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  • A Philosophical History of the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy?
  • David Carr

“You’re a philosopher of history—say something philosophical about the history of SPEP.” So said Tony Steinbock (or words to that effect) when I asked him what he had in mind for this panel. OK, here goes.

The philosophy of history was classically conceived as a form of theodicy—justifying God’s ways to man, as Milton put it. Saint Augustine is considered by some to be the father of the philosophy of history, though the term itself was apparently invented by Voltaire. And Augustine didn’t use the faux-Greek word theodicy either, which wasn’t invented until the time of Leibniz. But he thought of it this way. The Roman Empire had recently converted to Christianity and should have been flourishing and increasing in glory. Instead it was rapidly declining and falling before his very eyes. This didn’t make sense. What was wrong?

Not to worry, said Augustine. Things may be pretty grim in the city of man, but in the city of God, all would be put right, or rather, already had been, from all eternity.

Fifteen hundred years later, Hegel called his philosophy of history a theodicy. History is a slaughter bench, he said, in which the good seemed to suffer, the evil to triumph. Could we find reason or even meaning in this sorry panorama? But reason is cunning, he claimed, and is working [End Page 102] to produce good out of evil, freedom out of oppression. The city of God is not beyond the world but is emerging in history itself. In fact, it is really at hand, and philosophy can show us this.

What does all this have to do with the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy (SPEP)? Well, the scene in philosophy looked like a slaughter bench to some of us in the 1950s and 1960s. There is nothing so intolerant as a movement that is just taking off, and so it was with analytic philosophy in those years. Imported from prewar Vienna and Cambridge, it took root in the United States with the fervor of the newly converted. Yet another revolution in philosophy, said Richard Rorty, world-weary as always, even in his early years, in the introduction to his 1967 collection The Linguistic Turn. He predicted it would suffer the fate of earlier revolutions (he listed Husserl’s among them), and he was right. But that message was drowned out by the busy applications of the new approach. Analyzing language using the tools of logic, trying to achieve precision by aping the sciences it admired and envied, it subjected to disdain and derision those who didn’t go along. It was not only those inspired by recent German and French philosophy who suffered this treatment: the whole history of philosophy was declared irrelevant, unless it could be mined for well-formed arguments that could be translated into logical symbols. The devotees of this philosophical persuasion soon consolidated their control of major departments and hardened into a powerful establishment.

There were pockets of resistance, however, including two departments represented on this panel, Northwestern and Yale, and these provided much of the impetus for founding a new society named after phenomenology and existentialism. It was an act of rebellion, and if analytic philosophers thought of themselves as revolutionaries, the founders of SPEP were anything but counterrevolutionaries or reactionaries. They had their own revolution to foment.

Bob Scharff and Ed Casey can talk about Northwestern, where they were students. I can say a bit about Yale, since I was a graduate student there. Many of my teachers were resisting the analytic onslaught. There were scholars of Hume and Kant (Charles Hendel and George Schrader); metaphysicians in the grand Whiteheadian mode (Paul Weiss and Nathaniel Lawrence); Brand Blanchard, a late advocate of a sort of Bradleyian idealism; and students of American Pragmatism like John Smith and Richard Bernstein. All soldiered on, in an atmosphere in which what they were [End Page 103] doing was considered nonsense. But Carl Hempel and Arthur Pap and Charles Stevenson had also been at Yale, followed by Wilfred Sellars and Norwood Russell Hanson...


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