Philosophy 101: Analytic versus Continental Philosophy

So after consulting the Twitternets, I’ve resolved to do some more philo-blogging in an attempt to introduce some of the concepts that interest me most to non-majors. I’ve argued before at length that a little education in Philosophy is valuable to everyone–and that, in fact, it should be a mandatory part of education in any liberal democratic society. So here’s my attempt to spread some of what I’ve learned at the undergraduate level, and in my own readings.

First off, I want to clear up what I think is one of the most common misconceptions about the study of academic philosophy: What, exactly, it is we tend to study.

Since around the early 20th century, the fundamental split in Western philosophy has been between analytic philosophy (most popular in the UK and US) and continental philosophy (which, as you can probably guess, comes mostly from the European continent). NYU, even by American standards, is a very analytic-heavy department–before this semester, my last at NYU, only one of my classes had referenced so much as a single continental philosopher.

In very rough terms, here are the differences between the two schools:

Analytic Philosophy
Much more logical/mathematical in nature, and very focused on arguments that maintain a meticulous, step-by-step logical progression. This is the school of symbolic logic, the semi-mathematical language of pure logical expression. Sometimes–usually during finals week–I’ll grouse that America’s intent focus on this school of thought is a byproduct of academia’s attempt to “legitimize” all kinds of liberal arts and social sciences pursuits (philosophy being one example, political science and economics being others) by treating them as much like exact sciences as possible at the expense of other ways of viewing the disciplines. That’s mostly me unfairly kvetching, though.

Continental Philosophy
Impressionistic is the best word I can think of to contrast continental philosophy with analytic philosophy. Existentialism is probably the most well-known product of this tradition. Here the focus is less strictly analytical, and that can sometimes cause the arguments to be maddeningly cryptic and elliptical (e.g. Nietzsche arguing that the will to break out of cages is itself a cage because the will cannot will the will to will backwards and proto-existentialist Kierkegaard saying that the self is outside the self and needs to relate itself to the self in order to become a true self, because dear god just kill me now).

One odd feature of this whole split is that while American philosophy students, by and large, barely study continental philosophy, those are the ones who are most recognizable to non-Philosophy majors. My guess is most of you at least recognize the names Nietzsche, Sartre, Heidegger and Foucault. But unless you actually study philosophy, my guess is you’re unlikely to have heard of G.E. Moore, Kripke, Dennett, Frege or Ayer. Maybe Wittgenstein and Russell, and if you study politics you might’ve heard of Rawls.

I think that’s because, whereas analytic philosophers tend to write for other analytic philosophers and academic journals, a lot of the big name continental philosophers produced at least some output with a different audience in mind entirely. Sartre and Camus, of course, wrote novels. Nietzsche often sacrificed clarity for poetry and lyrical power. My limited experience with continental philosophy has led me to expect a much stronger visceral response to that work than with analytic philosophy.

I’m trying to be impartial here, but you can probably guess at where my interests tend to lie. I’ll write about that more later.

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3 Responses

  1. Good post! You’ll probably hear a lot of people say there’s no such divide, but that’s only because analytic philosophy is so dominant in US philosophy departments that everyone pretends continental thought is dead.

  2. [...] 30, 2010 by Ned Resnikoff Looking over my breakdown of the analytic versus continental philosophical divide, I think I sort of come off like a [...]

  3. Ending a parenthetical with “dear god just kill me now”? Ned Resnikoff continues to channel DFW, with continually delightful results.

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