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Ways of Knowing

Analytic versus Continental Philosophy

Kile Jones explains the differences between these ways of thinking.

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.”
Romeo and Juliet

Shakespeare never met Wittgenstein, Russell, or Ryle, and one wonders what a conversation between them would have been like. “What’s in a name, you ask?” Wittgenstein might answer “A riddle of symbols.” Russell might respond “An explanation of concepts,” and Ryle might retort “Many unneeded problems.” What might Hegel, Husserl, or Nietzsche reply? It seems odd to even ask such a question, but why? To answer that, we need to look at the philosophical traditions which these thinkers inhabit. This will reveal the differences at the heart of the division between what have become known as ‘analytic’ and ‘continental’ philosophy. I hope that by understanding these two philosophical camps we may better understand their differences and similarities, as well as how they might compliment each other.

Typical Definitions

In order to lay a general framework let’s start with some typical definitions that scholars give, despite the fact that these definitions tend towards over-generalization or over-simplification. In his well-known collection of essays on this subject, A House Divided, C.G. Prado begins with their difference in methodology. He says:

“The heart of the analytic/Continental opposition is most evident in methodology, that is, in a focus on analysis or on synthesis. Analytic philosophers typically try to solve fairly delineated philosophical problems by reducing them to their parts and to the relations in which these parts stand. Continental philosophers typically address large questions in a synthetic or integrative way, and consider particular issues to be ‘parts of the larger unities’ and as properly understood and dealt with only when fitted into those unities.” (p.10.)

So analytic philosophy is concerned with analysis – analysis of thought, language, logic, knowledge, mind, etc; whereas continental philosophy is concerned with synthesis – synthesis of modernity with history, individuals with society, and speculation with application.

Neil Levy sees this methodological difference as well; in Metaphilosophy, Vol. 34, No 3, he describes analytic philosophy as a “problem-solving activity,” and continental philosophy as closer “to the humanistic traditions and to literature and art… it tends to be more ‘politically engaged.” Hans-Johann Glock remarks in The Rise of Analytic Philosophy that “analytic philosophy is a respectable science or skill; it uses specific techniques to tackle discrete problems with definite results.”

Although these distinctions are helpful in understanding the larger picture, they can be overgeneralizations. To say for instance that there are no thinkers in analytic philosophy who write political philosophy or harvest the blessings of history is to be mistaken. One need only think of A Theory of Justice by John Rawls or The History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell. On the other side, it is not as if continental philosophy has nothing to contribute to logic or language; Hegel wrote extensively on logic, and Heidegger extensively on language. In fact, every philosopher, if they are at all comprehensive, can be found to make this line more blurry. Therefore, we must be watchful in our generalizations, realizing that any definitive assertion is likely to be tentative at best.

With this warning in mind it should equally be noted that these generalizations contain partial truths. Philosophy of mind, for instance, is strictly analytical: Hilary Putnam, Daniel Dennett, David Chalmers, J.J.C. Smart are all analytic thinkers, and to look for this analysis in traditional continental philosophy is like looking for Prester John. Likewise, it is almost impossible to find analytic philosophers discussing phenomenology. This reveals that these two camps are clearly divergent in emphasis and have different places in philosophy. They have different trajectories, motives, goals, and tools, and must be understood in light of their independent and differing traditions. The question now is, how did these different traditions come about?

The Split of Traditions

If we must start somewhere to find the beginning of this split, perhaps we should begin with the Sage of Königsberg, the great Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). Kant constructed a theory of knowledge to explain how ‘synthetic cognition is possible a priori’ [broadly, how there are some things that we can work out by reason alone which aren’t just matters of definition – Ed]. One crucial step in his process is the bifurcation between two realms: the noumenal (things as they are in themselves) and the phenomenal (things as they appear to us). There is a chasm, says Kant, between what is known in appearance, and what is beyond any possible experience, and so unknowable (eg God, immortality, freedom). However, there were two major backlashes against Kant’s doctrines.

The first of these came in the works of G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831), from whom many of the Continental philosophers of the 20th century directly or indirectly drew inspiration. Hegel’s backlash was primarily against Kant’s separation of the noumenal from the phenomenal, ie of reality in itself from its appearance. For Hegel there could be no such division, because he believed all of reality was united in one Idea. There could be no epistemic chasm between the knowable and unknowable, for there’s nothing outside the Idea left to be unknown.

Hegel became the precursor of the traditional continental emphasis on grand overarching narratives and the inclusion of everything (literature, history, art, etc) into philosophy’s quest. Speaking on this last aspect of continental philosophy, Michel Foucault noted that “from Hegel to Sartre [continental philosophy] has essentially been a totalizing enterprise.”

By the late 19th century Hegel’s idealist approach dominated philosophy right across Europe and even in Britain the leading philosophers – like F.H. Bradley, J.M.E. McTaggart and Thomas Hill Green – were Hegelians. But as the century closed, a second backlash against Kant was brewing both in Cambridge and in Vienna.

While Hegel had reacted to Kant’s two-tiered epistemic reality, others now reacted against Kant’s synthetic a priori. G.E. Moore led the attack in Cambridge, rapidly convincing his colleague Bertrand Russell. Moore insisted on the importance of analysing concepts; Russell, who was a philosopher of mathematics, developed a reductionist approach to knowledge called logical atomism and a general focus on particular logical problems in opposition? to any sort of totalizing enterprise, both of which things led him away from the Hegelians. Meanwhile, Ernst Mach, a leading physicist and philosopher, saw Kant’s joining of metaphysics and epistemology as hazardous to science, and even referred to Kant’s epistemology as ‘monstrous.’ A group of philosophers in Vienna eventually gathered around the philosopher Moritz Schlick, with the intention of furthering Mach’s philosophy. They first called themselves the ‘Ernst Mach Society’ but eventually became known as the Vienna Circle. Among the many goals of this circle of philosophers, were the eradication of metaphysics (Carnap), reclaiming the supremacy of logic in philosophy (Gödel), linguistic conventionalism (Waismann), and also the debunking of Kant’s ‘synthetic a priori’. Those in the Vienna Circle instead made the Humean distinction between a priori (non-observable) and a posteriori (dependent on observation) truths; and they said that the only truths are either tautological (true by definition) or empirical (verified by observation).

Therefore, these two reactions to Kant led to the formation of two distinct schools of philosophy, each with their separate attitude towards metaphysics and epistemology, thus having differing philosophical methodologies and trajectories.

Heidegger and Wittgenstein Widen the Split

As the continental post-Hegelians formulated their various dialectical metaphysics, and while the Vienna Circle constructed logically-oriented theories of knowledge, German professor Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) was constructing his theories of ontology [ontology means ‘the study of being’ – Ed]. For Heidegger philosophy is, and should be, essentially ontology. He describes philosophy as “universal phenomenological ontology” (Being and Time, p.62), placing Being in an elite philosophical category because “it pertains to every entity.” Contrary to the Vienna Circle, which saw philosophy as mainly an epistemological project, Heidegger argued that Being precedes knowledge, and that phenomena (the contents of experience) must be studied prior to any logical categorization or interpretation. This turn toward phenomenology created in Heidegger a distaste for logical analysis in philosophical problems: Richard Matthews describes Heidegger as “trying to place limits upon logic” and seeking “to free philosophy from logic”, yet one could go further and say that Heidegger cancels out logic in favour of a pre-logical phenomenology.

Meanwhile there were numerous shifts in emphasis in analytic philosophy. The revolutionary Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus by Russell’s student Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) led it to focus on the philosophy of language. Wittgenstein had developed a theory which saw propositions as logical pictures of states of affairs in the world. This meant that sentences were only meaningful if they painted such pictures. Thus, along with Carnap and the Vienna Circle, Wittgenstein found himself destroying metaphysics and God-talk. In a lecture in 1929, Wittgenstein noted that:

“in ethical and religious language we seem constantly to be using similes. But a simile must be the simile for something. And if I can describe a fact by means of a simile I must also be able to drop the simile and to describe the facts without it. Now in our case, as soon as we try to drop the simile and simply to state the facts which stand behind it, we find that there are no such facts. And so, what at first appeared to be simile now seems to be mere nonsense.”

Not only was Wittgenstein a fulcrum in the long analytic tradition of anti-God-talk, he created in analytic philosophy a mentality which saw the analysis of language as a tool whereby ‘philosophical pseudo-problems’ could be deflated. What were once held to be conceptual or logical problems were, according to Wittgenstein, mere mistakes about language – problems created by stepping beyond the limits of language, or through semantically misguided statements that confused the logic of language, to be dissolved by an analysis of the propositions in question.

The Rise of Existentialism and Logical Positivism

In post WWII France, Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) popularised ‘phenomenological ontology’, which is how he described existentialism. This has had decisive effects on Continental thought up to the present. For Sartre, human ontology is united in its complete subjectivity: we are what we choose and what we experience. Picking up Heidegger’s teaching of the Dasein (being-there), Sartre identifies humans as existential beings – we have been thrown into an uncaring world and we find we are inescapably free and inescapably responsible for our actions. Sartre famously remarks:

“I am abandoned in the world, not in the sense that I might remain abandoned and passive in a hostile universe like a board floating on the water, but rather in the sense that I find myself suddenly alone and without help, engaged in a world for which I bear the whole responsibility without being able, whatever I do, to tear myself away from this responsibility for an instant.” (Being & Nothingness, p710.)

His friend Albert Camus (1913-1960) would find genuine absurdity in our existential state. For Camus, “the absurd is the essential concept and the first truth” and “accepting the absurdity of everything around us is… a necessary experience” (An Absurd Reasoning, pp.15, 16.) Embracing and challenging the absurd character of the world brought about true and authentic experience. Yet there were two threats in embracing the absurd: it might lead to despair and possible suicide; or it could lead to idealism and ignorance. The goal is to balance between these extremes of idealism and despair.

Continental philosophy was undergoing a shift while Sartre and Camus were publishing their numerous works. No longer were continental thinkers engaged in a totalizing project, but a firm individualism. Hegel’s utopian ideas about the grand sweep of history had not foreseen WWII and the rise of National Socialism. Because of that war, continental philosophers realized that any enterprise which sought a power monopoly, even philosophy itself, was to be mistrusted.

Meanwhile, “the rise of analytic philosophy”, Robert Hanna noted, “decisively marked the end of the century-long dominance of Kant’s philosophy in Europe” (Kant and the Foundation of Analytic Philosophy, p.5). Logical Positivism brought the thoughts of the Vienna Circle to fruition while decisively framing the focus of analytic philosophy. Bertrand Russell described his similar program of ‘logical analysis’ thus:

“All this [religious dogma and metaphysics] is rejected by the philosophers who make logical analysis the main business of philosophy … For this renunciation they have been rewarded by the discovery that many questions, formerly obscured by the fog of metaphysics, can be answered with precision.” (The History of Western Philosophy, p.835.)

The procedure he named ‘logical analysis’ was to focus on logical issues, philosophical problems and epistemology with the tools of scientific testing and procedure, to avoid being caught in the unprofitable web of speculative metaphysics. This ethos became the trademark of analytic philosophy and defined its methodology and trajectory. This was how analytic philosophy was truly defined as a separate way of doing philosophy over and against the continental.

Postmodernism as Modern Continental Philosophy

On the continent of Europe, existentialism largely ended with Sartre and de Beauvoir, but a succession of other movements there have continued a general trend of sceptical, anti-authoritarian philosophy. Structuralism gave way to post-structuralism and, with Jacques Derrida, to deconstructionism. Foucault examined issues of government control, madness and sexuality; Baudrillard raised questions on hyper-reality and simulacra, and Vattimo resurrected nihilism. These various developments are all loosely called ‘postmodernism’. It’s a hard term to define, but what can be said is that it is about the task of deconstructing absolute views of reality, truth, value, and meaning. The meta-narratives of German Idealism come sharply under scrutiny in postmodernism, for these overarching systems of meaning have, in the postmodern view, only left their hopefuls sadly disappointed. Postmodernists view parts of analytic philosophy as similarly too optimistic and overly self-satisfied – for instance, analytic philosophy’s trust in logic and science can be seen as ignoring the big issues of meaning and existence. Postmodernism can now be seen as a main terminus within continental philosophy for continuing many of its classical traditions.

Philosophy of Mind as Modern Analytic Philosophy

In the late twentieth century philosophy of mind became one of the main concerns of analytic philosophy. Hilary Putnam, one of the great pioneers of modern philosophy of mind, introduced ideas that he thought would solve the problem of how the mind and the brain relate. He became one of the founders of functionalism, a theory which analyses mental states in terms of their function. He also put forth a theory of ‘multiple realizability’, which posits that differing types of physical entities could experience the same mental state if there were the right organisational similarities. By contrast, Donald Davidson became the champion for a theory known as ‘non-reductive physicalism’, which states that only physical objects can cause physical effects, but that the mind is not entirely reducible to the physical brain. David Chalmers, director of the Center for Consciousness at Australian National University, has argued that the mind cannot be reducible to the physical brain because of various hypothetical arguments, including the possibility of zombies. All of these theories are within the tradition of analytic philosophy.

Summary: The Story So Far

There were two distinct responses to Kant’s metaphysical and epistemological theories: one by Hegel and much later the other by the Vienna Circle. Hegel rejected Kant’s two-tiered world by advocating a strict ontological monism, while the Circle rejected Kant’s synthetic a priori by dividing what can be known into tautologies and empirically verifiable data. Heidegger translates Hegel’s idealist ontology into phenomenology by placing strict emphasis on being-in-the-world. Wittgenstein enters the philosophical scene with his analysis of language, fueling the anti-metaphysical fire of the Vienna Circle by postulating the criteria that language must mirror observable nature and nature alone, if it is to be considered meaningful.

Over on the Continent, existentialism adopted many of the teachings of the phenomenologists and added issues of existence, freedom, angst and absurdity. In England, Logical Positivism continued the analytic tradition of the Vienna Circle; Russell and A.J. Ayer constructed various theories of knowledge and methods of logical analysis. In recent times postmodernism has emerged as a dominant strand of continental philosophy. Postmodernism attacks absolutist views of truth, historical meta-narratives, idealistic metaphysics and linguistic/semantic realism. On the analytic side, modern philosophy of mind has emerged as a strong movement which incorporates analytic thinking with biology, neuroscience, and physics. Thus, continental philosophy started with German idealism, which was translated into phenomenology, reconstructed in existentialism, and is currently still in postmodernist mode. Analytic philosophy started as a reaction to Kant’s epistemology in the Vienna Circle, picked up its linguistic impetus through Wittgenstein, became strictly formulated by Logical Positivists and others, and continues today strongly in philosophy of mind, among other disciplines.

What are we to do with analytic and continental philosophy, then? Neil Levy makes a great and simple wish when he writes that we “could hope to combine the strengths of each: to forge a kind of philosophy with the historical awareness of continental philosophy and the rigor of analytic philosophy.” (Metaphilosophy, Vol. 34, No.3.) If we are to keep a balance, we must understand that both camps have methods, trajectories, and emphasis that can be honored and incorporated into a synthesis. This is not to mean that we must believe everything. Rather, we should realize that there are correct and incorrect starting points, methods and answers in both analytic and continental philosophy. What a philosopher is dealing with – specifically, what question she’s trying to answer – largely determines what emphasis she will have. Yet philosophy can also be done interchangeably?: there is a way of doing analytic phenomenology, and of doing phenomenological analysis; scientific history and historically-minded science; epistemological ethics and ethical epistemology.

Although it may be possible to use both camps to construct a balanced philosophy of life, it becomes quite difficult once one gets into specialized fields. When anyone enters the philosophy of mind, for instance, they necessarily find themselves using the methods of analytic philosophy.

What to Learn from Both Traditions

Each camp has something unique to contribute to philosophy. Analytic philosophy should be able to enter into phenomenology, existentialism, literature, and politics with the same enthusiasm as continental philosophy. It should also realize that philosophy is not without a history; philosophy is a historical movement which tackles social and political questions as well as more technical problems of logic and epistemology. To assume that analytic philosophy is above the social and historical currents of its time is to canonize a golden calf and ignore the wider reality. Similarly, the average person may not care about answering the Problem of Induction or the Liar Paradox, but may wonder what life, existence, and history means to her. She may be questioning her political situation or her place within society, and to presume that what she’s asking are not philosophical questions belittles the scope of philosophy.

Continental philosophy may have some things to learn as well. It might need to realize that all reasoning must assume that logic is meaningful and necessary; that language is intricately connected with our ability to convey meaning, and that epistemology is one of the most crucial areas to investigate: whenever we are making assertions or expounding propositions we act as if our ability to know is correct and justified. It seems obvious that existence and Being are vital to philosophy, yet analytic philosophers might ask how we know that to be true. Continental philosophy may be forgetting those basics necessary for intelligible experience. Science, logic, and the analysis of language are not the only things that matter, but neither are literature, art, and history.

What is the difference between a philosopher and a philanthropist? One is questioning issues pertaining to the life of the mind, while the other is engaging in social concern and virtuous living. We must never negate one for the other: they both have a role to fill, and to harmonize them is the greatest of goals. The balance between love and knowledge, the knowing and the doing of the good, is the philosopher’s ideal state, and the promised land to which the modern sage must set her eyes. There is a great hope standing before contemporary philosophy, somewhere between skepticism and dogmatism, nihilism and idealism, logic and art. There is a hope for a progress with humility, which will aid humanity not only epistemically but also ethically.

© Kile Jones 2009

Kile Jones is pursuing a Masters of Sacred Theology (S.T.M.) at Boston University on top of holding a Masters of Theological Studies (M.T.S.) from the same institution.

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