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.


  1. Edoardo Acotto

    Hi and sorry for my english.
    Since I work on “philosophical style” in a naturalized perspective, I’m quite interested on the divide between Anlytics and Continentals, but my question is: WHAT IS IT “philosophical style”? I discuss the problem in my PhD thesis (October 12, Paris8).
    Leiter says: “… maybe it’s time to re-draw the map along substantial lines rather than those of “approaches” or “styles”: … why not realist and anti-realist (as Chris Norris proposes) or naturalist vs anti-naturalist?”.
    Ok, as a kind of naturalist I agree with a redescription in these terms, but why not re-elaborate the concept of philosophical “style”? Indeed, if you take it as “philosophical writing” it’s a big theoretical decision. And what about “thought style” and “communicative style”? Wittgensteiniens maintain that philosophical style is the style of writing of a philosopher, but it’s not the only possiblity. (I think that “style of thought” means “expressive/communicative style of a thought”, so “philosophical style” means “expressive/communicative style of philosophical thought”)
    In my thesis I try to make clear these different notions in a naturalistic way (starting from Sperber & Wilson’s Relevance Theory).
    What do you think about?

  2. Eric Thomson

    This seems reasonable. I’d add Husserl as a core common ancestor (as my understanding is that Husserl/Frege were working on very similar issues, actually reviewing and talking about each others’ work, but their disciples led to quite different styles of philosophy (crazy Heideggarian stuff on one side, crazy Russelian stuff on the other)).

  3. David

    I agree that philosophy between Kant and Husserl ought not to count in the split. I would say that today’s analytic philosophy (as opposed to analytic philosophy done by say Carnap, Schlick and Ryle in the 30s) would (grudgingly) concede that there’s a single path of 19th century philosophers from Bentham, Kant, Hegel, Marx, Mill, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Frege, and Husserl.

    It’s after Frege and Husserl (in Russell and Heidegger) that philosophy made got screwed up.

  4. well, to some extent I had a similar experience to Gualtiero – first I was more into continental philosophy, and then I turned more to analytical /naturalistic tradition (I even have some published stuff on Nietzsche, Hegel etc.). Yet I do not share the conviction that the main source of authority for continental tradition is art and hermeneutics. If you look closely at Foucault, you’ll see he’s relying on historical evidence and doing mostly a lot of historical research which is philosophically motivated and interpreted but not in a hermeneutical, charitable vein. Anyway, Heidegger, Husserl and Hegel can hardly found in Foucault’s writings. But more to the point, I think that continental tradition has always been more sensitive to _all_ four Kantian questions, while analytical only slowly seems to have appreciated their significance and tried to answer them more explicitly. There is of course a lot of rubbish in philosophy, and some of it is being classified as ‘continental’. My rule of the thumb is: if you’re not doing analytical philosophy, and do some kind of speculation not warranted by transcendental arguments, you probably didn’t read Kant and you belong to the era before 1800, so you’re not even in the continental tradition 😛

    Of course, now it’s possible to marry both traditions, and quote both Wittgenstein and Heidegger (this wasn’t thinkable some 30 years ago, at least in Polish analytical tradition). So there is something true about it – especially because current continental philosophers are nowhere near as interesting as founding fathers, so analytical philosophers are the only ones doing any interesting work on the problems articulated by Heidegger and Wittgenstein.

  5. Thanks for writing this. As you say, there are no hard distinctions here and we have to deal with tendencies. I would want to say however that in addition to Foucault’s historical references, as mentioned in the previous comment, we can also see the scientific references of Deleuze and the mathematical references of Badiou. Thus even the tendency toward having “art and hermeneutics” as indicative of CP needs to be qualified.

    If you’ll forgive the self-reference, I have a series of posts on the relation of AP and CP at my blog: https://tinyurl.com/26ldw4

    I’d be happy to hear of your reactions.

  6. I share the nostalgic conviction of a common root between analytic and continental way of doing philosophy during the past couple of centuries in the western world (because i were trained in continental philosophy as well).

    Husserl send letters to Frege and tried to influence him with his “psychologism” stand, Nietzsche was aware of Darwin, Wittgenstein read Shopenhauer and Kant, and many more anecdotical curiosities linking philosophers with strong ties bettween them.

    But in many respects whatever the starting points of both streams, they diverge in some point, dramatically.

    I remember an eventual encounter cited in a passage by Dennett in his book “Breaking the spell”, bettween Searle and Foucault, asking Searle to Foucault, why he “speaks” so obscurely in his writtings while he is so clear in conversation, Foucault answered: because if not he cannot be treated with respect by his fellows given the fact that being clear results in somehow lack of deep-thought and philosophical erudition.

    I identified continental philosophy with postmodernism seeking sources of evidene exclusively in art, literature, biblical criticism and hermenutics and though i respect these methologies is their qest to acquire knowledge, many of them are intelectual impostures without doubt.

  7. Colin

    Traditionally there have been two types of phenomenology: existential and hermeneutic. Heidegger thought that he was doing a hermeneutic phenomenology in Being and Time. It may have been less rigorous (in its way) than Husserl, but that doesn’t make it not phenomenology. Thus suggesting that phenomenology isn’t Continental Philosophy is deeply problematic. Not only would that ditch Husserl and Heidegger, but also Sartre and Merleau-Ponty, four of the luminaries of 20th Century French and German philosophy. It’s nice that so many analytic philosophers are finding the phenomonoligsts useful, but that doesn’t make them not Continental Philosophers.

    I would agree that the first ‘real’ Continental Philosopher is Heidegger, however I would posit that Husserl serves as a sort of proto-Continental Philosopher. Many of his terms and problems would serve as grist for the philosophies of Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Sartre etc. Anything before Husserl is something else, maybe German Idealism, whatever.

    I also want to echo the commenter that disagreed with your characterization of the focus of Continental Philosophy (and maybe analytic). There is actually really good stuff being done in philosophy of art by analytic (or at least quasi-analytic) philosophers and the work done on the mind by Merleau-Ponty is being raided by everyone. Thus I tend to think that the difference between AP and CP is actually a collection of names and, as a result, also a way divvying up the (philosophical) world. For example both deconstruction and hermeneutics can be read as philosophy of language. Though they can also be understood as philosophy of history and maybe even art. The same goes for phenomenology.

  8. I’m a 4th year undergraduate in Chicago, with hopes to go onto graduate study, and I have to say that nothing has been more harmful to my studies than the supposed analytic/continental divide. The distinction puts blinders on students, having them believe that some theorists have nothing to offer in their course of study, and that others are canonical. As a byproduct, students start forming early prejudices that, I believe, prevent them from advancing their knowledge in a widely diverse field.

    For the sake of undergrads, forget the analytic/continental divide!

  9. Ed Hackett

    I am now at a mostly analytic department doing a MA. I am applying to do work on Husserl with a mind of building bridges between the alleged “divide”. I find the divide crazy and illusory, yet still substantive of how people in the discipline perceive what they do. The distinction is a little more than heuristic, but evidence of the fact that the distinction is losing its effect is within my own anecdotal experience of when you really press people on their bias for the analytic tradition.

    When you ask them specifically what they disagree with, they know they should have an argument, but most of them will either first rescind their criticism in realizing they haven’t read anything to warrant their biases or they will say something easily defeated by Socratic elenchos.

    All the younger PhD students and MAs in my department seem to possess little bias of those of the last generation. I find the bias of the divide holding for those that were alive or educated during the lifetime of Heidegger/Derrida. This seems to be fact about when they were alive than it is today a distinction holding as salient as it once did.

  10. annamari

    Well, before I decided that it is much more hot to study cogsci I studied theoretical philosophy. My training was highly influenced by analytic philosophy, here in Helsinki we have “roots” for historical reasons in analytic philosophy. Of course, we had to study at least the historical basics of continental philosophy. Naturally it could have been possible to study continental philosophy, but I didn´t find it very fascinating.

    Anyway, there are some points I´d like to add.

    1. Interestingly, behind Husserl and the Vienna Circle is one name, namely Brentano (Husserl was his student, and the Vienna Circle- people celebrated Brentano as their ancestor).

    2. Even if there is much more dialogue – and I am not convinced it is always a good thing – between the so called “analytic” and “continental” camp at the level of common interests and research questions, I think there is still a methodological difference between the analytical and continental philosophy such as phenomenology, hermeneutics and existentialism.

    It is important to remember that the analytical philosophy it self can be divided to the “hard” and “soft” wings. The hard wing includes the old school analytical philosophy with the emphasis on the formal methdos as a tool of analysis (Tractatus-Wittgenstein,Carnap, Ramsay, Hempel and co), and the soft wing has got it´s main influences from the late- Wittgenstein (the ordinary language philosophy and so on).

    It is true that especially the soft wing has a long historical dialogue with the continental philosophy. People like Gadamer, Karl-Otto Apel, and the other neohermeneutics have taken influences from the soft wing and pragmatists. And people like Jaakko Hintikka and other have formulated some Husserl´s ideas in exact way, but still… Jaakko Hintikka is probably more “analytic” philosopher than a phenomenologist. Why is that? Because he uses the method of (hard) analytic philosophy. And this is precisely my point.

    Since I am a blonde, I have the right to ask silly questions. Is it really so that the existentialists/phenomenologists have adapted the trademark of HARD analytic philosophy – the exact method? Really? I´d love to see some existentialism done with the second order predicate logic… Can it be done, I mean really?

    3. And about the Gual´s caveat 2. The marxism maybe “mostly concerned” with the political philosophy, but there are such things as marxian-originated philosophy of science (The Frankfurt School, the Praxis- school) and so on.

  11. colin

    I also really have to disagree with the statement that the best work being done on the great Continental Philosophers is by Analytics. It’s only analytic philosophers that think that and, since presumably analytic philosophers philosophize analytically because the think that it’s the best way to philosophize, it is not a surprise that they would think that philosophy that sounded analytic was better. Of course this doesn’t mean that some philosophers aren’t better than others, but that is a question apart from disciplinary orientation.

    This also seems problematic historically this seems very problematic to me. It was not that long ago that Carnap was trying to debunk Heidegger, and Searle was debunking Derrida. Neither of those efforts worked particularly well. Now analytic philosophers publish on Being and Time, Phenomenology of Perception etc. It would seem that Continental Philosophy of the past is ok, but (just like it used to be) Continental Philosophy of the present isn’t. It wouldn’t surprise me if in twenty years there were books like Badiou’s Analytic or Steigler And Possible Worlds, but whoever the next big Continental Philoospher is is suspected of being an imposter.

    This brings me to my final point. I have no idea what a philosophical impostor would look like. I mean there has been about 2,500 years worth of philosophy and a lot of dumb ideas, as well as some really good ones. Having a dumb idea does not make one an impostor, it just makes a dumb idea. I see no advantage, and little possibility, of keeping philosophy pure. (HT Rorty)

  12. gualtiero

    Well, I wrote that “analytic philosophers are doing SOME of the best scholarship on the great continental philosophers”. That leaves plenty of room for some, or even most, of the best scholarship to be done by others.

  13. Colin said: “I mean there has been about 2,500 years worth of philosophy and a lot of dumb ideas, as well as some really good ones. Having a dumb idea does not make one an impostor, it just makes a dumb idea”.

    I have no complaints about it. I agree that not all people are like Aristotle setting down the foundations of logic, and not all people master the pedagogy and literarcy of Socrates and Plato respectively.

    Not all people can introspect his own mind like Kant to talk about what are the limits of the mind from the very faculties of the mind, and so on until we enlist all the great figures of science and philosophy.

    They are great figures because of that: they produce good ideas.

    In the process, some people try to produce good ideas as a trial and error procedure.

    Parmenides´logic and ontology is certainly dumb. The world really change as Aristotle shows. And Aristotle syllogistic logic is now surpass by modern logic and so on.

    But, saying as a background assumption that no truth can be seek, that only exist “the text” to be interpreted one time and over and over again, because reality is not there and no sort of knowledge we can secure, only interpetations; is not either a good idea nor a bad one: is pragmatically speaking putting the cart before the horse.

    We are here to know. Our brains, minds, or whatever you want, have as a primordial function acquire knowledge about the world, not only for survival reasons but for rewrding reasons.

  14. colin

    Anibal said: “But, saying as a background assumption that no truth can be seek, that only exist “the text” to be interpreted one time and over and over again, because reality is not there and no sort of knowledge we can secure, only interpetations; is not either a good idea nor a bad one: is pragmatically speaking putting the cart before the horse.

    We are here to know. Our brains, minds, or whatever you want, have as a primordial function acquire knowledge about the world, not only for survival reasons but for rewarding reasons.”

    To be perfectly honest I read these two paragraphs as containing so many philosophical assumptions about the nature, purpose and function of philosophy that I’m not sure where to begin. For example: do we actually accrue -more- knowledge and is that knowledge actually about something other than itself, i.e. a world? Also, since humans encounter the world linguistically the nature of how communications our understood is key. But I don’t want to argue philosophical details, merely point out that there are genuine philosophical positions that would disagree with you: some are Continental, some pragmatic. They may not fit with your philosophical priorities, but that does not make them not philosophy.

    Gualtiero: Point taken, I didn’t mean to make assumptions as to what you do and do not consider good philosophy. That said I worry a lot about Lieter’s attempt to transform the Continental/Analytic divide into one between good and bad philosophy. I can’t help but feel that too often the category of ‘bad’ is really just a substitute for contemporary continental philosophy. I did not mean to attribute that view to you.

  15. Colin:
    You claim that “[you] didn’t mean to make assumptions as to what you do and do not consider good philosophy”, but you “feel” that the criticism of the bulk of late 20th century “continental” philosophy shifts persons like Leiter’s categorization of “continental” to “bad”.

    I submit to you that: (1) this “feeling” is an assumption, because it does not fully consider the reasons of making that claim, but rather the desire to make it; and (2) the category shift is an assumption, as it does not acknowledge the argument Leiter makes, but rather inserts your view of Leiter as his own.

  16. colin

    Jared: I’m confused as to what you are getting at. I took my statement as merely being an apology for misreading our host as well as an explanation for the reason for the misreading.

    If you are claiming that I’m putting words into Leiter’s mouth allow me to disagree. I assume that we are all familiar with Leiter’s rearranging of philosophical categories, but if not allow me to quote from The Future For Philosophy.

    “A valuable legacy of the ‘analytic takeover’ of Continental scholarship over the past quarter-century has been precisely to restore Continental thought to ‘philosophical vigor.’ For one thing, the analytically trained philosophers typically write with greater argumentative and philosophical penetration about Continental figures than those not so trained, though it seems more accurate to characterize this as the difference between better and worse philosophy, and not competing ‘camps.’ For another, there is an increasing willingness to take Continental thinkers seriously as philosophers, to ask whether they got it right and, if so, about what?” (p. 16)

    This seems completely confused. Evidently there are some Continental philosophers that are offering exciting insights that Analytic philosophers are beginning to take quite seriously. Despite this Continental philosophers still don’t exhibit the “argumentative and philosophical penetration” that is characteristic of Analytic philosophy and thus Continental philosophy is propagating “hagiography.” To support this Leiter cites two books on Habermas, one by Raymond Geuss (an “analytic” philosopher) and one by Thomas McCarthy (a Continental philosopher). Evidently the McCarthy book is not as critical of Habermas as Leiter would like, and Leiter even suggests that it is “superficial.”

    I see two fundamental problems with Leiter’s view:

    1. Habermas is a Continental philosopher! Yet Leiter is not accusing him of sloppy scholarship, Leiter is suggesting that Habermas has interesting views that analytic philosophers are taking seriously. Also, certainly no one would accuse Habermas of writing hagiography (what a great word!), especially considering his strong critiques of Derrida, Rorty and Gadamer. Thus I am unclear what separates McCarthy from Habermas other than Leiter just not liking the book, and that seems fair enough. Maybe McCarthy is an example of “worse” philosophy.

    2. Who else fits into the category of “worse philosophy?” Obviously Leiter isn’t attempting to provide a taxonomy, but a few more clues would certainly help. For example, are there any analytic philosophers that could be categorized as writing “worse philosophy?” Whether there are Leiter doesn’t say. However, one can’t help but become suspicious that Leiter’s continual references to the “sober and warranted doubts” and “balanced assessments” of Analytic philosophy are his way of saying that, while there is Analytic and Continental philosophy in the better column there is only Continental in the worse.

  17. [My apologies if this gets submitted twice; I had a browser glitch.]

    Leiter doesn’t say it (or I don’t recall), but if I may guess as to what was on his mind when he wrote that introduction (as well as his chapter on “The Hermeneutics of Suspicion”) was the latter 20th century “continentalists”. He names Derrida and Foucault as the more acceptable of this generation (and I get the impression from the text that Leiter does this with a bad taste in his mouth); ultimately, he rejects them. When he talks about bad philosophy, he’s talking about someone else. The “bad” philosophy there are those popular “continentalists” that, frankly, don’t make a whole lot of sense when closely examined; these being Deleuze (who is not even named in the book), Klossowski (not named), Irigaray (who is dismissed in a single sentence), Ricoeur (dismissed in two or three sentences), Adorno (who Leiter concedes to social theory but not philosophy), Jameson (likewise), and so on. In THAT sense, those names that make up an imagined core of an imagined genre of philosophy are not good, in Leiter’s view, in terms of what they offer to the advancement of the field. Rather, they require a bit of dogma (an affinity for May 1968, for example) or ignorance (the “intellectual tourists,” as Leiter would have it) in order for their insights to be accepted. That’s not to say that these thinkers are not interesting, but, insofar as a philosopher is concerned with finding out the nature of things and not with merely flirting about with interpreting interpretations, it doesn’t work.

    But don’t get me wrong; I’m saying this as someone who is working on a study of Deleuze and Nietzsche!

  18. Student

    “Since I am a blonde, I have the right to ask silly questions. Is it really so that the existentialists/phenomenologists have adapted the trademark of HARD analytic philosophy – the exact method? Really? I´d love to see some existentialism done with the second order predicate logic… Can it be done, I mean really?”

    Okey, so, I’m replying to a very old post.
    Not that I can see anyone stating anything about adapting these hard methods, but Alan Badiou in Number and Numbers goes through Frege, Cantor etc. to build on his idea of Being as group-theory. So, yes, it has been done.

    The problem with adapting the “method” of HARD analytical philosophy, as far as I can see, is that it isn’t a method at all. “Hard” analytical philosophy doesn’t seem to work through using logical methods to analyse philosophical problems, it is more of a question of cutting and pasting some philosophical views on top of the structure of logics.

    So quantifiers become the statements and the forms of things that can exist, analytical metaphyics – by no coincidence – becomes to see the foremost structures of the world as analogical to the parts of mathematical logic (predicates, relations, quantifiers). It is not really a method to study things, it is a statement of the structure of things.

    I also lacks empirical validity.

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