Dare to think

February 6, 1998

Continuing our series on theory, Simon Critchley says British philosophy must move beyond worship of the great names to truly creative thought.

Theory, high European theory, has had an enriching influence on the development of a whole range of academic study in the English-speaking world for a couple of generations. But perhaps it is time to admit that this moment is passed. Is ours the age of Post-Theory?

In recent years, interest has decreased in what has come to be known as "theory" - that bundle of mainly French critical approaches associated with semiotics, structuralism, post-structuralism, deconstruction and post-modernism. The present is interestingly marked by the exhaustion of a whole series of theoretical paradigms. Analytic philosophy has happily, if belatedly, achieved some historical self-consciousness, and become interested in its own tradition. This historical sense of analytic philosophy as a tradition among other modern traditions is something most obviously present in the recent interest in philosophical biography, for example in the work of Ray Monk.

In the German context, the Frankfurt School after Jurgen Habermas's retirement is rather uncertain about its agenda, and it is often difficult to see what now distinguishes it from broader mainstream movements in Anglo-American moral and political philosophy and sociological theory. More widely, Germany is philosophically becalmed, and the great postwar generation of Karl-Otto Apel, Ernst Tugendhat, Michael Theunissen and Dieter Henrich are almost all retired, and their successors have not yet reached their intellectual heights.

And let's face it, Paris is not what it was. The collapse of neo-Kantianism in France in the 1930s and the rise of "les trois H" (Hegel,Husserl, Heidegger) produced two generations of brilliance. In the first generation, one thinks of Sartre, de Beauvoir, Levi-Strauss, Lacan, Bataille and Blanchot; and in the second of Althusser, Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, Lyotard, Kristeva and Irigaray. But while Derrida is still going strong, and despite the renaissance of French phenomenology and moral and political philosophy, one has the impression that none of this is going to set the world alight.

This poses problems for my own academic niche, continental philosophy. Its rationale was that there was a philosophical tradition extending from German idealism and romanticism, through to phenomenology, hermeneutics and the Frankfurt School, which was either suppressed or simply ignored by the dominant analytic approach. In this sense, it was a question of importing foreign prince(sse)s, of illuminating the dour utilitarianism of the island with a little continental sweetness and light.

But continental philosophy faces two substantial problems: first, as already indicated, there is not that much interesting work going on across the Channel; and second, much of the tradition that was ignored is now being interestingly used by analytically trained philosophers such as John McDowell, Robert Brandom, John Skorupski and others.

In a fin de si cle mood, it is unclear what the future holds. But let's try to offer some remedies for the present situation. Kant summarised the project of Enlightenment in the words sapere aude, which might be freely rendered: dare to think for yourself. That is, we cannot expect to import the next grand continental paradigm from Frankfurt or Paris.

We have to think for ourselves, theoretically and philosophically - a very hazardous business. But in my neck of the academic woods, such work is beginning. There is a resurgence of interest in deep philosophical issues and the sense that these issues must be addressed to local conditions, in this case to multicultural Britain. Part of the problem is that high European theory was reduced to a list of proper names, with various competing methodologies that one could survey during a one-term introductory course. Such an approach is soul-destroying, and it is little wonder interest in theory is waning. It is no longer a question of worshipping a series of names, but of doing something with what they left behind; of doing creative work and not restricting oneself to translation and commentary.

My only other suggestion would be to rage a little against the night of academic professionalisation. The divisions in the study of philosophy are a result of inadequate professional self-descriptions (are you an analytic,post-analytic or continental philosopher?). Such divisions are lamentable because they disguise a deeper debate about the purpose of philosophy. Continental and analytic philosophy are sectarian self-descriptions that are the result of the professionalisation of the discipline, which has led to the weakening of philosophy's critical function and its emancipatory intent, its progressive marginalisation from cultural life. This is, finally, what I would want to offer as the promise of philosophy, as a promise that it can still keep. Namely, that the various theoretical considerations that arise from specific forms of textual study, enquiry and argumentation should form an essential part in the life of our culture.It is a question of cultivating theory as that moment of critical reflection in a specific context, when citizens are invited to question what passes for common sense in their society. As Stanley Cavell notes, philosophy is the education of grown-ups. But this should hardly be news; it is a description of philosophy that would not have surprised Socrates. Is not this business of education why we have universities, and why the study of philosophy must have a central place in them?

Simon Critchley, reader in philosophy, University of Essex.


Late 19th/early 20th century onwards. Presupposes that logical analysis can give us a true picture of things as they really are. Exponents: Gottlieb Frege, Bertrand Russell and early Ludwig Wittgenstein. Postanalytic philosophy: questions objectivity of the analytic model. Richard Rorty, for instance, says that analytic philosophy presupposes a questionable picture of mind as mirror of nature. Exponents: Rorty, Charles Taylor. Continental philosophy: a catch-all phrase for all philosophy done on the continent in the past 200 years, from German idealism through Romanticism and existentialism to structuralism and poststructuralism. Emphasis on philosopher's role as social and cultural critic and suspicious of philosophical approaches based on the model of the natural sciences. Structuralism: after Ferdinand Saussure's work and theory that language does not transparently reflect reality; that meaning does not have to refer to the world.


Stella Sandford recently completed a PhD at the University of Essex on "the feminine" in the works of Emmanuel Levinas and Plato.

The conjunction of feminist theory and philosophy remains misunderstood. Feminist theory is not an unphilosophical adjunct to philosophy. Rather it motivates philosophy in particular directions, enabling analysis of issues and presumptions that would have remained unremarked. In my work, an acquaintance with feminist theory alerted me to the theme of "the feminine" in the work of the ethical thinker Emmanuel Levinas, not to advance the particular claims of feminism, as some opponents of feminist philosophy claim, but to ascertain the place of this theme in his philosophical schema. The political orientation of feminist theory has meant that the philosophy it inspires is often critical commentary, but the insights of feminist theory are also being invoked to transform the definition of philosophy and to create models of human being that contest those of traditional philosophical theory. It is difficult to see how philosophy, if it is not to become dogmatism, can ignore these contributions to its own self-criticism.

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