What Is Continental Philosophy?
Continental philosophy is a set of 19th- and 20th-century philosophical traditions 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 German idealism, phenomenology, existentialism (and its antecedents, such as the thought of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche), hermeneutics, Structuralism, post-structuralism, deconstruction, French feminism, psychoanalytic theory, and the critical theory of the Frankfurt School and related branches of Western Marxism.
It is difficult to identify non-trivial claims that would be common to all the preceding philosophical movements, but the primary differentiation is objectivity, or the belief that the universe has a material reality regardless of whether humans exist or not, rejected by the continental heavyweights like Hegel in the counter-enlightenment, while analytic philosophy is rejection of the latter. 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. Nonetheless, Michael E. Rosen has ventured to identify common themes that typically characterize continental philosophy.
- First, continental philosophers generally reject the view that the natural sciences are the only or most accurate way of understanding natural phenomena. This contrasts with many analytic philosophers who consider 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 Kantian conditions of possible experience or the phenomenological “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 (or historicity). 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 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 often 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.
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 the United States from roughly 1930 onward. 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 the United States 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. The issue of geographical specificity has been raised again more recently in post-colonial and decolonial approaches to “continental philosophy”, which critically examine the ways that European imperial and colonial projects have influenced academic knowledge production. For this reason, some scholars have advocated for “post-continental philosophy” as an outgrowth of continental philosophy.
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, the 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.
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 syntactically meaningless.
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 the Frankfurt School), fled to the English-speaking world. 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, developed a diplomatic relationship with Nazism when it came to power.
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 French philosophies which placed great stock in the first-person perspective (an idea found in divergent forms such as Cartesianism, spiritualism, and Bergsonism). 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.) Another major strain of continental thought is structuralism/post-structuralism. Influenced by the structural linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure, French anthropologists such as Claude Lévi-Strauss began to apply the structural paradigm to the humanities. In the 1960s and ’70s, post-structuralists developed various critiques of structuralism. Post-structuralist thinkers include Jacques Lacan, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze.
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, Herbert Marcuse, Leo Strauss, Theodor W. Adorno, and Walter Kaufmann are probably the most notable of this wave, arriving in the late 1930s and early 1940s. However, philosophy departments began offering courses in continental philosophy in the late 1960s and 1970s.
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 features prominently in a number of British and Irish Philosophy departments, for instance at the University of Essex, Warwick, Sussex, Dundee, Aberdeen (Centre for Modern Thought), and University College Dublin, as well as Manchester Metropolitan, Kingston, Staffordshire (postgraduate only), and the Open University. North American Philosophy departments offering courses in Continental Philosophy include the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa, Boston College, Stony Brook University (SUNY), Vanderbilt University, DePaul University, Villanova University, the University of Guelph, The New School, Pennsylvania State University, University of Oregon, Emory University, Duquesne University, the University of Memphis, University of King’s College, and 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).
- A Cyborg Manifesto
- A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia
- Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia
- Being and Event
- Being and Nothingness
- Being and Time
- Blindness and Insight
- Dialectic of Enlightenment
- Difference and Repetition
- Du mode d’existence des objets techniques
- Eclipse of Reason
- Escape from Freedom
- Eros and Civilization
- Gender Trouble
- Madness and Civilization
- Minima Moralia
- Negative Dialectics
- History and Class Consciousness
- I and Thou
- Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses
- Logical Investigations
- One-Dimensional Man
- Of Grammatology
- Prison Notebooks
- Phenomenology of Perception
- Philosophy of Symbolic Forms
- Reading Capital
- Simulacra and Simulation
- Society of the Spectacle
- Technics and Time
- The German Ideology
- The History of Sexuality
- The Human Condition
- The Myth of Sisyphus
- The Order of Things
- The Phenomenology of Spirit
- The Poetics of Space
- The Postmodern Condition
- The Second Sex
- Totality and Infinity
- Truth and Method
- Writing and Difference
- Leiter 2007, p. 2:
- Critchley, Simon (1998), “Introduction: what is continental philosophy?”, in Critchley, Simon; Schroder, William (eds.), A Companion to Continental Philosophy, Blackwell Companions to Philosophy, Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, p. 4.
- The above list includes only those movements common to both lists compiled by Critchley 2001, p. 13 and Glendinning 2006, pp. 58–65
- Glendinning 2006, p. 12.
- The following list of four traits is adapted from Rosen, Michael, “Continental Philosophy from Hegel”, in Grayling, A.C. (ed.), Philosophy 2: Further through the Subject, p. 665
- Critchley 2001, p. 115.
- Critchley 2001, p. 57.
- Critchley 2001, p. 64.
- Leiter 2007, p. 4:
- Continental philosophers usually identify such conditions with the transcendental subject or self: Solomon 1988, p. 6,
- Critchley 2001, p. 38.
- Mill, John Stuart (1950). On Bentham and Coleridge. Harper Torchbooks. New York: Harper & Row. pp. 104, 133, 155.
- Russell, Bertrand (1959). My Philosophical Development. London: Allen & Unwin. p. 62.
- B. Russell, A History of Western Philosophy, (Simon & Schuster, 1945), p. 643 and 641. Russell proposes the following broad points of distinction between Continental and British types of philosophy: (1) in method, deductive system-building vs. piecemeal induction; (2) in metaphysics, rationalist theology vs. metaphysical agnosticism; (3) in ethics, non-naturalist deontology vs. naturalist hedonism; and (4) in politics, authoritarianism vs. liberalism. Ibid., pp. 643-647.
- See, e.g., Walter Brogan and James Risser (eds.), American Continental Philosophy: A Reader (Indiana University Press, 2000).
- Brian Leiter is most commonly associated with such claims.
- Laurie, Timothy; Stark, Hannah; Walker, Briohny (2019), “Critical Approaches to Continental Philosophy: Intellectual Community, Disciplinary Identity, and the Politics of Inclusion”, Parrhesia: A Journal of Critical Philosophy, 30: 1–17
- Critchley 2001 and Solomon 1988 date the origins of continental philosophy a generation earlier, to the work of Jean-Jacques Rousseau
- E.g., the largest academic organization devoted to furthering the study of continental philosophy is the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy.
- Kenny, Anthony (ed). The Oxford Illustrated History of Western Philosophy. ISBN0-19-285440-2
- Merquior, J.G. (1987). Foucault (Fontana Modern Masters series), University of California Press, ISBN0-520-06062-8.
- Gregory, Wanda T. Heidegger, Carnap and Quine at the Crossroads of LanguageArchived 2006-08-21 at the Wayback Machine, and Abraham D. Stone. Heidegger and Carnap on the Overcoming of Metaphysics
- Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy
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