Present to the Past

A couple of times in the last few months I have tried to get involved in Otto Bollnow’s fascinating paper, “On Understanding a Writer Better than He Understands Himself”.  But each time I have bogged down–for both internal and external reasons.  So I want to just state here in one post the basic point that I hoped to make in a more complete and complicated way across several posts.

The basic point:  The idea of understanding a philosopher better than he understands himself seems to me to typify the relationship between continental philosophers (and I guess I should say that I am thinking primarily of phenomenologists) and their forbears.  This idea does not typify the relationship between analytic philosophers and their forbears.  (Of course there are exceptions–vide McDowell among analytic philosophers.)  Analytic philosophers see themselves as ‘external’ to their forbears:  they agree with them or disagree with them, and they tend to understand their forbears’ work ‘discreetly’, as divided into chunks of argumentation with which they agree or not.  But continental philosophers see themselves as ‘internal’ to their forbears:  agreement and disagreement–well, neither is intimate enough to characterize the relationship.  Rather their aim seems to be to penetrate so deeply into the thinking of the forebears that they no longer know where they begin and their forebears end.  Criticism of the forebears thus becomes radically internal, almost always it is a “preaching to X from X” activity (vide Merleau-Ponty’s Husserl-contra-Husserl intro to The Phenomenology).  The forebears work is understood ‘continuously’, as a living whole that must be responded to somehow as such.  –That, such as it is, is the basic point.

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