Debating Continental Philosophy

On a longish flight back from the Midwest, I was next to a brilliant 14-year-old who was working on his translations of the Aeneid in between moments of prepping for a future career in engineering and for his debate team. We don’t have a debate team at USD, but a few of our students have (through holes in the rules that I can’t explain) debated for other schools in the area. One thing we don’t discuss in Continental is how these are the few students who come into the university who can cite Agamben or Derrida or Foucault or critical race theory.

(I’m on the SPEP advocacy commitee the next couple of years so this seems like this would be an area where one could advocate for Continental in a certain way, but I’m not sure how: by putting Continental in touch with debate prep coaches? By leading some of these students into Continental friendly programs?)

In fact, it’s telling that if a student mentions Agamben in particular, I know immediately they’ve had a debate background. Scu, who coaches debate, probably knows much more about this and it’d be nice if he had the time to discuss this. I’m not suggesting that I think all of the arguments being used as they’ve been explained to me would pass professional muster, but one thing that’s happening, as I understand it, is that the Continental approach is mostly used by under-dog teams taking on rich East Coast private high schools. Need to take on realist accounts of nuclear proliferation? Counter with a post-colonial critique of the creation of the global south or a feminist critique of phallo-centrism as represented in the use of missile technology (I’m not making either of these up). Apparently, it throws off the better profile teams used to more standard counterarguments, which seems to match Continental’s role in the academy in general.


  1. I did the method that you are describing. I also debate for Scu currently, so this is something that I can talk about.

    I came to college with a fair amount of knowledge about a wide range of continental theorists, with a lot of specific knowledge about Foucault and Deleuze & Guattari. I ran these arguments to compete with the large amount of private schools that debate on the local Georgia circuit, and for the most part I was successful.

    The only people I know who can talk philosophy in any way that I find meaningful, and are my age, are debaters. Even a strict “policy” oriented team is going to have to have one or two members (or an assistant coach) who knows how to talk about complex philosophy, even if that is only to answer back arguments from teams who run one-off critical arguments.

    I don’t really know what I am supposed to be answering or talking about here.

    1. Thanks for confirming my surmise. And you’re right about the study of philosophy, though I do wonder about the depth of knowledge. It can seem (though this is a question) like learning a few tricks just for the point of countering something else, rather than saying anything substantive. (I’m thinking here of a debate student who knew so many different philosophers but couldn’t really answer a question about them when pressed…)

      1. I’m not sure if this answers your question, but no, most debaters aren’t “doing” philosophy to any degree, just like they really aren’t “doing” policymaking. They take certain things that are useful and combine them in ways that win rounds–sometimes that doesn’t require a person to get “deep” onto a philosopher or school of thought.

  2. Right, of course. Though some of the segments are eight or so minutes long (and even “longer” in the sense that one is supposed to speak extremely quickly) so it would seem one would have to get into it a bit…

    1. There is “depth” outside of the round, finding cards and authors that say something that can be bent to strategy. The 8-9 constructive speeches are for giving an articulate positioning of that strategy. It doesn’t always have to be “deep,” you see? It’s really just about bending and shifting, not a lot of “doing” philosophy.

    2. This might also shed some light on the topic:

      Scu: Yeah, Peter is a remarkably nice guy
      me: Does my explanation of critical work in debate make sense?
      me: I saw the post
      and I was like
      “well, this is something I know”
      Scu: the comments seem weird
      me: what do you mean?
      Scu: Of course there are a lot of debaters who only have surface level of understanding. That makes sense, considering they are in HS or early college. The purpose is in general part of a broader libidinal investment in philosophy. In other words, to make someone interested in learning more, and getting more in depth.
      me: Yep. I’m really just trying to get across that a use of philosophy in debate is mostly pragmatic
      Scu: Yeah
      me: and isn’t part of a broad “project”
      Scu: But pragmatic in the way Deleuze talks about in Letter to a Harsh Critic Right
      me: why don’t you say these things? otherwise I will just copypaste this conversation into a comment field
      me: because I am postmodern as fuck

      1. Yes, I agree with Scu about not reading negatively the use here. And hopefully it can spark more students into the major. As for whether or not this comes up in Ethics Bowls, I don’t know. I served as an advisor for our Bowl team a couple of years ago and it didn’t. Feminist and postcolonial theories do come up, but generally you’re working with other normative theories.

  3. I don’t know what an ethics bowl is. This seems like something I remedy.

    It is worth noting that feminist/post-colonial/anti-racist/queer/ and Continental philosophy are mostly what is engaged with in debate. Mainstream analytic of classical philosophy is almost never seriously engaged.

    1. “Mainstream analytic of classical philosophy is almost never seriously engaged.”

      Something I’ve always found odd, despite my own policy-debate-fueled penchant for continental thought. I don’t get why the only place I ever hear Rawls in rounds is on the framework flow.

  4. here is a blog run by high school debaters (all juniors or seniors) who have read a great deal of continental philosophy. I know a few of them and can say that while they tend to focus on an in-depth knowledge of one philosopher (Baudrillard, Deluze & Guattari, Nietzsche, etc.) they also have a wide enough knowledge of continental philosophy to answer questions and relate concepts among most continental theorists.

  5. Over at the blog just mentioned above (many thanks for who ever shouted us out) I just completed a post that offers some of the suggestions that I feel would help reach out to other high school debaters to get them to pursue Continental after high school. Our blog is read my mostly debaters so I’m sure the comments section will attract suggestion from other debaters as well.

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