Continental Philosophy since 1750: A Review

cover of Solomon's bookRobert C. Solomon. Continental Philosophy since 1750: The Rise and Fall of the Self. No. 7 in the series A History of Western Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988. 214+vii pp.

This book was in the list of recommended readings for the course “God and the World in Modern Panentheism” that Professor John Cooper taught at Calvin Theological Seminary. I had the privilege of attending those lectures; and I can say without a doubt that one of the greatest benefits were the list of suggested readings. I bought the book; but besides the prescribed pages for the course, I never had the time or disposition to read it through. It struck me, however, as a history of philosophy that was graced with the unusual traits of good and interesting style, humor, and clarity of ideas. It became one of those books that you always meant to read, but simply don’t have the required quality time to do it.

However, this was about to change. When the time came to go to the small town of Piribebuy for our vacation, I couldn’t even think of bringing the computer with me. Doing otherwise would mean grounds for divorce to my wife! And so, I brought with me a pile of books that were in the reading qeue and yes, Solomon got his say heard (or better, read) by me.

Professor Robert C. Solomon (Wikipedia bio) is a scholar with a distinguished and prolific career. He is Quincy Lee Professor at the University of Texas, and his interests lie in the areas of Enlightenment and Post-Enlightenment Continental Philosophy (especially the Romantics and Nietzsche), the ethics of love, and spirituality. As I can tell from the title of a fairly recent book, his spiritual beliefs could be labeled as naturalistic-secularistic-mystical.

The undertaking of Professor Solomon is certainly ambitious in scope: cover all of non-British European philosophy since 1750 to our days, explaining the thought of towering figures such as Kant, Hegel, Marx, Heidegger, Sartre, and Wittgenstein, and many others. It is also ambitious in its size: a book that barely goes over 200 pages. Was Professor Solomon up to the task?

Well, the answer is: “It depends.”

Solomon presents his account as the unfolding of an unifying theme: the rise and fall of the Self. But this is not, as Solomon makes clear in the Prologue and the Introduction, not an ordinary self: this is the Self, the transcendental self, something that ultimately encompasses everything, and gives any man the right to project the structures of his own mind to everything. This pretence is called “the transcendental pretence” by Solomon.

Writing always with that theme in mind, Solomon chronicles the thinking of leading philosophers in a concise, clear, and interesting way. He has a great talent for explaining very arcane or convoluted philosophical systems in plain language, and he does so with tact and good humor. Solomon tries to be fair to all philosophers he studies here, and he generally succeeds. And not only that: despite the fact that he is a secularist writing about the Enlightenment and its offshoots, I perceive a friendly and respectful attitude towards Christianity. All of these traits make this book a great one.

However, Solomon also leaves quite a bit to be desired, and I am afraid he might not be entirely right in some of his viewpoints.

1. At first, choosing “The Rise and Fall of the Self” as a theme for Enlightenment and Post-Enlightenment philosophy might be appropriate. I can see the reasons for that, especially after Kant, Fichte and Schopenhauer. But, is that right or not? Is it true that the transcendental pretence is a product of the combined forces of humanism, universalism and rationality that were gaining currency since Descartes? Maybe. Maybe Professor Solomon is right. However, something in my head told me that this didn’t looked quite right.

A few days after finishing Solomon’s book, I found this in Wolfhart Pannenberg’s Systematic Theology and immediately knew I found the missing link in Solomon’s chain of thought:

… when understood in this way [as something in accordance to human nature], natural theology could commend a form of knowledge of God that is compatible with us and our human nature. […] After the disastrous religious wars the conflicting claims to revelation which the different parties made seemed to be mere assertions of tradition, and since the religious truth claims discredited one another it seemed best to look to what is natural to us as the basis of a new social order and culture. In this regard the Enlightenment was certain that what corresponds to human nature truly corresponds to God, God being also the Creator of humanity and human reason.
(Wolfhart Pannenberg, Systematic Theology, vol. I, transl. G.W. Bromiley, chap 2., §2, pp. 81f. [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991].)

There it is! The trascendental pretence came as a project of analogical rational theology that suddenly changed the analogical for the ontological. The transcendental pretence was something ridiculously arrogant (and Solomon rightly recognizes it as such), but it wasn’t just the product of deranged minds with oversized egos, or merely the child of the Kerberos of humanism, rationality and unversalism. It was, more than anything else, an exercise of natural theology, an attempt to know God by sola ratio, by reason alone; and moreover, it was a reaction against the quarreling and dull dogmatism of the late Baroque Protestant Scholasticism and the horror of the Thirty Years War. It is remarkable that the two main offshoots of that war were marked by an inward turn: the Enlightenment, with the universal projection of the inner self as trascendental, and Pietism, with the turning of an universal belief into something private and internal. Solomon fails to recognize the importance of the question of God for the whole Enlightement and what came later.

2. I understand the severe size constraints that Professor Solomon had to have in mind when writing this book. However, it seems that despite his attempts, some of the coverage is extremely superficial and totally inadequate to get even the minimum appropriate grasp on some philosophers’ ideas. The explanations of Husserl and the whole phenomenological movement (because phenomenology is something phenomenally complex per se), Wittgenstein and logical positivism, and the “post-moderns” such as Foucault or Derrida, are sorely disappointing. The worst case is, in my opinion, that of Kant: Solomon devoted a whole chapter to him, and yet, you might have finished it without even knowing what is meant by an “synthetic apriori proposition”, which is essential to understand Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason.

3. In keeping with the size constraints, one finds strange omissions. This is supposed to be a treatise on Continental philosophy, but all that manages to be is a study on Franco-German thinkers. Despite its designation as Continental, there is zero mention of other Continental philosophies, such as Spanish or Italian philosophy. Of course, they might not be so important in the overall development of the history of philosophy; but you just cannot pass over names of the caliber of Ortega y Gasset, Unamuno, Zubiri or Marí­as in Spain, or Benedetto Croce in Italy, in a study of Continental philosophy. I find this omission myopic, and typical of the navel-gazing of too much of American scholarship, for whom the only languages of Continental Europe are French and German.

4. Finally, and sadly, one can see Professor Solomon rightly criticizing the transcendental pretence as “a political weapon of enormous power” (p.6-7), denouncing how it was employed to justify racism, exploitation, and oppresion, an effort to prove there one legitimate set of beliefs in ethics, politics and religion. It is amusing to see such criticism from someone who doesn’t have any qualms to employ some awkward sentence structures in the name of “inclusive language”. Solomon might not share the transcendental pretence, but he still thinks he can also impose his own set of beliefs on the unsuspecting victim that is the English language. His criticism of Enlightenment arrogance, while correct and justified, in my opinion reeks of political correctness.

Those points notwhitstanding, I find two redeeming qualities in this book that put it above the rest and warrant my commendation:

1. Solomon writes with unusual insight and –in general– he has the rare talent of capturing the thought of a philosopher and deliver it in a very accessible nutshell. His summary of Hegelian tought is brilliant. His study of the philosophy of Nietzsche is the best and the clearest I’ve ever seen, going beyond Nietzche the “provocateur” to unfold Nietzsche’s philosophy with uncommon ability and understanding.

But Solomon’s insight is at his best in little things scattered here and there. You can learn that the logic of dialectic was set forth firstly by Schelling, and then by Hegel; that Sartre began as a hard-core phenomenologist and that this informed all of his thought; or how Heidegger was rooted in Husserl’s thinking. Here is proof that Solomon’s ability for discerning the nuances of the different schools of thought is insightful and perceptive.

2. The best thing about this “history of philosophy” book is, however, that it succeeds. A good history of philosophy should give its readers the desire to go to the primary sources. And, independently of Solomon’s good or bad traits, this book does one thing really well: It makes you wish really hard to go out and read the philosophers studied there. Believe me, anything that makes you wish to read Kant, Hegel, Merleau-Ponty, Heidegger and Gadamer, has to be really good. And Solomon doesn’t give you a wish; he gives you an urge.

My verdict? If you can live with the objections I’ve raised here, I do recommend this book.


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