On a dismissive tone recently adopted

Among young students of continental philosophy, a certain orthodoxy seems to be taking hold. Heidegger and Derrida are out, and with them the various approaches to philosophical discourse that proceed via commentary. Suspicion of system-building is out, and accordingly Hegel is reemerging as a major point of reference — and one must have very firm convictions about the proper reading of Hegel, dismissing vast swathes of the existing traditional commentary. More generally, caution and qualification seem to be out. We must boldly speculate into new realms, it seems, having developed our own axiomatic ontology by the age of 23.

Alas, I have come too late to partake in such trends. I still think we have a great deal to learn from Heidegger and Derrida. I view commentary on past philosophers as a necessary education in philosophy, a productive grappling with vast minds. I’m more sympathetic toward Hegel than some, but I am willing to admit — as Zizek does in The Indivisible Remainder — that the traditional reading of Hegel does have a basis in the text and moreover I’m reluctant to take too firm a stance on the true meaning of an author who can be construed as embracing virtually every possible position. Most of all, though, I am unwilling to speculate out into the air, without the guardrail of working through the thoughts of those who have gone before me. The world will have to look elsewhere for a bold new form of jargon purporting to capture the essence of the things themselves.

I am, in short, an old man now.

23 thoughts on “On a dismissive tone recently adopted

  1. Funny how Hegelians always end up being *Young* Hegelians.

    In my experience in cultural studies, though, the reigning orthodoxy today is anti-orthodoxy, post-ideology, and post-theory, of exactly the kind Zizek and Eagleton critique for really being none of those things.

  2. Adam, you can’t be an old man now! What does that make the likes of me? I can’t wait for my kids to grow out of their axiomatic ontologies! (Isn’t having one the very definition of being a teenager?) Perhaps the corollary being that kids who do continental philosophy these days are just late bloomers…

  3. It’s all well and good to be critical of the knowledge of older generations — as long as you can demonstrate that you understand it, and the systems within which it made sense. Otherwise you’ll never learn from it. That is, before you’re forty, you cannot afford to be dismissive too often. “I am doing something else,” perhaps, but only rarely “that’s wrong.”

    Okay, yes, I’m also old — and pedantic. And I didn’t learn that until a while after I was 23. But childishness in philosophy is still childishness.

  4. Perhaps this is apples and oranges, but one lesson we can learn from Tom Altizer’s relationship with many of us is to not abandon the important authors and not dismiss the central and historic questions, and to take seriously broad conversations.

  5. While I am clearly one of the offending Hegelians, I was a Hegelian during the Derrida dominance of the last decade. That said, I actually agree the dismissal of Derrida and Heidegger is completely intellectually lazy as is the failure to consider the traditional modes of reading Hegel. But these fads happen, Hegel/Nietzsche battles emerge and decline in a “dialectical” movement where neither either really completely wins and both change through time.

  6. In all honesty, Meillassoux is pretty impressive. And the trend toward more straightforward arguments (instead of making one’s points through passive-aggressive commentary) is probably good, though it can sometimes smack of analytic-envy. And I was a dismissive asshole to some degree as a young grad student, too — I understand that it can be a coping strategy in the face of the overwhelming vastness of everything one “should” read.

  7. I think because I fell in love early with Deleuze I never felt as commentary dominated. Clearly the way he does commentary was creative, not unlike Derrida though I think it has more freedom despite appearing more historically grounded, and so that’s how I wanted to do it. That and I never felt like I was impressing anyone in the first place, so why not just try to do what I want.

  8. I’m jealous of the wide-spread success of these young ontologists too. Surely there are more than one or two Ph.D. programs out there where I can major in this stuff, as opposed to Hegel, Derrida, or Heidegger, right? Right?!? ¬_¬

  9. The most unfortunate thing about the recent reemergence of Hegel as a point of reference has been the undue emphasis on the speculative moment in his philosophy. The primarily critical moment of the dialectic is usually sacrificed as a result. Again, as Engels once remarked, the actual Hegelian “system,” when all is said and told, is fairly conservative. The Hegelian “method,” by contrast, is revolutionary. It can be captured in Engels’ characterization of dialectic as the recognition that “All that exists deserves to perish.”

    Also, I think that a focus on Hegel’s ontology is inadequate. Ontology, the realm of pure Being, forms the point of departure in Hegel’s logic. But it is almost immediately sublated and transcended through its own self-negation (by contrast with nothingness) into Becoming, which in turn must face its own opposition in determinate Being, etc., etc.

    Regarding Heidegger and Derrida, I don’t dismiss either of these thinkers out of hand. Heidegger is, to my mind, indisputably the most important philosopher of the twentieth century. Wittgenstein, Dewey, Carnap, and Foucault must also receive an honorable mention, but the shadow of Heidegger looms over every subsequent continental thinker, and even many Anglo-American thinkers. And though this opinion has been voiced many times before, I consider this influence to be extremely problematic, riddled by the imprint of undigested fascism (a political position which was not at all accidental to his thought).

    Adorno, I would contend, is the most important critic of the twentieth century. And one of the few to both thoroughly engage with Heidegger’s thought and still reject it.

    This may just be blatant conjecture, but I personally doubt that Derrida’s renown will endure the way that these other thinkers I just mentioned will. He seems to me more of a figure like Max Scheler, Hermann Lotze, Johann Friedrich Herbart, or Jakob Fries — celebrated in their own time but subsequently forgotten, more or less. Of course, that isn’t to say that his writing is useless. He’s okay in places. I’d even say that Deleuze stands a better chance at being remembered as a great theoretician. Maybe that’s just me, though.

  10. As a precocious 22 year old who tells people not to bother wasting their time reading Heidegger and Derrida, and who dismisses nearly the entirety of 20th cent. French philosophy (with one exception, Lucien Goldmann), your blog entry could plausibly be about me. In response, I only have to say, what gives? Sure, Heidegger may be the most important philosopher of the 20th cent., but what does this say about the 20th cent.?!?!? Why ought we to pay our respects to those who came before merely because they came before? The soft authoritarianism in such an attitude of deference to the past is telling. Sometimes the best way to remember history is to forget whole swaths of it.

  11. It’s amazing how firm a grasp you have on the philosophical tradition already at the age of 22. At that age, I’d only really been reading philosophy in a halfway serious way for like two years!

  12. Jacob,

    Let me give you a serious reply. Because, when a person who does not know the history of philosophy argues, that person commits a lot of mistakes that are obvious to many who know the history of that subject. Then, those of us who know typically get angry when the historically ignorant person does not even recognize basic counter-arguments that are centuries old.

    In the case of certain versions of object-oriented ontology, I roll my eyes when I am told that A.N. Whitehead is The Process Philosopher … when he just happens to be the one that continentals know about because of his adoption by Deleuze and contemporary commenters. Thereby an accident of history is taken as essential, and the person is dumb-struck by basic questions asked from the perspective of other traditions of process philosophy. A knowledgeable person is able to counter and riposte.

  13. If one wants to take seriously any single figure from French thought in the 20th century, Lucien Goldmann is an excellent choice. Insofar as Bergson’s thought was part of the 20th century, I’d say his metaphysics are interesting in terms of a certain irrationalist milieu that existed at the time. In all seriousness, though, Heidegger should be required reading (though tempered heavily with Adorno) for anyone interested in philosophy. He’s interesting as a symptom. At least, much more interesting than Derrida.

    In terms of French thought, Henri Lefebvre is one of the few French authors virtually uncorrupted by Heidegger’s influence. An interesting example of non-Frankfurt School Hegelian-Marxism, too. Sartre is worth reading as a cultural figure. Althusser and Foucault are two others who I think will have a much more enduring legacy than Derrida, Paul de Man (another fascist), or Jean-Luc Nancy.

  14. To respond a little more seriously, obviously there’s a need for “filtering” when you’re just getting started in philosophy, because the amount of stuff out there is just overwhelming. Why does the filtering mechanism so often need to be haughty dismissal, though? Why does it have to be “Heidegger’s worthless” instead of “I want to focus on really getting a handle on Badiou for now”?

    I suppose part of the reason is that the haughty dismissiveness of someone is pretty much baked into the modern philosophical tradition — and if you strongly identify with one author, you’re bound to use their preferences as your filter. Hence young Derrideans or Deleuzians would doubtless have not wanted to waste their time on Hegel, etc.

  15. Jason, Adam: Be wary of the tribe.

    Also, I am not sure that it’s about “paying respects.” By chance I just happened to find the following from Hegel, actually.

    ‘The concern with aim or results, with differentiating and passing judgement on various thinkers is therefore an easier task than it might seem. For instead of getting involved with the real issue, this kind of activity is always beyond it; instead of tarrying with it, and losing itself in it, this kind of knowing is forever grasping at something new; it remains essentially preoccupied with *itself* instead of being preoccupied with the real issue and surrendering to it [emphasis mine]. To judge a thing that has substance and solid worth is quite easy, to comprehend it is much harder, and to blend judgement and comprehension in a definite description is the hardest thing of all’

    – Hegel, ‘Phenomenology of Spirit’

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