Promoting a recent international sporting fixture between England and France, the BBC playfully juxtaposed a series of sound-bites from Descartes, Rousseau and Sartre alongside the more mundanely practical advice which resonated in a voice-over drawn deep from the shires of middle England: ‘don’t worry lads-actions speak louder than words’. The application of native common sense versus the verbose abstraction of the Continent: practice ousting theory. The implicit message was clear enough: philosophy and the British somehow constitute odd bedfellows-at best an aberration, at worst a potential source of conflict to be overcome. The place of literature in the national psyche often does not fare any better, and in its British context, Shakespeare is sometimes discussed in terms of distinctions of fine taste and so on, which have more in common with judgements concerning wine tasting or gourmet cuisine than aesthetics. In contrast, amidst the various intellectual traditions which constitute Continental philosophy, a theoretical interest in the importance of literature to modern thought is taken as read. Indeed, literary and artistic works are fully embedded within an intellectual inheritance which regards an appreciation of literature and an understanding of the ‘nature of art’ as reciprocally entwined with philosophy, or, at the very least, encourages a dialogue between the two.1 This is especially the case as far as Shakespeare is concerned, and respected thinkers such as Nietzsche, Wittgenstein and more recently Levinas and Derrida, each have had something outspoken to say about the playwright. The gap between intellectual cultures is striking, so that, as Stanley Cavell has observed:
English philosophy is characterized, in distinction from, say, that of France and of Germany, by its relative distance from the major literature of its culture. Compared with Kant’s or Hegel’s or Schelling’s awareness of Goethe or Hölderlin (or Rousseau or Shakespeare) or with Descartes’s and Pascal’s awareness of Montaigne, Locke’s or Hume’s or Mill’s relation to Shakespeare and Milton or Coleridge (or Montaigne) amounts to hardly more than that to more or less serious hobbies, not to the recognition of intellectual competitors, fellow challengers of intellectual conscience.