Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Continental v. Analytic Philosophy: An Exposé

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.

~The Philosiologist~


  1. Regrettably, what you post about Sartre is false. Like Kant, he thinks that there's a sense in which a human is fully determined and a sense in which a human is free... This sort of solution still exists in analytic philosophy as well.

  2. Analytic philosophers only accuse Continentals of that stuff because it's true. Name me one analytic who strangled his wife. Just one.
    On the other hand, there may be a few wives of Analytics who could see the good side of being strangled.
    I am not one of them. But then I'm married to a fellow analytic. Can't understand why our dinner parties are so poorly attended.

    1. So your argument is basically "no analytic philosophers have murdered their spouses, therefore criticisms of continental philosophers are valid?" Are you sure you're an analytic philosopher?

  3. Yeah. . . we're not all continentals or analytics. Some of us do history of philosophy, and do it well -- something neither of those sides does (and ironically history of philosophy is done much more over in Europe than is "continental" philosophy).

    There's also American philosophy, still going on. And, comparative or Eastern philosophy too. Oh, and an entire Thomist tradition that's been flourishing quite well, with a bit of crossover into analytic philosophy (i.e. the Analytic Thomists) -- MacIntyre might be a good contemporary representative for them.

    A bit of history of philosophy: Freud wasn't an idealist. Marx is kinda important in the continental lineage. Schopenhauer is an almost totally marginal figure. Perhaps substitute in Kierkegaard, who had a much greater influence (oh, but he's not an idealist, now, is he?) You also did forget to mention an important movement -- which interestingly enough had quite a bit in common early on with analytic philosophy -- phenomenology.

    Good start though. Keep on exploring the fuller range of contemporary philosophy. The project of providing a guidebook for non-philosophers is an admirable one.

  4. On the one hand, I'm the kind of philosopher who thinks that the whole "analytic vs. Continental" things is way past its expiration date. On the other hand, the distinction continues to structure the institutions, and that's important to bear in mind for the proper care and feeding of your philosopher.

  5. Hilarious. Unfeeling scientists vs illogical court jesters. BATTLE ROYAL!!!

  6. As a continental philosopher, I reject the suggestion that we are illogical and primarily preoccupied with feelings and experience (though there is an element of truth in it), but quite like the distinction you make between reading texts and solving problems. You'll find that for all the very different language of the two traditions, we are ultimately doing much the same thing and coming up with surprisingly similar arguments. Incidentally, I write this from the heartland of analytic philosophy, where I am frequently 'burned' by my analytic colleagues (read: have my sentences subdivided into meaninglessness).

    Also, I'm not too convinced by the Althusser/wife-killing point, but would observe that Bertrand Russell was enough of a shit for his daughter to set fire to herself, and he didn't have the excuse of a long-standing mental illness. We philosophers have never been particularly nice people though, as this impressive blog makes clear. I like the idea of the guidebook.

  7. What would you call Brian Leiter who co-wrote The Oxford Handbook of Continental Philosophy and writes on Nietzsche? Would he call himself a "continental philosopher"? If not, would he call himself an "analytic philosopher? Now what?

  8. Husserl isn't a continental philosopher. After all, he was a scientist looking for a way to found maths and logic.

  9. I find it amusing that those who are disputing minor points of this post (e.g., "what you post about Sartre is false"; "Husserl isn't a continental philosopher"; "What would you call Brian Leiter") further validate the point of this blog, namely helping non-philosophers cope with and understand those anally-sensitive-to-detail creatures called philosophers. I mean who else gets so miffed when a non-philosopher notes some divergence in methods or traditions of philosophy? Nice job! Pat yourself on the back for noting minor and unimportant inaccuracies on a blog that is primarily intended for delivering entertaining and witty points on philosophers. Next time just save it for your next seminar paper on being oneself through another or on the saturated phenomenon or on whatever other non-sense is current.

  10. I studied at UT Law with Brian Leiter, and knew him socially as a family friend. He considers himself a continental philosopher, The Authority on Jurisprudence, and the second-coming of Christ himself.

  11. Bertrand Russell was a pluperfect shit (as was Althusser). My favourite Russell story was when he was out cycling and realised he no longer loved his wife. SO HE RODE BACK HOME TO TELL HER. Surely the news wasn't that urgent.

  12. What about the Pragmatists?

  13. Some would now argue the distinction no longer holds. Latter 20th Century Philosophy (in linguistics, science, metaphysics and -- dare I say?-- even logic) made the gradual shift towards Continental. Now some are saying the distinction is French vs. Non-French.