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Saturday, 20 May 2006


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Rich Puchalsky

"When I got here, however, I discovered what I still take to be the central difference between Theory and continental philosophy: intellectual seriousness."

Hmm. That might have been an interesting addition somewhere around this part of a very short thread that recently took place on another blog. Perhaps we should continue the discussion here?

N. Pepperell

Institutional culture can do strange things to your sense of disciplinary identity - and also to practical things such as what you read. I received a really good grounding in German social theory and philosophy at my previous university, and as much grounding as I desired in the French "Continental" philosophy you mention here. I have to admit that I was turned off by most French-inspired theory, with the exception of some Foucault - perhaps I haven't read the right works, or read them closely enough, but works in this tradition always seemed to be saying things I thought were obvious, but dressing these obvious statements in a vocabulary that claimed to have found something profound...

With all this emphasis on theory, though, reading actual *philosophy* was discouraged in my department - particularly anything analytic. So my view of what had been happening in other philsophical traditions was heavily shaped by the opinions of folks who, I now know, themselves probably hadn't read any since the 1950s... Engagement with certain scientific disciplines was also discouraged, based on a disturbingly tenuous notion of what had been firmly empirically established by the social sciences.

I came to my current position thinking of myself as a social theorist, and found that everyone was reading my work and calling me a philosopher (mind you, this is only because my university has no proper philosophers around...). I kept having twinges because I really only knew a small slice of philosophy, and so I started reading more widely - only to realise how many other intellectual traditions had made analogous shifts to the traditions with which I was more familiar - and as a result often offered interesting and useful routes into problems that stymied my core tradition...

So I also feel that I've wasted a bit of time - I really should have been reading, and processing, so many approaches, so much earlier. For me, personally, though, this sense of wasted time tends to be overshadowed by my relief in now working in a place that encourages me to roam a bit, intellectually - that doesn't have such a strong demand for intellectual loyalty to a particular discipline or tradition... In a weird way, this freedom also makes it possible to be more intellectually serious - to follow an empirical and theoretical puzzle where it leads, rather than having to cut though short at that point on the theoretical map where, purportedly, "here there be tygers"...

Adam Kotsko

This is what I mean by your not being careerist enough.


The thing that sort of drops out here, Scott, is the value of the source works themselves. Sure, there are bad teachers of theory. There are bad historicists too. But this post makes it sound like your transformation was motivated mostly by a professional decision to drop one set of advisors/protectors and affiliate yourself with another set.

In other words, your move seems a bit overdetermined. What if you had fallen in initially with poor historicists and there was a party of good theorists over across the bar, giving you the eye?

I've had very good teachers, see, of a theoretical stripe. Responsible, lucid - one of them, as we've discussed, is at yr instution... There's no way you could accuse him of a lack of "intellectual seriousness" - and he's certainly not big voice / no thought. And while your mini-intellectual-bio follows the format "Prof. X ran a bad seminar, so I took up with Prof. Y," mine runs something like this: "I needed to work through problem X, and found text Y to be helpful. When problem X led me to problem Z, text A slid to the front of my bookshelf."

So, like, Benjamin stays important to me because of the issues that I'm working on. Not because of the quality of the people who read, teach, and write about him.

Belle Lettre

Aren't you supposed to be on a blog break because you're travelling?

At any rate, your post consoles me--for a couple of years I was wondering if I did the wrong thing going to law school instead of a critical theory emphasis grad program in English lit--like the one you thought you would do. Your post consoles me for two reasons: 1) I was not smart enough to start anew with critical theory in grad school. One quarter of it does not a theorist make. If you started all the way back as a Derrida admiring undergrad, what the hell was I thinking? (and to be honest, I didn't know much about the distinction between continental philosophy other traditions); and 2) I might have been annoyed by, or turned into one of those annoying people who drove you out of your theory classes.

But in the end, I got into the same trap at law school. It's strange being considered a critical race theorist because I don't theorize about race much anymore, and have always felt somewhat dishonest about it. As if my modicum of knowledge about theory really made me so much abler to interrogate how the law reifies and reproduces racial hegemony. It felt weird, all those discussions about Althusserian signs and signifiers of race in an opinion--as if that really mattered when at the end of the day there are real things you can do on behalf of the plaintiff. Maybe that's why I do the Commerce Clause now!

Ray Davis

Heck, why not start with the influence of Kant on Kleist?

T. Scrivener

"You take a little something from it which helps "further" some theoretical project and you slap it in there."

This is coming from an outsiders perspective but I think that the word "deployment" as it is used in Theory is the key to understanding Theory. The role of the word and concept of “deployment” in Theory is the source of complaints about the higher eclecticism, the star system, ( ironically) narrowness, dogmatism and even perhaps the funny comparisons to medieval theology that pop up every so often. A good way to start assessing these claims would be to start assessing this word and concept.


After an undergrad career of reading the meanderings of various French intellects, I've found Heidegger very useful for the more theoretical elements my dissertation (on early medieval Irish literature, but bear with me).

An excellent short intro, 'Heidegger and Literature' by Timothy Clark (Routledge) really helped dig me out of something like the kind of theory/lit hole you mentioned above - it's well worth a look.


Scott, I really appreciate this post. I can relate. I'm in the process of figuring out how to tie off a few loose end problems and to try and turn toward work that feels more responsible and rigorous. It's really hard, particularly when trying to do so in a way that's diplomatic and in good faith.

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