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Contemporary Philosophy: Analytical and Continental Philosophy

Instructor: David Boyles

David has a Master's in English literature and is completing a Ph.D. He has taught college English for 6 years.

Contemporary philosophy is often described as divided into two camps: continental and analytic. Though some dispute the usefulness of these terms, they do provide a good understanding for different approaches to philosophy.

Continental Divide

If you want to annoy a room full of philosophers, bringing up the 'Analytic vs. Continental' debate is a good way to do it. The divide between philosophers from mainland Europe (or the 'continent', get it?) and the English-speaking philosophers located mainly in Great Britain and the United States has defined philosophical study for much of the last 100 years. But no one can seem to quite agree what all the fuss is about.

Generally speaking, analytic philosophy and continental philosophy describe two different approaches to doing philosophy. Analytic philosophy is a more traditional form, based on formal logic, while continental philosophy incorporated a less logic-bound style that interacted with current political concerns. However, the terms 'analytic' and 'continental' describe such a wide range of philosophical approaches that some argue the distinction is largely meaningless. But whatever you think of the debate, understanding it and where it came from is important to understanding contemporary philosophy.

Analytic

Generally speaking, analytic philosophy describes what most people think of when they picture a philosopher at work, if they ever do such a thing. Philosopher Brian Leiter has helpfully pointed out that 'analytic' describes more of a style of doing philosophy than a specific school of thought.

Analytic philosophy was founded by Gottlob Frege, Bertrand Russell, and Ludwig Wittgenstein and took root in English-speaking universities in Britain and America in the early 20th century. The analytic style also draws on the old grand tradition of philosophy, as embodied by figures like Aristotle, Descartes, and Kant.

Analytic philosophy focuses on clarity and precision in its arguments and is based in the principles of formal logic, the systematic study of arguments that turns arguments into mathematical equations. A classic formal logic argument is something like this: 'All men are mortal. Socrates is a man. Therefore, Socrates is mortal.'

Because of their focus on logical, mathematical precision, analytic philosophers have found they have a lot in common with researchers in science and mathematics. Today, many analytic philosophers work in collaboration with researchers in a wide variety of scientific fields. However, at the same time, analytic philosophy is criticized for its academic insularity and lack of application to the real world.

Continental

Continental philosophy encompasses a wide range of approaches, many of which have little to do with each other. It's probably best to think of continental philosophy as philosophy that is not analytic. And indeed, that's where the name came from, since it was used by English-speaking philosophers to describe the new approaches to philosophy that were coming about on the European continent, particularly France and Germany, in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Georg Wilhelm Freidrich Hegel is generally considered to be the father of continental philosophy, and it includes other important figures like Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Marx, Kierkegaard, and Foucault. It encompasses philosophical movements including Marxism, existentialism, structuralism, post-structuralism, and critical theory.

To the extent that the continental philosophies can be described as having common principles, it includes a style that's less precise and logical and more literary than analytic philosophy. Many continental movements are also focused on current social and political conditions, attempting to engage with the 'real world', whereas analytic philosophy prefers to deal in the abstract.

The more literary quality of much continental philosophy has made it resonant with humanities-based disciplines like literature, history, political science, and media studies. Continental philosophers like Marx and Foucault often form the basis for much of the critical analysis in these disciplines.

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