Continental Drift

Posted on 01. Oct, 2008 by in Snapshots

The 1980s and ’90s were troubled times for Yale’s once prominent philosophy department. Fierce infighting—the result of both personal and academic quarrels—resulted in the exodus of almost all of Yale’s continental philosophy professors. Professor Karsten Harries PC ’58 GRD ’62 survived the strife, but most of his fellow continental experts in French and German Enlightenment thought left the department and were replaced with scholars of analytic philosophy, which focuses on logic and language and includes the fields of metaphysics, semantics, and epistemology. Soon, Harries was the last major hold-out of the continental tradition, and since then he has continued to attract a broad range of non-philosophy majors with such popular courses as “The Philosophy of Architecture” and “Art, Love, and Beauty.” A legend at Yale and beyond, Harries currently serves as the Philosophy Department’s director of graduate studies and, throughout his tenure, has advised over 58 dissertations—more, he claims, than any other living philosopher. But after fifty years at Yale, he has finally decided that it’s time to retire.

Harries recently announced that he will be teaching every one of his courses for the last time. Although it may take as long as five years for him to fulfill this pledge, his impending departure has left many of his colleagues, like Professor Seyla Benhabib GRD ’77, asking: “What does the department do now?”

Harries, who sports quintessentially professorial tweed jackets, is looking forward to retirement. He sees it as an opportunity to marshal his thoughts into books. “It’s a good occasion to pull all my notes,” he said, and to arrange them for publication. His Kierkegaard seminar notes are already headed for the press, and he hopes that notes from his Heidegger seminar will soon follow. But Harries also worries about the department he is leaving behind. “The continental tradition is still underrepresented,” he says. “There is virtually no one now… The philosophers I am talking to and [who] matter to me are not at Yale.”

Professor Benhabib, a former student of Harries and herself a bit of a continental expert who now teaches in Yale’s political science department, is also concerned. “There are no [other] senior continental philosopher appointments,” she explains. “They don’t have anyone teaching German idealism, and that’s just not right. That’s so silly, given Yale’s foundations in the department.” Yale’s continental scholars were, in fact, hugely prominent in the field during the 1960s, driving thought and shaping the University’s reputation. When their differences with their analytic colleagues in the 1980s grew so intense that the department’s hiring process ground to a standstill, many continental professors left, and few were replaced. If Harries’ departure were to lead to a neglect of the European philosophic traditions, Benhabib believes it would be “a tragedy”.

Philosophy major Geoff Shaw BR ’10 took Harries’ “Art, Love and Beauty” last year and appreciated its continental approach. “It had Nietzsche, Schopenhauer and Kant, [who] certainly wouldn’t be taught at the upper level,” he remembers. In his experience, upper-level philosophy courses “really only study the analytic stuff.” And though he likes the analytic material, Shaw explains that the branch covers “language, logic, not what it’s like to be alive. I learned about being a person in Karsten’s class.” To Shaw, it almost seems like the Yale Philosophy Department “has given up on the meaning of life. Its educational mission should be to teach people about living, yet it’s focused on stuff people find uninteresting.”

Shaw points out that potential philosophy majors interested in the history of intellectual thought often gravitate to majors like the Humanities and Ethics, Politics, and Economics in search of a broader definition of philosophic study. Brian Earp CC ’09’s defection from the philosophy major to cognitive science, on the other hand, reflects the increasing convergence of science and philosophy, a trend that is partly responsible for the current emphasis on the analytic branch. It wasn’t that the philosophy major was lacking, Earp insists, but that he was “getting excited about theories of mind” and wanted to pursue an empirical line of study. One concern Earp does have is that, compared to other major universities, Yale’s Philosophy Department ranks rather low. According to Philosophical Gourmet, a popular online ranking of philosophy departments, Yale ranks 16th in the nation. Although this rank has been rising over the past ten years, it still falls short of schools like NYU, Rutgers, the University of Pittsburgh, UCLA, Harvard, and Princeton. “There are some very good philosophers on our faculty,” Earp acknowledges, “but I’ve yet to take a class in which we’ve actually read anything written by anyone who teaches at Yale.”

Harries, who insists that the department has recovered from the turmoil of the 1980s, is relieved that this period has passed. “We would have to go back to the early 1960s to have as happy a department [as we have now],” he says. He credits the new departmental chair, Michael Della Rocca, with alleviating tension and congratulates him on his latest faculty hires. New professors like Stephen Darwal and Thomas Pogge bring a focus on political science and psychology to their studies; “They have made this a more interesting place,” Harries says. “We are broadening, building bridges.”

Professor Della Rocca agrees with Harries’ positive assessment of the department. “It’s in a really good position now,” he says, although “it took a while for it to rebuild itself.” Looking back on the ’80s, Della Rocca finds the intra-departmental disagreements “sort of trivial. We’ve moved beyond that totally.”

For those who mourn the dearth of continental philosophers at Yale, or even broad intellectual history courses, Della Rocca believes that the era of fierce divisions between philosophic disciplines, like the era of departmental conflict, has passed. “The divisions between so-called ‘analytical’ and so-called ‘continental’ philosophy—those divisions are meaningless now,” he says. Della Rocca cites interdisciplinary initiatives as proof of a new era of collaboration. Pogge’s appointment, for example, was made possible by the MacMillian Center for International and Area Studies, and Benhabib brought philosophy and ethics experts to campus during her tenure as director of the Ethics, Politics, and Economics major. Directed Studies, the interdisciplinary freshman program that teaches the Western canon, links the philosophy department to other majors and focuses largely on the continental tradition.

Though the philosophy department aims to replace Harries with another expert in 19th-century philosophy, the old definitions of philosophy—which take Europe as their roots and the continental tradition as their backbone—have shifted. With this shift in focus has come a shift in preeminence. Instead of a select few Ivy-covered institutions dominating the philosophical field, there are now several; instead of one or two traditions dominating the discourse, there are now many, and they link disciplines and thinkers across the globe.

Attracting a figure of Harries’ stature will most certainly be difficult, and even if the department replaces him with another continental expert, it will be losing the last of the old guard from its days as the unquestioned leader among philosophy departments worldwide. The Yale Philosophy Department has long been asking itself tough questions—about the direction it wants to take, the academic role it wants to play—but when Harries finishes teaching his last course for the last time, the department will finally have to answer them.

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