On Analytic vs. Continental Philosophy
The putative split between analytic and continental philosophy continues to exercise philosophers
. It’s quite difficult to say what, if anything, divides them. It’s so difficult that some philosophers, led by Brian Leiter, argue that there is no longer (if there ever was) any substantive or methodological difference between the two. There is just better philosophy and worse philosophy. (For instance, see Leiter’s Introduction to The Future of Philosophy, OUP, 2004.)
I’m a big fan of Brian Leiter, his PGR, and his blog. I also think he makes many good points about continental vs. analytic philosophy. I agree with him that they are not monolithic traditions but loose collections of partially overlapping traditions, that there was and is some degree of cross-fertilization and influence across the analytic-continental divide, that the identity of analytic philosophy has changed over the years, and that analytic philosophers are doing some of the best scholarship on the great continental philosophers (Husserl, Heidegger, etc.).
But none of this entails that there is no significant difference between continental and analytic philosophy as they are pursued by currently active philosophers, or that the distinction between analytic and continental philosophy has lost its usefulness.
Before continuing, let me point out how hard it is to make generalizations about these things. It’s hard enough to know something about my area of specialization, let alone analytic philosophy as a whole, let alone continental philosophy, let alone the relation between the two. I certainly don’t read much current continental philosophy, with occasional exceptions
. So take the following with a grain of salt.
Before becoming an analytic philosopher, I was an undergraduate at the University of Turin, Italy. In Turin, my philosophy coursework was either in continental philosophy or history of philosophy or both, with the exception of two courses in (analytic) philosophy of language and a seminar in (analytic) ethics. I studied some Hegel, Husserl, Heidegger, Gadamer, and plenty of continental aesthetics. One teacher and mentor of mine was internationally famous (in the right circles)
postmodernist philosopher Gianni Vattimo. To make sense of the difference between what I studied as an undergraduate and what I did in graduate school and afterwards, the analytic/continental distinction is the one that I find most helpful.
So what’s the difference between analytic and continental philosophy? This is not the kind of matter where we can draw a sharp line backed by necessary and sufficient conditions. It’s a vague and multi-faceted distinction. We should look for differences in founding fathers, exemplars, sources of authority, core concerns, patterns of citations, and family resemblances between works. (Note: I am not using ‘founding father’ for someone who actively founded something but for someone who is generally seen as having originated something.) We should also keep in mind that there is a continuum of intermediate possibilities between typically analytic and typically continental philosophy.
With that in mind, here is how I understand the distinction:
Analytic philosophy is a set of overlapping traditions whose founding fathers are Frege, Russell, Wittgenstein, and Moore, whose exemplars include works by Carnap, Quine, and Kripke (among others), whose main sources of authority are logic, mathematics, and science, and whose core concerns include what there is and how we can know it.
Continental philosophy is a set of overlapping traditions whose founding fathers include Hegel, Nietzche, and especially Heidegger (or a subset thereof, depending on the specific sub-tradition), whose exemplars (besides Heidegger) include works by Gadamer, Foucault, and Derrida (among others), whose main sources of authority are art and hermeneutics, and whose main concerns include understanding “the human condition”.
Obviously not every philosopher or tradition fits neatly into one or another category. Furthermore, nothing prohibits philosophers from studying and citing authors from the other side. But I think it’s fair to say that the analytic and continental lineages are the most influential in contemporary Western philosophy, and that most active contemporary philosophers descend more directly from either one or another of the two. If you look at what most philosophers write about and who they mostly cite, you will see significantly different themes and patterns of citations.
Caveat 1: Leiter says ‘continental philosophy’ traditionally referred to German and French philosophy after Kant. That is a much broader use of ‘continental philosophy’ than the one I’m familiar with. Just like analytic philosophy did not exist as a recognizable movement (and later as a set of overlapping traditions) before the 1930s, it doesn’t make sense to speak of continental philosophy in the present sense before analytic philosophy originated. Also, there is no continental philosophy in the present sense before Heidegger’s Being and Time, which was first published in 1926.
Caveat 2: What about Marxism and phenomenology, which surely originated before Heidegger and continued after him? As far as I know, Marxism is mostly concerned with political philosophy, whereas phenomenology is mostly concerned with consciousness. They are not general enough to challenge the analytic/continental distinction. They are more analogous to empiricism or utilitarianism than to analytic vs. continental philosophy. You can be a continental Marxist, an analytic Marxist, or just a good old-fashioned follower of Marx. None of that invalidates the distinction between analytic and continental philosophy.