What is Continental Philosophy?

Continental philosophy, in contemporary usage, refers to a set of traditions of 19th and 20th century philosophy from mainland Europe.[1] This sense of the term originated among English-speaking philosophers in the second half of the 20th century, who found it useful for referring to a range of thinkers and traditions outside the analytic movement. Continental philosophy includes the following movements: German idealism, phenomenology, existentialism (and its antecedents, such as the thought of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche), hermeneutics, structuralism, post-structuralism, French feminism, and the critical theory of the Frankfurt School and some other branches of Western Marxism.[2]

General Characteristics

It is difficult to identify non-trivial claims that would be common to all the preceding philosophical movements. The term "continental philosophy", like "analytic philosophy", lacks clear definition and may mark merely a family resemblance across disparate philosophical views. Scholar Simon Glendinning has suggested that the term may be more pejorative than descriptive, functioning as a label for types of western philosophy rejected or disliked by analytic philosophers.[3] Nonetheless, Michael E. Rosen has ventured to identify common themes that typically characterize continental philosophy.[4]

Ultimately, the foregoing distinctive traits derive from a broadly Kantian thesis that the nature of knowledge and experience is bound by conditions that are not directly accessible to empirical inquiry.[9]

The Term

The term "continental philosophy," in the above sense, was first widely used by English-speaking philosophers to describe university courses in the 1970s, emerging as a collective name for the philosophies then widespread in France and Germany, such as phenomenology, existentialism, structuralism, and post-structuralism.[10]

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.[11] This notion gained prominence in the early 1900s 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 America from roughly 1930 onward.[12] Russell and Moore made a dismissal of Hegelianism and its philosophical relatives a distinctive part of their new movement.[13]

Meanwhile in Europe at the turn of the 20th century, Brentano, Husserl, and Reinach were developing a new philosophical method of their own, phenomenology. Heidegger took this phenomenological approach in new directions, and, after WWII, Jean Paul Sartre developed Heidegger's ideas into a movement known as existentialism. In the 1960s, structuralism became the new vogue in France, followed by poststructuralism.

In general, during the 20th century, there was relatively limited contact between philosophers working in the Anglophone tradition and philosophers from the European continent working in the traditions of phenomenology, existentialism, and structuralism. 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".[14]

Since the 1970s, however, many philosophers in America 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 legacy 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.[15] "Continental philosophy" is thus defined in terms of a family of philosophical traditions and influences rather than a geographic distinction. It remains relevant that "continental philosophy" is a contested designation, with many analytic philosophers laying claim to offer better "continental philosophy" than traditional continental philosophy, particularly at the level of graduate education. [16]


The history of continental philosophy (taken in its narrower sense) is usually thought to begin with German idealism.[17] Led by figures like Fichte, Schelling, and later Hegel, German idealism developed out of the work of Immanuel Kant in the 1780s and 1790s and was closely linked with both romanticism and the revolutionary politics of the Enlightenment. Besides the central figures listed above, important contributors to German idealism also included Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi, Gottlob Ernst Schulze, Karl Leonhard Reinhold, and Friedrich Schleiermacher.

As the institutional roots of "continental philosophy" in many cases directly descend from those of phenomenology,[18] Edmund Husserl has always been a canonical figure in continental philosophy. Nonetheless, Husserl is also a respected subject of study in the analytic tradition.[19] Husserl's notion of a noema (a 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.

A particularly polemical illustration of some differences between "analytic" and "continental" styles of philosophy can be found in Rudolf Carnap's "Elimination of Metaphysics through Logical Analysis of Language", which argues that Heidegger's lecture "What Is Metaphysics?" violates logical syntax to create nonsensical pseudo-statements.[20] 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, embraced 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 those 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 Twentieth-Century French Philosophy)

Recent Developments In Britain And The US

From the early 20th century until the 1960s, continental philosophers were only intermittently discussed in British and American universities. However, philosophy departments began offering courses in continental philosophy in the late 1960s and 1970s. With post-modernism in the 1970s and 1980s, British and American philosophers became more vocally opposed to the methods and conclusions of continental philosophers. John Searle criticized Derrida, for example, and, later, assorted signatories protested an honorary degree given to Derrida by Cambridge University. Meanwhile, 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.

Notes and References

  1. "As a first approximation, we might say that philosophy 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." Brian Leiter and Michael Rosen, The Oxford Handbook of Continental Philosophy (Oxford University Press, 2007), p. 2. See also Simon Critchley and William Schroder (eds.), A Companion to Continental Philosophy (Blackwell Publishing, 1998), p. 4.
  2. The above list includes only those movements common to both lists compiled by Simon Critchley, Continental Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 13 and Simon Glendinning, The Idea of Continental Philosophy (Edinburgh University Press, 2006), pp. 58-65.
  3. Glendinning, The Idea of Continental Philosophy, p. 12.
  4. The following list of four traits is adapted from Michael Rosen, "Continental Philosophy from Hegel", in A.C. Grayling (ed.), Philosophy 2: Further through the Subject, p. 665.
  5. Simon Critchley, Continental Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction, p. 115.
  6. Critchley, Continental Philosophy, p. 57.
  7. Critchley, Continental Philosophy, p. 64.
  8. Leiter & Rosen, The Oxford Handbook of Continental Philosophy, p. 4: "While forms of philosophical naturalism have been dominant in Anglophone philosophy, the vast majority of authors within the Continental traditions insist on the distinctiveness of philosophical methods and their priority to those of the natural sciences."
  9. As Robert Solomon notes, continental philosophers usually identify such conditions with the transcendental subject or self: "It is with Kant that philosophical claims about the self attain new and remarkable proportions. The self becomes not just the focus of attention but the entire subject-matter of philosophy. The self is not just another entity in the world, but in an important sense it creates the world, and the reflecting self does not just know itself, but in knowing itself knows all selves, and the structure of any and every possible self." (R. Solomon, Continental Philosophy since 1750: The Rise and Fall of the Self (Oxford University Press, 1988), p. 6.)
  10. Critchley, Continental Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction, p. 38.
  11. Mill, On Bentham and Coleridge (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1950), pp. 104, 133, and 155.
  12. See, e.g., Michael Dummett, The Origins of Analytical Philosophy (Harvard University Press, 1994), or C. Prado, ed., A House Divided: Comparing Analytic and Continental Philosophy (Prometheus/Humanity Books, 2003).
  13. E.g., Russell's comments in My Philosophical Development (Allen & Unwin, 1959), p. 62: "Hegelians had all kinds of arguments to prove this or that was not 'real'. Number, space, time, matter, were all professedly convicted of being self-contradictory. Nothing was real, so we were assured, except the Absolute, which could think only of itself since there was nothing else for it to think of and which thought eternally the sort of things that idealist philosophers thought in their books."
  14. 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.
  15. See, e.g., Walter Brogan and James Risser (eds.), American Continental Philosophy: A Reader (Indiana University Press, 2000).
  16. Brian Leiter is most commonly associated with such claims and compiles the “Philosophical Gourmet Report: A Ranking of Graduate Programs in the English-speaking World” published online by Blackwell Publishers. Note the American Philosophical Association's censuring of the "Gourmet Report" and the controversy associated with that censuring.[citation needed] See, for a history of the analytic continental divide in the context of professional philosophy in the United States, Bruce Wilshire, Fashionable Nihilism: A Critique of Analytic Philosophy (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002), as well as the first chapter by Richard Rorty in Prado, ed., A House Divided.
  17. Critchley, Continental Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction. Solomon, Continental Philosophy since 1750, dates the origins of continental philosophy a generation earlier, to the work of Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
  18. E.g., the largest academic organization devoted to furthering the study of continental philosophy is the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy.
  19. Kenny, Anthony (ed). The Oxford Illustrated History of Western Philosophy. ISBN 0-19-285440-2
  20. Gregory, Wanda T. Heidegger, Carnap and Quine at the Crossroads of Language, and Abraham D. Stone. Heidegger and Carnap on the Overcoming of Metaphysics
  21. Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy

Further Reading