Some Thoughts About "Continental" and "Analytic" Philosophy

William Blattner
Professor of Philosophy
Georgetown University

A useful place to begin thinking about the issue is Brian Leiter's statement of the distinction between "Continental" and "analytic" philosophy. (It is an attempt to be balanced in stating the distinction and is meant to help prospective graduate students understand where they fit in the profession.) The first thing to notice is that Leiter characterizes "analytic" philosophy in terms of its stylistic aspirations: "Analytic philosophers, crudely speaking, aim for argumentative clarity and precision; draw freely on the tools of logic; and often identify, professionally and intellectually, more closely with the sciences and mathematics, than with the humanities." In contrast, he characterizes "Continental philosophy" by its relation to a series of authors from the philosophical tradition. He concludes, "'Continental philosophy' is more aptly characterized as a series of partly overlapping traditions in philosophy, some of whose figures have almost nothing in common with other[s]." Now, this is odd. If the figures constitutive of "Continental philosophy" have almost nothing in common, then how does it make sense to lump them together under a single term? (Note, as Leiter himself points out, the nominal geographical reference of the term is misleading as well.)1 The only rationale would be, I think, that despite all their differences, what they precisely do not share are the stylistic ambitions Leiter identifies with "analytic" philosophy.

So, Leiter's analysis implies that the distinction between "Continental" and "analytic" philosophy is primarily stylistic. What are those stylistic distinctions?

  1. Drawing freely on the tools of logic.

    There are several problems with this putative distinguishing mark. First, Husserl is, by the characterization in question, an "analytic" philosopher. Among his primary concerns was the autonomy of logic and mathematics from psychology, and he certainly did draw freely on the tools of logic.

    Second, whether one can be said to draw freely on the tools of logic depends to some extent on what one means by "logic." As has been oft noted by scholars, what academic philosophers mean by "logic" today is symbolic mathematical logic. This sort of logic did not emerge until the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries with Frege, Russell, and Whitehead (who, despite being a Briton1a and a co-author with Russell of the Principia Mathematica, is generally classified as closer to "Continental" philosophy than "analytic" and is usually only taught in self-identified "Continental" philosophy departments). Before Frege "logic" referred to the theory of the grammatical and inferential structure of judgment and its components (terms) and implications (inference). Although one might doubt the value of his logical innovations, Hegel certainly did draw freely on the tools of logic in this broader sense.

    Third, a great many presumptively "analytic" philosophers who write in ethics, philosophy in and of literature, social and political philosophy, and many other subspecialties within the discipline do not draw freely on logic in either sense. It is primarily in so-called core analytic philosophy that one draws freely on the tools of logic in either sense. ("Core analytic philosophy" is roughly metaphysics and epistemology in the style of self-identified "analytic" philosophy.)

  2. Cross-disciplinary professional identification.

    A great many scholars presumptively designated as "analytic philosophers" identify more closely with the humanities than with the natural sciences and mathematics, esp. those writing on moral philosophy. So, this proposed distinction does not get us very far.

  3. Argumentative clarity and precision.

    What is it to aim for argumentative clarity and precision? If argumentative clarity and precision is constituted by "regimenting" arguments into a form that can be analyzed by standard symbolic logic, for example, then it is true that scholars who write on the authors Leiter identifies with "Continental philosophy" tend not to do that. A large number of scholars who might presumptively be called "analytic philosophers" don't do that either, however.

    There are, of course, standards of argumentative clarity and precision other than a propensity to regiment arguments. It would be a large and difficult topic to try to specify what counts as argumentative clarity and precision. We can say something about it, though: defining technical terminology when it's introduced; writing in language that is more likely to be accessible to an educated outsider; clearly identifying assumptions; considering challenges to one's argumentative moves. It's important to note that these are not stylistic conventions of "analytic" philosophy, but rather of good philosophy (as opposed to bad).2 There are presumptively "analytic" philosophers who do not satisfy these standards, as Leiter himself laments in his write-up, and there are presumptively "Continental" philosophers who do satisfy them — and not just scholars trained in "analytic" departments but writing on "Continental" figures. Just to pick two names, consider John Drummond and David Carr.3

  4. Historical v systematic.

    One presumptively "Continental" scholar whom I admire once said to me, "I find it difficult to think without my historical topcoat." Does a scholar incline towards thinking through an issue in the context of an historical text or author, or rather to attack the problem head-on in the terms in which he or she has been trained without reference to historical benchmarks? Leiter does not mention it, but it is true that scholars typically classified as "Continental" philosophers tend to be historical, rather than systematic, in this sense.4 There are quite a few "analytic" philosophers who are historical in this sense as well, however. While I was a doctoral student at the University of Pittsburgh it was strongly historical, partly due to the influence of Wilfrid Sellars, as are some, but not all, of the leading programs in "analytic" philosophy today. What's more, one finds systematic thinking whose value is compromised by ignorance of the history of philosophy in both "Continental" and "analytic" authors.

None of these distinctions really works to sort "Continental" from "analytic" philosophy. So, what are we left with? Is there no distinction between "Continental" and "analytic" philosophy at all? To claim that the distinction is entirely an illusion would be obtuse. The distinction seems, rather, to be based on historical sociological divisions within the profession. Let me offer some incomplete, but I hope not uninformative, comments on the history of the "Continental-analytic" divide in 20th century philosophy. I do not pretend that these comments convey anything like a complete picture. For one thing, they do not really explain the relative positions within the discipline of American pragmatism and Marxism/Critical Theory, neither of which really comfortably fit into a world divided between "Continental" and "analytic" philosophy.

At least two patterns of division within philosophy converged to create the particularly hostile brew out of which the "Continental-analytic" divide emerged. First, some of the seminal figures in "early analytic philosophy" (such as Bertrand Russell) were reacting against the idealist thinkers regnant in Britain in the late 19th century, such as Bradley and Green, whose thought was in turn derivative of Hegel's. (Interestingly, in the USA the reaction against idealism also produced pragmatism, as with James and Dewey.)

Second, in his 1929 Inaugural lecture, "What is Metaphysics?"5 Heidegger urged that we break "the dominion of logic" in philosophy and turned his philosophical energies in a new direction, reminiscent more of 19th century romanticism than Husserl or Kant. Heidegger had reasons and arguments for his thesis about logic; he did not just reject logic in the name of unbridled irrationalism. (Very roughly, he argued that cognition and the propositional and theoretical content it can carry are grounded in precognitive practice, which implied, he argued, that this practice is not subject to logical regulation.)6 All of this set Heidegger at odds not only with his mentor, Husserl, but also with Cassirer and the neo-Kantians (who were, among other things rivals for academic supremacy within Germany), the Vienna Circle and the logical positivists, and early analytic philosophy, all of whom had put logic and mathematics at the center of their thinking. In so far as Heidegger had become the dominant presence within phenomenology, he pulled Husserl and phenomenology into his orbit, which was now defined over against neo-Kantianism, positivism, and (implicitly) early analytic philosophy. Heidegger's influence was very broad within 20th century European thought. It is difficult to understand either Foucault or Derrida, for example, without some background in Heidegger. Similarly, even though he consistently denied that he was an existentialist, Heidegger deeply influenced existentialist thought in the 20th century, for example, Sartre.

When the reaction against Heidegger and those influenced by him and is fused with the rejection of 19th century idealism and the thought deeply influenced by it (including Critical Theory), we have the fundamental contours of the mid-century "Continental-analytic divide."

These philosophical divisions interacted with cultural and political battles, which deepened and hardened the "Continental-analytic divide." Heidegger collaborated with National Socialism and used the prestige and some of the vocabulary of his philosophical thought to support Hitler and his murderous regime. This created a deserved antipathy to Heidegger, one shared not only by neo-Kantians and positivists, but also other refugees from Hitler's Germany who would otherwise likely have been involved in vigorous debate with him: Marxists and Critical Theorists (such as Adorno) and liberals (such as Jaspers). Heidegger's use of his philosophical language to support National Socialism and the difficulty of disentangling Heidegger from his thought, given its visionary quality after 1929, superimposed moral and political battles on philosophical debates.7

Further, Roman Catholic universities in the USA were deeply engaged with Heidegger and other authors identified with "Continental" philosophy, and thus philosophy departments in those universities were often home to "Continental" philosophy. This was true of Boston College, Villanova, Fordham, Georgetown, and others. Perhaps this has to do mostly with Catholicism's intrinsic connection with Rome and Europe. Perhaps David Hollinger's analysis is correct: that the rhetoric of scientificity and the identification of scholarship with mathematics and the natural sciences was used as a tool in the mid-20th-century Kulturkampf waged by a newly empowered middle-class, multi-ethnic, and mutli-religious academic vanguard against the traditional assumptions of the American academy about the relations among religion, morality, higher education, and scholarship. After the old-line Protestant universities (such as Harvard, Yale, and Princeton) were won over to the new wave, Roman Catholic universities continued to resist the disengagement between religion, morals, and the mission of the undergraduate college.8 In so far as "Continental" philosophy was perceived or represented as being "anti-scientific," it became a natural center of gravity for academics resisting the emerging new paradigm of the university. Whatever the correct sociological account of this association between Roman Catholic higher education in the US and "Continental" philosophy, one may be sure that whenever one mixes religion and politics, even academic politics, unpredictable and irrational results emerge.8a

The net effect of all this was to create a deep division within academic philosophy. This manifests itself primarily in terms of which historical authors a scholar reads and refers to. There is a list of historical authors typically associated with "Continental" philosophy, including: Fichte, Schelling, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Marx, Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Foucault, Derrida, and others. These authors have nothing in common methodologically, sytlistically, or doctrinally. There is no reason to regard them as belonging to some identifiable philosophical type.

As the sociological and academic-political divide between "Continental" and "analytic" philosophy hardened, students and scholars attracted to one side or the other of the divide stopped reading the work of those on the other side. If we ignore the sociological and political factors discussed above, it is impossible to understand why that should be so. After all, the so-called Continental-analytic divide is neither doctrinal nor methodological. Consider the following observations:

Therefore, the so-called Continental-analytic division within philosophy is not a philosophical distinction; it's a sociological one. It is the product of historical accident. It is unreasonable to cleave to it, and the insistence on remaining closed to work that is either presumptively "analytic" or presumptively "Continental" is irrational and unphilosophical. Further, rejecting or refusing to consider positions one has not studied and consequently does not understand is not a philosophical stance. It is, if anything, the very antithesis of the philosophical attitude. In light of this conclusion, I prefer to the extent possible not to use the terms "Continental philosophy" and "analytic philosophy." They perpetuate the divisions of the past, divisions that it behooves us to overcome.

Over the past thirty years there has been movement towards cross-fertilization. Among the trends driving this cross-fertilization have been the following. There has been a revival of interest in Hegel, to a significant degree due to the liberalism-communitarianism debate and Charles Taylor's influence on it. Hubert Dreyfus has used Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, and others to intervene in the philosophical reception of artificial intelligence research. A search for ways out of the perceived dead-ends in regnant philosophical research programs in mainstream "analytic" philosophy led some reared in "analytic" philosophy to turn to "Continental" authors for inspiration and new ideas. Richard Rorty is one of the most celebrated (and controversial) examples of this, but others have opened themselves to ideas once thought to be negligible by denizens of mainstream philosophy departments.10 Finally, a revival of interest in pragmatism (particularly, Peirce, James, Dewey, and the legal and political applications of pragmatism) has opened mainstream philosophy departments to a stream of thought that cannot be coherently placed in a world divided between "Continental" and "analytic" philosophy. This has a tendency to undercut the obviousness of the division itself.

This cross-fertilization and rapprochement is still only partial and halting. It is my hope that it will flourish and that in ten or fifteen years, say, we will treat the distinction between so-called Continental and so-called analytic philosophy as an historical artifact. This hope is not, I would like to urge, merely a personal preference. It is a hope for the widespread diffusion of the philosophical attitudes of open-mindedness, the suspension of judgment until arguments and evidence have been considered, and hospitality towards those bearing alternative perspectives, ideas, and arguments. Specifically, it is a hope that these philosophical attitudes will be applied across the received sociological divisions within the profession, divisions that are no longer either doctrinally or methodologically motivated.*


1 There were many active Hegelians in Britain (Green and Bradley, for example) and the USA (the St. Louis Hegelians, to whom Dewey was philosophically close before he "converted" to pragmatism). There were notable "analytic" or proto-"analytic" philosophers on the European Continent, such as Frege. Further, there is a large group of self-identified "Continental" philosophers in the USA and Britain today, and Germany, for one, has seen the emergence of a large number of academic philosophers who identify more with "analytic" philosophy than their own autochthonous tradition.

1a Thanks to Taylor Carman for correcting my erroneous identification of Whitehead as an American!

2 Of course, we make allowances for the great philosophers of the past who struggled with clarity while trying to make revolutionary moves and probing deep and complex questions. It would be foolish to refuse to read Spinoza or Kant because they sometimes failed to achieve such clarity. Such allowances, however, do not obviously carry over to philosophers writing today or to expositors of Spinoza and Kant. It's hard to know how to balance the murkiness and unclarity that usually attend thinking about deep and complex issues with the imperative of clarity. It is true that those trained in self-identified "analytic" graduate programs often (but not always) err in such situations on the side of clarity, while those trained in presumptively "Continental" programs often (but not always) err in the other direction. Striking a working balance is very difficult and only the best scholars among us achieve that.

3 I could have mentioned my colleagues Terry Pinkard and John Brough, but prefer to avoid the appearance of a party interest (although I may just have given such appearance, albeit by apophasis).

4 When this penchant for historical thinking meets the murkiness of some of the texts of the tradition (see footnote 2 above), the allowance for less clarity bleeds from the historical authors and scholarship directly on them into more systematic philosophizing. This is a dangerous tendeny that must be controlled vigilantly, while not crushing creativity and the desire to explore issues and ways of thought inspired by the tradition.

5 Translated in Pathmarks (Cambridge), ed. by William McNeil.

6 Although I don't agree with all of the details of his exposition, esp. of Heidegger, Michael Friedman offers an insightful examination of the philosophical and historical issues here in A Parting of the Ways (Open Court, 2000). I have myself devoted considerable attention to this aspect of Heidegger's thinking. I should note here that it is far from clear that Heidegger's arguments for "breaking the dominion of logic" are compelling. (Many will view this as an understatement, to say the least!) Even if we grant Heidegger's thesis that cognitive understanding is derivative of the practical intelligibility embodied in engaged action, it does not obviously follow that philosophical reflection is not subject to logical regulation. Further assumptions are required in order to reach that conclusion, assumptions that concern the proper topics of philosophical reflection and the proper approaches to them. (Very roughly again, Heidegger argued that philosophy was solely concerned with ontology, an account of being, and that this ontology must be developed through a phenomenology of the temporal form of practical intelligibility.)

7 It is worth noting that Heidegger was not alone in his collaboration with National Socialism. See Hans Sluga, Heidegger's Crisis (Harvard, 1993). Whether Heidegger's politics are related to his philosophical thought is deeply controversial. The most plausible approach to this issue that I have seen is in Iain Thomson's Heidegger on Ontotheology (Cambridge, 2005).

8 See David A. Hollinger, "Science as a Weapon in Kulturkämpfe in the United States during and after World War II," Isis 86 (1995). Now that the dust has settled on these battles in the US we can more clearly see an enduring transformation: the problematizing of undergraduate education's traditional role of leading students to reflection on the purpose of their lives (if any) and the contours of the good life. The professoriat no longer feels that it has the social status, intellectual stature, or calling to guide students in such reflection. One might argue that this is a good thing, if one thinks that such aspirations are inherently arrogant and bound to be burdened by the assumptions of one's class, race, gender, or ethnicity. One might also argue that we threw the baby out with the bathwater. (For an example of the latter, see Anthony Kronman, Education's End (Yale, 2008).) Thanks to Joe Rouse for drawing my attention to Hollinger's fascinating work.

8a As Nietzsche comments, "… the cause of the origin of a thing and its eventual utility, its actual employment and place in a system of purposes, lie worlds apart …" (Genealogy of Morals, Second Essay, §12, p. 77 in the Vintage ed., translated by Walter Kaufmann). "Continental" philosophy was once seen as a bulwark against the secularization and de-moralizing of the American academy, but has now become a hotbed of multiculturalism.

9 See the work of Sean Kelly for some of these connections.

10 I should make clear that I am not asserting that those research programs did in fact hit dead-ends, nor am I endorsing communitarianism, Rorty's views, or Dreyfus's critique of artificial intelligence, at least for the purposes of this discussion. I am merely pointing to the cross-fertilization that took place.

* I should thank a number of colleagues and students who provided feedback on earlier versions of this webpage that led to changes: Joe Rouse, Mark Lance, Terry Pinkard, James Olsen, Oren Magid, Andy Blitzer, and Taylor Carman. The presence of their names here does not in any way imply that they endorse this webpage.

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