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Spotlight on Continental Philosophy

KeithAPProfessor Keith Ansell-Pearson

I have been teaching at Warwick since 1993, so quite a long time now but it’s the best place in the UK for me to teach my kind of philosophy. I specialise in ‘continental philosophy’, which offers a distinctive approach to the subject by focusing largely on existential questions: How we do create ourselves as unique individuals? Is there a meaning to life or is there only meaningless? I currently teach a course called ‘Philosophy and the Good Life’, which looks at both ancient and modern practices of philosophy. The central questions the course focuses on are the following: how can philosophy aid the quest for human happiness, and can philosophy itself be a way of life and not just an abstract theory? The ancient philosophers I look at, such as Epicurus and the Stoic Epictetus, were very much concerned with these questions and sought to show how philosophy could be a form of self-cultivation: we can achieve self-mastery in which we attain a state of mental peace and cosmic harmony. Imagine reaching such a state of wellbeing where you could say that you have achieved such a harmony! You would be at peace with yourself and with the world and you might even be able to reconcile yourself to the fact of your own mortality.

In a recent lecture for the course I explored one particular reception of the teaching of Epicurus – not to live in fear of the gods or the fear of death – in the modern period, and this is the one we find in the writings of the remarkable German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, who was writing in the 1880s. He has a beautifully composed and thought-provoking set of insights into Epicurus when he writes:

‘Epicurus’. I see his eyes gaze upon a wide, white sea, across rocks at the shore that are bathed in sunlight, while large and small animals are playing in this light, as secure and calm as the light and his eyes. Such happiness could be invented only by a man who was suffering continually. It is the happiness of eyes that have seen the sea of existence become calm, and now they can never weary of the surface and of the many hues of this tender, shuddering skin of the sea. Never before has voluptuousness been so modest.

The students in the lecture loved picking apart this aphorism: why is the sea ‘white’? Why does Epicurus suffer ‘continually’ and what is he suffering from? What is the role and significance of ‘animals’ in the aphorism? Although we reached no final or definitive conclusions, we had a lively discussion about the possible meanings of the aphorism, and this is in the very nature of philosophy: to keep questioning open.


Student views

Xita Rupert, BA Philosophy & Literature (2nd year)

"As a second year student, I can say I’m so glad I chose to study Philosophy at Warwick. Because I enjoy my subject so much, I had very high expectations of the academic aspects of my degree, and I haven’t been let down.

One of the main reasons why I chose Philosophy at Warwick was its wide range of modules – particularly its excellent offer of ‘continental philosophy’ ones. Continental philosophy refers to European philosophy that isn’t in the analytical or anglosaxon tradition, e.g. French existentialism, German idealism, critical theory, etc. Continental works are sometimes ‘literary’, rather than ‘scientific’, and have many links with the arts, such as poetry or cinema, as well as with sociology or politics. This year, for example, I’ll be taking Heidegger’s Ontology – a figure that has been incredibly influential in philosophy and aesthetics.

I have also recently taken a new module called Philosophy and the Good Life: the Hellenistics and the Moderns. We’ve traced the idea of philosophy as a ‘way of life’ rather than an abstract discipline through a series of thinkers, ancient and modern, from Epicurus to Nietzsche. This module has showed many of us how philosophy, in its origins, sprang from deeply ‘practical’ or ‘vital’ concerns, even if modern philosophy has often neglected this understanding of it.

At Warwick, while it’s great to be taught by leading researchers, what I value the most are good teachers – these are people with the vocation to educate. They love what they research and they love communicating it to you. It’s genuinely lovely to go to my teachers’ office hours: they are knowledgeable, sure, but they will also treat me as their equal and discuss the exact questions I’m interested in. They will listen to me and engage in a real, sometimes quite profound conversation. These student-teacher relationships are one of the great things about studying Philosophy at Warwick."