What Is Continental Philosophy? An Interview with Edward Baring

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Edward Baring is Associate Professor of Modern European History at Drew University and the author of the new book Converts to the Real: Catholicism and the Making of Continental Philosophy (Harvard, 2019). Chapter 1 incorporates discussions from Baring’s article “Ideas on the Move: Context in Transnational Intellectual History,” which was published in the Journal of the History of Ideas in 2016. An excerpt from the book is freely accessible in Church Life Journal. Baring is also author of The Young Derrida and French Philosophy, 1945–1968 (Cambridge, 2011), which won the Morris D. Forkosch Prize from the Journal of the History of Ideas. Contributing editor Jonathon Catlin interviewed him about his latest book.

Jonathon Catlin: I want to start with a central question animating Converts to the Real: What is “continental philosophy”? As you show, this term began as a pejorative and is plagued by contradictions, notably that many key “analytic” philosophers—Frege, Wittgenstein, Carnap—were born and trained in central Europe. Contemporary philosophers often try to deconstruct this analytic/continental binary. Simon Critchley, for example, writes that these categories are “to a great extent, sectarian self-descriptions that are the consequence of the professionalization of the discipline” in recent decades. Your intellectual history shows that these categories are not so much wrong as they are historical; as that continental hero Nietzsche once wrote about concepts, “only that which has no history can be defined.” Your book answers this question not with a definition but by telling the story of how a provincial school of phenomenology in southwest Germany grew into a major intellectual force. “We can speak of ‘continental philosophy,’” you conclude, insofar as the networks that disseminated phenomenological thought really did span the European continent. How do you approach this term?

Edward Baring, Converts to the Real
(Harvard University Press, 2019).

Edward Baring: I’m not interested in the term “continental philosophy” per se, which as you rightly say is quite problematic and was not used by the authors I study. I start with it, nonetheless, because of the way it points to one of the most fascinating characteristics of European philosophy in the twentieth century: the rapidity with which phenomenology, especially that of Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger, spread and dramatically reshaped intellectual traditions across the continent. In the postwar period we find phenomenologists everywhere: Jan Patočka in Czechoslovakia, Roman Ingarden in Poland, Enzo Paci in Italy, as well as of course Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir in France. And this success is surprising, not only because Europe was sharply divided politically, linguistically, and in terms of its academic institutions, but also because the main proponents of Germany phenomenology did little to promote its international reception. Though he lived eight miles from the French border, Husserl only lectured in France once in his life. And Martin Heidegger was widely known in the 1930s and ’40s to be a member of the Nazi party. We should grapple with the conundrum that of all the philosophical traditions that could have gained traction across Europe following World War II, it was a German one, and one whose political leanings were at the very least suspect. As I say in the book, the term “continental philosophy” hides an historical enigma in plain sight.

JC: Your book is impressively transnational, including thinkers and sources from Spain, Italy, and Poland as well as France, Germany, and Belgium, which, crucially, are all countries with strong Catholic traditions. Herman Van Breda alone left behind letters written in six languages, and the location of the Husserl Archives he founded in the small but central country of Belgium facilitated international connections in French, Dutch, and German. Yet European philosophy around the turn of the twentieth century, when your book begins, was quite provincial and national. The Latin-language Republic of Letters of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries had fragmented into vernacular languages, and national universities remained resistant to new currents of thought. Against these obstacles, how did phenomenology become so widespread?

EB: This is my guiding question and it is one that I think requires a shift away from standard approaches to transnational history. For a variety of reasons, intellectual historians interested in the transnational have tended to examine one-to-one transfers, how a set of ideas crossed a particular border and took root in a particular country. This approach encourages scholars to focus on those aspects of local intellectual traditions that allowed and shaped this reception. And thus we get stories about what was distinctive about say “French” phenomenology or “Italian” phenomenology. But what is interesting about phenomenology is not that it travelled to France or Italy, but that it travelled to France and Italy, as well as to Poland, Spain, Portugal, and elsewhere. To explain its international success, we need an approach that doesn’t assume that the most significant differences were those between individual national receptions. Sometimes the connections between thinkers across borders are much more robust than those within them.

Given the fragmentation of academic life in Europe, especially in philosophy, I wasn’t going to find this sort of robust transnational connection in the usual places. Rather, I came increasingly to focus on Catholics. They crop up all across Europe and early on, writing articles and books on phenomenology, teaching it in their classes, and translating texts. Their importance made sense to me, because they already participated in a transnational community. Scholars circulated between Catholic universities, read each other’s work, and contributed to debates occurring in Catholic circles across the continent. Here was an intellectual community that could overcome the philosophical parochialism of the modern age.

JC: My own academic trajectory reflects part of the story told in your book. Seeking a place to study continental philosophy—and despite my focus on Jewish thought—I found myself considering a number of Catholic institutions you mention, including Notre Dame, Boston College, DePaul, and Duquesne. I ended up doing my masters at the Catholic University of Leuven (KU Leuven), in Belgium, which houses the Husserl Archives. For centuries, Leuven had been a center for Catholic thought, especially for the study of St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. But in the late 1930s, as Chapter 9 recounts, Leuven also became the home of the papers and library of the German philosopher and father of phenomenology Edmund Husserl, a former professor at Freiburg who was expelled from the university community in 1933 due to his Jewish origins. Husserl’s materials were rescued from potential destruction by the Nazis by the Flemish scholar Herman Van Breda, who was also a Franciscan priest (which you show he downplayed in his role establishing the Archives). Combining phenomenology with philosophy of religion helped make Leuven a major continental department. In what ways does Leuven exemplify your argument about the remarkable alliance of Catholic thought and phenomenology?

Husserl and Heidegger,  St. Märgen 1921

EB: The Higher Institute of Philosophy (ISP) in Leuven plays a central role in my project, because after its foundation in 1889, it became the epicenter for a new type of Catholic intellectual project. The inaugural President, Désiré Mercier, chose “Nova et Vetera” [the new and the old] as its motto, in order to highlight how scholars working at the Institute would combine study of Medieval texts with an engagement with modern philosophy and science. For Mercier, Catholicism needed to update itself, to engage with the modern world, not retreat from it. That is why Leuven scholars set up scientific laboratories, sought to participate in contemporary debates, and encouraged students to study cutting-edge ideas. It is also why they embraced phenomenology. It seemed a modern form of thought that was compatible with Catholic ideas, without being Catholic itself.

Because philosophers at Leuven wanted to engage with the non-Catholic world, their embrace of phenomenology had broader resonance and influence. In the 1920s and ’30s phenomenology became a means for debating with Protestants as well as secular and atheistic thinkers. That is why, I argue, we can’t treat the Catholic reception in isolation. It was intimately connected to the receptions in other religious and non-religious contexts. In fact, phenomenology became a privileged language for articulating religious difference, what made a form of thought Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, or atheistic.

JC: Can you spell out more explicitly which dimensions of phenomenology made it appealing to Catholic thinkers? I found the case of Karol Wojtyła, who became Pope John Paul II, particularly interesting. He wrote his habilitation on the German phenomenologist Max Scheler, arguing that Scheler’s work could “aid us in the analysis of ethical facts on the phenomenological and experiential plane.” You write at another point, “For neo-scholastics, phenomenology could help secular thinkers recognize God’s order in the world.” It seems phenomenology’s “appeal to the concrete subject”—or to “the real” in your book’s title—offered an alternative and corrective to the neo-Kantian transcendental idealism more favored by Protestant thinkers.

EB: By and large, Catholic scholars associated the transcendental subject of the Kantian and post-Kantian traditions with Protestantism and, by extension, modern secular individualism. That is why they found Husserl’s phenomenology so attractive. Husserl’s injunction to go zu den Sachen selbst [to the things themselves]” seemed to imply that we had access to the mind-independent real, and thus could recognize our inherence in a social and a natural order that pointed ultimately to the existence of God. But as I argue in the book, there were many conflicting ways to get to the real (and multiple understandings of what the word “real” meant), especially after 1913, when Husserl seemed to retreat from his earlier position and embrace a transcendental idealism. Some Catholics argued that Husserl’s trajectory showed that they needed to reject the modern “starting point” of philosophy, the subject, in order to affirm a metaphysical realism. Others thought realism required reevaluating how we understood that subject, most commonly by emphasizing its embodiment. These were not minor points of philosophical interpretation, but major difference that often mapped onto the longstanding division in Catholic philosophy represented by Thomas Aquinas and Augustine.

Edmund Husserl’s annotated personal copy of his former student Martin Heidegger’s 1927 book Sein und Zeit (1927) [Being and Time], which was dedicated to Husserl “in friendship and admiration.” Housed at the Husserl Archives at KU Leuven, Belgium

JC: While there are many works on the “greats” of the continental tradition, you bring attention to lesser-known figures—many of them Catholic—who did the intellectual footwork of disseminating their approaches by producing “the textual resources (introductory books and articles) that facilitated the spread of phenomenology and existentialism, especially where translations were thin on the ground.” These figures “set the terms of the debate” as intellectual distributors and intermediaries. What are some examples that made it into your book?

EB: The history of philosophy has for perhaps obvious reasons remained wedded to the “great man theory of history” for far longer than other fields. And this is nowhere more apparent than in the history of phenomenology. An oft-repeated anecdote recounts a meeting between Sartre, de Beauvoir and Raymond Aron in 1932. Aron had just returned from study in Berlin, and he spoke excitedly to his friends about phenomenology, arguing that it allowed one to do philosophy about the everyday, even about the apricot cocktails they were drinking. Scholars have latched onto the anecdote, on the assumption that once we know how Sartre came across phenomenological ideas we have explained the origins of the French tradition. But of course if he had been the only person in France interested in phenomenology, if his ideas didn’t draw upon and feed into a preexisting interest, despite his philosophical brilliance, Sartre wouldn’t have been able to make a career for himself. He would have been a lone voice, and wouldn’t have become “Sartre” the famous and influential thinker.

This broader context is interesting for a number of reasons. First, it encompasses a more diverse set of philosophers than that normally associated with phenomenology. Though mid-century philosophy was hardly exempt from prejudice, the process of canonization blinds us to the large number of women working in the field, not just famous figures like Edith Stein, but also others like Hedwig Conrad Martius and Sofia Vanni Rovighi. Second, these thinkers helped shape the philosophical discussion. One interesting case is that of “ontology.” In the 1940s, it was widely assumed that an ontological reading would dampen the religious resonances of existential phenomenology. This idea animates Emmanuel Levinas’s philosophy of the other, Jean Wahl’s reading of Heidegger and Kierkegaard, and Sartre’s own project. Recall that the subtitle of Sartre’s Being and Nothingness is “an essay on phenomenological ontology.” At first glance, the claim seems quite strange, especially since ontology was central to the Thomist reading of phenomenology. But we can understand it by tracing it back to the Friday-evening soirées of the Catholic existentialist, Gabriel Marcel, which welcomed all of Levinas, Wahl, and Sartre in the 1930s. There, in seeking to justify a heterodox Christian philosophy, Marcel and his guests argued that Thomist ontology was, ironically, a danger to religious belief, because it overestimated human rational capacities, and shut out the personal side of faith.

JC: I want to pick up on a similarity between your two monographs: the receptions of phenomenology, existentialism, and deconstruction have all demonstrated robust “compatibility with Catholicism” despite widely being considered atheistic philosophies. Hence you write: “The supposition that religious ideas might slip into secular philosophy unannounced…is crucial for my argument.” This relates to what you call “the ambiguity of conversion,” how phenomenology led various thinkers both toward (Edith Stein) and away from (Maurice Merleau-Ponty) Catholic thought. As you described this affinity, I couldn’t help but think of the embrace of the Algerian-born French-Jewish philosopher Jacques Derrida’s work by Catholic thinkers you mention in your conclusion, such as John D. Caputo and Richard Kearney. As I understand it, Derrida was quite open to Catholic readings of his work, Husserl much less so. Yet you reject the view that phenomenologists are somehow “crypto-Catholics.” So where do you draw the line between affinity, resonance, and distortion in religious receptions of phenomenology?

EB:  I want to distinguish between the claim that we can trace the genealogy of a set of ideas back to Catholic thinkers, and the claim that this genealogy makes those ideas “Catholic,” which is a version of the genetic fallacy. Intellectuals draw ideas from a range of sources. They engage with those ideas, adapt and transform them at both superficial and fundamental levels, so one cannot simply assume that any label that had once been attached to those ideas remains valid.

But even if we reject such reductive readings, genealogies of this sort can be really helpful. The example you give is a good one. Despite Derrida’s famous claim that he “rightly pass[ed] as an atheist” [see Baring’s co-edited volume The Trace of God: Derrida and Religion], his ideas have been embraced by a number of Catholic thinkers. And we can begin to understand that embrace through the ways in which Derrida himself drew on Catholic ideas. In fact, we can suggest that there is a privileged relationship, a sort of tried and tested compatibility, between the two, even if that privilege does not define those ideas or prevent others from developing them in a very different direction. I think that the same could be said about other forms of secularization. The fact that we can identify religious antecedents to a particular secular ideology doesn’t make it a crypto-theology. But it does help explain why its impact might be felt unevenly by different religious traditions. The history of laïcité in France is a good example.

JC: In recent years we have seen a “turn to religion” in twentieth-century European intellectual history, for example, in works by Samuel Moyn, Piotr Kosicki, and James Chappel. Has this turn run its course, or does the field as a whole still underestimate the importance of religion?

EB: Though it is by no means the only game in town, I do think that there is more work to be done. For many years, modern European intellectual historians overlooked religious thought, assuming that it was a relic from a previous era, and so couldn’t have a significant impact on the intellectual developments they were studying. I shared these assumptions myself. When I went to the Derrida archives for my first project, I ignored all of Derrida’s early essays on religious topics, thinking that they weren’t relevant to my research. It was only later as I was trying to make sense of what Derrida had written elsewhere that I realized that his engagement with Christian scholars in his twenties might be important; indeed, it came to inform one of the central arguments of that book. The impact of religious ideas and institutions has become even clearer thanks to the heightened interest in transnational phenomena. Because of the international nature of many religious organizations, most obviously the Catholic Church, the influence of religion tends to come into sharper focus when historians expand their scope beyond national boundaries.

The Trace of God: Derrida and Religion,
eds. Edward Baring and Peter Gordon
(Fordham University Press, 2014).

JC: You contend in a methodological note that while your book is highly contextualist, as a study of networks in which ideas are produced, contextualism needs de-contextualist readings (here you invoke Derrida) to illuminate what your source texts aim to do, which you call “philosophical conversion.” Could you elaborate on this idea?

EB: As intellectual historians, we spend a considerable amount of time placing ideas into their various contexts, and this approach has transformed the way we understand multiple authors and ideas. Given this success, it is tempting to slip from the claim that a certain piece of context helps us elucidate or reread a particular text to the claim that its arguments lose validity outside of that context. But this is clearly wrong; all our ideas have a history, and that doesn’t prevent them from playing meaningful roles in contemporary debates.

To address this problem, I think that intellectual historians should pay as much attention to processes of decontextualization—that is how ideas and texts leave particular contexts and shed the markers of their origins—as they do to contextualization. In the book I do this by using the concept of conversion. The concept clearly derives from the subject matter of the book, but I think it is more broadly applicable, for it draws attention to the ways in which scholars attempt to win over those who disagree with them by adopting reasoning and arguments that their interlocutors might find convincing. That means that most scholarly texts are already divided and contested, with one foot in at least two opposing camps. They are never, even to begin with, confined to their context of origin.

JC: What’s your next project?

EB: I’m getting started on a project on “vulgar Marxism,” which is my attempt to think through the Marxist tradition in the twentieth century. Readers of the blog are probably familiar with “vulgar Marxism” as an insult. What fascinates me is that, though rarely scrutinized, the insult is virtually ubiquitous, appearing in texts by authors in Europe and beyond throughout the twentieth century. In fact, I would go so far as to claim that “vulgar Marxism” is the constitutive other of the Marxist tradition, especially what is often called “Western Marxism.” It is the set of ideas in opposition to which theorists crafted their positive projects, whether that meant reasserting the autonomy of culture and ideas in opposition to a “vulgar” base-superstructure reductionism, reintroducing forms of voluntarism against a “vulgar” fatalism, or being attentive to the dialectic unlike “vulgar” positivism. Because it was also a fraught concept, especially for thinkers like Antonio Gramsci, Karl Korsch, and the Peruvian José Carlos Mariátegui, who devoted considerable time and effort to educative projects, leading study circles, writing popular manuals, organizing correspondence courses and the like, they confronted the problem of how one could popularize Marxism without vulgarizing it. Marxists thought a lot about the way ideas function when they leave the realm of academic study and become subject to popular debate. And it seems to me that, at a time when we face most acutely the promise and perils of the democratization of information, their reflections are more important than ever.

Jonathon Catlin is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of History and the Interdisciplinary Doctoral Program in the Humanities (IHUM) at Princeton University. His dissertation is a conceptual history of “catastrophe” in modern European thought, focusing on German-Jewish intellectuals including the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory.

Featured Image: Edmund Husserl’s desk and library at the Husserl Archives, KU Leuven, Belgium

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