Gary Gutting is one of the most important and interesting intermediaries between continental philosophy and mainstream analytic philosophy. So, he is always worth taking seriously, but I am afraid that his recent New York Times Opinionator is marred by some self-serving rhetoric that prevents illumination on some very important philosophic issues. Against standard blog-rhetoric (where we normally land heaviest punches first), my criticism below will increase in severity and philosophic significance.
First, Gutting writes: "There is...a continuing demand for analytic expositions of major continental figures. It’s obvious why there is no corresponding market for, say, expositions of Quine, Rawls or Kripke in the idioms of Heidegger, Derrida or Deleuze." In context, Gutting implies that the obvious answer is that Quine, Rawls, and Kripke write so clearly that no such exposition would be needed--they are accessible without intermediation. Now, after a recent reading group on Word & Object (with Dutch folk who are very good philosophers of science, but who had not been exposed to a standard Anglo undergraduate curriculum), I know for a fact this is not true of Quine, who -- while being a beautiful and humorous stylist -- is extremely opaque writer to people not steeped in his dialectic with Carnap (and lack of knowledge of set-theory). [Is there anybody that really thinks the argument of Two Dogmas is clear?] Of course, the major reason that there is no such market in introductory texts to Quine, Rawls, or Kripke is that undergraduate teaching in Continental departments (in the Anglophone and non-Anglophone world) is often done by way of teaching historical classics. If there were demand, supply would follow. Having said that, it's true that Zahavi and Gallaghar have written a text-book in the philosophy of mind that can be described as assimilating analytic & naturalistic philosophy of mind to phenomenology. (Moreover I wouldn't be surprised to discover that in non-English speaking analytic departments there may well be a market for introductions to Quine, Rawls, etc.)
Second, this is not to deny that in the quoted remark above Gutting may well have (accidentally) hit on an important feature of modern philosophy--in recent decades, analytic philosophy has become a great sponge, opportunistically drawing on lots of traditions and methods. (I think this is swell.) One reason why Badiou is significant for French speaking philosophy is that he opens the door to serious engagement with the lasting significance of set-theory and the philosophy of mathematics more broadly, and, thus, re-opening some important doors for the French part of that tradition. (Of course, other parts of continental philosophy never severed link with logic; it was great to move to Leiden in 2006 and meet logicians with roots in phenomenology.)
Third, Gutting works with a rhetorically smart but philosophically insipid contrast between "the unnecessary difficulty of much continental writing" and the "clarity" of "analytic philosophy." (I remark on the supposed clarity of analytic philosophy below.) It follows from Gutting's view that one can translate the difficulty of continental writing without remainder into a clearer/easier idiom. And this is what we find: "it is hard to see that there is much of serious philosophical value lost in the clarity of analytic commentaries on Heidegger, Derrida, et al." Now, I think analytic commentaries can have great value, but in so far as their aim is clarification it may well be the case that they are unable to capture all the philosophical significance of the originals. (What follows is based on my experience of reading 20th century continental philosophy -- as an adult -- after I decided that my ignorance was inexcusable given that I was surrounded by colleagues whose idiom I did not get.) Here are a few considerations:
- Some of the difficulty of continental texts is due to innovation(s) in technical vocabulary. This can be challenging enough. But these innovations become extremely hard to understand for the advanced novice (i.e., with some philosophy training) and professional philosopher alike if they are philosophically motivated by a desire to avoid pre-existing conceptual oppositions. A commentary that assimilates the continental figures to the home (analytic) idiom may well clarify some important distinctions, but may miss crucial issues. [I believe that a lot of so-callled pragmatist readings of Heidegger and naturalistic readings of Nietzsche suffer from such some problems, but I say this based on a fairly superficial knowledge of analytic secondary literature--I am not an expert!]
- Another problem is that some Continental authors clearly believe that affective response to their texts is philosophically significant. Again, Nietzsche and Heidegger spring to mind. Now Gutting's favored intermediaries generally do not convey this adequately. Maybe for Gutting this is an example of an insignificant loss, but that's because he has a certain view of philosophy at odds with Nietzsche and Heidegger. (It is a bit of a surprise that Gutting misses this given what a great student he is of French 20th century philosophy, and I find it incredible that any student of Deleuze wouldn't notice the relevance of philosophic affect.)
- Some complexity of Continental texts may be due to their efforts to speak to different souls/audiences at once. In so far as they take Plato's worries in the Phaedrus seriously, they do not mind writing texts that require considerable deciphering. (Again, Nietzsche seems to me very open about this, and Derrida has a lot of exacerbating fun with it.) Given that on this view of philosophy there are both political dimension internal to philosophy (the magister and the student will get different things out of the text) and external to philosophy (outsiders get an image of philosophy), it is strange to deny this as lacking philosophic significance unless one thinks that puzzle solving (analytic philosophy's approach) is the ONLY way to be philosophical.
- A final feature that adds complexity to Continental texts is that they are often simultaneously a reconsideration and realignment of the tradition (and sometimes also an effort to question the very idea of tradition) as well as a new sailing. This means that Continental authors are often playing chess at many different board at once. I doubt the intermediaries manage convey this adequately--if they would, they wouldn't be commentaries but major classics in their own right!
I should say that these four points are not limited to continental authors. I believe one encounters them throughout the history of philosophy. (When I started reading Continental philosophers somewhat systematically half a decade ago, I decided to treat these authors as if they were just any other works in the history of philosophy--so demanding from me an effort to enter into their philosophical universe, etc.) But crucially, Gutting's pretense that he is in possession of some definitive insight on what is a "serious philosophical value" is just irresponsible table-pounding. (Gutting's fondness for "serious" is -- ahum -- not very clarifying!)
Fourth, the clarity of analytic philosophy is something of a self-serving myth. By this I mean that analytic philosophy has now considerable vocabulary that is quite esoteric to outsiders--the distinction between intentional and intensional; de re/de dicto; qualia; use/mention, etc. One does not master this vocabulary without considerable sunk costs. But even for folk with undergraduate and graduate degrees exclusively dominated by the varieties of analytic philosophy, standard folk like Sellars, Davidson, Dummett, McDowell, Korsgaard, and Evans (and an innumerable list of lesser lights) are very hard-going. (Gutting mentions Sellars and Davidson as such examples.) But let me grant for the sake of argument that all of their philosophic insights can be recovered in a clearer idiom. As my comments on Quine above suggest, this vaunted clarity is often deceptive--without considerable background knowledge many of his arguments become baffling. In fact, a lot of contemporary metaphysics is similarly baffling ["three-dimensionalism vs four dimensionalism," "truthmakers" "natural properties," etc] without some background knowledge in the writings of David Lewis or Strawson. [In Ghent I co-sponsor a reading group where we alternate analytic and continental metaphysics [we have read Lacan, Hawthorne/Cortens, Azzouni, Badiou, etc]--a lot of our shared work goes into trying to articulate to each other unstated background assumptions.]
As an aside, some of my recent blogging has been about how Rawls' TJ presupposes considerable knowledge of economics and economic debates that were subsequently lost to philosophy. So, while I think anybody can still read Rawls' TJ fruitfully, I am pretty convinced that few of us are in a position to grasp all of Rawls' moves. The moral here is that clarity of prose need not make all the philosophy transparent.
Fifth, as I have remarked, I believe analytic philosophy is splitting in two groups that do not share a lingua franca. (So, I doubt Gutting's claim that analytic philosophy as such is such a lingua franca.) One group is dominated by Lewisian metaphysical legacy and the apparatus of modality and (probably to a lesser degree) mereology. The other group(s) of (more) formal philosophy work not just with a Bayesian apparatus, but -- more significantly -- also with advanced logics of various types. Of course, there are still folk -- especially by way of philosophy of language and epistemology -- that mediate between the two diverging streams, but it stands to reason that the costs (and opportunities!) for doing so will be higher and higher.
So much for the philosophy. But, sixth, Gutting also engages in a nice bit of revisionary history along the way. "At roughly the same time that analytic philosophy was emerging, Edmund Husserl was developing his “phenomenological” approach to philosophy. He too emphasized high standards of clarity and precision, and had some fruitful engagements with analytic philosophers such as Frege." Excuse me? It is one thing to claim that Frege is the father of analytic philosophy or inspired analytic philosophy, but to think that in the time of exchanges between Frege and Husserl (they reviewed each other and corresponded with each other), Frege would be understood as an "analytic philosopher" is -- I am pretty confident -- just self-serving Whig history of the worst kind. Of course, leaving aside this historical point, I would love to see a convincing defense of Frege's clarity.