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The best books on Continental Philosophy

recommended by Simon Critchley

What is the nature of human existence in the world? What should philosophy be concerned with as a discipline? Philosopher Simon Critchley introduces us to the landscape of continental philosophy.

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Simon Critchley

Simon Critchley is the Hans Jonas Professor of Philosophy at the New School for Social Research. His work engages in many areas: continental philosophy, philosophy and literature, psychoanalysis, ethics, and political theory, among others. His most recent books include The Problem with Levinas and ABC of Impossibility, though he has written on topics as diverse as David Bowie, religion, and suicide. He is the moderator of the New York Times philosophical series 'The Stone.'

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Simon Critchley

Simon Critchley is the Hans Jonas Professor of Philosophy at the New School for Social Research. His work engages in many areas: continental philosophy, philosophy and literature, psychoanalysis, ethics, and political theory, among others. His most recent books include The Problem with Levinas and ABC of Impossibility, though he has written on topics as diverse as David Bowie, religion, and suicide. He is the moderator of the New York Times philosophical series 'The Stone.'

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What is continental philosophy?

I wrote a Very Short Introduction to continental philosophy, which came out in 2001, where I tried to answer that very question. There’s a quite specific answer where, in a sense, it’s that tradition of philosophy that begins after Kant, largely in the Germanophone world but also encompassing the English Romantics and other schools. It’s that tradition of post-Kantian thought beginning in Fichte, Schelling, Hegel, through to Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, and the rest, through to movements like phenomenology, critical theory, French post-structuralism and all of those things. In a sense, that tells you nothing.

“The continental tradition has always been about the inextricable relationship that philosophy as an activity of reflection has to wider issues”

For me, it’s a difference of orientation. The continental tradition, for me, is committed to the idea that philosophy is an essential part of culture, of a way in which a culture or social form of life reflects on its fundamental issues. In many ways, the view of philosophy in somewhere like the UK has changed over the last couple of generations to be a bit more continental in that sense and a bit more inclusive than it used to be. But when I was student, philosophy was something done by very remote people in tweed jackets with leather arm-patches on, in that Tom Stoppard style, agonising over the semantics of words in a very pointless way. It had no relationship to the world, culture, history, politics, and the rest.

The continental tradition has always been about the inextricable relationship that philosophy as an activity of reflection has to those wider issues. And then, also, the philosophers in the continental tradition – people like Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger – have always been thinkers that have been read as addressing the question of how we should live and how philosophy can intersect with the practice of a life in the world. So, to that extent, it’s always been much more relevant and practical in that sense, although a lot of the texts are difficult or at least superficially difficult.

And that concern with how we ought to live goes back to the very beginning of philosophy in the Greek tradition. So, it seems that certain strains of philosophy went astray and started chasing their tails in abstract conceptual analyses and ignoring these practical tangible questions about how we should live.

Yes. It’s also the link between the practical questions and also the historical questions. I’ve done philosophy over the years and I guess I was taught to do it that way, but philosophy is inseparable from the history of philosophy and from wider historical questions. The questions we ask are the same questions that the Greeks and the Medievals asked, and those questions are implicitly related to the context in which they emerged. So, for me, philosophy is not distinguishable from wider historical processes.

But, yes, there was a tradition that sought to isolate philosophy from those concerns in the name of a kind of purity. I think it’s an overly limited understanding of philosophical activity. Philosophy is an eminently practical activity and as a practical activity it cannot be separated from wider historical reflection upon itself and upon the world out of which it emerges. The history of philosophy is a way of thinking through different possibilities for our time as well. It’s not an antiquarian interest in the past; these are texts – like Plato’s Republic – which hold possibilities for where we are right now. That’s why history is important for me.

Can you tell me about the prominent methods or orientations that are used in continental philosophy? You mentioned ‘phenomenology’, for instance.

There’s a difference in relation to history. In the continental tradition, philosophy is inseparable from the history of philosophy and from wider historical, social and political questions. That also means that we’re more ‘proper name’ based than ‘theme’ based. So, courses in continental philosophy tend to be around major figures like Heidegger and Nietzsche, rather than questions like ‘what is the truth?’ or such like that. There’s a kind of concern with proper names and with texts but, again, it’s not antiquarian, it’s a way of giving oneself over to a different set of possibilities. That’s the key thing. If you read Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit – which is a book that I could have included in my top five – it’s a very hard book to understand but it’s a book where, once you’ve got it, it gives you a different perspective on where we are. And there’s an emancipatory dimension to that. So, this rigorous study of texts and history also has a strongly emancipatory content. That’s another key theme within the continental tradition, I think, which has been philosophy as an activity of reflection, and the possibility of human forms of self-liberation which could go by the name of enlightenment or whatever you want.

In relation to phenomenology, I remember being in the old Foyles bookshop in Charing Cross Road about 35 years ago. I’d heard of phenomenology but didn’t know anything about it; I was in London and wanted to find some books on the topic and just ended talking to this man in the bookshop – he didn’t work there, he was just hanging around the philosophy section – so, I said ‘what is phenomenology?’ and he said: ‘it’s sort of what’s going on out there,’ pointing out the window. It’s a stupid definition but it’s true. Phenomenology is the attempt to describe what shows up to us in our experience of the world and to find a kind of grammar and a set of structures for identifying what shows up. So, going back to emancipation, what is emancipating about phenomenology is that phenomenology is a way of getting out of your head; the answer isn’t inside, it’s outside. It’s not through some speculation on the particularities of the mind or the material qualities of the brain, but it’s a way of attending to what’s happening in the street or in the fields or wherever it might be and trying to observe that as closely as possible.

“It’s that attention to detail which characterises phenomenology, which is why it’s been so strongly linked to novelistic traditions”

So, phenomenology as a method is a method of description – of observation – of that which takes place in the world, at its most general, and then you can subdivide that into numerous different sub-areas. I could look out the window now and I’m looking over at the corner of 16th Street and 5th Avenue; I could spend a couple of weeks looking at that corner, observing it as carefully as possible, and produce an essay as a kind of ethnography of the world of that particular corner of a block in Manhattan.

I think it’s that attention to detail which characterises phenomenology which is also why it’s been so strongly linked to novelistic traditions. Many of the great phenomenologists were also great novelists, like Sartre and Camus and the rest. So, it’s the description of that which shows itself, that which shows up in the world. As a concrete example, in my football book, I’m doing a phenomenology of football. For example, it’s an attempt to answer the question of what is football not by an objective analysis of the nature of grass or the football pitch or what’s in the mind of the players, but by looking at the phenomenon of play and looking at what’s taking place in the figuration of individuals in this activity of play and trying to attend to that and describe it.

Let’s turn to the books. Your first choice is Plato’s Republic (380 BCE) This is a foundational text in philosophy but I wonder why you’ve singled it out particularly in your recommendations for continental philosophy.

Yes, it’s a bit cheeky because obviously it’s common to every approach to philosophy. I guess, I’ve been writing on it recently; I’m writing a book on philosophy and tragedy at the moment that I’ve been working on for years and years. So, I’ve been looking at the Republic closely again and thinking about it. The first thing to say is that ‘philosophy’ as a term, as a term of art, is something that Plato coins. So, we’re justified in coming to Plato in order to answer that question. And there are literary aspects of the Republic that are really important and fascinating, and there’s the whole question of the form of the dialogue. There’s the idea that philosophy begins not with a treatise – an essay –  it begins with a dialogue, a drama: a drama set at some point in the recent past with a hero, Socrates, who is killed by the city.

“The Republic is something that we could do well to go back to and think about the value of democracy: why are we so committed to it?”

The other thing to say is that the Republic is a perennial book in the sense in which it’s perennially read but also the ways that it shows up will be different at different points in history. If you think about the Republic right now, one’s eye is drawn to the critique of democracy. The main argument of the Republic is that democracy is a fine and ‘a many-coloured’ political form, but it leads ineluctably to tyranny. The key value in democracy for Socrates is freedom, and he says that freedom flips over into private licentiousness and that licentiousness gives rise to the licentiousness of the tyrant. So, democracy will lead to tyranny. That seems to be very germane to what’s happening in countries like the United States where freedom becomes a kind of licentiousness, a tyranny of private pleasure, and the country is now under the tyranny of the king of private pleasure, Donald Trump.

So, to that extent, negatively, the Republic has a great deal to say to us at this point: there is something wrong with democracy. And then, positively, the argument that Socrates makes is that there must be guardians: people trained to govern the city. This would be an abomination for western societies to follow; it would be against the whole idea of the open society, going back to Karl Popper. But maybe Plato has a point. Maybe society should be governed by the people who actually know something, rather than tyrants. But going back to the Republic now opens that question about democracy. Philosophy has always had a very odd relationship to democracy, overwhelming negative up until about John Dewey really. So, the Republic is something that we could do well to go back to at this point in history and maybe think about the value of democracy: what is the value of democracy and why are we so committed to it? Because it is a rather peculiar way of governing society, if you think about it.  I’m in favour of it, of course, but philosophy does raise some questions.

The Republic is also the text where poetry and the poets are banned from the envisaged ideal state. That seems to be something that would jar with the continental figures who you’ve mentioned are quite literary, are writing fiction and so on.

Yes, for sure. Continental philosophy from Hegel onwards – and particularly in Nietzsche – is deeply deeply anti-Platonic, particularly on the question of the arts. Plato’s thought in the Republic is that if we admit theatre into the just city then we’ll end up with the tyranny of spectacle: people will just end up gawping at things that they are attracted to, that they like, because they’re excessive and wild and they don’t seem to directly involve them. So, there’s a kind of tyranny of aesthetic experience in place which needs to be controlled in his view. And we find that outrageous, but then maybe it’s a question that we need to think about.

What is going on when we wake up listening to the sound of gunshots from the Mandalay hotel in Las Vegas on the television? Am I just concerned and shocked by that – or am I getting some pathetic aesthetic thrill out of that experience? Plato lets us question those things in ways which I think are unsettling. We think of art as just a good. Is it? Maybe it’s like feasting at a time of plague, something we shouldn’t necessarily be proud of. It’s a question that Plato reasons with, let’s put it that way.

Your second choice is The Mirror of Simple Souls (c.1290) by Marguerite Porete.

Yes, I wanted to choose this for a number of reasons. Firstly, the history of philosophy is taught as a history of blokes, largely, and that’s a problem. There’s a problem in the way in which the term ‘continental philosophy’ has been constructed around certain key male figures. I’ve been teaching a course over the last five/six years on mysticism. I’ve just had an interest in what’s going on in mystical experience, in the same way that William James was fascinated with mysticism in The Varieties of Religious Experience. And the philosophical tradition, certainly from Kant onwards but arguably earlier than that, is premised on the refusal of religious enthusiasm – mysticism, fanaticism and all the rest. I’m interested in pressing that a little bit. Also, if you look at the mysticism tradition so-called – the mystics didn’t call themselves mystics, they were just interested in spiritual experience, let’s say – they were largely women. They were women writing in a culture that didn’t allow them to write, therefore writing in the vernacular language. Many of the earliest vernacular texts we have in the European languages are written by women mystics like Julian of Norwich who wrote the first book in English by an English woman, which should be studied in every canon of English literature in my view and isn’t.

“Many of the earliest vernacular texts we have in the European languages are written by women mystics”

Marguerite Porete is this fairly obscure medieval French mystic who was burnt as a heretic in 1307. She wrote this book called The Mirror of Simple Annihilated Souls which is an extraordinary book. What she’s trying to describe in this book is her relationship to God as she understands it, but the core of the book really is an understanding of love. That’s why I wanted to mention her in connection to continental philosophy. First, it’s a book by a woman; philosophy is meant to be the love of wisdom but actually it’s a love of wisdom which would appear to be a uniquely male preserve.

Going back to the Republic, there are eleven people present in the discussion, six of them speak, and they’re all men. What is going on? What kind of love is that, where one half of the human race is dropped out of the picture? Marguerite Porete, like Julian of Norwich and many other spirituals in that tradition, is concerned with this question of love and that’s what I found powerful in this book. She talks about love as a process of what Simone Weill will call in the mid-20th century ‘decreation’: a process of ‘decreating’ or undoing the self. This is the way Porete puts it ‘one must hew and hack away at oneself in order to make a space large enough for love to enter in.’

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It’s that idea of love that I find really interesting, that kind of profound existential sense of love as something which requires an annihilation or stripping away of the self. That contrasts very strongly with the way people often talk about love where love is something that one individual has for another individual when they say ‘I love you.’ Love becomes a sort of mutual exchange of favours, you do this and I do that, and eventually we move in together and buy some furniture from IKEA. So, love risks this kind of flat, tepid experience, whereas in someone like Porete it’s this much deeper and more dramatic unsettling experience and that really interests me. That’s why I wanted to focus on her.

It’s a very strange disturbing book to read, written by someone who was burnt as a heretic who didn’t think of herself as a heretic, she thought she was just asserting the truth of how she understood Christianity. She sees love is a transformative act which transfigures the self, rather than something more minimal and neutral and cognitive. Without having a faith in God, which I don’t have, I want to hang on to that dramatic idea of love as a key idea of what it means to be a self in relationship to other selves.

Your next choice is Beyond Good and Evil by Friedrich Nietzsche (1886). Funnily enough, I’ve been quite ill this week and finished reading this yesterday. 

What did you think of it then? We should talk about your reaction to it!

Well, I was very caught off guard by certain things. I suppose I was surprised by how aristocratic he is in that he sees this innate evaluative hierarchy of human beings. Especially because Nietzsche is often taught in connection with existentialism, one tends to think of certain ideas about personal freedom and existence preceding essence and the ability to transform your situation. Whereas at points in Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche is saying that some people definitively are weak, and some are definitively strong. Look at the section on women, for instance, where he’s talking about women’s liberation as abhorrent and as almost a contradiction in terms; he thinks that some people just cannot change what they are. So, I found the way he circumscribes people to be really shocking. 

Absolutely, he’s a very shocking figure. There’s something powerfully repulsive about Nietzsche. He’s a figure of rank and of the mountaintops; He’s a thinker who’s for the few. As he’ll say over and over again, he’s a figure who has ‘come too soon’, he is ‘born posthumously’, he says ‘I am not a man, I am dynamite’ in Ecce Homo.

The first part of Beyond Good and Evil is called ‘On the Prejudices of the Philosophers’ and I love that part because he shows how ridiculous the philosophical pretension at rendering intelligible through the use of reason is and how preposterous that claim is. Everything you’ve said about Nietzsche is true, but I also see Nietzsche as a kind of sceptical realist: he is someone who is deeply sceptical about what philosophy thinks it’s up to and, indeed, what human beings think they’re up to in moving towards a theory of everything through a mixture of neuroscience and Buddhism or whatever it might be. He wants to claim that we don’t know. All that we can do is to peer through the lens of tragedy as the highest aesthetic experience at what we don’t know.

“There’s something powerfully repulsive about Nietzsche”

There’s a scepticism and realism in the Nietzsche of that period, in 1886, when he’s no longer the wild Wagnerian Nietzsche of The Birth of Tragedy. He’s a bit more crabby. Nietzsche is at his best when he’s really sticking it to people, as a powerful essayist pointing out the delusions that we have, particularly the way in which he grinds away at the prejudices of philosophers which is that through the activity of the intellect achieve a knowledge of that which is, and from that follows these moral proscriptions. Philosophers’ claims are never just ontological claims, they’re also moral claims. So, it’s Nietzsche’s attack on morality that I find incredibly powerful and in particular on Christian morality as he sees it. He wants to claim that Christian morality is a reactive formation that is at war with affirmation and life, which is what he wants to assert, and that leads him off into some pretty strange directions.

Nietzsche talks about ‘good and evil’ in the title of the work, but that doesn’t exhaust the moral landscape for him; he sees it as an artificial framework. Can you say what he means when he writes ‘beyond good and evil?’

Yes, Nietzsche’s project, which he never finished, was the revaluation of values. The claim is not that Nietzsche has no values, but that the values that we have and the values that we’re given, particularly through Christianity – the values of good and evil – that’s what he’s against. We have to revaluate the experience of values. So, Nietzsche is not an amoral thinker at all. He wants a deeper, more sustained experience of ethics which would be based for him on strength and the will to power and things like that which might disturb us a bit. This comes out clearly in The Genealogy of Morals, where he wants to show that the moral categories by which we understand things in our seemingly enlightened ways have this consequence of a history by which human beings have vivisected themselves, as he says. Human beings have lost access to their instinctual force and power and strength and their courageous inner truth. They have lost all of that and that needs to be regained. So, Nietzsche is at war with morality in a very powerful way. I don’t necessarily agree with everything he says, but I think Nietzsche’s negative critical destabilising side is incredibly powerful. It shakes you up.

He has this wonderful line which I think is in Ecce Homo about how he wants to let “old idols learn what it means to have legs of clay.” He’s knocking off unconditional objective values from their pedestal and actually showing that they have come about and developed because of all too human needs.

Yes, there’s a kind of realism and a return to the mud, the chaos, the messy complex stuff of what it is to be a human being and not to delude ourselves that we are pure beautiful moral souls, because we’re not.

Your fourth choice is Heidegger’s Being and Time (1927).

The interesting question is how could the most influential philosopher of the twentieth century – and he was, just quantitatively, the most influential philosopher of the twentieth century, in terms of the effect that he had on generations of thinkers after him in different traditions – have also been a Nazi? There’s that question which I won’t get into now but it has to be considered head-on. In the same way as in Plato’s Republic the arguments for philosophy are arguments against democracy, in Heidegger, the arguments for his conception of philosophy lead him to a sustained commitment to national socialism. And that has to pondered, not used as a basis for not reading him but using him to think more carefully about these questions. So, there’s that issue.

“How could the most influential philosopher of the twentieth century – and he was – have also been a Nazi?”

As to why Heidegger’s Being and Time is important, there’s a line very early in the text where he says something like Dasein – which is his name for human beings – is not enclosed in a ‘cabinet of consciousness’. Dasein is out there with and alongside things in the world. So, the primary message of Being and Time for me is that human existence and human life is literally ‘ecstatic’; the answer to it is not going to be found by looking inside our heads or through brain scans, it’s going to be had by engaging with what’s out there in our being in the world. Heidegger really shifts the focus of philosophy away from its concern with the self and the subject, towards a concern with our being in the world. That is a kind of fundamental shift in the way in which philosophical activity is understood and a lot follows from that. So, that’s the primary discovery of Being and Time. It means that the fundamental question of philosophy is no longer the question of epistemology, namely how can a subject know an objective world, which the question that we’ve basically inherited from Descartes and Kant. The question is now given that we’re already out there in the world, what sense can we make of it? Given that we’re out there already in the world, and the world is not a meaningless world, it is a world that is configured and hangs together as a world of significance, how can we understand that? How can we find the grammar to get hold of that? So, that’s what he tries to do.

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Heidegger gives us the analytical tools for understanding human existence in the world. If you begin philosophy from that starting point, it fundamentally changes the way that you understand the activity. It’s not about sense data pouring into eyes, and minds inside heads which might or might not be attached to brains, all of that is just left by the waste side. We’re out there, with things, with stuff, and that makes sense. How does it make sense, how does it hang together, and what can we say about it?

In Heidegger’s analysis of human beings, one of the unusual things, in terms of the philosophical tradition, is his focus on human beings – or ‘Dasein’ – in what he calls its ‘everydayness’.  

Absolutely. This is a fundamental revelation that Heidegger brings us. We don’t begin philosophy by going into a room like Descartes and then abstracting away from everyday experience because we’re not sure when we look out the window whether the people walking down the street are robots or human beings and therefore we fall back onto forms of geometrical proof in order to rebuild the whole thing from the standpoint of the subject – of the human being – as a thinking thing. For Heidegger, it’s exactly the opposite. We begin philosophical activity – the activity of thinking – by focussing on the average and the everyday in their average everyday character and finding something there, rather than inside us or in some ideal world. It’s a much rich way of doing philosophy in my view and also connects philosophy with sociology, with anthropology, and with all sorts of other areas. So, for me, Heidegger gives us a fundamental shift of orientation. We can get to the same point with the later Wittgenstein and his concern with the everyday and the ordinary but Heidegger gives us a more systematic picture of parcelling out our relationship to the world, to others, and to ourselves.

Finally, you have chosen The Divided Self: An Existential Study in Sanity and Madness (1960) by R D Laing.

I think it’s a really important book and it’s a book that’s been hugely influential particularly in Britain but also here in the US and elsewhere, but it’s largely been forgotten. R D Laing was training as a doctor in a clinic outside Glasgow. But he was immersed in Sartre and existentialism and phenomenology, and he was treating people that were deemed institutionally insane. So, he puts those two together. The Divided Self I think is an extraordinarily vivid text to go back to and read.

The question that he’s asking in the book is about how we categorise the mad and the sane, in particular the way in which certain people are declared to be schizophrenics. He’s trying to show the difference between the sane and the mad is not an absolutely difference: it’s not as if it’s a frontier that you pass, but there’s a kind of line of degrees. The crazy person – and Laing did think that there were crazy people – is at one end of that, and we’re at the other end of that, and we have lots of things in common with them. The great thing about Laing’s Divided Self is that in talking about the mad in this humane way, he thought that the way people were treated institutionally was horrific and he wanted it to change, and in doing that he says a great degree about so-called ‘normal’ human life. And, if you like, the takeaway for Laing is that we’re all a little bit mad and that’s good because that’s what makes us human. What the schizophrenic person is experiencing, that sense of loss or division of the self, we also experience in a more moderated way. When we isolate ourselves, when we experience loneliness and depression and phenomena like that, we’re a little bit mad too.

“The takeaway for Laing is that we’re all a little bit mad and that’s good, because that’s what makes us human”

So, picking up on the rich phenomenological descriptions of people like Sartre, Laing is able to provide these rich descriptions of cases of schizophrenic people which are both humane and powerful, but also lead us to reflect upon ourselves and this idea of what he calls the normal ‘schizoid self’: that we’re also, insofar as we’re reflective beings and self-conscious beings, we’re also divided against ourselves and we’re also at war with ourselves and, therefore, our relationship to the so-called mad should not be one of incarnation and exile, it should be one of sympathy and inclusion. It’s also a work which had direct social and policy implications which I think are still germane, because the way we treat the so-called mad is still horrific. It’s also just a great page-turner of a book.

It was very important to David Bowie who is a hero of mine. Bowie read The Divided Self probably in the sixties, and when he listed his hundred favourite books it was in there. A lot of the cases in the book are cases of people who adopt personae, who adopt masks in order to retreat behind them. He talks for example of a couple of cases of people who play a role. He talks about the case of a student who dresses up in a cloak, who was very dramatic and appears to act out in all sorts of ways. He goes into what’s what making them do this and he thinks it’s a kind of retreat from the horror of the outside world. So, Laing gives us a rich phenomenology for describing the landscape of our inner lives which I recommend to people very strongly. It’s a great book.

Interview by Charles Styles