For a first trip to the continent

The Blackwell Guide to Continental Philosophy. First edition - Introduction to German Philosophy - Simone de Beauvoir. First edition - Roland Barthes. First edition - Julia Kristeva. First edition
May 28, 2004

While introductions to philosophy have usually been written for philosophy students, there is a growing market for books that explain philosophy to students from other humanities disciplines. These five books target the cultural studies market: all are editorially oriented towards students more familiar with poststructuralism than with Plato.

Undergraduate students and lecturers from a variety of disciplines will find them valuable.

The Blackwell Guide to Continental Philosophy is a useful, if unadventurous, text to assist students reading French and German philosophy. The book, which features 14 new essays by different authors, surveys the development of continental philosophy in the 19th and 20th centuries, from Hegel and Marx through Nietzsche, phenomenology and critical theory to Derrida, postmodernism and French feminism.

The thinkers selected for discussion in this volume are understandably the representatives of major philosophical movements; in this respect, any survey text is necessarily limited. But the Blackwell Guide is limited in other ways too, most notably in its editorial vision. An introductory text surely has a duty to explain what continental philosophy is or might be understood to be, but the attempt made here is minimal and inconclusive.

Structurally the book is unbalanced, giving undue emphasis to postmodernism. Whereas introductory continental philosophy texts generally begin with Kant, the editors here decide to begin - seemingly arbitrarily - with Hegel. Fichte, Schelling and the Romantics are excluded, whereas four chapters are devoted to postmodern thinking in one form or another. All roads lead to postmodernism, with poor old Hegel described as "pre-postmodern" and 200 years of continental philosophy presented as a backdrop to present-day cultural studies.

Fortunately, this editorial line is not carried through the individual chapters, which constitute a solid collection of papers on the major thinkers. The chapters do not introduce each philosopher's work as a whole, but take a position on a particular interpretation of a text or idea.

Stephen Houlgate, for instance, argues for an interpretation of Hegel as a philosopher of social and political community, based on his doctrine of self-consciousness and recognition in Phenomenology of Spirit . Jeff Malpas introduces Heidegger's thought by interpreting his changing understanding of being, from Being and Time to his later works on art, place and technology. Through their own hermeneutic engagement with the major texts, the book's authors contribute to the reader's understanding of the method of continental philosophy and thus to its definition.

The triumph of the book is Sean Kelly's chapter on Husserl and phenomenology, which would serve as an excellent introductory reading on undergraduate phenomenology courses and for analytic philosophers for whom this area of continental philosophy is particularly relevant. The chapters on Marx, Nietzsche and Heidegger are clear and useful, and are also the most broadly introductory and suitable for first or second-year students in philosophy and other disciplines. The book will undoubtedly be useful to students in the humanities and could be assigned as a secondary text on continental philosophy courses.

Andrew Bowie's Introduction to German Philosophy begins with Kant, ends with Habermas and discusses many of the intermediary philosophers that the Blackwell Guide does not. In addition to the major thinkers, Bowie discusses "minor" thinkers such as Hamann, Herder, the Romantics and the Young Hegelians. Frege, Wittgenstein, and the Vienna Circle form an important part of the book - the "continental" philosophers who started the tradition of analytic philosophy.

Bowie appears to have three aims. The first, and most important, is a meta-philosophical aim to give an interpretation of German philosophy that helps to overcome the analytic-continental divide, or, as Bowie often terms it, the opposition between Positivism and Romanticism. With this, he defines analytic and continental philosophy in terms of method and not in terms of particular concepts, ideas or thinkers. Philosophers from the two traditions often discuss the same concepts, but treat them according to either argument-based or historical methods. It is Bowie's intriguing contention that German philosophy responds to this tension and allows us to reflect on what separates analytic and continental philosophy, and what common origin binds them together.

Bowie's second aim is historical: to relate German intellectual progress to the development of German nationalism and identity in the 19th and 20th centuries. The introduction asks how German philosophy can be so central to our intellectual culture while warning us of the potentially disastrous consequences of the interaction of ideas and reality. This question returns again and again without ever being adequately addressed. Bowie's priority, stemming from his first aim, is to question philosophy's relation to positivistic science; the question of philosophy's relation to history is crowded out.

The third aim is pedagogical: to make German philosophy accessible and comprehensible to those working in humanities disciplines. On this Bowie fails, largely because the complexity and importance of developing his first, meta-philosophical aim, precludes an introductory treatment of the authors and impedes easy comprehension for the beginner. His chapters on Kant and Hegel are unfocused, and his explanations of their work are neither clear nor introductory. Bowie's meta-philosophical argument is interesting and important, and should not have to compete with the less developed historical and introductory material. As it is, the argument persists awkwardly, impeded by the book's secondary and tertiary purposes.

Where Bowie really shines, and where the book will be most useful to students, is in introducing "minor" figures such as Herder and Hamann and showing how they prefigure the ideas of Schelling, Heidegger, Wittgenstein and contemporary analytic thinkers such as John McDowell and Robert Brandom. His chapter on the Early Romantics (Novalis, Schlegel, Schleiermacher and Holderlin) is equally clear and far reaching. These philosophers are seldom included on undergraduate courses, but these chapters would be ideal for masters students, undergraduates writing dissertations and anyone wanting to further their understanding of Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment thought.

Bowie's aim to use German philosophy to build bridges between analytic and continental philosophy is intriguing, unique and significant. His book is a valuable addition to the literature on philosophy that crosses over the analytic-continental divide, and should be read by postgraduates and professional philosophers. It is not an introductory text, and undergraduates will find it difficult reading.

Short introductory guides to philosophy are a great invention of the past few years. The Oxford series of Very Short Introductions is an exemplary model of making philosophy accessible to the general reader without sacrificing rigour. The Routledge Critical Thinkers series, with its in-chapter glossary text boxes, extensive lists of further reading and end-of-chapter summaries, is aimed more explicitly at undergraduates. The books have a didactic purposiveness that the shorter, more readable books in the Oxford series do not.

These three, on Simone de Beauvoir, Roland Barthes and Julia Kristeva, provide accomplished summaries of these thinkers' works, written in an engaging, accessible style, without losing a sense of polemic. Ursula Tidd discusses De Beauvoir's The Second Sex alongside her previous and later work, presenting De Beauvoir not only as a feminist philosopher, but primarily as a philosopher of ethics and human experience. Graham Allen shows that Barthes' work is important beyond structuralism, as the origin of theory in the late 20th century. Noëlle McAfee positions Kristeva as a continental philosopher of language. The books are especially valuable in discussing the thinkers in their social, historical and political contexts.

Despite their clarity and utility - or perhaps because of it - I cannot help thinking that these Routledge guides sap the life and spirit out of philosophy. They replace the pleasure of the text (to borrow Barthes' phrase) with information about it. What could be more intellectually exciting than reading De Beauvoir's introduction to The Second Sex ? What could be a more enjoyable and accessible read than Barthes' Mythologies ? These texts are not especially difficult, yet Routledge sets them up as solemn tasks to be undertaken with the guidance of glossaries, contexts, biographies and lists of further reading. Packed with information, these guidebooks preclude the excitement of reading a piece of philosophy and thereby discovering the potential of one's own understanding.

These little books are certainly helpful study guides. They are clear, concise and complete. They are ideal for undergraduates studying for exams or writing essays and for lifelong learners wanting to expand their knowledge of a given author or idea. I enjoyed reading them on the train.

But I hope they will be used only to supplement, and never to supplant, the original texts.

Beth Lord is a consultant who formerly taught philosophy at Warwick University.

The Blackwell Guide to Continental Philosophy. First edition

Editor - Robert C. Solomon and David Sherman
Publisher - Blackwell
Pages - 345
Price - £60.00 and £17.99
ISBN - 0 631 22124 7 and 22125 5

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