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The Continental Rift

Mike Fuller attempts to build some bridges.

The problem I want to address is the rift between Analytic and Continental philosophy. Why is it that philosophers from each tradition can look at the work of the other and declare in amazement : “Is this philosophy?……surely not!”

In the attempt to investigate the nature and causes and possible resolutions of this rift, I shall set out the issues in four main parts. Firstly, I shall look at the historical background. Secondly, I shall try to distinguish the main functions of philosophy, in the hope that this may illuminate the problem. Thirdly, I shall examine some key figures and movements in this rift. Finally, I shall try to offer some sort of conclusion.

The Historical Background

To some extent, the divide between the two traditions is an old one, reaching back to the British tendency towards Empiricism (Locke, Berkeley, Hume) and the Continental tendency towards Rationalism (Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz) in the 17th and 18th Centuries. This set the tone for differences in style and method. Nevertheless, both Empiricists and Rationalists thought of themselves as equally members of a common tradition stemming from a mixture of Greek, Christian and Scientific thinking. Far from staring at each other’s work with blank astonishment, they could and did argue with each other. Thus Leibniz and Locke dispute over the issue of innate ideas; and, most famously, Hume arouses Kant from his dogmatic slumbers.

A more serious rift between the two traditions occurred at the beginning of the 20th Century with the work of G.E.Moore and Bertrand Russell. At that time, a Continental style, Hegelianism, ruled the world, dominating not only on the continent itself but also in England and America, represented by now almost forgotten figures like the Cairds, McTaggart, Bosanquet, Royce. There were rebellious murmurs against this Hegelian style from several quarters: from the American Pragmatism of William James, and from the ‘Scienticism’ and ‘evolutionism’ of figures like Herbert Spencer and Haeckel. Yet it was Moore and Russell whose reaction probably made the biggest impression and, in doing so, in a sense gave us what we now call ‘analytic philosophy’.

The Moore-Russell movement instituted a concern with clarity, logic, and language and a prosaic, precise approach to philosophy as a reaction against what it took to be the ‘grandiose nebulosity’ of German Idealism and Hegelianism. It was a hard, precise, ‘masculine’ approach to philosophy, whereas Hegelianism might be dubbed more fluid, complex, and ‘feminine’. This set the tone not only for the way Analytic philosophy developed (from Russell and Moore to logical positivism and Wittgenstein and after), but also for the curriculum in university philosophy departments. Philosophy was studied up to the ‘crucial figure of Hume’, then a sudden jump was made (which totally ignored Continentals like Fichte, Hegel, Nietzsche, Marx and Husserl) to Russell and Moore. This gave the impression that nothing very important had happened in philosophy between Hume and Russell.

This overstates the case, of course. A few Continental figures were allowed through the Analytic portals as significant and more or less ‘user-friendly’ to the Analytic style: Kant (as a sort of ‘Prussian Hume’), Frege (for his contributions to logic), and, most significantly and ambiguously of all, Wittgenstein. Additionally, the more broadminded of the Analytic departments would often offer Continental courses as ‘optional extras.’ They were usually on Sartrean Existentialism, more rarely on Husserlian Phenomenology. It was of course understood that, unlike Continentals of the stamp of Kant, Frege, and Wittgenstein (who were really Analytic philosophers and so part of the main course of study), Sartre and Husserl were not main course fare but rather in the nature of exotic desserts – a gesture towards showing students “what the Continentals are up to these days.”

It seemed for a while that the later thought of Wittgenstein might radically unsettle the hard, precise, logical style of the Analysts. In the wake of Wittgenstein, books even appeared with titles such as Clarity Is Not Enough. But the Analytic tradition soon regained its composure and continued to try and solve philosophical problems in a precise linguistic fashion that leaned heavily on formal logic. Meanwhile, on the Continent, things had changed. Existentialism and Phenomenology, which were still being taught in English universities as representative of contemporary Continental thought, were declared by Continentals themselves to be mistaken ‘Cartesian projects’ and naive ‘philosophies of the subject.’ A whole new batch of movements with strange-sounding names and even stranger styles of philosophising quickly followed on each other’s heels: Structuralism, Post-Structuralism, Postmodernism and Deconstruction.

This roughly brings the story up to date. The analysts looked at the Continentals in uncomprehending bewilderment. The Continentals returned the favour. “Is this Philosophy?…. surely not!”

What Philosophy Is and Does

Here I want to suggest four main functions of philosophy :

( 1 ) The first function is the pursuit of truth, which I shall define in the following terms: the attempt to discover whether our knowledge is true of reality with any degree of certainty.

This is the traditional programme built into philosophy and is at least as old as Plato, who most clearly set this framework for future debates, hence A.N.Whitehead’s remark that philosophy consists of “footnotes on Plato”.

( 2 ) The second function is the analysis and clarification of ideas and problems (as well as the criticism and defence of ideas and views).

This function may be quite abstract and theoretical, as in Hume’s analysis of ‘causality’. But it may also be concerned with issues of everyday importance, such as J.S.Mill’s analysis of ‘liberty’, or contemporary discussions in applied ethics of concepts like ‘euthanasia’, ‘abortion’, ‘suicide’, etc.

Whether abstract or concrete, the purpose of such analysis and clarification is usually seen as a first step towards solving real problems (although sometimes it is also seen as a first step towards dissolving unreal problems).

( 3 ) The pondering on human happiness and the ‘good life’ or the ‘authentic’ life.

( 4 ) The provision of Weltanschauungs or ‘world-views’ and ‘styles of thought’ and ‘life-styles’, especially ones which seem relevant to the current world (eg. Christianity, Liberalism, Darwinism, Marxism, Existentialism, ‘New Right’ Postmodernism, Feminism etc.).

Now all these functions are of course inter-related, although any one philosopher may stress some at the expense of others. I want to suggest that Analytic philosophy stresses (1) and (2), and believes that Continental philosophy stresses (3) and (4) in a rather vague way and also believes that when contemporary Continental philosophers try to undertake (1) and (2), they make a hopeless botch of it.

Continental philosophers, for their part, condescendingly reply that the hard-line Analytic style not only pays insufficient attention to (3) and (4), and is therefore abstract and sterile, but it makes a serious mistake when it complacently regards itself as more competent in (1) and (2). The clarity and precision of the Analytic style, they argue, are actually a mark of its myopia, parochiality, lack of real depth, and inability to see the limitation of the Analytic framework and programme. In short, they say, Analytic philosophers actually do (1) and (2) a sight worse than the Continentals. And the reason why Analytic philosophers do so is because they have not read, or properly understood, the criticisms levelled at Analytic philosophy by certain key figures and movements, some of whom are from their own tradition: Nietzsche, Heidegger, the later Wittgenstein, Derrida and the deconstructive movement, Feminism, Richard Rorty. It is to these that I shall now turn.

A Few Socratic Gadflies: Wittgenstein, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Derrida, Feminism and Rorty

WITTGENSTEIN – The case of Ludwig Wittgenstein is one of the strangest in this story of the rift between the two traditions. He is still embraced as an integral and crucial figure by the Analytic tradition, but many, inside and outside that tradition, regard his later work as a refutation of the Analytic style and aim: the search for truth in a clear and precise manner.

Wittgenstein’s attack on metaphysics revolves around his master-metaphors of language as a game and a tool and the slogan “Don’t ask for the meaning, ask for the use.” Simply, if a word takes its meaning from its use in a phrase in a particular context, then to yank it out of its context is also to rob it of its pragmatic use as a ‘tool’ in a ‘language game,’ and the word then becomes meaningless and “language has gone on holiday.” Metaphysics, thinks Wittgenstein, tries to use language in no particular context to give an essential description of the world ‘as it really is’. Under the delusion of this ‘essence fallacy’, philosophers believe in the project of describing the world outside of any possible context or frame of reference and of finding ‘essential solutions’ to such hoary old matters as the mind/body or free will/determinism disputes.

In analyses that remarkably anticipate some of Derrida’s ‘deconstructions’, Wittgenstein tries to show that, far from philosophical language in its aim at generality having a deeper, more essential meaning, it cannot help but be composed of a strictly meaningless jumble of ‘traces’, scraps and echoes of original contexts. Yanked out of the contexts that gave them a useful sense philosophical words lack real meaning.

The student of philosophy, having felt the force of these therapeutic criticisms, should come to see the impossibility of metaphysics, and be content “to leave everything as it is”. There are no real philosophical problems to be solved; all may be ‘dissolved’ by linguistic therapy.

Yet it did not take Analytic philosophers long to start trying to solve philosophical problems again. To what extent is this because Wittgenstein’s conclusions have been refuted, and to what extent is it because (as Rorty might say) Analytic philosophers have got bored with the ‘Wittgensteinian project’ and, dismissing rather than refuting his criticisms, have simply carried on as if he never existed?

The situation is unclear. There have been many attempts to modify and undermine Wittgenstein’s conclusions, but there is no agreement as to how successful these have been. W.V.O.Quine introduced a notion of ‘semantic ascent’, according to which the philosophical problem-solving project, far from being pragmatically useless and impossible, was for good pragmatic reasons, declared to be both useful and possible; Michael Dummett has criticised the cogency of Wittgenstein’s ‘meaning is use’ thesis (and therefore the criticism that words lack essential meaning) in terms of an earlier distinction of Frege’s between ‘force’ and ‘sense’. Donald Davidson’s criticisms of the scheme/content distinction may be seen, if adequate, as challenging the basic conceptual relativism on which Wittgenstein’s ‘therapeutic enterprise’ arguably rests.

What can be said is that Wittgenstein’s later philosophy is clearly an attack on functions (1) and (2) which I ascribed to philosophy. He attacks in the Philosophical Investigations the ideal of essential truth and the ideals of clarity and precision. Concerning the more political and ethical dimensions of function (3) and (4), many have argued that Wittgenstein’s claim that “philosophy leaves everything as it is” is neither helpful nor viable.

NIETZSCHE – I want to offer three possible readings of Nietzsche:

(a) He represents the fag-end of German Idealism, being the man who replaced Schopenhauer’s ‘will to live’ with his own ‘will to power’ as the essential description of reality. (This is how Nietzsche was regarded, especially by the Analytic tradition, for a long time, but I doubt whether there is anyone who believes that that is all there is to Nietzsche now).

(b) He is a sceptic and relativist of a fairly straightforward sort, who scarcely manages to move beyond Kant even when he is fulminating against him. (This is my own reading).

(c) He is a sort of ‘proto-Derrida’ who, by a series of ‘genealogical tracings’ deconstructs the truthseeking enterprise of philosophy, as well as its passion for reason and precision, by showing the murky psychological roots of such enterprises, praising instead the unconscious, emotion, instinct, the body. (This is a reading of Nietzsche that appeals to many Continental and Feminist thinkers, and goes some way towards explaining the bewildered astonishment with which Analytic philosophers respond to the more ‘radical’ texts in contemporary continental thought).

If either the second or third reading of Nietzsche is anywhere close, then he is clearly attacking functions (1) and (2) of philosophy; rational precision in truth-seeking is a void game. Yet he somehow manages to salvage functions (3) and (4), based on the notion of creating values, world-views, and life-styles without the ‘lying consolations’ of ‘the truth’.

Whether or not Nietzsche’s philosophy is consistent – and whether that even matters! – is one of the moot points at issue between contemporary Analytic and Continental philosophy.

HEIDEGGER – Of most concern to this investigation is the later Heidegger and his so-called ‘destruction of metaphysics’. It is Heidegger’s later work which Continental philosophers usually have in mind, one suspects, when they express astonishment that their Analytic counterparts are still discussing issues in terms of the ‘subject-object framework’. Heidegger’s ‘primordial’ return to the ‘ground of metaphysics’, they feel, has surely made the whole framework in which Analytic philosophers discuss things inadequate, since it has shown that the entire subject-object distinction is a secondary and artificial construct that obscures rather than illuminates Being.

I shall now offer an interpretation of the later Heidegger which many scholars may feel is either false or atrociously over-simplistic. The later Heidegger is essentially a philosopher of mysticism, and his basic message would surprise neither Buddha, Lao-tzu, or St John of the Cross. Mysticism has always taught that while there is an ego differentiating a world, the truth, or at least, reality, escapes it. The position is a recurrent one in both philosophy and theology, and Heidegger’s is the most recent version of it.

Heidegger is clearly attacking functions (1) and (2) of philosophy: the rigour and precision expended by Analytic philosophers within the limits of the subject-object framework is a sheer waste of energy (although Heidegger would concede, indeed would insist on the point, that this misguided energy and framework has had very real unfortunate effects on the world that we have shaped under its guidance). Heidegger salvages functions (3) and (4) in terms of a move towards an ethics and a politics that would tend towards ‘letting beings be’, and being more circumspect about that ‘will to will’ that drives our technological ‘enframing’ of the modern world.

DERRIDA – The figure of Jacques Derrida has probably aroused more adulation and fury in this debate between the traditions than any other. His detractors – mainly Analytic philosophers – either regard him as an incompetent charlatan or else generously grant that he has some reasonable philosophical points to make, only unfortunately Wittgenstein (or sometimes Nietzsche) made them all first. His fans – often people without a very firm knowledge of philosophy or its history – believe that Derrida (who demands a very close acquaintance with philosophy and its history) has achieved all sorts of wonderful things: he has killed off philosophy and reason, he has created a new style of philosophy and reason, he has collapsed philosophy into literature, etc., etc. The man truly is a legend in his own lifetime.

I want to make two initial points about Derrida. Firstly, I think it fair to call him one of those people who, like Whitehead, believes that philosophy consists of ‘footnotes on Plato’ (since it was Plato who most clearly defined the framework of seeking the certain truth about reality which Derrida makes central to his attack on the ‘metaphysics of presence’). Secondly, to ignore Derrida or to typify him as a French Wittgenstein is too easy. I would suggest that he is closer to being one of those synthesizers in philosophy who takes up the ideas of other people (in his case, especially, the ideas of Heidegger, de Saussure, Jacques the Lad Nietzsche, and Hegel) and gives them a twist of his own, so creating something new.

I want to suggest a reading of Derrida which once again many will doubtless regard as either wrong or simplistic. Derrida’s main contribution to philosophy is to try to do to meaning and language what Kant tried to do to knowledge. The point can be made quite simply. Kant taught that the very conditions which make relative (phenomenal) knowledge possible (the categories operating through the form of sensibility of space and time) were the self-same conditions which made absolute (noumenal) knowledge (of things-in-themselves) impossible. Derrida teaches that the very conditions which make relative meaning possible (the ‘play’ of ‘difference’ operating through the ‘trace’) are the self-same conditions which make absolute meaning (and thus the ‘metaphysics of presence’) impossible.

I agree that there is more to Derrida than that. But, from an Analytic philosopher’s point of view, perhaps ‘all the rest is literature’. It is this central contention about meaning that Analytic philosophers need to at least consider, and it does have much in common with Wittgenstein’s arguments about the impossibility of essential meanings and descriptions, and all that philosophically follows from that claim.

So Derrida clearly attacks both functions (1) and (2): If his arguments are right, essential meaning and truth are impossible, and so is absolute precision of meaning and truth. Concerning functions (3) and (4), it is less clear what ethically and politically follows from Derrida’s deconstructions, although an enormous amount of verbiage has been expounded on these points. Some of it sounds suspiciously like oldfashioned liberal humanism (freedom and tolerance, with perhaps a dash of anarchy thrown in), but we are assured that it is not at all the same thing.

FEMINISM – The Feminist critique of philosophy, especially when allied with the Continental tradition as in the work of Julia Kristeva or Luce Irigaray, not only offers some of the more impenetrable texts to Analytic philosophers but also contains a variety of criticisms of the male-centred enterprise that has historically shaped philosophy.

Now, arguably, there is no such thing as Feminism. What there is are a number of positions which partly agree and partly disagree with each other, but which, because they all give primacy to the role of woman, can find some identity within their differences under the blanketterm of Feminism. Julia Kristeva

In the social dimensions of Feminism, there is considerable difference between Feminists who merely demand equality of opportunity with men (“playing men at their own game”), Feminists who wish to influence and modify male-dominated society, and Feminists who want nothing to do with men at all (‘Separatism’). Similarly with philosophical Feminism, there is a considerable difference between Feminist philosophers who point out that they are equally or more competent at reason and analysis than their male colleagues, Feminist philosophers who argue that the methods and aims of male-centred philosophising (built into its whole history by men) are in certain respects inadequate and partial, and Feminist philosophers who insist that Feminist philosophy is and ought to be a completely different enterprise from that undertaken by men. This latter view, especially, may include attempts at the abandonment of analysis, reason, and logic in favour of the language of emotion, instinct, and the body, sometimes in alliance with the criticisms of philosophy levelled by figures like Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Derrida.

Now, clearly, most Feminist critiques at least partially attack (1) and (2); and most also attack (3) and (4), since they feel that recipes for human happiness and the ‘good life’, and the kind of world-views, at t itudes, and life-styles associated with them, are all too male-centred.

RORTY – Richard Rorty has described himself both as an American Pragmatist and a ‘postmodern bourgeois liberal’. He is significant for being one of the few Analytic philosophers who has seriously tried to take on board Continental philosophy, and who can claim a high degree of competence in both traditions. This ambitious eclecticism has led to charges that Rorty misreads both traditions, and it cannot be denied that he does have a tendency to rather too easily subsume all those philosophers whom he likes (Wittgenstein and Davidson in the Analytic tradition, Heidegger and Derrida in the Continental tradition) under the all-encompassing blanket of his American Pragmatism.

Nevertheless, given the nature of the rift between the two traditions, few can deny that Rorty’s attempt to straddle both of them is brave and worthwhile, and that his writings do ease the communication gap and illuminate more than they distort. They at least provide the partisan of each tradition with a way into the other.

Rorty set the tone for his position in his first book by drawing a distinction between ‘mirror of nature’ philosophy (or the ‘Kantian project’) and ‘edificationist’ philosophy (or Pragmatism). The substance of his criticisms lean heavily on Heidegger, Wittgenstein, and Derrida, but also on the American Pragmatists John Dewey and William James.

What is not so clear is whether Rorty finally wants to argue that attempting to know the essential truth about reality (‘mirror of nature philosophy’) is impossible, or whether he wants to argue that, while not strictly impossible, it is pointless, boring and ‘unedifying’. That is to say, it is not clear whether he wishes to refute traditional philosophy or to simply dismiss it. His writings veer between attempts at refutation and arguments to the effect that attempts to decipher the nature of reality are equivalent to attempts to prove the existence of God. No one has disproved the existence of God, says Rorty, but most 20th Century people have just stopped being concerned with God. They have dropped the ‘God project’ as being no longer interesting or relevant to there lives. So it should be, he thinks, with the ‘mirror of nature’ project as well: let’s just forget it and think about something more interesting.

Whether Rorty is concerned with refutation or dismissal, or both, it is clear that he is attacking (1). He is enough of an Analytic philosopher to refrain from wholeheartedly attacking (2), although he sometimes does, proudly calling himself a ‘fuzzy’. Concerning the ethical and social implications of (3) and (4), Rorty argues that for a Pragmatist these are the important dimensions of philosophy and where we should direct our thinking. Rorty’s own ‘postmodern bourgeois liberal conservatism’ is, he feels, more genuinely radical than the ‘totalizing’ tendencies of the Left, which are still trapped in the ‘cultural imperialism’ of the Enlightenment and ‘mirror of nature’ philosophising.


The rift between the two traditions, I have suggested, is crucially concerned with a loss of confidence in the central truth-seeking enterprise of traditional philosophy. The questioning of that enterprise by figures like Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Heidegger and Derrida also involved scepticism concerning the rigour and clarity traditionally associated with the truth-seeking enterprise ever since Aristotle first formalized logic and rules of inquiry and argument.

In spite of this scepticism about functions (1) and (2) of philosophy, functions (3) and (4) still continue, since people are still faced with personal and social issues to resolve, and still feel the need for ‘world-views’ and ‘lifestyles’, and for opinions about ‘the world and their place in it’.

Yet this might seem to mean that the dog is still wagging its tail although its brain is dead. How can one possibly hope to resolve moral and political issues or to evolve world-views without some reference to the truth about the nature of reality?

There are at least three answers to this question. Firstly, many people, happily innocent of the problematical nature of truth suggested by philosophy, blithely continue to be Christians or Muslims, Humanists or Atheists, Materialists or Darwinists, etc., believing, furthermore, that they have the essential truth about things. Secondly, many other people, perhaps a little infected by philosophy, opt for a loose kind of relativism in regard to both truth and value. Academic Pragmatism, in the hands of people like James and Rorty, offers a justification for both the first and second positions. Thirdly, in theory at least, the ironic stance towards truth and values (including one’s own), associated both with Nietzscheanism and Postmodernism, may always be adopted. (As a sceptical stance, this is probably as old as that ancient doubter, Sextus Empiricus, and his doctrine of ataraxia or ‘unperturbedness’).

None of this, however, really addresses the resolution of the rift between the two traditions. In conclusion, I want to offer three suggestions:-

1. If it is true that Continental philosophy has serious criticisms to make of Analytic philosophy, then this needs to be done, and in a manner comprehensible to both parties. The same holds for criticisms of the Continental tradition by Analysts (as Ryle tried to do to some extent with Heidegger, or Searle with Derrida).

If it is replied that this is impossible, since both sides have mutually exclusive and self-justifying forms of activity with no possibility of ‘shared ground-rules’, then I reply that this is not obvious. What is obvious is that both sides seem to share very much the same central preoccupations with scepticism, relativism, and the nature of language, meaning, interpretation and truth.

Nor is it true that no serious work has been done concerning the possibility of dialogue between ‘incommensurable frameworks’. Within the Analytic tradition, Paul Feyerabend, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Donald Davidson have all tried to address this issue. Within the Continental tradition, the original Structuralist notion of a ‘floating signifier’ and Gadamer’s work on the ‘merging of horizons’ both go some way towards the problem. The whole of Richard Rorty’s work is also concerned with such a project of resolution.

2. Both sides need to be more modest about themselves and more generous towards each other. It may surprise some Continentals to realise that philosophy of language is not their own invention, and that Anglo-Saxon linguistic philosophers would have regarded Husserl’s attempt to give primacy to experience over language as naive long before Derrida wrote Speech and Phenomena. It may surprise some Analytic philosophers to hear that Nietzsche is a real philosopher, that Heidegger is not only a real philosopher but a systematic one, and that they are hardly in a position to dismiss Derrida unless they are also prepared to dismiss Wittgenstein.

3. Finally, one possible outcome of cross-fertilization between the two traditions might be the setting up of a scene more likely to produce one of those ‘master-builders’ who really move philosophy along.

Derrida has argued that the history of Western metaphysics is a history of attempts to attain ‘full presence’ (the essential and full truth, along the lines laid down by Plato). But it is also the history of attempts to doubt such ‘full presence’ (Derrida being the latest in a long line of Doubting Thomases that includes Protagoras, Sextus Empiricus, Montaigne, Hume and Kant). It is at least arguable that the last ‘master-builder’ in philosophy was Kant, all the ‘apprentices’ who followed after him either trying to overcome his sceptical conclusions (as Hegel, Marx, C.S.Peirce, Moore, Husserl, Heidegger) or to “proliferate, pluralise, and linguisticise” that scepticism (as Nietzsche, William James, Wittgenstein, Derrida).

This talk of ‘master-builders’ and ‘apprentices’ may be uncongenial to you, and you may disagree with my choice of Kant. But you would scarcely disagree with the claim that Kant is an important philosopher and a prime example of the cross-fertilization of the two traditions.

It was, after all, the British Hume who awoke the Continental Kant from his slumbers.

© Mike Fuller 1993

Mike Fuller lectures in philosophy at Bolton Institute of Higher Education.

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