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Introduction to Continental Philosophy

Lecturers: Ashley Woodward, Alex Murray, David Rathbone, Craig Barrie and Matthew Sharpe

Originally Taught: Summer School 2005

This subject is aimed at those with little or no knowledge of continental philosophy, and will familiarise students with the key thinkers, texts, and ideas in five main areas of contemporary continental thought. These areas are: Phenomenology and existentialism, Marxism and critical theory, hermeneutics, psychoanalysis, and structuralism and post-structuralism. One session will be devoted to each of these areas, and will be taught by an expert in that area. This subject gives a broad overview of the major developments in French and German philosophical thought in the twentieth century and provides essential background for understanding current debates in contemporary continental thought.

Monday - Hermeneutics
David Rathbone M.A. (University of Melbourne)
Hermes was that one of the twelve gods of ancient Greece whose job it was to be the messenger between the other eleven. He has a scroll or wand in one hand and wings on the heels of his sandals or his cap. But he was also the embodiment of mischief. Thus the issue for the other gods was always: "Since we have to rely on him, how do we find a way to interpret what Hermes is telling us?" Thus in the middle ages, when various scholars sought to define a domain for the study of the interpretation of texts, the term "hermeneutics" came into use. Beginning with Dannhauser's The Idea of the Good Interpreter of 1630, we shall summarize its development through Chaldenius, Schleiermacher, Dilthey, Heidegger, and Gadamer. We shall conclude by considering some the challenges Neitzsche's French offspring have set for hermenuetics, as exemplified in the Gadamer-Derrida dialogue held in Paris in 1981.
Preparatory reading: entry for "Hermes" in the Oxford Classical Dictionary.e)

Tuesday - Phenomenology and Existentialism
Craig Barrie (University of Melbourne)
The first day of this subject begins with two related intellectual trends which defined much of continental philosophy in the first half of the twentieth century. Phenomenology is a philosophical method which focuses on consciousness and engages in the description of appearances. Existentialism, on the other hand, is an approach to philosophy which emphasises the place of the individual in the world and enquires into the meaning of human existence. The phenomenological method was incorporated into existential philosophy by philosophers such as Martin Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre. In addition to Heidegger and Sartre, this seminar introduces key figures in phenomenology and existentialism such as Edmund Husserl, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Simone de Beauvoir.

Wednesday - Marxism and critical theory
Alex Murray (University of Melbourne)
The work of Karl Marx is one of the primary sources of political and social philosophy in the continental tradition. After an introduction to Marx’s ideas, this seminar takes up more recent developments in Marxian thought, focusing on the Frankfurt School of critical theory. Combining philosophy with sociology, the German critical theorists profoundly influenced not only contemporary political philosophy, but the new discipline of cultural studies. Critical theory is divided between “early” and “late” forms, and each are introduced here through their main representatives: Theodore W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer represent the early form, and Jürgen Habermas the late.

Thursday - Psychoanalysis
Dr Matthew Sharpe (Deakin University - Institute for Psychoanalytical Studies)
The name of Sigmund Freud must stand high in any appraisal of the intellectual origins of continental European philosophy in the twentieth century. Freud's radical re-evaluation of the psyche reinserted questions and considerations about meaning and language, so central to phenomenology and post-structuralism, into the field of psychology. Freud's notions of censorship and repression could also be seen as containing a kind of 'politics of the psyche' which twentieth century western Marxism has taken up again and again. This lecture will introduce Freud with a view to his role in twentieth century European philosophy, and also broach the challenging work of Jacques Lacan, arguably Freud's most brilliant- and certainly his most philosophical- successor.

Friday - Structuralism and post-structuralism
Ashley Woodward (University of Queensland)
The final day of this subject covers developments in French philosophy in the second half of the twentieth century, focusing on structuralism and post-structuralism and including discussion of deconstruction, French feminism, and postmodernism. Figures introduced include Ferdinand de Saussure, Claude Levi-Strauss, Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze, Luce Irigaray, Jean Baudrillard, and Jean-Francois Lyotard.

Suggested introductory readings

  • David West, An Introduction to Continental Philosophy (Cambridge: Polity, 1996).
  • Simon Glendinning (ed.), The Edinburgh Encyclopedia of Continental Philosophy (Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh Press, 1999).