Continental Philosophy, or What I Understood Of It

Just recently returned from the fourth Postmodernism, Culture and Religion Conference entitled: The Future of Continental Philosophy of Religion.  The conference was at Syracuse University and included some of the best thinkers in Continental Philosophy.  What follows will be a very poor, non-academic attempt to make some sense of the whole thing.

“What is continental philosophy?”, some of you might ask.  Good question.  When you find out – drop me a line.  Actually, it often refers to philosophy that developed in the 19th and 20th centuries in mainland Europe, in opposition to much of the analytic philosophy happening in Britain.  Important names paving the way for this include Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Husserl and Heidegger, among others.

Here are some common themes, borrowed from wikipedia:

  • First, continental philosophers generally reject scientism, the view that the natural sciences are the only or most accurate way of understanding phenomena.
  • Second, continental philosophy usually considers these conditions of possible experience as variable: determined at least partly by factors such as context, space and time, language, culture, or history. Thus continental philosophy tends toward historicism. Where analytic philosophy tends to treat philosophy in terms of discrete problems, capable of being analyzed apart from their historical origins (much as scientists consider the history of science inessential to scientific inquiry), continental philosophy typically suggests that “philosophical argument cannot be divorced from the textual and contextual conditions of its historical emergence”.
  • Third, continental philosophy typically holds that conscious human agency can change these conditions of possible experience: “if human experience is a contingent creation, then it can be recreated in other ways”.Thus continental philosophers tend to take a strong interest in the unity of theory and practice, and tend to see their philosophical inquiries as closely related to personal, moral, or political transformation.
  • A final characteristic trait of continental philosophy is an emphasis on metaphilosophy. In the wake of the development and success of the natural sciences, continental philosophers have often sought to redefine the method and nature of philosophy. In some cases (such as German idealism or phenomenology), this manifests as a renovation of the traditional view that philosophy is the first, foundational, a priori science. In other cases (such as hermeneutics, critical theory, or structuralism), it is held that philosophy investigates a domain that is irreducibly cultural or practical.

If any of that made sense, you’re in good shape.  If not, read it again a time or two.  Here’s a final thought:  “Ultimately, the foregoing distinctive traits derive from a broadly Kantian thesis that the nature of knowledge and experience is bound by conditions that are not directly accessible to empirical inquiry.”  In other words, there’s more than meets the eye.  Sensory experience and the material world can only get us so far.  If you’ve ever been to an evening of Pub Theology, you know these kinds of ideas come up again and again.

It is this line of thinking that makes continental philosophy more open to questions of God, theology and religion than its analytical counterpart.  In this conference comprised primarily of philosophy and religion professors of secular universities, the themes of God and religion were ever present.

Postmodernism, Culture and Religion 4

A few important names present included Catherine Malabou, Professor of Philosophy, University of Paris, John Caputo, Professor of Philosophy and Religion, Syracuse University, Philip Goodchild, Professor of Philosophy, Nottingham University, Merold Westphal, Professor of Philosophy and Theology, Fordham University, B. Keith Putt, Samford University, Harvey Cox, Professor of Divinity, Harvard University, and Thomas Altizer, who was not formally involved in the conference, but did not fail to make his presence known through insightful and always lively comments and questions.  Also there was Jim Olthuis from the Institute for Christian Studies.  It was especially meaningful to have Caputo and Westphal there, as they are retiring from their academic posts (though probably not from writing and speaking!).

Paper topics that made complete sense to me:  “Plasticity in the Contemporary Islamic Subject“; “Future Blindness“; “Postmodern Apocalypse: Placing Levinas & Derrida in Line with Transcendental Methodology“; “Non-Philosophy and Meaning-use Analysis: Explicating Laruelle with Brandom“, and finally “Dying to be Free: Extinction and the Liberation of Praxis in Ray Brassier’s Nihil Unbound.

But for all the tough paper topics, there were also ones that made more immediate sense to me: “Does the Religious Intellectual Have a Future?  Harvey Cox, Post-Secular Spirituality, and Living Religiously in Public“; “The Broken Binary & Interstitial God: Finding Faith in the Margin of the Text“; “Radical Theology and the Dangerous Memory of Jesus“; “‘Eating Well’ in Church: In-carnating an A/Theological Materialism”; and the very clear: “Philosophy is What it Eats.”

So what was I doing there, as a pastor?

Caputo, Malabou, and Goodchild

Great question.  Mostly I needed an excuse to put a ton of miles on my new van.  Actually – as soon as the first session started, Christy was wondering the same thing.  The first presenter in the panel we chose started reading her paper and, while a very profound paper, almost never looked up and had very little voice inflection.  In other words, she could have been reading an obituary or grocery list.  I worried we had picked the wrong panel (there were often 4-5 panels on various topics going on at once).  But then we remembered that this was an *academic* conference, not a *church* conference, and that at these things you read your paper, you don’t preach it.  So once we were able to focus, and the big words and unfamiliar names began to become more familiar, we began to realize this was about stuff we care about.  Stuff we all care about:  issues of faith and reason; God and theology; knowing and unknowing; certainty and uncertainty; life and death.  The very same things I deal with as a pastor, and we all deal with as human beings.  Issues of vital importance for the Christian who is seeking to engage our world today.   And not incidentally, a recurring topic that continually came up was, how do we connect some of this stuff to real life?  How do we engage the culture in thinking seriously about important topics?  It was cool to meet student after student (as well as professors) who thought it was excellent Christy and I were there.  They wanted to know what we were doing, what our community is like, and how we apply of this kind of thinking to our work.  (The irony is many in academia long for such ‘real-world’ activism, and how people like me, in the so-called ‘real-world’, long for the high-level thinking of academia.  The grass is always greener).

John Caputo

A great example of how philosophy and life in the church connect is found in the book by John Caputo: What Would Jesus Deconstruct? In this book Caputo draws on the deconstruction tradition of Jacques Derrida to tear down some of the ossified walls that have built up in the church over the years – and allows the light of day to penetrate.  This book is a delightful read and I would recommend it to anyone.  From the backcover: “Many in the church who are wrestling with ministry in a postmodern era view deconstruction as a negative aspect of the postmodern movement.  But John Caputo, one of the leading philosophers of religion in America and a leading voice on religion and postmodernism, sees it differently.  In this lively and provocative analysis, he argues that in his own way Jesus himself was a deconstructionist and that applying deconstruction to the church can be a positive move toward renewal.”

John Franke, professor of theology at Biblical Seminary, notes: “This is a marvelous little book.  It enables readers to understand deconstruction as the hermeneutics of the kingdom of God and provides a glimpse of what this concept might look like in the hands of Jesus as applied to the church.  This will be difficult therapy, and many of us will be inclined to resist.  However, let us remember that while discipline is painful in the moment, it produces a harvest of peace and righteousness in the long run.  May the church learn from the wisdom found in these pages.”

Peter Rollins

Another person who has gained a lot of traction in making some of these connections is Peter Rollins, an increasingly popular writer and speaker.  Pete has a PhD in philosophy from Queens University in Northern Ireland, and has made his readings of philosophy become incarnate in both his work at Ikon, a faith collective in Belfast, and in his books and speaking events.  He recently spoke at Mars Hill in Grand Rapids, and his work is so intriguing in making real, tangible connecting points that he was the subject of one of the panel discussions at this conference.  An excellent paper looking at his work theologically and philosophically was delivered by religion professor Creston Davis: “The Cosmic Double-Cross: The Psycho-Christ Event”, and another paper was delivered by sociologist Gerardo Marti entitled: “Peter Rollins and the Deconstructed Church: How Pub Churches, Continental Philosophy, and Provocative Preaching is Shaping the Future of Emerging Christianity.”

If you’ve read Pete’s book of parables: The Orthodox Heretic, and Other Impossible Tales, you’ll appreciate the power this kind of thinking can have to push us into rediscovering the kingdom of God in our thinking and acting.

Another very intriguing paper was delivered by Daniel Peterson of Seattle University and G. Michael Zbaraschuk of Pacific Lutheran University entitled: “Giving up God for Lent: Resurrecting the Death of God.”  It gave a lot to chew on regarding whether in evangelicalism we are worshiping the God who is, or a God we have invented; if the latter, then perhaps that God needs to die.

One of things I took from the conference is that we may have very different ideas about what different parts of faith are – doctrines, teachings, etc., but the bottom line on many levels is – how am I living it out?  What is the material reality present because of my theological convictions?  How does this play out in real life?

In any case, it was an excellent time and will surely continue to push my own thinking, living and commitment to living out a life of following Jesus.  Made some new friends, including our host Wendy DeBoer, PhD student at Syracuse, and Dan Wood, theology student at Loyola in Chicago (fellow crasher of Wendy’s pad), and other students from the Syracuse Religion Department and elsewhere, including a crew from Cornerstone University (fellow Michiganders!), Harvard Divinity School and UC-Berkley.  Also hung out with some old friends, including Pete Rollins, ate some good food, and hit a post-conference party with most of the folks involved – where a bit of alcohol cleared up everything.  Also met a professor from Dordt College at the conference – showing that this stuff infiltrates even the corn-fields of Calvinist conservatism! (OK, that was unfair).

So if we ask, along with Caputo, “What would Jesus deconstruct?” what would we find?  The answer is, first and foremost, the church!  See my next post for a deconstruction of that deconstruction.


6 thoughts on “Continental Philosophy, or What I Understood Of It

  1. Nice-
    I was wondering when you were going to chime in. If one does philosophy on a peninsula, is it still continental?

    And what’s wrong with Sunday School teachers doing philosophy?

    Just kidding, it was kids.
    Just kidding, it was some people who thought they were at a bowling conference.
    Just kidding, no one was bowling, we just ate meals in bowls.
    Just kidding, we used plates.
    Just kidding, there were no plates, we ate right off the table.
    Just kidding, we fasted the whole weekend on a diet of beer and coffee…

    Thanks for your thoughts and helpful clarifications – clearly I am only a philo-philosopher, a lover of what’s occasionally over my head. You would have enjoyed the conference. In Caputo’s final keynote, he made several pleas for a broader reconnection and cross pollination with other approaches and disciplines…

    There were quite a few professors and students from actual philosophy programs, though there were many from religion departments, seminaries and divinity schools, with the occasional literature person as well.

    Good points about not getting caught up in the division, but rather in the thoughts and discussions and ideas themselves.

    I wasn’t quite clear how your take on Kant differed from the above, but I am wearing a Lockean veil right now, if that helps…

    From my layman’s perspective, analytic approaches (if we can make such a dilineation) often seem in too big of a hurry to cut to the chase, as if the point is to figure stuff out. What fun is it if everything is clear and makes sense?.

    I did see an interesting book on approaches to God by primarily analytic philosophers. I may have to check it out. It was called God, Eternity, and Time.

    Thanks for your thoughts, and let me know when you transfer to the religion department! 🙂


  2. You’re right about one thing. A little late-night alcohol can help make continental philosophy seem clear. But at some point you literally have to wake up and smell, and drink, the coffee.

    Just kidding. I don’t drink coffee.

    Just kidding–I mainline it.

    Just kidding–just kidding…

    I would like to make a couple of helpful, clarificatory comments. If I may be blunt, it’s not even clear what the analytic/continental divide amounts to anymore. There is a history of different geographical regions, topics, and methodologies, but there is so much overlap in contemporary practice that a clear distinction is hard to make. Ironically, there is more continental philosophy being done in the US than on the continent of Europe, which has gone largely analytic. Few philosophy departments in the US specialize in continental philosophy. It is primarily in English (and perhaps religion) departments that “continental” philosophy is done, primarily under the umbrella of “literary criticism.” There are precious few, if any, topics that are not studied by philosophers of both (self-identifying) camps, and their methods often overlap, even if some stylistic differences appear detectable.

    That the idea of a clear distinction persists in contemporary writing is largely a matter of self-identifying in-group/out-group inertia and stereotypes. Not too long ago, I went to a conference in which a speaker, doing continental philosophy, presented a paper on the advantages of continental philosophy of language over analytic philosophy of language. Every single one of the dozen or so principles he attributed to analytic philosophy of language, however, was, in fact, rejected by all contemporary analytic philosophers of language. Again, it’s inertia and stereotypes of “others.” (I’m reminded of The Simpsons’ parody of 80’s comics: “Black guys drive like this, but, see, white guys drive like this.”) Although, one can recognize different styles of philosophy, dismissing or praising something because it’s “analytic” or “continental” is silly; rather, we should carefully to examine and evaluate philosophical works on a case by case basis, on their own merits, in light of their own goals.

    Let’s consider the wiki-stereotype.

    Regarding the first point, most analytic philosophers also reject scientism.

    Regarding the second, okay, granted, I guess. I’m not really sure what it means. Some definitions or an example would help. I suspect the difference is more that continental philosophers are interested in discussing the historical/cultural context of the problem, while analytic philosophers are more interested in the problem itself.

    Regarding the third, I don’t know of any analytic philosophers who’d deny this, if I’m understanding it.

    Regarding the fourth, analytic philosophers do a great deal of meta-philosophy, and I don’t know of any analytic philosophers who consider philosophy an a priori science. A priori, yes; many will agree. Science, no; few, if any, are on board with that. The only exception may be with respect to one field of philosophy: logic, which is sometimes thought of as, like math, an a priori science. (It’s important that ‘science’—Latin ‘scientia’—historically applied to knowledge in general.)

    I think your gloss (which sound more like the Lockean veil of perception) of the Kantian idea is inaccurate. (Kant is notoriously difficult, so I hesitate to even dip my toe into these waters, but here goes…) What Kant was saying here is, roughly, that we acquire certain concepts, like space and time, not because they are manifest in the world. Rather, they are illusions due to features of our minds, like lenses through which we see the world. We can’t help but think of the world in spacio-temporal terms, not because the world is spacio-temporal, but because our minds are, perhaps deficiently, incapable of interpreting it any other way. But that feature of our minds is beyond our scrutiny. It’s a little like thinking the world is rose-colored when we’re wearing rose-colored glasses, yet we can only see the world and not the glasses. Whether Kant was right about this is another question….

    Finally, analytic philosophy has a very long history of considering religious concepts, questions, beliefs, and arguments. As far as I can tell, there is no special connection—conceptual or historical—between religion and the relatively recent phenomenon of continental philosophy. All the major questions regarding the existence and nature of God and God’s relation to humans have been discussed for centuries, and continue to be discussed, by analytic philosophers.

    Regarding the analytic/continental divide, don’t believe the hype. 🙂 As in politics, it’s better to stand with your principles than with one “team”.


  3. Hi Mark-
    Good question… about my question. As I noted, there seems to me in this tradition to be a focus on immanence over transcendence – a sobering, ‘here-and-now’ look at life, and considering how we might best incarnate the life of Jesus, rather than simply theologize or theorize about it in an esoteric way (though this has its place, and it may take theory to push us into the practical.) My sense is that many like Caputo want to push us toward a focus more on the here and now – issues of justice, economy, human rights; while leaving questions of eternity and what happens after this life to God (never a bad idea). The kingdom of God at hand, in other words.

    Richard Rorty was a philosopher who began in the analytic tradition but became dissatisfied with it and moved to a more continental view, in many ways because he became more of a pragmatist. He might be an example… Or Walter Rauschenbush (his grandfather), who led the social gospel movement in the early twentieth century. Ironically Rauschenbush was opposed by those caught up in the obsession with specific, concrete doctrine – but I would say it was the social gospel he helped precipitate that laid the groundwork for many of the important human rights issues of the last century: fair working conditions and wages, women’s rights, desegregation and the work of MLK Jr., ecological concerns and more.

    It seems often (but not always!) that those who want to focus on individual piety are content to let the larger concrete social realities play out while making ‘saving souls’ or fighting for doctrinal purity (in other words, more people to sign the dotted line to specific doctrinal assertions). It seems to be assumed either that the larger issues don’t matter, or, one day ‘God will take care of it,’ so we should stay out of it.

    You have to ask – what if God is taking care of it – but through us?


  4. Thanks for this helpful post. I have questions, too many to ask right now… However, how would you answer your own question, “how do you connect this to real life?” How does it come down from ‘on-high’ to those in the world Jesus encountered and cared deeply for? You broadly, somewhat theoretically, touch on that but I’m wondering about personally, specifically…. of course we can talk through some of this over a cold one.


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