Bryan Magee
Confessions of a Philosopher

The absence of rigour gives the Continental approach to philosophy seductive appeal to many emotionally committed people who have a cause to promote. It allows them to give satisfying vent to highly charged and dramatic utterences without imposing on them the basic requirements of critical rationality. Anything goes, so long as it is clothed in language that impresses students, and a certain wider public, who will take what is being said to be profound. The result is sacerdotal philosophy in the worst traditions of Hegel, Schelling and Fichte, but without their compensating content. Some of it tends to be oracular, as if in imitation of Nietzsche or Freud, or Marx, but has nothing like their quality or style, let alone their genius. Even so, uncertainty about what is being said allows everyone to share the illusion that this philosophy is difficult to understand because it is profound, and that they are weightily engaged with one another in great issues of the day. And if their habitation is an academic one they can enjoy these rewards without having to bother about any wider involvement or political responsibility. Intelligent people of intellectual integrity who have had some training in analytic philosophy are likely to be immunized against this, but those whose training is in the study of literature, and who are therefore accustomed to standards that may legitimately have little to do with logical rigour, are more vulnerable. If a writer conveys a great emotional intensity of concern, and with genuine rhetorical power, they may be swept away.

Speaking for myself, I object to Continental philosophy for most of the same reasons as analytic philosophers do. But in addition I object to it for the reason that forms my chief objection to analytic philosophy. Continental philosophy has abandoned what I see as philosophy's central task, the attempt to understand what is. The interests of Continental philosophers appear to be parochially confined to human affairs, and even then at a highly superficial level. In most cases this runs counter to their own larger beliefs; for most of them would agree, I take it, that human beings are a tiny and local phenomenon, a recent arrival on the surface of a planet that is unimaginably small compared with the universe at large; and that even this speck of a planet existed for aeons before humans emerged on it. But they are not interested in trying very hard to understand such matters. They take what happen to be our local, current and short-term human concerns and treat these as if they were everything. Even then they are more interested in comment than in understanding. All this gives an unmistakably journalistic character to much of their writings. For even if it should be the case, as I think it probably is, that the solutions to such cosmic enigmas as the nature of time and space, and the material objects these seem to contain, have something fundamentally to do with the nature of experiencing subjects, this involves the structural properties of human beings on a far deeper level than that on which these are engaged with by Continental philosophers, who write about humans at the level on which they visit their psychiatrist or go to the cinema, vote, read books and newspapers, or hold forth on cultural, social and political topics—in other words, at a level of ephemeral social concerns. As a conception of philosophy it is piffling, beneath any serious consideration, and could only appeal to people for whom genuin€e philosophical problems have little or no interest, I have no objection to such people writing About the problems to which they claim to be addressing themselves—in fact (and I hope this goes without saying) I have no objection to anyone's writing about any problems at all. If it comes to that, I have written a good deal about such problems myself. But they have little to do with any serious conception of philosophy.

Despite, or perhaps even helped by, its superficiality, Continental philosophy is making inroads into many university philosophy departments in the English-speaking world, and has taken some over. It has also had an impact on literature departments, and made inroads into departments of psychology, anthropology, sociology and other subjects. In some places a war is going on between counter-balanced faction of Continental and analytic thinkers. Very noticeably, many of the individuals to whom Continental philosophy appeals are among those to whom Marxism once appealed. Its factions often possess the same sort of gang mentality, and behave in the same unlovely ways—being, among other things, intimidating and eliminative of dissent. In my view analytic philosophy is vastly to be preferred, partly because analysis is of some relevance and use in philosophy, and partly because a training in it can be genuinely educative. As a form of mental training Continental philosophy is counter-productive: it teaches students to express themselves inauthentically—in dead jargon rather than living language, portentously rather than simply, obscurely rather than clearly—and to abandon rational argument for rhetoric. It actively trains them not to think, and to be bogus; and in doing these things it debauches their minds.

However, the way to counter the influence of Continental philosophy is not to back analytic philosophy against it. The irretrievable emptiness of analytic philosophy—its inability to formulate fundamental problems of any kind, or to formulate possible solutions for fundamental problems of any kind—is the chief external factor that has allowed Continental philosophy to make its advances. The only effective counter is genuine philosophy—or, in such fields as literature studies, an uncowed insistence on authenticity in expression and response. In matters of this kind I am a short-term pessimist yet a long-term optimist. It could be that philosophy departments everywhere will be overrun by Continental philosophy. But it will never happen that real philosophy is driven out of the field of intelligent human concern, quite simply because the direct experience of reflective people will always confront them with philosophical problems that compel their active attention.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.