Adventures in Continental Philosophy

By Douglas Kellner

In 1968, I was studying continental philosophy at Columbia University when the student uprising erupted. My philosophical allegiances at the time were primarily to phenomenology and Existentialism and I was frankly unprepared for the explosiveness and impact of the student rebellion. Indeed, students all over the United States and Europe were demonstrating against the Vietnam war, taking over University buildings and even campuses, and in Paris in May '68, it appeared that a new French revolution was in the making. To help understand these events, I went back and read the works of Herbert Marcuse and by the time of the publication of _An Essay on Liberation_ (1969), I both better understood Marcuse's writings and the philosophical underpinnings of the student movement to which I was increasingly attracted.

In 1969, I left Columbia to write my dissertation on "Heidegger's Concept of Authenticity" with the support of a German government fellowship (DAAD). I choose to pursue this project at the University of Tubingen, in the small southwestern German town where Hegel, Holderlin, Schelling, and other luminaries had studied and which had a reputation as an excellent place to study a broad range of German philosophical traditions.

Tubingen also was permeated with the spirit of 60s radicalism and I bought pirate editions (Raubdruck) at the University Mensa of Karl Korsch's writings on Marxism, Lukacs' _History and Class Consciousness_, Horkheimer and Adorno's _Dialectic of Enlightenment_, and other texts of the Frankfurt school. I also became involved in a Critical Theory study group and sat in on Ernst Bloch's seminars, which alternated between seminars on the great philosophers and ones on topics such as imperialism, fascism, and other political topics. From Bloch, among other things, I learned that philosophy was highly political and that politics required philosophical analysis and critique.

Near the end of my research on Heidegger, I picked up Adorno's _Jargon der Eigentlichkeit_ and discovered some early essays by Marcuse on his teacher Heidegger, which carried out a sharp critique of Heidegger's thought and which proposed a synthesis of phenomenological Existentialism and Marxism, of Heidegger and Marx, to overcome the limitations in these traditions. I found Marcuse's critiques of Heidegger convincing and his proposed synthesis of Heidegger and Marx fascinating. I also thoroughly investigated Heidegger's relation to National Socialism and thus was not surprised by the later revelations in the Farias and Ott volumes.

I was thus rapidly moving toward the Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School, a move intensified by a year in Paris. After two years in Germany, I had more or less completed my dissertation on Heidegger and received a good grounding in German philosophy. I was eager to improve my knowledge of French and to immerse myself in French philosophy and culture. During a thirteen month sojourn in Paris during 1971-1972, I accordingly devoted myself to French language and philosophy, and also drafted the first version of a book on Herbert Marcuse whose work continued to fascinate me.

While in Paris, I was fortunate to hear the lectures of Levi-Strauss, Foucault, Deleuze, and Lyotard, and to read their recent works, as well as the texts of Baudrillard, Derrida, and others. I initially read Derrida as a curious version of Heideggerian philosophy and read Foucault, Baudrillard, and Lyotard as supplementing the Frankfurt School. I saw similar attempts to develop syntheses of Marx, Freud, and critical philosophy in both contemporary German and French thought and did not see the differences as so fundamental as they appear to many today. Thus, for me it was not a choice of the Germans or French, but of drawing on both traditions to develop new philosophical syntheses.

Upon returning to the States in 1972, I offered myself for sale for a position in continental philosophy at the APA slave market and sold myself to the University of Texas at Austin, where I have labored in the area of continental philosophy ever since. I was offered a job teaching Marxist philosophy and my years in Europe gave me a good grounding in the Marxian tradition and made the Texas offer attractive. This choice was fortunate as Texas has a strong tradition in continental philosophy and a pluralistic department that allows a broad range of different types of philosophical inquiry (though, we too, have our anti-continental police squads).

In retrospect, I piled up an enormous amount of cultural capital during my three years in Germany and France that enabled me to write a series of books on both the Frankfurt School and contemporary French thought over the next two decades. My books on critical theory include _Herbert Marcuse and the Crisis of Marxism_ (1984), _Critical Theory, Marxism, and Modernity_ (1989), and (with Stephen Bronner) _A Critical Theory Reader_ (1989). My books _Karl Korsch: Revolutionary Theory_ (1977), _Passion and Rebellion: The Expressionist Heritage_ (1983), co-edited with Stephen Bronner, _ Postmodernism/Jameson/Critique_, and the many articles that I have written on Marx and Marxism were nourished during my two years in Germany and subsequent research trips. My books _Jean Baudrillard: From Marxism to Postmodernism and Beyond_ (1989), (with Steven Best), _Postmodern Theory: Critical Interrogations_ (1991), and _Baudrillard: A Critical Reader_ were made possible by the work that I did on French theory during a year in France and subsequent return trips to France.

As noted, I have tried to synthesize German and French traditions, rather than to oppose them, and this project animated a book co-authored with Michael Ryan, _Camera Politica: The Politics and Ideology of Contemporary Hollywood Film_. The idea was to combine critical theory and post-structuralist methods to interrogate the politics and ideology of Hollywood film. My two books on television also drew on both German and French traditions, but attempted to rethink the problematics of the Frankfurt school critique of the culture industries through a concrete study of American television. This project informed my _Television and the Crisis of Democracy_ (1990) and _The Persian Gulf TV War_ (1992). In all of these works, I use continental philosophy as providing weapons of critique and tools of analysis that can be applied to concrete issues and problems.

I have also applied the insights of continental philosophy to a vast array of cultural phenomena and my forthcoming book _On Cultural Studies: Politics, Identity, and Society Between the Modern and the Postmodern_ will attempt to reconceptualize the project of cultural studies by using the tools of continental philosophy.

I thus do not use continental philosophy as abstract dogmas to be religiously worshipped, but as a body of living thought to apply to contemporary problems and issues. The best of continental philosophy is critical and dialogical, and its major thinkers have often drawn on the most productive elements of their predecessors, while overcoming those aspects that are no longer of use or relevant.

Thus, I find a broad range of continental philosophy attractive. And yet I am not happy with the current division of Anglo-American philosophy into continental vs. analytical perspectives. While much that passes for analytical philosophy today is useless, much that parades as continental philosophy is pretentious gibberish. But both the tools of conceptual analysis and perspectives of continental philosophy can be applied together in specific tasks and projects. Philosophy, in my optic, is both analysis and synthesis, deconstruction and reconstruction. Consequently, I would defend pluralistic perspectives that draw on the best work on all traditions.

Indeed, it is somewhat ridiculous for philosophers in the United States to worship and fetishize European philosophers whose works developed in a very specific socio-historical environment and whose ideas may or may not be relevant to American conditions. Instead, we should see continental philosophy as an important tradition whose ideas can be rethought, reconstructed, and developed in new ways in our own unique historical situation. Our own tradition of American philosophy also has some important resources, though I find the continental thinkers to be of more use for my own projects. Yet we need to take seriously American traditions of philosophy as well, and see what insights and contributions are found in our native traditions.

Ultimately, continental philosophy for me provides the conditions of the possibility of seeing philosophy as an adventure that contains the dimensions of all the traditional domains of philosophy, as well as social theory, cultural criticism, and social and political critique. While some analytic philosophers develop their arguments in journal articles or books often focusing on very narrow topics, the great continental thinkers provide vast philosophical vistas that include philosophy of history, metaphysics, social theory, aesthetics, ethics, politics, and other normative concerns. The great continental thinkers were concerned with the key issues of their day, focusing on the problems of the present age, and draw on the relevant sciences, ideas, and discourses of their period.

I share this focus on today and its problems -- a focus also found in Dewey and American pragmatism. In this sense, I suppose, my work is very much in the tradition of the Frankfurt School which also transcended narrow disciplinary boundaries and undertook studies of a vast array of contemporary phenomena from supradisciplinary perspectives. This project continues to appeal to me, as does its attempt to relate theory to practice, to politicize theory, and to make it an instrument of social action. The weekly TV show, _Alternative Views_, that I have done for fifteen years with Frank Morrow, also fits into this project and realizes as well the Deweyean concept of the public intellectual, of the application of philosophical notions and abilities to issues of public concern in a public forum. Thus, rather than seeing the end of philosophy in a postmodern turn, I see philosophy as confronting new challenges in an era of new media, technologies, cultural forms, and political configurations and believe that the adventure of continental philosophy can best carry on by engaging these phenomena.