Continental philosophy

From New World Encyclopedia

Continental philosophy, as the phrase is used today, refers to a set of traditions of nineteenth and twentieth century philosophy from mainland Europe.[1] Continental philosophy includes the following movements: German idealism, phenomenology, existentialism (and its antecedents, such as the thoughts of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche), hermeneutics, structuralism, post-structuralism, French feminism, and the critical theory of the Frankfurt School and some other branches of western Marxism.[2]

The term continental philosophy originated among English-speaking philosophers in the late twentieth century who found it useful for referring to a range of thinkers and traditions that had been largely ignored or neglected by the analytic movement. Conversely, philosophers in the continental tradition have largely ignored analytic philosophy, developed primarily in English speaking countries such as England and the United States.

Contemporary Western philosophy, thus, has been broadly divided into two trends, continental philosophy and analytic philosophy, each with fundamentally different philosophical concerns, methodologies, styles, and approaches. Today, although the majority of Western philosophers still stand on either side of the two traditions, there is less of a separation or lack of communication between them.

General Characteristics

It is difficult to identify non-trivial claims that would be common to all the preceding philosophical movements. The term "continental philosophy," like "analytic philosophy," lacks clear definition and may mark merely a "family resemblance"[3] across disparate philosophical views. Some scholars have suggested the term may be more pejorative than descriptive, functioning as a label for types of Western philosophy rejected or disliked by analytic philosophers.[4] Nonetheless, some scholars have ventured to identify common themes that typically characterize continental philosophy.[5]

First, continental philosophers generally reject scientism, the view that the natural sciences are the best or most accurate way of understanding all phenomena. Continental philosophers often argue that science depends upon a "pre-theoretical substrate of experience," a form of the Kantian conditions of possible experience, and that scientific methods are inadequate to understand such conditions of intelligibility.[6]

Second, continental philosophy usually considers these conditions of possible experience as variable: determined at least partly by factors such as context, space and time, language, culture, or history. Where analytic philosophy tends to treat philosophy in terms of discrete problems, capable of being analyzed apart from their historical origins (much as scientists consider the history of science inessential to scientific inquiry), continental philosophy typically suggests that "philosophical argument cannot be divorced from the textual and contextual conditions of its historical emergence".[7]

Third, continental philosophy typically holds that conscious human agency can change these conditions of possible experience: "if human experience is a contingent creation, then it can be recreated in other ways".[8] Thus continental philosophers tend to take a strong interest in the unity of theory and practice, and tend to see their philosophical inquiries as closely related to personal, moral, or political transformation. This tendency is very clear in the Marxist tradition ("philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it"), but is also central in existentialism and post-structuralism.

A final characteristic trait of continental philosophy is an emphasis on metaphilosophy. In the wake of the development and success of the natural sciences, continental philosophers have often sought to redefine the method and nature of philosophy. In some cases (such as German idealism or phenomenology), this manifests as a renovation of the traditional view that philosophy is the first, foundational, a priori science. In other cases (such as hermeneutics, critical theory, or structuralism), it is held that philosophy investigates a domain that is irreducibly cultural or practical. And in some cases, continental philosophers (such as Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, the later Heidegger, or Derrida) harbor grave doubts about the coherence of any conceptions of philosophy.

Ultimately, the foregoing distinctive traits derive from a broadly Kantian thesis that the nature of knowledge and experience is bound by conditions that are not directly accessible to empirical inquiry.[9]


The history of continental philosophy (taken in its narrower sense) is usually thought to begin with German idealism.[10] Led by figures like Fichte, Schelling, and later Hegel, German idealism developed out of the work of Immanuel Kant in the 1780s and 1790s and was closely linked with both romanticism and the revolutionary politics of the Enlightenment. Besides the central figures listed above, important contributors to German idealism also included Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi, Gottlob Ernst Schulze, Karl Leonhard Reinhold, and Friedrich Schleiermacher.

As the institutional roots of "continental philosophy" in many cases directly descend from those of phenomenology,[11] Edmund Husserl has always been a canonical figure in continental philosophy. Nonetheless, Husserl is also a respected subject of study in the analytic tradition.[12] Husserl's notion of a noema (a non-psychological content of thought), his correspondence with Gottlob Frege, and his investigations into the nature of logic continue to generate interest among analytic philosophers.

A particularly polemical illustration of some differences between "analytic" and "continental" styles of philosophy can be found in Rudolf Carnap's "Elimination of Metaphysics through Logical Analysis of Language," which argues that Heidegger's lecture "What Is Metaphysics?" violates logical syntax to create nonsensical pseudo-statements.[13]

Both before and after World War II there was a growth of interest in German philosophy in France. The role of the French Communist Party in liberating France meant that it became, for a brief period, the largest political movement in the country. The attendant interest in communism translated into an interest in Marx and Hegel, who were both studied extensively for the first time in the conservative French university system. Additionally, there was a major trend towards the ideas of Husserl, and toward his former assistant Heidegger. Most important in this popularization of phenomenology was the author and philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, who called his philosophy existentialism.

The Term

The term "continental philosophy," in the above sense, was first widely used by English-speaking philosophers to describe university courses in the 1970s, emerging as a collective name for the philosophies then widespread in France and Germany, such as phenomenology, existentialism, structuralism, and post-structuralism.[14]

However, the term (and its approximate sense) can be found at least as early as 1840, in John Stuart Mill's 1840 essay on Coleridge, where Mill contrasts the Kantian-influenced thought of "Continental philosophy" and "Continental philosophers" with the English empiricism of Bentham and the eighteenth century generally.[15] This notion gained prominence in the early 1900s as figures such as Bertrand Russell and G.E. Moore advanced a vision of philosophy closely allied with natural science, progressing through logical analysis. This tradition, which has come to be known broadly as "analytic philosophy," became dominant in Britain and America from roughly 1930 onward.[16] Russell and Moore made a dismissal of Hegelianism and its philosophical relatives a distinctive part of their new movement.[17]

Meanwhile in Europe at the turn of the twentieth century, Franz Brentano, Edmund Husserl, and Reinach were developing a new philosophical method of their own, phenomenology. Heidegger took this phenomenological approach in new directions, and, after World War II, French philosophers led by Jean Paul Sartre developed Heidegger's ideas into a movement known as existentialism. In the 1960s, structuralism became the new vogue in France, followed by poststructuralism.

In general, during the twentieth century, there was relatively limited contact between philosophers working in the Anglophone tradition and philosophers from the European continent working in the traditions of phenomenology, existentialism, and structuralism. Commenting on the history of the distinction in 1945, Russell distinguished "two schools of philosophy, which may be broadly distinguished as the Continental and the British respectively," a division he saw as operative "from the time of Locke".[18]

Since the 1970s, however, many philosophers in America and Britain have taken interest in continental philosophers since Kant, and the philosophical traditions in many European countries have similarly incorporated many aspects of the legacy of the "analytic" movement. Self-described analytic philosophy flourishes in France, including philosophers such as Jules Vuillemin, Vincent Descombes, Gilles Gaston Granger, François Recanati, and Pascal Engel. Likewise, self-described "continental philosophers" can be found in philosophy departments in the United Kingdom, North America, and Australia.[19] "Continental philosophy" is thus defined in terms of a family of philosophical traditions and influences rather than a geographic distinction. It remains relevant that "continental philosophy" is a contested designation, with many analytic philosophers laying claim to offer better "continental philosophy" than traditional continental philosophy, particularly at the level of graduate education.[20]

Continental philosophy in English speaking countries: recent developments

From the early twentieth century until the 1960s, continental philosophers were only intermittently discussed in British and American universities. However, philosophy departments began offering courses in continental philosophy in the late 1960s and 1970s. With post-modernism in the 1970s and 1980s, British and American philosophers became more vocally opposed to the methods and conclusions of continental philosophers. Derrida, for example, was the target of criticism by John Searle and, later, assorted signatories protesting an honorary degree given to Derrida by Cambridge University. Meanwhile, university departments in literature, the fine arts, film, sociology, and political theory have increasingly incorporated ideas and arguments from continental philosophers into their curricula and research. Increasingly, traditionally analytic philosophers are turning to continental themes and figures. The most prominent organization for continental philosophy in the United States is the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy (known as SPEP).

See also


  1. "As a first approximation, we might say that philosophy in Continental Europe in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is best understood as a connected weave of traditions, some of which overlap, but no one of which dominates all the others." Brian Leiter and Michael Rosen. The Oxford Handbook of Continental Philosophy. (Oxford University Press, 2007), 2. See also Simon Critchley and William Schroder, (eds.), A Companion to Continental Philosophy. (Blackwell Publishing, 1998), 4.
  2. The above list includes only those movements common to both lists compiled by Simon Critchley. Continental Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2001), 13 and Simon Glendinning. The Idea of Continental Philosophy. (Edinburgh University Press, 2006), 58-65.
  3. Wittgenstein's terminology; similarity in a loose sense.
  4. Glendinning, 12.
  5. The following list of four traits is adapted from Michael Rosen, "Continental Philosophy from Hegel," in A.C. Grayling, (ed.), Philosophy 2: Further through the Subject. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 665.
  6. Simon Critchley. Continental Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction. 115.
  7. Critchley, 57
  8. Critchley, 64.
  9. As Robert Solomon notes, continental philosophers usually identify such conditions with the transcendental subject or self: "It is with Kant that philosophical claims about the self attain new and remarkable proportions. The self becomes not just the focus of attention but the entire subject-matter of philosophy. The self is not just another entity in the world, but in an important sense it creates the world, and the reflecting self does not just know itself, but in knowing itself knows all selves, and the structure of any and every possible self." (R. Solomon. Continental Philosophy since 1750: The Rise and Fall of the Self. (Oxford University Press, 1988), 6)
  10. Critchley, 2001; Solomon, 1988, dates the origins of continental philosophy a generation earlier, to the work of Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
  11. E.g., the largest academic organization devoted to furthering the study of continental philosophy is the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy.
  12. Anthony Kenny, (ed). The Oxford Illustrated History of Western Philosophy. ISBN 0192854402
  13. Wanda T. Gregory, Heidegger, Carnap and Quine at the Crossroads of Language, and Abraham D. Stone. Heidegger and Carnap on the Overcoming of Metaphysics. Retrieved August 11, 2008.
  14. Critchley. Continental Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction., 38.
  15. John Stuart Mill. On Bentham and Coleridge. (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1950), 104, 133, and 155.
  16. See, e.g., Michael Dummett. The Origins of Analytical Philosophy. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994); or C. Prado, (ed.), A House Divided: Comparing Analytic and Continental Philosophy. (New York: Prometheus/Humanity Books, 2003).
  17. E.g., Russell's comments in My Philosophical Development. (New York: Allen & Unwin, 1959), 62: "Hegelians had all kinds of arguments to prove this or that was not 'real'. Number, space, time, matter, were all professedly convicted of being self-contradictory. Nothing was real, so we were assured, except the Absolute, which could think only of itself since there was nothing else for it to think of and which thought eternally the sort of things that idealist philosophers thought in their books."
  18. Bertrand Russell. A History of Western Philosophy. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1945), 643, 641. Russell proposes the following broad points of distinction between Continental and British types of philosophy: (1) in method, deductive system-building vs. piecemeal induction; (2) in metaphysics, rationalist theology vs. metaphysical agnosticism; (3) in ethics, non-naturalist deontology vs. naturalist hedonism; and (4) in politics, authoritarianism vs. liberalism. Russell, 1945, 643-647.
  19. See, e.g., Walter Brogan and James Risser, (eds.), American Continental Philosophy: A Reader. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000).
  20. Brian Leiter is most commonly associated with such claims and compiles the “Philosophical Gourmet Report: A Ranking of Graduate Programs in the English-speaking World” published online by Blackwell Publishers. Note the American Philosophical Association's censuring of the "Gourmet Report" and the controversy associated with that censuring. See, for a history of the analytic continental divide in the context of professional philosophy in the United States, Bruce Wilshire. Fashionable Nihilism: A Critique of Analytic Philosophy. (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002), as well as the first chapter by Richard Rorty in Prado, ed., A House Divided.

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Books and journals

  • Brogan, Walter, and James Risser. American Continental Philosophy: A Reader. Studies in Continental thought. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000. ISBN 978-0253213761
  • Critchley, Simon, and William Ralph Schroeder. A Companion to Continental Philosophy. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1998. ISBN 978-0631190134
  • Critchley, Simon. Continental Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction. (Very short introductions), 43. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001. ISBN 978-0192853592
  • Cutrofello, Andrew. Continental Philosophy: A Contemporary Introduction. Routledge contemporary introductions to philosophy. New York: Routledge, 2005. ISBN 978-0415242097
  • Dummett, Michael A. E. Origins of Analytical Philosophy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994. ISBN 978-0674644724
  • Glendinning, Simon. The Idea of Continental Philosophy A Philosophical Chronicle. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006. ISBN 0748624708
  • Grayling, A. C. Philosophy 2: Further Through the Subject. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998. ISBN 978-0198751786
  • Kenny, Anthony, ed. The Oxford Illustrated History of Western Philosophy. Oxford Univ. Press. ISBN 0192854402
  • Leiter, Brian, and Michael Rosen. The Oxford Handbook of Continental Philosophy. Oxford University Press, 2007. ISBN 978-0199234097
  • John Stuart Mill. On Bentham and Coleridge. New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1950.
  • Prado, C. G. A House Divided: Comparing Analytic and Continental Philosophy. Amherst, NY: Humanity Books, 2003. ISBN 9781591021056
  • Prado, C. G. A House Divided: Comparing Analytic and Continental Philosophy. Amherst, NY: Humanity Books, 2003. ISBN 1591021057
  • Richard Rorty in C.G. Prado, ed., A House Divided.
  • Russell, Bertrand. A History of Western Philosophy. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 1972. ISBN 978-0671201586
  • Russell, Bertrand. My Philosophical Development. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1959.
  • Solomon, Robert C. Continental philosophy since 1750: the rise and fall of the self. Oxford Univ. Press, 1988. ISBN 978-0192892027
  • Wilshire, Bruce W. Fashionable Nihilism: A Critique of Analytic Philosophy. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2002. ISBN 978-0791454305

Online sources

External links

All links retrieved January 7, 2024.

General Philosophy Sources


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