Taking thought abroad

A Companion to Continental Philosophy. First Edition
May 26, 2000

This latest addition to the Blackwell companions to philosophy series eschews the format of previous companions, such as on ethics, aesthetics and metaphysics, which were organised according to topics or issues, in favour of a format with entries arranged according to major thinkers.

This format is particularly appropriate to its subject matter because one of the characteristic features of continental philosophy is that its proponents actively engage with key texts in the philosophical tradition.

Among the best features of this companion is the combination of Simon Critchley's introduction, which seeks to correct some common misconceptions and put forward some positive suggestions about the divide between analytic-empirical and continental philosophy, and William Schroeder's afterword, which attempts to discern common themes and methods addressed by the highly diverse dramatis personae in the 56 entries.

Critchley dismisses the notion that continental philosophy can be set apart by means of geographic boundaries or discursive style. He argues that what distinguishes these thinkers are: a critical confrontation with their own intellectual tradition and the history of philosophy; the essential historicity of the practicing philosopher; the high value placed on practical, not just theoretical reason; a utopian critique of current ethical and social conditions; and a production of a sense of crisis that "disturbs the slow accumulation of the deadening sediment of tradition in the name of a reactivating historical critique, whose horizon would be an emancipated lifeworld".

The entries are arranged in nine groups, beginning with Kant. All but two are devoted to either French or German philosophers. Some readers would be surprised that there are no Russian thinkers, eg Berdyaev or Shestov; no Spanish, eg Unamuno or Ortega y Gasset; only one Italian (Gramsci), no Croce, Gentile or Umberto Eco; and only one East European (Lukacs).

The editors' ambition to make these essays useful as synopses for the informed reader and accessible to the uninitiated reader is achieved in most cases. The majority of essays are lucid and well ordered, but some are rather strange and would present difficulties for anyone unfamiliar with current debates. The entry on Kant is devoted to the Critique of Judgment . His transcendental revolution in metaphysics and theory of knowledge are ignored. The entry on Hegel is devoted to his Science of Logic , with no discussion of mind or morality. Marx is covered with a word salad of disparate texts; and the entries on Levinas, Blanchot and Bloch are written in an impacted double-speak, which only an initiate would understand. The entry on Martin Buber is adamantly authoritative and references are exclusively those by the entry's author. Finally, the entry on Benjamin attempts to include everyone Benjamin ever referred to and to discuss everyone who has ever discussed Benjamin.

Perhaps the editors could have standardised the format of entries. It is helpful to have a brief sketch of a thinker's life, but fewer than half the entries include such a sketch. More alarming is the fact that 12 entries contain no English-language references in their primary and secondary bibliographies.

In sum, however, this volume is on the whole an authoritative and accessible companion to the study of the principal figures who have shaped some of the dominant motifs in continental philosophy for the past 200 years. It is, for the most part, well organised and coherent and permits an optimum exposure to some key thinkers in a manner equally valuable to both the specialist researcher and the interested general reader.

Paul S. MacDonald is lecturer in philosophy, Murdoch University, Perth, Australia.

A Companion to Continental Philosophy. First Edition

Editor - Simon Critchley and William Schroeder
ISBN - 0 631 19013 9 and 21850 5
Publisher - Blackwell
Price - £80.00 and £19.99
Pages - 680

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