Simon Critchley, Continental Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction. Book review

Simon Critchley, Continental Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2001. 149 pp.

 Book review

Simon Critchley is Professor and Chair of Philosophy at the New School for Social Research in New York. His book Continental Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction appears in an Oxford University Press series in which each volume is intended to function as “a stimulating and accessible way into a new subject”. In an attempt to provide a comprehensive account of continental philosophy, Critchley offers readers a personalized essay with three prevailing themes.

The first is a historical account of the division between analytic and continental philosophy that has taken place since the early twentieth century. Critchley argues that this division reflects the conflict in British post-Kantian intellectual culture between its literary-humanistic and empirical-scientific trends. The origin of this divide is related to the two different approaches to Kant. The first approach that caused the appearance of the analytic tradition focuses on the Immanuel Kant’s First Critique and stresses the role of epistemology. The second approach which gave rise to the continental philosophy prioritizes Kant’s Third Critique that examines the correlation between theory and practice. Critchley dates the analytic-continental division to the times of the split in British intellectual life between the Benthamite Utilitarianism and Coleridgean Romanticism.

The second theme of the book relates to the conflict between science and phenomenology illustrated by the confrontation between Carnap and Heidegger in the first half of the 20th century. At this point Critchley suggest a middle path in the form of a “science-friendly phenomenology” combined with a science that is aware of its pre-theoretical foundations. The third important theme is discussion of the nature of relationship between knowledge and wisdom.

The main purpose of the book consists in seeking for tolerance, understanding and reconciliation of the analytic and continental traditions of thought. This is a very timely and ambitious undertaking since relations between the two camps are characterized by mutual incomprehension and hostility. The author’s advantage is that he is well acquainted with both sides. He believes that the two traditions should be regarded as complimentary; therefore he promotes the idea of their intercommunication and cooperation. To achieve unity in these traditions for Critchley is in avoiding analytic philosophy “scientism” that reduces all truth to empirical evidence and continental philosophy “obscurantism” that intentionally create confusion and perversion. It should be noted however that Critchley’s usage of “obscurantism” is vague and may include almost any claim that doesn’t proceed from a naturalistic ground. At the same time, warning of the dangers of ‘scientism,’ he defines it so narrowly that practically no one can be accused as being guilty of it.

One of the main drawbacks of the book is that it doesn’t present continental philosophy on its own terms. Focusing upon the conflict between two traditions Critchley tends to present the continental school of thought rather negatively and reactively, based on its relation to analytic philosophy. The book would be more balanced if the author paid appropriate attention to the positive account of diversity and philosophical impact of the continental tradition. It is problematic to be optimistic about reconciliation of traditions without comprehensive understanding of their differences. A more detailed account of the history and primary thinkers of continental philosophy could be found in Continental Philosophy: A Critical Approach by William Schroeder, in Continental Philosophy: A Contemporary Introduction by Andrew Cutrofello or in A Companion to Continental Philosophy by Simon Critchley and William Schroeder.

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