A couple of years ago Simon Critchley, who teaches philosophy at the New School in New York and (part-time) at the University of Essex in Britain, sent me a copy of his book Continental Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction. That was nice of him, as we had not had any prior interaction that I can recall. It is not, alas, a book that I could recommend to others and it was also, unfortunately, consistent with my first impression of him when I was asked a number of years ago to referee the Routledge book on New British Philosophers, which featured interviews with various youngish British philosophers. Critchley was one of the designated representatives of "Continental philosophy," for which the editors seemed to have gone out of their way to find the weakest representatives, notwithstanding the many excellent UK-based scholars working in that field. The interview with Critchley was really quite extraordinary for the superficial character of his understanding. He stated, for example, that:
The goal of philosophy in the continental tradition is emancipation, whether individual or societal,
which must mean, among other things, that phenomenology is not part of the Continental traditions. (There is also, of course, no "continental tradition" of philosophy, but, again, one would have to actually know something to know how crass such a characterization of two hundred years of post-Kantian philosophy on the European Continent is.)
Critchley went on in this interview to suggest that one can understand "the continental tradition" as emerging out of a way of reading Kant's Third Critique:
It was felt by post-Kantians like Maimon and Jacobi, and by the German idealists, that Kant had established a series of dualisms in the Third Critique--pure reason and practical reason, nature and freedom, epistemology and ethics--but had failed to provide a single unifying principle which would bring those dualisms together. German idealism, then, can be seen as a series of attempts to provide this principle. So you get the Subject in Fichte, Spirit in Hegel, art in the early Schelling, and then in later nineteenth and early twentieth century German philosophy, Will to Power in Nietzsche, Praxis in Marx and Being in Heidegger. These are all attempts to answer this question.
I assume in a normal PhD program, a graduate student who submitted a statement like this as part of a prospectus would be expelled from the program, but apparently such sophomoric blather is thought to constitute scholarly insight in some circles. Overcoming the dualisms of the Third Critique surely was an animating concern (among others) for some of the German Idealists, but it obviously was not for Nietzsche or for Marx. Hegel was a dead issue in German philosophy by the 1850s, as materialists, on the one hand, and NeoKantians, on the other, rose to prominence, and Schopenhauer's anti-Hegelian polemics informed a generation's perception of the mad system builder of Jena. What role "will to power" actually plays in Nietzsche's philosophy is, unbeknownst apparently to Critchley, actually a hotly debated scholarly topic, but there is no significant account of it on which it constitutes an "attempt" by Nietzsche to provide a "unifying principle" for the dualisms of the Third Critique. Assimilating Marx to this just-so story is even weirder, given Marx's spectacular hostility to the questions of metaphysics and epistemology that animated German Idealism, a hostility encapuslated in the 2nd Thesis on Feuerbach, where Marx deemed all questions "isolated from practice" to be merely "scholastic" questions. This was no "attempt" to "bring those dualisms together," but an attempt to push them off the table as questions worth anyone's intellectual energy. (In this respect, Daniel Brudney's learned book on Marx's Attempt to Leave Philosophy [Harvard University Press, 1996] is quite aptly titled, though I disagree with aspects of his account of Marx's motivations for abandoning metaphysics and epistemology.)
Critchley's fairly crude understanding of Continental philosophy appears positively sophisticated, though, when compared to his views about "analytic" philosophy. After claiming, obviously falsely, that "another thing which is distinctive about the continental tradition...[is that] philosophical questions have to be linked to non-philosophical discourses," he continues that,
What I dislike most about [analytic] philosophers is the idea that they think because they are smart as philosophers they have nothing to learn from anybody else. You find this repeatedly. I'd argue that they've got lots to learn, not just from cognitive scientists, but from lawyers, historians, anthropologists and sundry others. If philosophy isolates itself from other disciplines and from the culture at large it will die....
One must have simply no idea of anything that has gone on in Anglophone philosophy in the last thirty years or so to make a statement like this, since English-speaking philosophy is now the most richly interdisciplinary of all the humanities, interacting with, and often contributing to, linguistics, psychology, cognitive science, law, and biology, among other fields. It is those in the "Continental ghetto," like Critchley, who have isolated themselves from almost all other intellectual fields, certain segments of English and Comparative Literature Departments excepted.
In any case, I recommended to Routledge that the interview with Critchley be dropped from the volume. Perhaps he found out about this, I don't know.
Now fast-forward to the present, and the Cardozo Law Review, a student-edited publication at the Cardozo Law School in New York City, which has some quite able people on its faculty (including some trained philosophers like Edward Stein and Martin Stone), but also some frauds and intellectual voyeurs who dabble in a lot of stuff they plainly don't understand. This is obviously an environment in which someone like Critchley fits in nicely, so he was invited to write about Derrida, a recurring topic of bad articles in the Cardozo Law Review. It turns out that Critchley was agitated by my remarks at the time of Derrida's passing, and for good reason, since to the extent Critchley has a "reputation" in certain corners of the academy it is due to his work on Derrida. In any case, Critchley wrote:
In the days following Derrida's death, there was a extraordinarily ill-informed discussion on [Leiter's] blog about the ruckus caused by the New York Times obituary, at the end of which Leiter wrote:
If he [i.e. Derrida] had become a football player as he had apparently hoped, or taken up honest work of some other kind, then we might simply remember him as a 'good man.' But he devoted his professional life to obfuscation and increasing the amount of ignorance in the world: by 'teaching' legions of earnest individuals how to read badly and think carelessly. He may have been a morally decent man, but he led a bad life, and his legacy is one of shame for the humanities.
Such breathtaking moralistic stupidity leaves me speechless, and I cannot bring myself to comment on it.
Oh goodness! Alas, immediately after saying he wouldn't "comment" on it, he did:
I would cite Proposition VII of Wittgenstein's Tractatus in my defense, if that did not risk concealing such muck under sweeter smelling blooms. But that is not all. Not only did Derrida lead a bad life and apparently single-handedly undermine the humanities (quite an achievement, all things considered), he is also the efficient cause of Reaganism and a fortiori of Bushism (I guess Leiter would know, living in Texas).
But I did not say that Derrida was "the efficient cause of Reaganism," though I suppose such spectacular misreadings should be expected from a partisan of Derrida. What I did suggest--read what I wrote--is that it is probably not coincidental "that the total corruption of public discourse and language" that began with Reagan's triumph "coincided with the collapse of careful reading and the responsible use of language in one of the central humanities disciplines," namely literary studies. The question, of course, is what broader socio-economic developments explain the coincidence? (By the way, unlike Simon Critchley, I am an actual New Yorker, but one need not live in New York or Texas to be struck by the parallels between the intellectual collapse in both the public sphere and parts of the academic sphere that occurred at the same time--indeed, David Bromwich has written a book on the subject.)
In any case, having just misrepresented what I wrote, Critchley goes on to quote it:
Warming to his theme, Leiter continues, and I assure the reader that I am not making this up,
Was it entirely an accident that at the same time that deconstruction became the rage in literary studies (namely, the 1980s), American politics went off the rails with the Great Prevaricator, Ronald Reagan? Is it simply coincidental that the total corruption of public discourse and language--which we may only hope has reached its peak at the present moment--coincided with the collapse of careful reading and the responsible use of language in one of the central humanities disciplines? These are important questions, and I wonder whether they have been, or will be, addressed. [FN7]
These are not important questions; they are extremely silly speculations and Leiter should simply be ashamed of himself for equating the interest in deconstruction with the rise of American neo-conservatism. Once again, it might help if Leiter had actually taken the trouble to read Derrida's work before offering philosopher king-like judgments on its merits. And to think that a person that has the arrogance to publish such stupidities sits in judgment on the quality of graduate programs in philosophy and considers himself an authority in Continental philosophy. It is painfully laughable.
I am surprised that the student editors at the Cardozo Law Review did not ask for some citation in support of Critchley's false statement that I had not "read Derrida's work"; I have read rather more of it than is worth reading. How could Critchley, in any case, possibly know what I have read? As I noted at the start, we have never met, and he never bothered to ask. Perhaps what this silly man is thinking is that anyone who had read Derrida would have come away as enamored of the late deconstructionist as Critchley? That probably is a reasonable inference if one assumes that all readers have Critchley's level of philosophical competence.
Michael Rosen (Harvard) and I recently finished up The Oxford Handbook of Continental Philosophy, which includes contributions by twenty distinguished scholars interested in aspects of the Continental traditions in philosophy (some of whom, I should add, have a higher opinion of Derrida than I do). Critchley, alas, represents that "other" kind of academic too often attracted to Continental philosophy, the intellectual lightweight and philosophical tourist who can't read a text carefully or follow a philosophical argument. One of our hopes is that The Oxford Handbook, by treating post-Kantian Continental figures as philosophers--and not as museum pieces from the history of ideas--will increase the number of intellectually and philosophically serious scholars drawn to their study. But until that happens, I fear, philosophical used car salesmen like Critchley will, too often, pose as spokesman for non-Anglophone traditions in philosophy.