Philosophy, Continentally

There isn’t a hotter subject than philosophy in Madrid. I decided to do my second year over in Spain’s gorgeous capital and, although studying in Spanish has at times been like being the bull in a bullfight now, with my return to the UK dawning on me, I’m realising how amazing this experience has been. I’ve discovered a place where philosophy is done differently, a school of thinkers proud not to be analytical. The content of philosophy here is less truth and more expression, less logic, more hearty portions of the passions. Basically, there is a different priority in the discipline, and this is apparent in the education.

In Spain the education system is weighted towards studying more vocational subjects at the end of secondary education. So when I tell Spaniards that I want to go into the PR industry, they give me strange looks and say “but you do… philosophy?” There’s not the custom of doing an academic discipline for its own sake: right now I would be expected to be studying Public Relations or Media (what we might regard as Mickey Mouse subjects over in the UK). Furthermore, the public university system is by law not elitist. That means there is no official ranking of universities and departments. So while in the UK you know exactly where one is in the system, here no university is officially better than others. Though some in reality, are; “We’re the best philosophy department in Spain,” is whispered in the corridors of the humanities faculty of the Autonomous University of Madrid. This means however, that philosophy students can’t rely on the name of their top ten university to get them a job outside of academia.

It also means that there are very few philosophy students, with the average class size being about eight, and they tend to be committed, passionate martyrs to their subject. They have this sense of “I’m going to be a philosophy teacher or unemployed.” They’re clever souls who have made a sacrifice in choosing to study philosophy, so they’re going to throw themselves into it. The philosophy department is a close-knit community of chain smokers to be found reading Derrida on the extensive campus grounds, absorbing the sun and looking delightfully hippyish; no preppy-ness to be found here. I know I’m trading in generalisation right now, but that’s something I’ve found is a great intellectual tool this year; a stress on rules being more interesting than their exceptions.

All the philosophers know each other, and have a real chummy relationship with the professors too. Spain isn’t the biggest world exporter of philosophy, but the Autonóma is probably Spain’s philosophical powerhouse right now. So I’ve spent the year with a twenty hour-a-week schedule of “tutorials” with some of the most esteemed philosophers in Spain. We haven’t heard of them, but anyone who reads a Spanish periodico has. Philosophy is done more personally, and that shows in the course content too. It’s not “What did Kant think about this and how can we criticise him?” it is “Why did Kant think this? What was he feeling? At what stage in his career? How did he develop from this position?” even, “Who were Kant’s friends?” Though I’ve barely read The Phenomenology of the Spirit, I feel like I know Hegel’s whole social life. It’s quite refreshing.

Hegel was mates, by the way, with thinkers such as Fichte and Schelling, who I’d never heard of until the names were written on the board in History of Modern Philosophy, and I think they’re not taught in the normal syllabus in the UK. Wikipedia them, they’re hot stuff. Another thinker I’ve discovered this year was Machiavelli, who has practically become a love-affair of mine. He’s so naughty, but so nice. The January exam question here was “Write about Machiavelli.” Not very specific, but a great chance to write three pages on the role of Marketing in Machiavelli.

The key term this year has been “Post-modernity”. I’ve not had a subject which didn’t in some way mention trends in modernity, except perhaps Philosophy of Logic (the subject which the Spanish philosophers-to-be did not cease moaning about). Ethics was “post-modern”, theory of culture was about “globalization of postmodernity”, aesthetics was “issues in contemporary art”, philosophy of religion was even “how is belief today?”. The professors here don’t seem to be looking for universal logical articulations of absolute truths so much as fashions in contemporary thought.

This trend is also prevalent amongst the philosophers-to-be (keep in mind that, unlike most of us they will not be leaving philosophy for the City). There is an active dislike for all things analytical. One of my first essays came back with a note “good, errors in Spanish don’t prevent expression but many obvious analytical prejudices.” There is a sentiment here that the continental approach which they favour is undervalued, that the analytical tradition has hegemony in the philosophy industry. “Postmodernity” is where these new thinkers see their opportunities, to trade in historicism and generalisation, to talk about the ever-present and ever-expanding post-modern world, where the analytics must be silent; it’s not their place to talk about truths contingent on the present. These are thinkers in awe of Friedrich Jameson, who gave a conference paper for the university recently, and bored of Bertrand Russell.

So philosophy here is more personal and more trendy but it’s also more emotional. Ethics was a small class which was particularly full of passions, these fiery thinkers with opinions often grounded in “that’s just how I feel”. For example, a really interesting class was centred on “Why can you go to court for breaking a window, but not for breaking a heart?” Professors aren’t afraid to get their opinions out, these are adults who saw the demise of a dictatorship and the speedy construction of modern Spain. Politics doesn’t seem so distant to people who have lived under a dictatorship; this isn’t abstract discussion, this is heated debate.

With a longer stint here in Spain than in Durham overall; I’m going to admit – Madrid and continental philosophy have both stolen my heart.

Originally published in issue three of Critique, Durham Philosophical Society’s journal.

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