ex. Hence, ex Deus. But this is bad Latin, since the preposition ex takes the ablative case. Deus being a second declension masculine noun, its ablative form is Deo. Ex Deo would have been correct. Mistakes like this are not as rare as they ought to be, and we can expect more of them in the future.
It says something that the error just mentioned was caught neither by the author, nor by the editor, nor by the referees, nor by the proofreader. It says something in particular about 'analytic' philosophers. I am sorry to report that many of them are ignoramuses (indeed, ignorabimuses) wholly innocent of foreign languages, knowledge of history (both 'real' history and the history of ideas), and of high culture generally. One name analyst implied in print that the music of John Lennon was on the level of that of Mozart. There are Ph.D.s in philosophy who have never read a Platonic dialogue, and whose dissertations are based solely on the latest ephemera in the journals. Here, as elsewhere, ignorance breeds arrogance. They think they know what they don't know. They think they know what key theses in Kant and Brentano and Meinong mean when they have never studied their texts. And, not knowing foreign languages, they cannot determine whether or not the available translations are accurate. Not knowing the sense of these theses, they read into them contemporary notions. And if you told them that this amounts to eisegesis, they wouldn't know what you are talking about.
Not all analytic philosophers are ignoramuses, of course. Hector-Neri Castañeda, for example, had a grounding in classics. When he founded Noûs, a top analytic journal, in 1967, he placed Nihil philosophicum a nobis alienum putamus on the masthead. It is a take-off on Terence, philosophicum replacing humanum. It is telling that the Latin motto was removed by Castañeda's successors after his untimely death in September, 1991. Princeton University, I understand, removed the language requirement for the Ph.D. in philosophy in 1980. An appalling development. It has been said that if you don't know a foreign language, you don't know your own.
The fact that many analytic philosophers lack historical sense, knowledge of foreign languages, and broad culture is of course no excuse to jump over to the opposite camp, that of the 'Continental' philosophers. For lack of historical sense, they substitute historicism, which is just as bad. For lack of linguistic competence, they substitute a bizarre linguisticism in which the world dissolves into a text, a text susceptible of endless interpretation and re-interpretation. For lack of broad culture, they substitute a super-sophistication that empties into a miasma of sophistry and relativism. Worse, much of Continental philosophy, especially much of what is written in French, is border-line bullshit. Indeed, to cop a line from John Searle, one he applied to Jacques Derrida, Continental philosophy gives bullshit a bad name. Some substantiation here. It is therefore no surprise that the Continental types jump to embrace every loony idea that emanates from the Left.
You can see that I am warming to my theme. I am also brushing in very broad strokes. But details and documentation are readily supplied and have been supplied elsewhere on this site. In short, a pox on both houses. Be a maverick.
What inspired this post was a query of a correspondent. He wanted to know how to render 'seize the world' into Latin. Well, we know that 'seize the day' goes into Latin as carpe diem. And we should have picked up by now that 'world' is mundus. 'Seize' takes the accusative, and since mundus is a second declension masculine noun, we get: Carpe mundum. If I am wrong about this, Michael Gilleland will correct me.
And another thing. I find it appalling that so many people nowadays, college 'educated' people, are completely innocent of grammatical terminology. Words like 'genitive,' 'dative,' 'ablative,' etc. elicit a blank stare. Grammar being a propaedeutic to logic, it is no wonder that there are so many illogical people adrift in the world.
A reader wants me to comment on the analytic-Continental split. Perhaps I will do so in general terms later, but in this post I will consider one particular aspect of the divide that shows up in different approaches to existence. Roughly, Continental philosophers espouse the thick theory, while analytic philosophers advocate the thin theory. Of course there are exceptions to this rule: Your humble correspondent is an analytic thick theorist and so is Barry Miller. Whether there are any Continental thin theorists I don't know.
Why should analytic philosophers prefer the thin theory? Part of the reason, some will say, is that analysts tend to be superficial people: they are logically very sharp but woefully lacking in spiritual depth. They are superficial specimens of what Heidegger calls das Man, the 'they': lacking authenticity, they float along on the superficies of things. Bereft of a depth-dimension in themselves, they are blind to the world's depth-dimension. Blind to the world's depth-dimension, they are blind to existence. A Heideggerian might say that they are not so much blind as forgetful: they have succumbed to die Vergessenheit des Seins. The analysts, of course, will not admit to any such deficiencies of sight or memory. They will turn the tables and accuse Continentals such as Heidegger and Sartre of being muddle-headed mystics and obscurantists who commit school-boy blunders in logic. (Carnap's famous/notorious attack on Heidegger is a text-book case.)
So we have a nice little fight going, complete with name-calling. Perhaps a little exegesis of a passage from Sartre will help clarify the issue. I have no illusions about converting any thin theorist. I aim at clarity, not agreement. I will be happy if I can achieve an exact understanding of what we are disagreeing about and why we are disagreeing. When that goal is attained we can cheerfully agree to disagree.
So let's consider the famous 'chestnut tree' passage in Jean-Paul Sartre's novel, Nausea. The novel's protagonist, Roquentin, is in a park when he has a bout of temporary aphasia while contemplating the roots of a chestnut true. Words and their meanings vanish. He finds himself confronting a black knotty mass that frightens him. Then he has a vision:
It left me breathless. Never, until these last days, had I understood the meaning of 'existence.' I was like all the others, like the ones walking along the seashore, all dressed in their spring finery. I said, like them, 'The ocean is green; that white speck up there is a seagull,' but I didn't feel that it existed or that the seagull was an 'existing seagull'; usually existence hides itself. It is there, around us, in us, it is us, you can't say two words without mentioning it, but you can never touch it. When I believed I was thinking about it, I must [have] believe[d] that I was thinking nothing, my head was empty, or there was just one word in my head, the word 'to be.' Or else I was thinking . . . how can I explain it? I was thinking of belonging, I was telling myself that the sea belonged to the class of green objects, or that that green was a part of the quality of the sea. Even when I looked at things I was miles from dreaming that they existed; they looked like scenery to me. I picked them up in my hands, they served me as tools, I foresaw their resistance. But that all happened on the surface.
If anyone had asked me what existence was, I would have answered, in good faith, that it was nothing, simply an empty form that was added to external things without changing anything in their nature. And then all of a sudden, there it was, clear as day: existence had suddenly unveiled itself. It had lost the harmless look of an abstract category: it was the very paste of things, this root was kneaded into existence. Or rather the root, the park gates, the bench, the sparse grass, all that had vanished: the diversity of things, their individuality, were only an appearance, a veneer. This veneer had melted, leaving soft, monstrous masses, all in disorder — naked, in a frightful, obscene nakedness. (p. 127 tr. Lloyd Alexander, ellipsis in original.)
This marvellous passage records Roquentin's intuition (direct nonsensory perception) of Being or existence. (It would be interesting to compare in a subsequent post Jacques Maritain's Thomist intuition of Being with Sartre's existentialist intuition of Being.) Viewed through the lenses of logic, 'The green sea exists' is equivalent to 'The sea is green' and 'The sea belongs to the class of green objects.' For the (standard) logician, then, 'exists' and cognates is dispensable and the concept of existence is fully expressible in terms of standard logical machinery. Anything we say using 'exists(s)' we can also say without using 'exist(s). To give another example, 'Dragons do not exist' is logically equivalent to 'Everything is not a dragon.' If we want, we can avoid the word 'exist(s)' and substitute for it some logical machinery: the universal quantifier and the tilde (the sign for negation) as in our last example.
But why would a man like Peter van Inwagen -- the head honcho of the thin theorists -- want to avoid 'exist(s)'? Because he wants to show that existence is a thin notion: there is nothing more to it than can be captured using the thin notions of logic: quantification, negation, copulation, and identity. He wants to show that there is no reason to think that there is any metaphysical depth lurking behind 'exist(s)' and cognates, that there is no room for a metaphysics of existence as opposed to a logic of 'exist(s)'; nor room for any such project as Heidegger's fundamental ontology (Being and Time) or Sartre's phenomenological ontology (Being and Nothingness).
And why does the thin theorist go to all this deflationary trouble? Because he lacks this sense or intuition of existence that philosophers as diverse as Wittgenstein, Maritain, and Sartre share, a sense or intution he feels must be bogus and must rest on some mistake. He fancies himself the clear-headed foe of obfuscation and he sees nothing but obfuscation in talk of Being and existence.
But as I have been arguing ad nauseam (so to speak) over many a blog post, published article and book, sentences like 'The sea is green' presuppose for their truth that the sea is an existing sea. Compare the reference above to an existing seagull. And, as Sartre has Roquentin says, "usually existence hides itself." It hides itself from all of us most of the time when we are immersed in what Heidegger calls average everydayness (alltaegliche Durchschnittlichkeit, vide Sein und Zeit), and existence hides itself from the logician qua logician all the time. For all of us most of the time, and for logicians all of the time, existence is "nothing, simply an empty form."
In fact, that is a good statement of the thin theory: existence is nothing at all, apart from an empty logical form. Sea, seagull, bench, tree, root -- but no existence of the sea, of the seagull, of the bench, etc. Sea, seagull, bench, tree, root, and some logical concepts. That's it.
"Usually existence hides itself." This invites mockery from the thin theorists. What? Existence plays hide-and-seek with us?! [Loud guffaws from the analytic shallow-pates.] To the existence-blind it must appear a dark and indeed incomprehensible saying. But of course to the blind that which is luminous must appear dark. Perhaps we can recast Sartre's loose and literary formulation in aseptic terms by saying that existence is a hidden and taken-for-granted presupposition of our discourse that for the most part remains hidden and taken-for-granted. Let me explain.
'The sea is green' and 'The green sea exists' are logically equivalent. But this equivalence rests on a tacit presupposition, namely, that the sentences are to be evaluated relative to a domain of existing items. The reason we can make the deflationary move of replacing the latter sentence with the former is because existence is already present, though hidden, in 'The sea is green.' 'The sea is green' can be parsed as follows: The sea is (exists) & the sea (is) green, where the parentheses around 'is' indicate that it functions as a pure copula, a pure predicative link and nothing more. The parsing makes it clear that the 'is' in 'The sea is green' exercises a dual function: it is not merely an 'is' of predication: it is also an 'is' of existence. Therefore, translation of 'The green sea exist' as 'The sea is green' does not eliminate existence as the thin theorist falsely assumes.
In material mode, the point is that nothing can have a property unless it exists. The sea cannot be green or slimy or stinky unless it exists. This existence of the sea, seagull, etc., however, is a presupposition that remains hidden as long as we comport ourselves in Heidegger's "average everydayness" manipulating things for our purposes but not wondering at their very existence. We have to shift out of our ordinary everyday attitude in order to be struck by the sheer existence of things. Perhaps the thin theorist is incapable of making that shift. But he really doesn't need to if he has followed my reasoning.
What the thin theorist does is to substitute logical Being for real Being. Note that I am not endorsing Sartre's theory of real Being: that it is an absurd excrescence, de trop (superfluous), unintelligible, etc. What I am endorsing is his insight that real Being is extralogical, that it is not a thin notion exhausted by the machinery of logic. Thus I am endorsing what is common to Sartre, Maritain, Wittgenstein, and others, namely, that existence is real not merely logical.
But what if you are one of those sober types who has never experienced anything like Heideggerian Angst or Sartrean nausea or Wittgenstein's wonder at the existence of the world? Well, I think you could still be brought by purely discursive methods to understand how existence cannot reduce to a purely logical notion. We shall see.
Brand Blanshard, On Philosophical Style (Indiana University Press, 1967), pp. 49-50. Originally appeared in 1954. Emphasis added. The most distinguished recent example of imaginative prose in philosophy is certainly George Santayana. Santayana was no man's copy, either in thought or in style. He consistently refused to adopt the prosaic medium in which most of his colleagues were writing. To read him is to be conducted in urbane and almost courtly fashion about the spacious house he occupies, moving noiselessly always on a richly figured carpet of prose. Is it a satisfying experience as one looks back on it? Yes, undoubtedly, if one has been able to surrender to it uncritically. But that, as it happens, is something the philosophical reader is not very likely to do. Philosophy is, in the main, an attempt to establish something by argument, and the reader who reads for philosophy will be impatient to know just what thesis is being urged, and what precisely is the evidence for it. To such a reader Santayana seems to have a divided mind, and his doubleness of intent clogs the intellectual movement. He is, of course, genuinely intent on reaching a philosophic conclusion, but it is as if, on his journey there, he were so much interested also in the flowers that line the wayside that he is perpetually pausing to add one to his buttonhole. The style is not, as philosophic style should be, so transparent a medium that one looks straight through it at the object, forgetting that it is there; it is too much like a window of stained glass which, because of its very richness, diverts attention to itself.
There is no reason why a person should not be a devotee of both truth and beauty; but unless in his writing he is prepared to make one the completely unobtrusive servant of the other, they are sure to get in each other's way. Hence ornament for its own beautiful irrelevant sake must be placed under interdict. Someone has put the matter more compactly: "Style is the feather in the arrow, not the feather in the hat."
It seems to me that far too much Continental philosophy is plagued by the same "divided mind" and "doubleness of intent."
The precise, explicitly argued, analytic style of exposition with numbered premises and conclusions promotes the meticulous scrutiny of the ideas under discussion. That is why I sometimes write this way. I know it offends some. There are creatures of darkness and murk who seem allergic to any intellectual hygiene. These types are often found on the other side of the Continental divide. "How dare you be clear? How dare you ruthlessly exclude all ambiguity thereby making it impossible for me to yammer on and on with no result?"
Ortega y Gasset somewhere wrote that "Clarity is courtesy." But clarity is not only courtesy; it is a necessary (though not sufficient) condition of resolving an issue. If it be thought unjustifiably sanguine to speak of resolving philosophical issues, I have a fall-back position: Clarity is necessary for the very formulation of an issue, provided we want to be clear about what we are discussing.
So we should try to be as clear as possible given the constraints we face. (In blogging, one of the constraints is the need to be pithy.) But it doesn't follow that one should avoid, or legislate out of existence, topics or problems that are hard to bring into focus. It would be folly to avoid God, the soul, Mr. Bradley's Absolute, the meaning of life and all the Big Questions just because it is hard to be clear about them. To give up metaphysics for logic on the ground of the former's messiness, makes no sense to me: the good of logic is intrumental not intrinsic. (See Fred Sommers Abandons Whitehead and Metaphysics for Logic.) We study logic to help us resolve substantive questions. If all you ever do in philosophy is worry about such topics as the logical form of 'Everyone who owns a donkey beats it,' then I say you have not been doing philosophy at all, but something preliminary to it.
Clarity, then, is a value. But it ceases to be one if it drives us to such extremes as the logical positivist's Verifiability Princiople of cognitive signicance, or the extreme of a fellow who once said that "If it cannot be said in the language of Principia Mathematica, then it can't be said." My response to that would be: so much the worse for the language of Principia Mathematica.
Another example of Continental obscurity in my ongoing series comes from a philosopher I mainly respect, Emmanuel Levinas. The following passage is from Ethics and Infinity: Conversations with Philippe Nemo, tr. Richard A. Cohen (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1985, p. 106). It first appeared in French in 1982. It goes without saying that the numerals in brackets are my interpolation.
 The "invisible God" is not to be understood as God invisible to the senses, but as  God non-thematizable in thought and nonetheless as  non-indifferent to the thought which is not thematization, and  probably not even an intentionality.
Got that? I will go through this passage bit by bit to show you what is wrong with this sort of writing and thinking.
Ad 1. To be properly formulated, this first clause must contain a word like ‘merely’ right after ‘understood.’ God is obviously invisible to the senses, and a formulation that suggests that he is not is inept. This sort of mistake is often made. For example, if what you want to say is that religion is not merely matter a matter of doctrine (because it is a matter of practice as well), then don’t say: Religion is not a matter of doctrine. For if you say the latter, then you say something that is just plain false.
Ad 2. We are being told that God is non-thematizable in thought. In plain English: God cannot be a theme or topic or object of thought. I am very sympathetic to this idea if what is intended is that God cannot be reduced to a mere object of thought whose being is exhausted by his objecthood. But since we are talking about God right now, there is some sense or other in which God is an object of thought. In some sense, we are thematizing God; we are thematizing him as a being whose being surpasses his thematicity.
You will note that I am now starting to write like a Continental philosopher. I know the idiom and can break into it when it suits me. I know their typical moves, althought they wouldn’t say ‘move’ inasmuch as that suggests something rigorous and logical like chess -- and we can’t have that. The point, however, is that there is a problem here, and Levinas and Co. don’t do enough -- or much of anything -- to bring it into the open. The problem is to explain how we can think correctly of God as nonthematizable in thought if God has this very property. Or at least that is one aspect of the problem.
Ad 3. We are being told that there is a non-thematizing or non-objectifying mode of thinking and that God is non-indifferent to this mode of thinking. But what does ‘non-indifferent’ mean? Does it mean not different, so that the non-objectifying thinking of God just is God? Or does it perhaps mean that God cares about this mode of thinking? Who knows? And that’s the problem. Levinas takes no pains to be clear about what he means. And the context does not help.
Ad 4. Finally, we are informed that the non-objectifying mode of thinking is "probably not even an intentionality." ‘Intentionality’ is a philosopher’s term of art for the peculiar of-ness, aboutness, or directedness of (some) mental states to their objects. So what Levinas is saying is that the non-objectifying mode of thinking lacks aboutness. But then what is it? Something like a mute sensory state, a pain, for example? Clearly, there is some sense in which a non-objectifying mode of thinking about God is about God – and about nothing else. This sense needs clarification.
To sum up. I am not trying to ‘refute’ Levinas. I like him and agree with some of his ideas in Totality and Infinity, his critique of Heidegger for example. I am not charging him with incoherence or self–contradiction above. What I am objecting to is the lack of time and energy spent on clarification, and on setting forth clearly the problems and questions implied by his ideas. Brentano, Husserl, and the early Sartre were clear-headed thinkers. After that, the early standards go by the board.
Nice piece on the necessity of studying texts in their original languages. The very question puzzles me. Why would someone assume he knows what Kant said and meant by reading Kemp Smith? I don't know what shape the Kant MSS are in---are there serious problems with some works?--- but the problem of working with translations becomes even more acute with classical texts like Cicero and Aristotle. Often the texts are in bad shape with extensive lacunae and obvious ancient editioral tampering. Restorations rely on ancient paraphrases in languages like Arabic or Syriac. Or the restorations are pure conjectures (the 19th century German scholars were very quick to restore).
All of this is concealed in a typical English translation. The Greekless young scholar thinks he is reading Aristotle, but perhaps only 80-90% of his text is well established. Crucial passages often turn out to be corrupt in big or small ways. The scholar who wishes to be able to say "Aristotle said..." instead of "W.D. Ross' translation says..." needs to be familiar with his text at the level of the so-called critical or variorum edition, where (hopefully) all the textual problems are owned up to and the scholar can make his own informed judgment about what the best text is.
For this reason, college reading editions like the Loeb texts are not good enough, because they are not critical texts. Some editors do a better job than others in noting problems, but the Loeb Greek or Latin is once again often a heavily restored text. You need to work with the Teubners or the OCT's or special critical editions by individual scholars.
The truly dedicated scholar should in fact go one step further back and consult the MSS themselves. Often no one has taken a good critical look at the MSS in the years since some German did the original MSS work in the 19th century. The Germans made mistakes! And they restored and otherwise edited. The MS is not the same in many ways as their transcription. With the new optical technology, it is time and overtime for scholars to revisit the MSS and recover better texts. Where some competent scholar has just done this work, perhaps new MSS work is unnecessary, but where the critical text is 100+ years old, it is not reasonable to trust it.
If you are a young philosopher or classicist and reading this story does not excite and challenge you, if you are too unmotivated to master a language and its texts, then for God's sake don't pretend to be doing scholarship in the history of philosophy with a bunch of translations at hand. I'm preaching to the converted, right?
Today’s example of Continental muddle-headedness is not from a philosopher, strictly speaking, but from a theologian who was influenced by a philosopher, Heidegger, and who has had a great deal of influence on philosophers. Paul Tillich (1886-1965) writes:
Atheism can only mean the attempt to remove any ultimate concern – to remain unconcerned about the meaning of one’s existence. Indifference toward the ultimate question is the only imaginable form of atheism. Whether it is possible is a problem which must remain unsolved at this point. In any case, he who denies God as a matter of ultimate concern affirms God, because he affirms ultimacy in his concern. (Dynamics of Faith; quoted from White, Eternal Quest, p. 94)
I hereby begin a series of posts highlighting various examples of objectionable Continental verbiage. Today’s example is not the worst but lies ready to hand, so I start with it. I don’t criticize the Continentals because I am an ‘analyst’; one of the reasons the Maverick Philosopher is so-called is because he is neither. The ‘analysts’ have their own typical failings which will come under fire later. A pox on both houses!
A correspondent from the Netherlands sends this passage from Theodor W. Adorno's Minima Moralia: Reflexionen aus dem beschädigten Leben. It is from the short essay, "Herr Doktor, das ist schön von Euch."
Noch der Baum, der blüht, lügt in dem Augenblick, in welchem man sein Blühen ohne den Schatten des Entsetzens wahrnimmt; noch das unschuldige Wie schön wird zur Ausrede für die Schmach des Daseins, das anders ist, und es ist keine Schönheit und kein Trost mehr außer in dem Blick, der aufs Grauen geht, ihm standhält und im ungemilderten Bewußtsein der Negativität die Möglichkeit des Besseren festhält.
Here is the essay in toto in Dennis Redmond's translation. The italicized portion is the translation of the above German. I have interrupted the flow of the text with some comments of my own. I want to use this text to convey to you something of the mentality and sensibility of an extremely erudite and sophisticated leftist and of leftists in general. It helps to bear in mind that Minima Moralia was published in 1951.