- The Next Fifty Years
Continental philosophy tends to be very textual, defined not so much by a set of problems as by a set of interpretive practices. We read Levinas or Irigaray and write interpretations of those texts. Of course, we do more than issue commentary; we think through texts, grappling with problems, concepts, and historical and cultural phenomena. Still, most of our work remains closely tied to texts. Consequently, it often reproduces a distinction between primary and secondary philosophical work that we might question. Nobody would deny the creativity of John Sallis’s or David Wood’s work or that of Debra Bergoffen or Kelly Oliver; they are doing philosophy, not just writing about others’ doings. Yet how many Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy (SPEP) papers are on the work of Sallis or Oliver or Bernasconi, outside of author-meets-critic and book sessions? How many simply proclaim themselves to be doing philosophy, independent of any text?
Feminist philosophers more often treat each other’s work as primary texts than do nonfeminists. One does hear papers on Butler and Young. But even among Continental feminists, this is not the norm, nor are papers totally detached from texts. [End Page 299]
Likewise, dissertations more often address European figures than North American Continentalists, which reflects the idea that serious Continental work must engage primarily with French or German thinkers. SPEP’s book exhibit offers plenty of volumes on Derrida but no volumes on Allison or Alcoff.
Perhaps most crucially, when we teach survey courses, do we teach our North American colleagues’ work? Are undergraduates taught to take Badiou and Rancière more seriously than Schrag or Caputo? Is this what SPEP wants?
My concern here is not who should be canonized but, rather, our philosophical practice. After fifty years, most of SPEP’s founders are deceased or in permanent retirement. A much larger cohort is nearing the end of their careers. A major goal of those generations was to bring European philosophy to North America—which they did! That is not a task that we must take up as they lay it down. The task for us is to decide whether those generations will be remembered primarily as bearers of European gospels or as philosophers in their own right.
Recently I picked up David Harvey’s Cosmopolitanism and the Geographies of Freedom (2009) and read a lengthy and careful engagement with Ed Casey’s work. I was surprised. Alongside Deleuze, Bachelard, Descartes, and Kant, Harvey treats our friend Ed like a real philosopher. But why be surprised? Harvey, a geographer, writes about space, so he must engage Casey, just as he engages Kant. Ed Casey is a real philosopher, and he is, surely, the space man of our day. But is his work taught in geography courses more regularly than it is taught in courses on phenomenology?
One of our most enchanting colleagues is Alphonso Lingis. He never lectures or argues. He takes you where he wants you to go so you can see what he sees. The first time I attended one of Lingis’s presentations was in 1997, not at SPEP but at my home institution. Lingis wandered to and fro, carrying his paper in his hands. The light on his clipboard illuminated his head so that his reddish silver hair appeared to be afire. He looked positively demonic, an incarnation of pure energy. His paper, entitled “Innocence,” published in Elizabeth Grosz’s Becomings, still enchants me.
One might say that the essay is political. It tells the story of fourteen people, members of the Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, who stormed the Japanese ambassador’s residence in Lima, Peru, on December 17, 1996, taking six hundred hostages, among whom were “ thirty-five [End Page 300] Japanese businessmen, eight military and police generals (including the chiefs of intelligence and antiterrorism), seven foreign ambassadors, six national congressmen, five supreme court justices, two government ministers, and [Peruvian] President Fujimori’s mother, sister, and younger brother” (Lingis 1999, 214). Within days all but seventy-two of the hostages were released unharmed. The guerrillas’ single demand was the release of 442 Túpac Amaru members held incommunicado, among whom was...