Contemporary Continental Thought

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9780131829190: Contemporary Continental Thought

Contemporary Continental Thought gives one central reference that brings together topics from many sources. This collection of readings provides a sense of the variety and depth of the contemporary thinker's positions. It is accessible and timely, with excellent selections that address a variety of issues. This anthology on recent continental philosophy is unique because it brings together in one volume: 1) an overview of critical theory, structuralism, French feminism, deconstruction, poststructuralism, postcolonialism, and postmodernism; 2) brief introductions to (and representative and accessible selections by) twenty important figures along with their photographs; and 3) commentary on the more than the thirty included readings. This book is the only one of its kind on the market, and is interesting reading for anyone involved or interested in contemporary commentary and thought.

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Stephen H. Daniel's Contemporary Continental Thought focuses on twenty authors who epitomize seminal work in critical theory, psychoanalytic structuralism, feminism, deconstruction, poststructuralism, postcolonialism, and postmodernism. Each chapter discusses the philosophies of individual thinkers and using accessible, representative readings from their works, provides guidance for understanding specific points of the selections and relates the many movements in recent continental thought.

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Many university philosophy programs have for some time offered courses in existentialism that treat Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Kafka, Camus, and Sartre as representatives of a popular and, for the most part, accessible mentality. In many college curricula, an existentialism course is listed at a sophomore level to encourage students with no formal background to study philosophy in a way that they might recognize as having an immediate application to their lives. In fact, when these courses were first introduced, they did attract many students who were looking for just the kind of insights that existentialism provided.

However, it was apparent early on that the doctrines of Heidegger and even Sartre could not be understood without some familiarity with phenomenology; and retrieving the intricacies of Hegel, Husserl, or Merleau-Ponty would have curtailed the amount of time instructors would be able to devote to the very writings that had originally drawn students to the course. In light of this, some departments opted to develop an upper-division course in phenomenology and existentialism; others split nineteenth-century philosophy off as a separate course. Depending on who taught them, some of these courses were part of a sequence in the history of philosophy, whereas others were more topical, literary, or in the history-of-ideas mode.

The development of continental philosophy especially since the 1960s soon made it apparent that further work on the curriculum was in order. Though some phenomenology and existentialism instructors made valiant attempts to keep their students abreast of what has happened in the last forty years, they generally failed to do justice to recent developments when they have tried to tack them onto existing courses. For many teachers, it was easier to yield the study of structuralist psychoanalysis, semiotics, deconstruction, critical theory, philosophical hermeneutics, poststructuralism, postcolonialism, and postmodernism to literature, history, or language departments, or to reserve these movements for graduate students, rather than to develop new courses geared to undergraduates.

Resisting such temptations, I set out more than a decade ago to create just such a course. At professional meetings colleagues commented that the course might work for honors students but were doubtful about whether other students could handle the often arcane jargon that characterizes much of current continental thought. As in discussions of how modern philosophy courses should be taught, we also debated about whether I should limit the course to the study of three or four works by representatives of different perspectives (e.g., Derrida, Foucault, Habermas, Lyotard) or whether I should make the course more comprehensive by including other figures, even if that meant relying on secondary materials and not being able to analyze texts closely.

Based on my experience in teaching modern philosophy courses, I chose breadth over depth for two reasons. First, because a great deal of exchange and commentary characterizes the work of current continental thinkers, it is fruitless to consider them in isolation. Remarks about one another's ideas so fill their texts that the instructor has to spend as much time talking about what is only alluded to in the text (and thus what is not immediately available to the student) as what is in the text. Second, the pedagogic elevation of major figures or works—and the marginalization or exclusion of others—undermines the effort in current continental philosophy to include literary authors, artists, and social theorists. A course limited to a canonical list of works by Derrida, Foucault, Habermas, and Lyotard would ignore their invitations to read sources other than Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, and Heidegger. Admittedly, the constraints of ordinary course planning require that some selection be made; but by leaving out Lacan, Kristeva, Adorno, Althusser, Gadamer, or Deleuze, we legitimate the narrowing of focus which they and their more well-known counterparts reject.

As I have observed in modern philosophy courses, students who are unimpressed with Descartes or Kant as exemplars of philosophical orthodoxy are often the ones who get excited by Condillac or Vico, precisely because these latter thinkers do not fit easily into the rationalist, empiricist, or idealist categories. A course devoted to thinkers who disrupt the principles underlying this nineteenthcentury taxonomy would indeed be an odd place to impose another exclusive model of canonical domination, this time one that marginalizes Saussure, Althusser, and Baudrillard merely because they do not have a name recognition in the United States comparable to Derrida.

As anyone familiar with continental philosophers can attest, immersion in their texts without the support of secondary sources can be an overwhelming experience. Most undergraduates, even the bright ones, become frustrated with some of the texts in ways that far from endear them to any further study in the field. Having to wade through Derrida, Habermas, or Deleuze without already knowing a good bit about what they are up to guarantees that they will develop the same carping contempt for the ideas of these writers that one hears all too often from colleagues who have approached their own reading of these thinkers unprepared and uninformed.

In the American Philosophical Association's newsletter on teaching philosophy (1993), I summarized the results of my early experience of teaching the course after several years. A revised and expanded version of that essay appeared as "Teaching Recent Continental Philosophy," in In the Socratic Tradition: Essays on Teaching Philosophy, ed. Tziporah Kasachkoff (Rowman and Littlefield, 1998; revised 2,403). Indeed, my preface here extends the revision of the essay once again. Now as earlier I think that it is a mistake to expect that students will understand or appreciate this new material if they are thrown solely into original sources. But without plunging into original sources they can hardly appreciate how current continental philosophers draw attention to the linguistic and material character of thought.

In this book I address this situation by including general background discussions or overviews of significant strategies, movements, and thinkers of current continental philosophy. Before each of the readings I have added notes that highlight some of the main points developed by the author. (Other editorial or translator's notes appear in brackets.) The readings themselves have been selected either because they capture the spirit or main ideas of the writer and are relatively straightforward or are now considered central in understanding the writer's overall thought. In some cases they are short essays, in others they are selections from longer works. Together they provide the reader a sense of the character and concerns of continental philosophy in the past forty years.

In contrast to the approach adopted in currently available anthologies, this book makes two points in particular. First, in arranging thinkers and movements in a specific order and according to determinate groupings, I want to emphasize that, apart from chronology, there are scholarly reasons to associate these thinkers in exactly this way. Second, despite the widespread assumption that strategies such as deconstruction, poststructuralism, and postmodernism all refer to roughly the same thing, I argue that it is important for both scholarly and pedagogic purposes to differentiate these movements from one another. In this respect I recognize that any effort to provide a taxonomy or schema for these views seems to contradict the spirit of intertextuality and exchange that informs all of them. But for someone who initially confronts current continental philosophy, it is better to get a good sense of a position (even if it is later found to be in need of qualification) than to think that understanding the view is necessarily complicated by its inherent relations to other positions.

In short, this book is intended for anyone who wants to understand the major ideas and thinkers of current continental philosophy, and that means getting clear on the real differences of critical theory, structuralism, psychoanalytic feminism, deconstruction, poststructuralism, postcolonialism, and postmodernism. My specific arrangement of thinkers is intended to do just that.

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