Analytic vs. Continental Philosophy

A few weeks ago I was stopped in mid-sentence when I was asked what fundamental differences are there between Continental and Analytic Philosophy.  I paused for a moment and asked myself the same question.  It seems that I was at a loss for words.  The razor-sharp distinctions with which I always treated the two approaches became as dull as gumdrops as I rapidly work through the issues in my head.  Obviously, there are differences as every philosopher will attest; however they appear to be a bit foggy.

As an undergrad I came to think what divided the two was geography.  In other words, if you’re doing “Continental” philosophy you’re doing philosophy common to the continent which happens to refer to Europe.  Therefore, your interests would be in philosophers like Hegel, some of Kant, Nietzche, Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Sartre, Gadamer, Foucault, Derrida, and others.  All of whom are representatives of Germany, France, and Denmark.

Generally speaking, Analytic Philosophers like Frege, Russell, Wittgenstein, Austin, Moore, Carnap, and Quine (just to name a few) are not of “the continent” (with the exception of Wittgenstein who happens to be Austrian and Frege German).  The problem I have with making the geographical distinction is not that it doesn’t pass the test of consistency.  Rather, geography doesn’t determine a particular philosophers approach.  What we do find is the reverse where Philosophers of the same geographical region represent different approaches to philosophy.  For example, Aristotle and Plato are both considered ancient Greek philosophers and differed on many points.

If a geographical distinction is as fruitless as I am suggesting that it is then perhaps we can find a functional difference as some have suggested.  After all the designator “Analytic” comes from a function of linguistic analysis which is something Analytics enjoy doing among.  However, we find Continental philosophers are not restricted from and often will analyze language as well.

So how do we distinguish the two?  As I said above there is a difference.  We usually notice it when we come across it.  Many philosophy departments tend to place great emphasis on one or the other.  The differences can’t be lineage or influence since they both have the same lineage.  Influences have shown to cross philosophical approaches.  Both Husserl (Continental) and Moore (Analytic) were influenced by Brentano.  Many would be surprised to know that Derrida (Continental) was influenced by J.L. Austin (Analytic).  Both approaches are primarily influenced in different degrees by Hegel and Kant.  Moreover, all are a “footnote to Socrates”.

The only distinctions I find useful are differences over style.  Analytic philosophers tend to place greater emphasis on argumentative clarity, formal logic and logical precision.  They tend to be more aligned with the sciences and mathematics.  Continental philosophers tend to be more literary, less reliant on formal logic, and are more concerned with political, social, and cultural issues.  I realize there are some like Brian Leiter who would like to see a more substantive divide.  Perhaps that’s a reasonable request.  Until that happens we ought to work at understanding the other side opposed to trying to distinguish it.