Continental philosophy

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Continental philosophy is an approach to or style of philosophy that became popular in the twentieth century. A clear definition is difficult as the label brings together thinkers pursuing a wide variety of approaches to philosophy. The continental refers to the fact that it is primarily writers working in Continental Europe who started this shift - specifically French, German, Italian and Spanish thinkers - and it is also used to compare it to analytic philosophy, the dominant philosophical movement in Britain and the United States of America at the same time. Analytic philosophy operates through logical analysis of language, following Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein, while Continental philosophy draws from a variety of philosophical positions and movements including Marxism, existentialism, phenomenology, hermeneutics, German idealism (such as that of Hegel and Arthur Schopenhauer) and the Frankfurt School. Bertrand Russell traces the split into Continental and analytical traditions back to John Locke, while others note that the more significant split happened with Edmund Husserl's phenomenology and it's later use in the work of Martin Heidegger - broadly aligning Continental philosophy with the history of Romanticism. Michael Friedman traces the split to the differences between Heidegger and Rudolf Carnap[1][2] while Simon Critchley thinks that Continental philosophy as a label came as a replacement in Britain and America to the labels phenomenology and existentialism as a result of post-structuralist thinkers like Jacques Lacan, Jacques Derrida, Jean-François Lyotard, Gilles Deleuze and Michel Foucault[3].

Currents in Continental philosophy

Continental philosophy is often focused less on abstract discussion and more on personal and cultural understanding and transformation - citing Marx's injunction to change the world rather than just study and interpret it[4]. If analytic philosophy is tying philosophy to the scientific method, then Continental philosophy is more like art, psychology, politics, sociology and theology wrapped in philosophical questions and theories. The broad alignment of many twentieth-century Continental philosophers with the political left during the 1960s is one explanation for this, as is the influence of existentialism and the work of thinkers like Søren Kierkegaard. The work of Michel Foucault, who attempted to provide genealogical critique of human institutions and practices including the penal system, psychiatry and sexuality, draws from the method of Friedrich Nietzsche in trying to provide a radical critique of power relationships through what some have called a hermeneutics of suspicion. Nietzsche is also cited as an inspiration for much of postmodernist thought - his style is unorthodox compared to other philosophers in it's use of extravagant polemical exaggeration, Biblical pastiche, puns, aphoristic parable and occasional lyricism, and his perspectivist approach to truth both contributed to twentieth century postmodern and Continental philosophy.

In method, Continental philosophy often tends towards commentaries on previous philosophers - for instance, critical tributes to Nietzsche have been written by Gilles Deleuze, Gianni Vattimo, Jacques Derrida and many more. Much Continental philosophy is hyper referential - a practice which Simon Critchley says is not, as some critics allege, a cover for a lack of original problem-oriented thinking, but rather an approach which works on such problems through commentary, translation and synthesis[5]. The relationship of continental philosophy with philosophy's own history is an important part in another element of the Continental approach - that of historicity and an understanding of the historical context in which philosophy was written. The questions of the nature of the currents of history are discussed in detail in Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit and later by Kierkegaard in his Christian parody of Hegel, the Philosophic Fragments.

Much of twentieth century Continental philosophy is centred around the reaction to Hegel. Gilles Deleuze and other philosophers in the 1960s were critical of Hegel - François Châtelet wrote that Hegel "determined a horizon, a language, a code that we are still at the very heart of today. Hegel, by this fact, is our Plato: the one who delimits - ideologically or scientifically, positively or negatively - the theoretical possibilities of theory"[6]. Even those philosophers who wanted to avoid Hegelianism were drawn in to a Hegelian dialectic through it's rejection.

The idea of texts that are "pregnant" with meanings that are often lost in the historical distance between the reader and the text is one that appears in the referentiality of Continental philosophy - but analysis of the role of interpretation (hermeneutics) has played an important part in the tapestry of philosophic thought. This stems primarily from religious hermeneutics and Biblical exegesis, but also from the interpretation done in legal circles. Martin Heidegger addressed hermeneutics from a phenomenological perspective in Being and Time, but his student Hans-Georg Gadamer took the hermeneutic approach to philosophy as his subject in Truth and Method, fitting Heidegger's approach and synthesising it with the work of Friedrich Schleiermacher and Wilhelm Dilthey and introducing a humanist element of Bildung (the idea of formation of a culture within a person). Gadamer saw hermeneutic understanding as being foundational for his conception of the Geisteswissenschaften (literally, the study of Geist or 'spirit' - meaning the understanding of the human spirit), and the barrier which separated it from the natural sciences. This approach has gained many disciples including Paul Ricœur and the theologian Rudolf Bultmann (who attempted to 'demythologize' Christianity).

Criticism, convergence and change

In recent years, philosophers, scientists and other intellectuals have become increasingly suspicious of Continental philosophy, accusing authors within the Continental tradition of obscuritanism and misusing the language of science. The physicist Alan Sokal pulled off a hoax on Social Text, a cultural studies journal, by submitting an article which was, in his own words, "liberally salted with nonsense". The Continental philosopher Jacques Derrida was the subject of a large amount of controversy when the University of Cambridge suggested giving him an honorary degree, leading members of the University's philosophy faculty and others to object. Similarly, philosophical critics of postmodernism and related intellectual disciplines have argued that it does not take account of our shared humanity and biology - placing too much emphasis on cultural difference in it's rejection of the values of the Enlightenment.

An increasing number of philosophers are now arguing that the two traditions are slowly merging, with philosophers writing in both traditions, and students often being taught in both. The American philosopher Richard Rorty sees the pragmatism of philosophers like John Dewey as a solution to the divide between the traditions, and places the work of Continental philosophers into the realm of ironists working at self-transformation (and suitable for the private domain), while what he calls systematic philosophers can operate in the public realm.


  1. Andrew Cutrofello, Continental Philosophy: a contemporary introduction, Routledge Contemporary Introductions to Philosophy, p. 3
  2. Michael Friedman, (2000) A Parting of the Ways: Carnap, Cassirer, and Heidegger
  3. Simon Critchley, (2001) Continental Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, p. 39-40
  4. "The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it." - Theses on Feuerbach
  5. Simon Critchley, (2001) Continental Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, p. 56
  6. Châtelet, François (1968) Hegel, Paris: Seuil, p. 2