Philosophers can be easily divided into one of two categories: analytic or continental. Knowing what these categories actually mean is extremely important for you in understanding your philosopher.
Every once and a while, you may encounter a philosopher who claims that they are neither an analytic or continental philosopher—they are both (or they are category-less, or whatev). This is false. What they are really saying is, “I’m a very peaceful continental philosopher who hasn’t really been burned by an analytic philosopher or tasted the bitter drink of discord yet.” I have never heard an analytic philosopher claim this. Analytic philosophers love distinctions too much. But I digress.
If you remember from our history lesson, philosophy had a large split in the 19th century. From this split emerged the kind of philosophy distinctions we know today as continental and analytic philosophy.
First, here is one easy-peasy way to remember the differences between the two: analytic look at philosophy as a series of problems to be solved and continental philosophers look at philosophy as a set of texts to be interpreted.
Continental philosophy emerged from the German Idealists (Hegel, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Freud, etc). Some other well known continental philosophers are Heidegger, Derrida, Foucault, Sartre, and Husserl.
Continental philosophers generally reject most science and scientific ways of doing anything (even science). They like to look at philosophy from a historical approach, combining thoughts from all sorts of philosophers and looking at concepts like context, time, space, etc. They do not analyze philosophy in terms of looking at only one specific text, but instead look broadly at all texts. Continental philosophers also value human experience and human agency (action).
Here is an example: A continental philosopher like Sartre believes that we have no predetermined nature that controls who we are, what we do, or what we find to be valuable. Thus, we are completely free to act independently of all outside influences, and we create ourselves (who we are and what we believe) through all of the free choices that we make. We also create all of our own values through these choices.
Analytic philosophers include thinkers such as Mill, Russell, Moore, Frege, Wittgenstein, Quine, Davidson, Anscombe, Rawls, and Popper.
Analytic philosophers believe that philosophy is best looked at from a scientific approach (like a logical argument; premise A, premise B, conclusion). Analytic philosophers approach philosophy like one might approach a puzzle; there is a specific procedure to doing philosophy, and one might often use conceptual analysis to solve the puzzle. Bad analytic philosophers are ones that cannot make good arguments (Logicians are also analytic philosophers). Human experience does not win arguments, thus it is not an answer to a philosophical problem, but each part of experience can be analyzed through arguments in an effort to try to solve the problems relating to each experience.
Here is an example: Analytic philosophers tend to think that we are responsible for what we do, but what we do is a result of things like where we were born, who our parents are, what are our talents, etc. But we did not get to choose these things, which then makes it seem like we aren’t responsible for them. So when is the magic moment when we become responsible for who we are when who we are isn’t someone who we are entirely responsible for.
You can probably already see why continental and analytic philosophers do not get along very well.
Continental philosophers usually accuse analytic philosophers of being unfeeling, unconcerned about history, and focused on minute, unimportant details that do not matter in the world.
Analytic philosophers generally accuse continental philosophers of being illogical, crazy, unscientific, and of making nonsense up.
Use this information to your advantage when figuring our alliances and embarrassing your philosopher at philosophy parties. I will compose another entry on embarrassment techniques at some later date.