Continental philosophy, in contemporary usage, refers to a set of traditions of 19th and 20th century philosophy from mainland Europe. This sense of the term originated among English-speaking philosophers in the second half of the 20th century, who used it to refer to a range of thinkers and traditions outside the analytic movement. Continental philosophy includes the following movements: German idealism, phenomenology, existentialism(and its antecedents, such as the thought of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche), hermeneutics, structuralism, post-structuralism, deconstuction, French feminism, the critical theory of the Frankfurt School and related branches of Western Marxism, and psychoanalytic theory..
It should be noted that from the point of view of so called “Continental Philosophers” they are merely carrying on the tradition of philosophy in Europe and they do not see themselves as being in a school. It is actually Analytical Philosophy which diverged from this tradition of European philosophy with developments in England with Moore and Russell as well as in the Vienna Circle with Schlick and Wittgenstein which uses Frege as a point of departure that contributed to the creation of a separate strand of philosophy concerned with Common Sense, Language, and Science that arose as a critique of Metaphysics. This strand of Analytical Philosophy which became popular in the English speaking world and then eventually dominated American universities then contrast itself with the continuing European tradition of philosophy by calling it “Continental Philosophy”. Analytical Philosophy has engaged in a ideological campaign against what it terms Continental Philosophy which has largely gone un answered because those practicing European philosophy and carrying on that tradition for the most part do not see this split as significant to their own projects.
It is difficult to identify non-trivial claims that would be common to all the preceding philosophical movements. And this is because in European philosophy there is a great deal of variety between thinkers and schools of thought. It is proponents of analytical philosophy that have attempted to characterize this variety as if it were a school opposed to their own. The term “continental philosophy”, like “analytic philosophy”, lacks clear definition and may mark merely a family resemblance across disparate philosophical views. Simon Glendinning has suggested that the term was originally more pejorative than descriptive, functioning as a label for types of western philosophy rejected or disliked by analytic philosophers. Babette Babich emphasizes the political basis of the distinction, still an issue when it comes to appointments and book contracts. Nonetheless, Michael E. Rosen has ventured to identify common themes that typically characterize continental philosophy.
- First, continental philosophers generally reject scientism, the view that the natural sciences are the only or most accurate way of understanding phenomena. This contrasts with analytic philosophers, many of whom have considered their inquiries as continuous with, or subordinate to, those of the natural sciences. Continental philosophers often argue that science depends upon a “pre-theoretical substrate of experience” (a version of the Kantian conditions of possible experience or the phenomenological concept of the “lifeworld“) and that scientific methods are inadequate to fully understand such conditions of intelligibility.
- 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. Thus continental philosophy tends toward historicism. 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”.
- 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”. 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 some continental philosophers (such as Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, the later Heidegger, or Derrida) doubt whether any conception of philosophy can coherently achieve its stated goals.
Ultimately, the foregoing themes derive from a broadly Kantian thesis that knowledge, experience, and reality are bound and shaped by conditions best understood through philosophical reflection rather than exclusively empirical inquiry.
J.M. Bernstein (See Bernsteintapes.com) claims that it is with Kant’s critique of Judgement that the actual split between the two styles of philosophy take their departure from each other. Analytical Philosophy takes the Critique of Judgement at face value as another critique in the spirt of the Critique of Pure Reason and the Critique of Practical Reason, while those who are considered Continental Philosophers take the Critique of Judgement as meta-philosophy, and a critique of the possibility of doing critiques. This ironical reading of the Critique of Judgement leads directly to the program of Hegel who is the first philosopher excluded from the canon of the philosophical tradition by Analytical philosophers. And it also through Hegel leads to Nietzsche who is the second philosopher not considered by the Analytical strand of philosophy. However, both Hegel and Nietzsche remained central to the problematic of European philosophy and so the divide in the two strands can be seen as going back to Kant’s own work.
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, deconstruction, and post-structuralism.
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 18th century generally. This notion gained prominence in the early 20th century 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, yet more recently in decline. Russell and Moore made a dismissal of Hegelianism and its philosophical relatives a distinctive part of their new movement. 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”.
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 “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, and some well-known analytic philosophers claim to conduct better scholarship on continental philosophy than self-identified programs in continental philosophy, particularly at the level of graduate education. “Continental philosophy” is thus defined in terms of a family of philosophical traditions and influences rather than a geographic distinction. However, this is a view from Analytical Philosophy as it is practiced in America where Continental Philosophy is beginning to make inroads. An excellent example Analytical Philosophy taking Continental Philosophy seriously is the work of Herbert Dreyfus and the California School of Phenomenology.
It should be noted also that Continental Philosophy has been taken up primarily in English Departments in the United States. This movement is called Critical Theory where Continental Philosophy perspectives on literature and psychoanalysis and other cultural phenomena have been used as a basis for critique of literature. Because English departments are not in decline as many philosophy departements are and because there are so many more English departements this amounts to a considerable boost in the number of people interested in Continental philosophy over Analytical Philosophy. It also has led to the translation of many recent French and Italian philosophers into English which has made the material from Continental Philosophy more available and widely known.
The history of continental philosophy (taken in its narrower sense) is usually thought to begin with German idealism. 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 became closely linked with 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, Edmund Husserl has always been a canonical figure in continental philosophy. Nonetheless, Husserl is also a respected subject of study in the analytic tradition. 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. It is interesting that Husserl is not included in the canon of Analytical Philosophy considering the fact that Husserl changed his philosophy under the influence of the critique of Frege and is concerned with all the issues that Analytical Philosophy is engaged with. It is this exclusion of Husserl that shows that the distinction that Analytical Philosophers make between themselves and European philosophy in general is ideological instead of substantive. The reason that Husserl is excluded is because his phenomenology become the fundamental driver of the development of philosophy in Europe after the second world war. And the reason that Analytical Philosophy became mainstream in England and America was in order to differentiate itself from Communism which took up Hegel as a point of departure for Marxism and thus Communism. In essence the distinction of Continental Philosophy by Analytical Philosophy was politically motivated, especially after the McCarthy intellectual purges through blacklists in American Society of intellectuals associated with the communist party. In France it was the Communists who fought in the resistance who formed the core of the French intellectual movement that carried on the European intellectual tradition under the rubric of phenomenology and existentialism with an intense interest in literature and psychoanalysis.
J.G. Merquior argued that a distinction between analytic and continental philosophies can be first clearly identified with Henri Bergson (1859-1941), whose wariness of science and elevation of intuition paved the way for existentialism. Merquior wrote: “the most prestigious philosophizing in France took a very dissimilar path [from the Anglo-Germanic analytic schools]. One might say it all began with Henri Bergson.”
An illustration of some important differences between “analytic” and “continental” styles of philosophy can be found in Rudolf Carnap‘s “Elimination of Metaphysics through Logical Analysis of Language” (Originally published in 1932 as “Überwindung der Metaphysik durch Logische Analyse der Sprache”), a paper some observers[who?] have described as particularly polemical. Carnap’s paper argues that Heidegger’s lecture “What Is Metaphysics?” violates logical syntax to create nonsensical pseudo-statements. Moreover, Carnap claimed that many German metaphysicians of the era were similar to Heidegger in writing statements that were not merely false, but devoid of any meaning. This polemic against so called Continental Philosophy by Analytical Philosophy was an attempt to set the boundaries of philosophy from an Analytical perspective, boundaries that those engaged in the continuation of the European philosophical tradition did not see as relevant. In general the European philosophers were continually widening the boundaries of what they considered philosophically significant while those engaged in Analytical Philosophy seemed to be narrowing those boundaries, especially when they excluded various so called “Continental Philosophers” from their list of philosophers worthy of consideration.
With the rise of Nazism, many of Germany’s philosophers, especially those of Jewish descent or leftist or liberal political sympathies (such as many in the Vienna Circle and theFrankfurt School), fled to the English-speaking world. These refugees became the core of what was to be the transmission of European philosophy to the United States which some universities philosophy departements going against the Analytical tide embraced. Those philosophers who remained—if they remained in academia at all—had to reconcile themselves to Nazi control of the universities. Others, such as Martin Heidegger, among the most prominent German philosophers to stay in Germany, embraced Nazism when it came to power. But it should be noted that many who served in the French resistance were communists and after the war they become the core of the intellectual scene in France. The best example of this is J.P. Sartre. His debates with Merleau-Ponty over the nature of communism were a highlight of the postwar intellectual ferment which eventually gave rise to many important Philosophers active in France as well as other European countries who the term Continental is mainly meant to indicate, such as Foucault, Deleuze, Bataille, Levinas, Derrida, Lacan, Baudrillard, Lyotard, Henry, Castoriadis, and many others of the same ilk. Other subjects beyond phenomenology of interest were structuralism, dialectics, linguistics, semiotics, hermeneutics, ontology of multiple kinds of Being based on those distinguished in Being and Time. Now this tradition is carried on by Zizek and Badiou.
Both before and after World War II there was a growth of interest in German philosophy in France. A new interest in communism translated into an interest in Marx and Hegel, who became for the first time studied extensively in the politically conservative French university system of the Third Republic. At the same time the phenomenological philosophy of Husserl and Heidegger became increasingly influential, perhaps owing to its resonances with those French philosophies which placed great stock in the first-person perspective (an idea found in divergent forms such as Cartesianism, spiritualism, and Bergsonism). Husserl himself made a famous lecture series given in France called “Cartesian Meditations” made a bridge between his own project and that of Rene Descartes. Most important in this popularization of phenomenology was the author and philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, who called his philosophy existentialism. (See 20th-century French philosophy.)
Recent Anglo-American developments
From the early 20th century until the 1960s, continental philosophers were only intermittently discussed in British and American universities, despite an influx of continental philosophers, particularly German Jewish students of Nietzsche and Heidegger, to the United States on account of the persecution of the Jews and later World War II; Hannah Arendt,Leo Strauss, Theodor W. Adorno, and Walter Kaufmann are probably the most notable of this wave, arriving in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Pihilosophy departments began offering courses in continental philosophy in the late 1960s and 1970s. With the rise of postmodernism in the 1970s and 1980s, some British and American philosophers became more vocally opposed to the methods and conclusions of continental philosophers. For example, John Searle criticized Derrida’s deconstruction for “obvious and manifest intellectual weaknesses” and, later, assorted signatories protested against the award of an honorary degree to Derrida by Cambridge University. However, interest in European philosophy and its continuity in modern so called Continental Philosophers continued to grow and some universities began to specialize in the continuing tradition of European philosophy despite Analytical Philosophers who attacked it. Mainly this was because so called Continental Philosophers were interested in a wide range of social, cultural, political, economic and other phenomena that was not considered relevant by Analytical Philosophers. And thus the cultural relevance of Continental Philosophy in terms of the critique of society, culture, art, politics, literature, psychoanalysis, etc was seen to be greater than that of Analytical Philosophy which basically had relegated itself to being a handmaiden of science. And Continental Philosophy continues to thrive and seems to be growing in influence for that reason.
American 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. Continental Philosophy is also the central specialization in a number of British Philosophy departments, for instance at the University of Essex and Kingston University, and in North American Philosophy departments, including Boston College, Stony Brook University (SUNY), Vanderbilt University, DePaul University, Villanova University, the University of Guelph, New School University, Pennsylvania State University, University of Oregon, Emory University, Duquesne University, University California at Berkeley and Irvine as well as at Loyola University Chicago. The most prominent organization for continental philosophy in the United States is the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy (known as [SPEP]).