continental vs. analytic philosophy

What’s the *real* difference between continental and analytic philosophy? For example, the wiki claims that continentals are more into historical work and less into discrete problem solving. These issues still strike me as superficial differences. In principle, couldn’t the claims derived from a historical view be translated into the plain language style that characterizes analytic philosophy? So I have a few questions for the professional philosophers who might be reading this blog:

  1. Are analytic and continental philosophy incommensurable? Is it literally impossible to translate the claims from one into the other?
  2. Is it a label problem? Do analytics and continentals do different things and it’s really a fight over who gets to use the word philosophy?
  3. Is it a real dispute over truth claims? Do analytics and continentals agree that they are actually talking about the same things, but they really think they have different answers?
  4. Is it just style? Maybe they agree on a lot, but the analytics and continentals simply can’t stand the radically different presentations of argument.
  5. Is it sociological? Maybe analytics and continentals agree on problems, can understand each other, and would produce similar answers to problems, but they simply fighting over turf defined by their respective founding figures.

Yes, I know that each term denotes a wide range of view that share a family resemblance. Yada yada. I’m more interested in how much weight might be given to the five different explanations.


Written by fabiorojas

August 2, 2011 at 12:38 am

Posted in fabio, philosophy

8 Responses

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  1. I would say mostly 5. However, 4 is a factor, and there are some elements of 2 and 3. There’s nothing that is universal on one side and absent on the other, but there are types of claims and types of philosophical activities which are more common on one side than the other, and even if they are just differences of frequency those aren’t necessarily completely unimportant.



    August 2, 2011 at 1:35 am

  2. Yes, I know that each term denotes a wide range of view that share a family resemblance. Yada yada. I’m more interested in how much weight might be given to the five different explanations.

    Fabio, you’re like Durkheim—you’re a master at saying “Look, I don’t want to hear any guff about how I’ve structured the question, just treat the options I gave you as exhaustive and tell me what you think the right answer is”. But these particular options are terrible. For some areas of philosophy the division between analytic and continental philosophy is strongly “sociological” in the sense that it is a matter of relative location/lineage within academia. E.g., do you have a job in a philosophy department? Or, do you have a job at a high-prestige university? Moreover, is your job at a high-prestige university in the philosophy department or the Comp Lit department? Where were you trained, and by whom? But this sort of sociological answer generally doesn’t involve “fighting over turf defined by their respective founding figures” (though it may involve fights over who gets to call themselves a philosopher). So, if you forced me to, I’d say (1) is pretty much false; there is a measure of truth to (2) and (3), depending on what you are talking about, with both being connected to (4) and (5) by way of the structure of graduate training, especially the degree to which formal methods are expected to important to one’s work. Not very satisfactory.

    Or something like this: the analytic/continental distinction may once, briefly, in the early to mid-20th century, have picked out a coherent division between ways of doing philosophy—at least in the eyes of those who placed themselves on the analytic side. However, those days are long gone. It now survives in two ways: (1) As a zombie category that imperfectly (often, badly) maps onto a range of divisions within the discipline of philosophy and the humanities more generally—e.g., around institutional location, relative status and power within a profession, geographical location and national traditions, style of work, preferred methods, field of interest, peer groups and lineages, and so on. (2) As a rhetorical device drawn on by people struggling for footing in one or more of these areas of conflict to characterize themselves or their opponents for good or ill.



    August 2, 2011 at 1:46 am

  3. The term picks out some pretty gerrymandered stuff. I’d say mainly 5 with a helping of 4, but not 5 as you put it. I’m inclined to think it is mainly citation networks which track all sorts of things— sometimes chains of intellectual descent, sometimes what literatures one is responding to, sometimes topics, sometimes styles, sometimes figures, but oftentimes as an unreliable heuristic for defining inchoate allies and enemies.


    Manuel Vargas

    August 2, 2011 at 2:04 am

  4. The below link from Brian Leiter’s Nietzsche blog discusses these questions in a lot of detail.

    As any actual scholar knows, there is no such thing as a “Continental tradition” in philosophy; rather, as Rosen and I noted in the introduction to The Oxford Handbook,

    [P]hilosophy 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. . .



    August 2, 2011 at 6:14 am

  5. 1. it’s not incommunserable insomuch as they are takling about different topics and often times would not clash on anything except the intial presuppositions (which are everything). zizek, lacan, badiou, derrida, foucault, nietzsche, kierkegaarde, sartre, etc. can talk to frege, hussel, wittgestein, aj ayer, (even chomsky) in conversation but would both feel uneasy. philosophers speak to eachother in last names “ah yes, but a lacleaun interpretation of radical democracy as used by _____” insert last name, is necessary for most academic philosophers to talk to one another, without a common reading-ground its hard. not to mention most continental view analytics in a certain light, and vice versa. most analytics see continental thinkers as english major drop outs, they get hardcore into nihilism and lack the capacity to find a scientific approach to language, fall sway to the passions and emotions, believe their 5 senses and the pheneological heraclitean flux of a reality to be it. most continental thinkers think analytics are men who walk around building glass houses they never live in, great conceptually masterpeices that are coherent, lucid, and everything else, but lack a fundamental vitality of life.

    2. it’s a joke to think anyone is studying pure philosophy anymore. philosophy is the great grandmother of the arts giving birth to sub-disciplines and leaving them on their own… modern semiotics, linguistics, sociology, anthropology, logic, computer programming, etc. etc. are children of philosophy, in so much as philosophy guided a man to concentrate in a leisurely fashion on a particular mind-problem that developed into its own language and form of dealings. they both wanna say they are the real philosophers, analytics wanna say that like socrates, they clarify definitions to arrive at a clearer understand of neutral truths and the form of truth itself and that ignorance is the cause of most moral injustices, and continentals would say they represent socrates, not thinking they know the answer but enjoying the performative aspect of philosophy as an enagement with the immediate world and questioning without ever building a pillar of knowledge

    3. no. although when people who are philosophers unite over political issues, like Counterpunch the left anarchist magazine, you might have somoene like todd may a postructuralist anarchist, work with noam chomsky, a anarcho-syndicalist (one is clemson, one is MIT) but both agree that the current system is corrupt. so philosophers might work with eachother from different “schools” but they would try to stay off eachothers claims.

    4. it’s not style. even having a world war on your country is part of the division. knowing the impossiblity of nationalism, technology, authority, and power to properly guide a nation to human improvement takes its toll.

    to be honest though obviously derrida and a lot of french speakers in particular are particular vague and cloud themselves in a mystical bullshit style

    5. they would disagree on the nature of the problem.

    for americans we want philosophy for business ethics and logic, productivity, neopragmatic concerns

    for europeans philosophy is a cultivation of an idea toward the general expanse of a human being, but in line the other forms of cultivation not to be taken as its “own activity”, so its impure. it just listens to its instincts and falls into trouble and cant say anything “objective”



    August 2, 2011 at 6:34 am

  6. Richard Rorty is perhaps the best-known bridge-builder between the continental and analytical approaches. He opinioned that the main difference is due to the organization of the fields. Anglo-americans became engaged in ‘professional philosophy’, which involves publishing peer-reviewed journal articles. Continental philosophy gets published, to this day, mainly in books. It is easy to see how this distinction leads to huge differences in both the choices of questions to address and the means through which they are tackled.

    Some big sociological/culturally contingent differences seem evident. Writing style in French and the Anglo-american authors is quite different. The French seem to rate obscure and difficult-to-read text highly — gurus like Derrida that invent their own way of talking (your point #4). While some writing in the analytical tradition is truly awful, it is not considered a merit (I understand Wittgenstein wrote so badly only because he suffered from bad dyslexia, not because it was socially expected). I am not an expert, but some (don’t remember who) have also speculated that due to its historical/national importance the French philosophy has been keen to hang onto Cartesianism, something which is not taken seriously in analytical philosophy (your point #3).

    I am personally really into analytical philosophy, a rather rare condition in our field. Even if the arguments I have made have been crappy, I can safely say that reviewers in organizational journals are really much more oriented towards continental philosophy. I talked with some people who have published ‘philosophical’ stuff in AMR, SMJ, or OrgSci and their feeling seems to be that both reviewers or editors are quite thinly read in philosophy (no surprise!), making the experience rather more random than one would hope.



    August 2, 2011 at 10:03 am

  7. The divide is real, but it is not unbridgeable. One person who makes a mockery of the division is is Ian Hacking; another person who used to make the division inapplicable is Francisco Varela. Mario Bunge is also hard to classify. Also, like all divisions it is recursive across levels (a la CoD), so that subdivisions in philosophy that are hard-core analytical have their “continental” sides. Thus, most contemporary Philosophy of Mind is done by analytical people (Andy Clark, Paul Churchland, Dan Dennett, Jerry Fodor, etc.), but you have your (neo) Husserlian and neo-Heideggerian phenomenologists and even (neuro)phenomenologists (e.g. the late Francisco Varela, Evan Thompson, Hubert Dreyfus, etc.) hanging around. In Philosophy of Science you have your standard analytical debates between realists, conventionalists and constructivist-empiricists, but it has a “continental” side in the form of the tradition of (mostly French) thought on the history of epistemology that extends from Canguilhem and Duhem to Foucault (the divide where Hacking lives) onwards to STS. In the Philosophy of Science you get a (socio)logical correlation between being “continental” and paying attention to history but this is not logically fore-ordained. In the same way, while most so-called “social theory” is continental, there is a now healthy analytical literature that began in the 1960s on norms, conventions, and most recently with John Searle’s The Construction of Social Reality on “institutions” so you get the same divide there.



    August 2, 2011 at 5:20 pm

  8. […] continental vs. analytic philosophy ( […]


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