apolliana: (Default)
For a long time I've had the feeling that there's a bias in contemporary philosophy against arguing for 'big' positions--the kinds of positions those who hold (or discount) hold (or discount) in a fundamental way. The thought is: if you give an argument for one of these positions, the only people you convince will be those already convinced.

What remains to philosophy is--must be--to only solve problems within these fundamental framework views. But that makes it difficult to ever interact with those who reject them, UNLESS your M.O. when interacting with them is to always accept others' presuppositions and to try to work things out within their views.

That's all well and good, I suppose. But it seems to be ignoring a herd of elephants in the room. (That, and I'm absolutely terrible at accepting presuppositions I object to.)
apolliana: (Default)
My suspicion is that this fear is largely a matter of style rather than content (or subject-matter). Many of the topics discussed by 'continental' or non-traditional philosophers are perfectly sensible, and should not be feared. What people fear--and probably should fear--is turgid, unclear writing. But I'm not sure they know that. Very often students are accused of being 'continental' when their writing is just slightly idiosyncratic, even when they're addressing analytic topics in a mostly analytic way.

The disturbing thing is that professors who use these terms of abuse have no idea it's a trivial, easily corrected, feature of the student's idiosyncratic writing style (and let's face it--all young people have idiosyncratic writing styles; especially the smart ones) that they're objecting to when they use this label. In my early years I was called Heidegger and Derrida, despite the fact that I wasn't doing continental philosophy of any sort. The paper accused of having Heideggerian language was a straightforward cognitive science paper; granted, it probably wasn't the best thing for the course, but it betrayed no signs of that strange German metaphysician. It was also quite clear and well-organized, though at times I certainly failed on that score.

Not being maximally clear and well-organized are not signs that a student is doing a different kind of philosophy. They are signs that he or she needs to refine her sentence and paragraph structure. I've noticed this in students I teach: often I'll think a particular student's writing is a bit contrived and convoluted, and that it sounds continental for that reason. But it's never because he's trying to do a different kind of philosophy (they're answering set questions, after all): it's because his writing sounds like that right now, and he needs concrete pointers to make it clearer and plainer.

None of the professors who accused my youthful writing of sounding ...European ever gave me these. They assumed the problem lay at the level of content, not of language--and mistakenly also assumed that these levels are separable. Kids express themselves idiosyncratically. They're not trying to be Heidegger; they may not have ever heard of Heidegger. They just need to learn to speak plainly; or, if they know and forget under pressure, to be reminded. The process of trying to become a clear and careful thinker isn't one that ever stops. But it is a skill that can be taught. Or self-taught, as the case may be.


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