Recent Continental Philosophy

by John Holbo on June 13, 2006

I’m teaching “Recent Continental Philosophy” next semester. What would you do, if you had to do that? Recent is relative, of course. I’m thinking: Kant. No, seriously. I want to start by having the kids read Kant, “What is Enlightenment?” Then Foucault, “What is Enlightenment?” I want to make that a bit of a theme, yes. What texts would you weave around that red thread? I’m going to do some Foucault vs. Habermas (obviously.) I’m thinking about having them read bits of Robert Pippin, Modernity as a Philosophical Problem. How would you structure the course to suit my theme? There is a real problem with taking the ‘recent’ seriously. If the kids don’t really know Hegel and Nietzsche and Kierkegaard and Heidegger, what’s the point starting them out with Badiou, eh? I’m thinking of having them read a few of the short, intro chapters from the Critchley, ed. Companion to Continental Philosophy. I am also going to do a couple weeks on Zizek, because I know his stuff rather well at this point. In teaching a new course, I figure you should make sure to have at least a couple weeks on something you have down pretty cold. By the by, I’ve got a pretty good and funny Zizek post up at the Valve, if you like that sort of thing.



felix 06.13.06 at 3:25 am

Teach them the song “Ever”, by Flipper.

Unless your goal is to impress rather than to inform.


John Holbo 06.13.06 at 3:41 am

Hmmmm, maybe If I were focusing more on phenomenology that would be an appropriate choice of texts …


Naadir Jeewa 06.13.06 at 4:52 am

Being a fanboy, I can’t but help mention Ulrich Beck’s latest tomes on cosmopolitanism “Power in the Global Age” and “Cosmopolitan Vision”, using Kant’s essay on perpetual peace as a starting point and relating it to his work on Risk Society, Second Modernity and Reflexive Modernisation.

Ok, it’s not strictly philosophy, but his call to cosmopolitanise the social sciences and politics stuck in a nation-state rhetoric is too important to ignore.

His idea of enforced or involuntary enlightenment at the cosmopolitan moment, and ‘science beyond enlightenment’ (in Risk Society) would tie in nicely with your theme.


Adam Roberts 06.13.06 at 5:12 am

Give ’em Adorno and Horkheimer, play into the whole ‘Enlightenment’ thing.


zdenek 06.13.06 at 5:25 am

Apart from the good stuff ( Habermas etc. ) I would also try to highlight the intellectually weak aspects :
1) obscurity : E. Levinas ‘Ethics and Infinity’ 1985

2)muddle-headedness : practically anything from Baudrillard
3) half-baked/slipshod style : Zizek ‘On Belief’

P.S. Zizek’s approach seems characteristic of much of recent continental philosophy , he offers an argument to support a view but it is as if he wants an advantage of an argument without having to do any intellectual work and so his argument is lazy and slipshod.


John Emerson 06.13.06 at 5:46 am

I think that you should give them a good background in knot theory and then go straight to Lacan.


jeremy 06.13.06 at 5:57 am

it should be said that nothing is muddle-headed in baudrillard once you actually put in the effort to understand his works and their relation to each other amongst other things. if you don’t know that, you should as well read plato in english, because there again, you’ll miss all the jokes, most of the interesting analysis, and almost all of the real meaning. with baudrillard, you have to pay particular attention to his early foundations to see what is going on in his later works, so you can read them without feeling muddled.

from Habermas, ‘the unfinished project of modernity’
from Guattari, ‘chaosmosis’
‘everybody wants to be a fascist’
from Baudrillard, ‘america’
Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations
Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man


SteveG 06.13.06 at 6:14 am

I’m an analytic, but I team-taught a course last year with Aspazia from Mad Melancholic Feminista tracing the history of the analytic/continental divide (and hints that the gap may be closing) and we started with Kant also. Seems that unless you understand the context in which the questions are posed — and Kant is ineliminable from that context — the whole conversation seems strange.

We went from Kant to Hegel/Nietzsche on her side and from Kant to Mill/Poincare on mine, and then onto Husserl and Frege. I’ve always thought that unless they understand the larger conversation in which the contemporary discussion is couched, they miss a lot of what they read. Seems worth taking a couple of weeks at the start to set the table. Pays off in the long run.


Russell Arben Fox 06.13.06 at 6:53 am

To put in a plug for my personal faves….if you’re beginning with Kant, and want to get at the whole modernity/Enlightenment issue, why not give them Herder’s “How Philosophy Can Become More Universal and Useful for the Benefit of the People,” a short essay available in Michael Forster’s recent collection of Herder translations. It’s a loose, weird, funky piece, but it gives one an intro to how, following Herder, later romantics and hermeneutic thinkers took up the pre-critical Kant against the Kantian tradition, and insisted on the priority of sentiment, culture, language and anthropology to any progress in morality and knowledge. In short, the counter-Enlightenment. Granted, you can get more quickly and cleanly to the really provocative antimodern/postmodern stuff by setting up the problem strictly the way Nietzsche and Heidegger later exploded it, but–perhaps because I’ve just never been particularly interested in much of the heavy theory out there (like zdenek, it has seemed mostly muddle-headed to me)–I kind of prefer making it clear that there have been, as Charles Taylor put it, “alternative modernities” all along.


Penelope 06.13.06 at 7:20 am

Peter Sloterdijk


Bitch | Lab 06.13.06 at 8:01 am

One of my favorite guides on this topic, though he’s working it from the perspective of American pragmatism, is Richard Bernstein’s The New Constellation: Ethical-Political Horizons of Modernity/Postmodernity. A chapter or two might be excellent material since Bernstein does very close readings of Derrida, Foucault, Habermas.

When I took a course in post-structuralist theory as an undergrad, we used Madan Sarap’s handy introduction, An Introductory Guide to Post-Structuralism and Postmodernism. I don’t know what’s come along that’s new and improved since then, and I’m not familiar with Critchley, so I’d love to hear about other introductory/companion texts.


eweininger 06.13.06 at 8:57 am

I would suggest a little Merleau-Ponty, since the centrality he accords to bodily experience is fairly alien to the Anglo-American tradition of philosophy, at least as I understand the latter.


Patrick S. O'Donnell 06.13.06 at 10:11 am

In addition to some of the above (especially Foucault and Habermas), and although I’m not sure where ‘recent’ begins, I would certainly use two volumes that provide nice introductions to phenomenology and existentialism respectively: Robert Sokolowski, Introduction to Phenomenology (Cambridge, UK: CUP, 2000), and David E. Cooper, Existentialism: A Reconstruction (Oxford, UK: Basil Blackwell, 1990). And I would fit Sartre and Beauvoir in as required and recommended reading. For example, Sartre’s Being and Nothingness; his Critique of Dialectical Reason; his work on the emotions; several plays, including his rather neglected The Freud Scenario (English, 1985), and The War Diaries: November 1939/March 1940. As for Beauvoir’s work, there’s much to choose from in addition to The Second Sex and The Ethics of Ambiguity, perhaps The Mandarins, Old Age, but also another comparatively neglected but brilliant book, her travel diaries from a sojourn in 1947 to the US: America Day by Day. On the recommended reading list would also be Joseph Fell’s study of Heidegger and Sartre. I’m rather old-fashioned, I suppose, and relatively ignorant of the latest productions of continental philosophy. In all fairness, we should fit Camus in here too!


Patrick S. O'Donnell 06.13.06 at 11:16 am

Incidentally, I might have mentioned that one of the virtues of having to teach a course such as this is the opportunity to expose students to different styles, modes, or genres of philosophical exploration and discourse (to be sure, in some quarters this would be a liability), to allow students to discover that what ‘counts’ as ‘proper philosophy’ can take many forms, it need not be that which predominates in the profession’s leading journals. Of course this fact can be linked to the history of philosophy more generally….


ECW 06.13.06 at 12:17 pm

I just finished teaching an upper division course on recent continental political philosophy at my mid-level SLAC. Since they were poli sci students mostly (with a smattering of phil majors), most had only one relevant prerequisite, usually either classical or modern political theory. I did all the background in the first 4 weeks; we started with Kant/Foucault “What is Enlightenment,” a bit from Philosophy of Right, read a series of selected aphorisms from Nietzsche, did the Critique of Violence, read Heidegger’s essays “What is Metaphysics,” and “Question Concerning Technology,” and read a selection from Dialectic of Enlightenment. This was a slog, but gave me a chance to contextualize the questions emerging in continental thought while helping them learn how to read this style of text. We then jumped straight into the last generation, reading Debord’s Society of the Spectacle, Laclau and Mouffe Hegemony and SOcialist Strategy, Agamben’s Homo Sacer, Badiou’s Ethics, Latour’s We Have Never Been Modern, and excerpts from Between Fact and Norm. My students did a great job with these texts, despite their lack of background. I think there were two reasons for this: 1) they had to write a 4-5 page critical essay for each week’s readings, due before the seminar meeting (that ensured carefulreading and thoughtful prep), and 2) they had to write a research paper on one of the recent thinkers covered. I required a detailed lit review (at least 7 peer reviewed sources) for that project early in the semester, which meant a portion of the class had reviewed secondary literature on each hthinker before we discussed the work, thus raising the general level of knowledge in the class.

In short, this material can be taught to undergrads lacking huge amounts of prior knowledge, if you keep them deeply engaged in the texts by requiring lots of writing.


Adam Kotsko 06.13.06 at 12:25 pm

If you assign On Belief, I will literally fly out to Singapore and kill you.

For aesthetics, you might want to assign either Agamben’s Man Without Content or Jean-Luc Nancy’s The Muses. The Levinas interview book Ethics and Infinity would sincerely be good for this kind of course — despite the above commenter’s accusations of “muddle-headedness,” it is pretty clear. Something by Sloterdijk would be great, but I don’t know what there is that would be short enough.

Derrida’s On Hospitality talks about Kant’s “Perpetual Peace” kind of a lot — another good Derrida book to assign might be Adieu to Emmanuel Levinas (if you’re going to assign Levinas) or else Monolingualism. Force of Law would also be good, and it would give you a reason to throw Benjamin into the mix.

The kids might like Agamben’s State of Exception, since it relates to contemporary politics.

Please note that teaching this course still does not make you a continental philosopher.

It strikes me that your initial strategy of using Kant’s text together with Foucault’s might be a good way of organizing the whole course — always assign the older text that the new person is commenting on.


Dan K 06.13.06 at 12:35 pm

The problem here is that Recent Continental Philosophy does not make any sense at all without a fairly good grip on Nietzsche, Heidegger, Marx and any given structuralist (Levy-Strauss, Saussure, Archeology-era Foucault). Personally, I’ll go with Rorty. He has a good understanding of contemporary Continental Philosophy, is readable, and provide an instant comparison to pragmatism. Lyotard’s “The postmodern condition” is also useful, and much, much better than the lit-crit pomo/PS crap that typically “represents” postmodernism. It also fits nicely with Kant’s and Foucault’s essays on enlightenment.


John Holbo 06.13.06 at 12:35 pm

Adam Kotsko: “If you assign On Belief, I will literally fly out to Singapore and kill you.”

Weren’t we discussing this trope, like, last month? The using ‘literally’ to mean ‘metaphorically’ thing?

“Please note that teaching this course still does not make you a continental philosopher.”

I would like to think my rather repetitive insistence that I am not a continental philosopher would also be of assistance here.


Adam Kotsko 06.13.06 at 12:38 pm

Since I’m no longer speaking to the person who thinks you’re a continental philosopher, I am forced to make that statement to you and hope he overhears.

You might want to think about including Bataille — some of his pornographic writings would probably be more accessible to students, quite apart from their intrinsic interest.

Does analytic philosophy have any major figures who also wrote erotica?


Dan K 06.13.06 at 12:44 pm

For the hell of it, they can also read Bataille’s “The story of the eye.” Minimally, it will always show how reasoned – if occasionally convoluted – ‘normal’ continental philosophy actually is. Camus will probably create this effect, too.


Dan K 06.13.06 at 12:45 pm

Two minds, one thought.


Wax Banks 06.13.06 at 12:49 pm

Pere Holbeaux says:

Adam Kotsko: “If you assign On Belief, I will literally fly out to Singapore and kill you.”

Weren’t we discussing this trope, like, last month? The using ‘literally’ to mean ‘metaphorically’ thing?

I’d be more concerned about the possibility that he’s using ‘literally’ to mean ‘literally,’ for God’s sake! You have at least 50 good years of life on this Earth ahead of you, don’t throw them away for the Giant of Ljubljana!


Anthony Paul Smith 06.13.06 at 1:00 pm

I took a class like this at DePaul. The way Kevin Thompson taught it was very good for setting up some major themes in a history sequence class. He organized it around the theme of responding to totalitarianism, which is a rather good way at getting to the heart of many of these philosophies.

The foundation of the class was: Husserl’s Vienna Lecture “Philosophy and the Crisis of European Man”, Heidegger’s “The Question Concerning Technology”, and Arendt’s last chapter of The Origins of Totalitarianism. From there he set up the (false) dichotomoy of critical theory/poststructuralism as the outgrowth of these phenomenological positions. We read Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment then a piece from Habermas that I forget (something about colonizing the life-world – I think it’s his ‘big book’). For poststructuralism we read Foucault’s Birth of the Prision and then Deleuze’s “Postscript on the Society of Control”.

It was a really good class, we were able to see the debates within philosophy .. opps … continental philosophy. Two tests, one paper, required attendance.

If you have to use a Zizek text and it has to be one of his minor works use Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism? or Welcome to the Desert of the Real.


Matt 06.13.06 at 2:09 pm

Not so much on topic, and it’s hard to know if he really counts as an “analytic” philosopher, since he’s a historian, but to answer Adam’s question above R. J. Hankinson at Texas wrote some works, set in the ancient world, that might as well be called “erotica” as _The Story of the Eye_, though I think it’s a stretch of the normal meaning of erotica to call TSOTE that.


Miguelito 06.13.06 at 2:24 pm

Immanuel Kant.

…..Oh, yes he can!


blah 06.13.06 at 2:28 pm

You might want to check out Rorty’s essay “The Continuity Between the Enlightenment and Postmodernism.” He presents his basic argument that the Enlightenment philosophical project should be abandoned, but the Enlightenment political project should be pursued.


John Emerson 06.13.06 at 3:13 pm

What do you call a philosopher working from Singapore? A Straits Philosopher?

He’s in an undefined cultural zone — mostly Chinese, sort of British, somewhat Muslim (but with Hindu-Buddhist highlights), and not really that far from some of the world’s few remaining cannibals.

Singapore isn’t even the Other, because no one cares. It’s more like the Semi or the Non or the Huh?

Of course, the Singaporian combination of technical efficiency and free markets, with managed democracy, minimal civil liberties, and minimal political participation is the wave of the future. You heard it here first.


Kevin Winters 06.13.06 at 3:32 pm

For Heidegger, I would suggest the first part of The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics where he invokes Novalis. This would be particularly useful given your desire to expose them to different styles of philosophy. Heidegger’s discussion of the distinction of philosophy from science and worldview formation would be instructive.


Dave Maier 06.13.06 at 3:50 pm

I second Patrick’s vote for Cooper’s Existentialism, which I believe is out in a revised edition. Dermot Moran has an Introduction to Phenomenology too. Andrew Bowie has a couple of wide-ranging books, Aesthetics and Subjectivity: from Kant to Nietzsche and From Romanticism to Critical Theory: The Philosophy of German literary theory. Maybe Taylor on Heidegger (e.g. in Philosophical Arguments). Herder is a good idea (maybe Isaiah Berlin; Taylor too).

But as you can tell I don’t have a background in this stuff. I wouldn’t discount the idea of sticking to primary texts, even complicated ones (e.g. ecw’s class, which sounds good). My fave actual Continentals are Deleuze (maybe Bergsonism, or D/G’s “Rhizome” in Mille Plateaux) and Gadamer (he and Habermas have a quick back and forth at one point: see Brice Wachterhauser, ed., Hermeneutics and Modern Philosophy, an excellent collection). But I’m a bit (or more) behind the times by now, I imagine, as my exemplars seem to be dead.


AA 06.13.06 at 6:16 pm

The Problem Here

The problem here
    is that
      Recent Continental Philosophy
       does not


       any sense





Patrick S. O'Donnell 06.13.06 at 6:40 pm

aa: There was no ‘problem’ until your comment, perhaps a sign this post has petered out.


Adam Kotsko 06.13.06 at 9:13 pm

With a couple notable exceptions, this thread didn’t go the way threads like this tend to go.


Russell Arben Fox 06.13.06 at 10:07 pm

A strong second to Dave Maier’s suggestion of Andrew Bowie; his work on the various aesthetic and linguistic subcurrents in the stream of modernity (how’s that for a metaphor) is first rate. I particularly like a short, very sharp and wide-ranging (he touches on everyone from Kant to Wittgenstein, catching Rorty and the Vienna Circle along the way) essay of his titled “The Meaning of the Hermeneutic Tradition in Contemporary Philosophy” in Verstehen and Humane Understanding (CUP, 1997). As for his recommendation regarding Habermas and Gadamer, another second; you might also want to check out an old collection, Interpreting Politics (NYU Press, 1987). It has essays by Rorty, Geertz, Taylor, Habermas, Foucault and others, and is structured pretty much entirely around the hermeneutic debate.


Kieran Healy 06.13.06 at 10:48 pm

With a couple notable exceptions, this thread didn’t go the way threads like this tend to go.

That’s just the kind of vapid, trivially obvious sentiment dressed up in needlessly convoluted meaningless jargon I’d expect from a deconstructivist Lacanian postmodernist relativist like you.


Patrick S. O'Donnell 06.14.06 at 12:11 am

What little I do know about ‘poststructuralists’ in spite of my Sartrian (and I suppose now ‘Habermasian,’ IF it means taking sides in ‘critical theory’ v. poststructuralist political thought) predilection, comes courtesy of Todd May’s Political Philosophy of Poststructuralist Anarchism (1994). His book on the moral theory of poststructuralism is on my ‘to read’ list (I admit to smiling upon learning how small the book was). I just discovered he’s also written a one volume study: Twentieth Century Continental Philosophy, which of course I’ve yet to read. Maybe if others are more familiar with May’s work they can let John know what they think….

Incidentally, when I was being trained in ‘Religious Studies,’ Gadamer’s Truth and Method was all-the-rage (along with anything by Ricoeur) prompting me to cultivate a fondness (yes, it’s possible) for Habermas. Indeed, I tried to defend his reading of Freud from Grunbaum’s rather positivistic attack in The Foundations of Psychoanalysis… (Grunbaum took on several leading lights there) in a seminar paper which I’ve since lost. One consequence of all this was a further and deeper immersion in the Freudian stuff, especially the neo-Freudian and Kleinian/neo-Kleinian literature (while Habermas himself seemed to have lost all interest), and if only for that reason I’m grateful Grunbaum stirred things up. No doubt my own hermeneutic skills have proven insufficient when it comes to the likes of Lacan, meaning Zizek has remained rather opaque for me, although I’ll concede he’s quite a clever fellow. I get a little dizzy from (intimidated by?) all the intellectual acrobatics and not a few unfamiliar references (I suppose in some measure I remain culturally illiterate). And on top of all that I could be dim-witted and impatient….

I’m not above wondering if there’s a bit too much fawning over the latest French intellectual fashions. And perhaps there’s a generation gap here too (at least in my case). So, at the end of the day, I’m ‘reading’ (i.e., preferring, enjoying) Sartre or Beauvoir or Habermas, while others are reading Lyotard and Lacan, Deleuze and Zizek.


Slavoj Žižek 06.14.06 at 12:59 pm

But perhaps the most “important” texts are those which have not been written???


Ben 06.15.06 at 5:14 pm

If you are going to read something by Heidegger that gives you a background of phenomenology, why not the History of the Concept of Time? He discusses Brentano, Husserl, and his own project of Being and Time. I think that book is an easier intro. to his though than Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics.

“’m an analytic, but I team-taught a course last year with Aspazia from Mad Melancholic Feminista tracing the history of the analytic/continental divide”

Is the syllabus for this online? I’d love to see it.


Kevin Winters 06.16.06 at 12:12 pm


I fully agree that History of the Concept of Time is easier, but I was suggesting Fundamental Concepts because of Heidegger’s different conception of philosophy as attunement, as opposed to worldview creation or as a science. I wouldn’t suggest the entire thing in an introductory course, but I think the first part is useful for showing other ‘styles’ of philosophy than the current analytic view or the widerange misunderstandings of continental/postmodern thought.


Brian 06.18.06 at 7:52 pm

If you want to draw undergraduates into the subject, I think it’s best to start with something they’ll be able to recognize, or at least grasp, then move to the target material.

For instance: the Searle/Derrida debates in Glyph, starting with your own paraphrase of SEC (not the essay itself, yet), then Searle’s understandable and naive objections, then finishing off with Derrida setting things straight in Limited, Inc.

From another tack: Give ’em appropriate excerpts from Marx (Capital), the Althusser, then Foucault.

Habermas… eh, ok, but as an “answer” to Foucault, there’s no point.

Likewise: selections from Freud’s Oedipus stuff, then Deleuze & Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus.

Cixous for a version of continental feminism (no prior prep should be needed)

Zizek…? Joking, yes?

The closest you should come to Zizek is: forget Zizek. Just read Lacan’s lectures on Poe, then Derrida’s “Purveyor of Truth”. (too bad big D is dead; Zizek’s bloating corpus could really, really use a derridean scalpel)

Or not.


Brian 06.18.06 at 8:04 pm

oiks… sorry, as I was reading all the other replies, I forgot the fact that you had a theme you were trying to work around, not just a survey of continental philosophy. So much of what I writ was pointless.

So I’ll just second the motion — and underscore it — to include the Adorno and Horkheimer piece. That thing rocks.

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