Describing and Replacing the Analytic-Continental Distinction in Philosophy

There is a well entrenched habit of referring to philosophy (in the ‘west’) as divided between Analytic and Continental European (usually just one of these words is used, most frequently the first) philosophy.  The distinction is widely understood to be unsatisfactory but still persists.  One clear problem with the distinction is that the first term refers to a way of doing philosophy, and the second refers to a geographical area.  Though the habit of referring to ‘continental’ philosophy detaches that form of philosophy from geographical context, as if it was the kind of philosophy practised in continental land masses rather than in isolated islands or archipelagoes.  That comes from the distinction that was being made between philosophy as undertaken in the island of Britain (and maybe the island of Ireland) as opposed to the continental land mass of Europe.

Other problems include: the late 19th and early 20th century origins of Analytic philosophy in Germany (Frege and then the Berlin Circle), Austria (Vienna Circle) and Poland; the predominance of Analytic philosophy in Nordic countries; the growing presence of Analytic philosophy in Continental Europe, interesting departments from that point of view exist in the universities of Barcelona, Geneva, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Bilkent (Ankara, Turkey), and so on; continental philosophy has been on the rise in Britain and in the Anglo-sphere (Ireland, Canada, United States, New Zealand and Australia) for some time, that rise might have levelled out a few years ago, but anyway clearly more attention is paid now than in the 60s; the American philosopher Richard Rorty has some claim to be a major ‘continental’ philosopher (I’m not convinced myself), and some major Continentals spent significant time in America (Adorno, Horkheimer, Habermas) or even ended up there for most of their professional life (Marcuse, Arendt); there is a current of Analytic discussion of Continental texts, tending of concentrate on philosophy of mind and moral psychology; at least one Continental text has become a major reference in philosophy of Mind, Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Mind; American Pragmatism was strongly influenced by Hegel, and that influence has resurfaced in the work of some recent Pragmatists, including Robert Brandom; ‘Analytic’ philosophy has tended to move away from conceptual analysis and become more concerned with empirical science; early Husserl and early Phenomenology in general has a very awkward relation with Continental philosophy, but though it seems close to Analytic philosophy, it has had a big influence on Continental philosophy.  

Is there a way out?  I think so, though it still needs some awareness of difficult boundary issues.  The distinction is surely that between a hard science, logical, conceptual analysis current and a cultural, historical, aestheticising approach.  I will call this the distinction between Conceptual-Scientific philosophy and Cultural-Historical philosophy There are reasons why this distinction has not really taken, though it is hard to see anyone denying that it has some truth to it.  I’m inclined to think that these reasons can be tamed far enough for the distinction to be a better one than Analytic/Continental.

The reasons for the distinction is that Analytic philosophy is a term for those concerned with the nature of knowledge (science and perception are the key aspects of knowledge) and with conceptual clarity in all fields; Continental philosophy is a term for those concerned with culture (including the distinction between culture and nature), history, and with the analysis of culture and history as models.  The distinction in preoccupations is often reflected in a distinction between styles: a dry style of conceptual clarity abstracted from linguistic-cultural context, and a poetic style emphasising the ways in which concepts exist in a linguistic-cultural context.  Art, aesthetics and culture has a central role in what has been normally labelled Continental philosophy lacking in what has been known as Analytic philosophy, though Analytic philosophy does sometimes take those kinds of things as objects of investigation, it rarely takes them as models of exposition. The major exception is Wittgenstein, one could also mention Stanley Cavell, but not many others.  Anyway, no one is going to get very far with Wittgenstein who lacks an understanding of his relation to questions of logic, conceptual clarity, foundations of perception and so on.  

What are the problems here?  The major one is Husserl, who usually comes up when this kind of distinction is discussed.  His earlier work seems much closer to Analytic/Conceptual-Scientific philosophy than Continental/Cultural-Historical Philosophy, but many of the second category of philosophers devoted considerable effort to studying early Husserl (Heidegger, Sartre, Lévinas, Derrida, etc).  The answer to that is that early Husserl belongs to the Conceptual-Scientific side, but he pushed some questions of the nature of our conscious experience of the world to a limit where a cultural-historical understanding of experience starts to appear at least in the margins, which was taken further in Husserl’s later work and in the Cultural-Historical philosophers mentioned.  

Another problem is that some Cultural-Historical philosophy deals with science.  There work of Gaston Bachelard and Georges Canguilhem on science is a major part of the background to Foucault and Derrida, while seeming close to the American historian and philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn.  The answer to that is that Bachelard moved into a poetic exploration of experience, Canguilhem is concerned with the historical nature of scientific concepts.  Canguilhem is close to some aspects of Kuhn, but Kuhn produced a much more unified view of how concepts operate, which refers to history but is more abstracted from history and culture than what the French thinkers were doing.  Kuhn joins with Foucault to some degree in sociology and history of science but from different ends.  Kuhn’s model is the psychology of perception, Foucault’s model is poetic experience.

Merleau-Ponty has been taken up on the Conceptual-Scientific side, but in his earlier phase in which he was more concerned with the psychology of perception, and even there he is very concerned with an at least slightly poetic reporting of experience, with historical situation, and with the aestheticisation of perception.  

Gilles Deleuze had a lot to say about science and about the production of concepts.  However, very few philosophers of science are Deleuzian (I can’t think of any well known figures), and what he means by production of concepts is much less systematic than what the Conceptual-Scientfic current does.  A lot of Deleuze works through striking metaphors and rapid shifts between domains of knowledge, which are used in the formulation of Deleuze’s philosophy rather than given systematic foundations.  

Nietzsche is sometime taken as a philosopher concerned with natural science as a model of philosophy and as a privileged object of philosophical study.  This sort of thing has become quite influential and is perfectly meritorious within its own limits, but is really a deeply misleading way of reading Nietzsche.  The natural-scientific models in Nietzsche are changeable and provisional, he frequently writes in a poetic rhetorical style foreign to the Conceptual-Scientific current. The more scientistic moments in Nietzsche can always be matched by moments which question that.  The text most often appealed to by the Analytic Nietzscheans, On the Genealogy of Morals, is an example of cultural-historical interpretation much more embedded in rhetorical strategies, performative styles, and provocations than the Analytic Nietzscheans are able to acknowledge.  

Hegel wrote The Science of Logic which is evidently concerned with the metaphysical structure of reality, the foundations of science and logic.  However, who takes it as a major text in any of those fields anymore?  It is not that Hegel is irrelevant to those concerns, as that what he write about those concerns is guided by his first major text, the Phenomenology of Spirit which obviously puts the cultural-historical development of consciousness and human community at the centre, even if has some things to say of interest from the conceptual-scientific side.  

Heidegger wrote Being and Time which appears, at least in its beginning, to be concerned with the clarification of abstract metaphysical concepts as do some later texts.  However, Being and Time moves quickly into questions of the cultural-historical embedding of being, via the suggestion that the question of Being be approached through the possibility of asking the question, and includes much discussion of subjective experience, history and so on, in terms which are not those of a conceptual framework even if work has been done to taken  some of his ideas in that direction.  Similar remarks apply to later texts of Heidegger.  Heidegger is preoccupied with the nature of philosophy in a historical and cultural context, including the history of its texts, even if he does not put the issue in quite hat way.

Habermas writes in a way that is influenced by, and converges with ‘analytic’ philosophy of language and social science, at some points.  However, he began his career with a book on the history of the public sphere, historical and cultural questions are always present in Habermas in a way we do not find in the conceptual-scientific philosophers. 

If we think of ‘Continental’ philosophy as cultural-historical philosophy, then we can get beyond the standard construction of it as a one branch of Kantian philosopher, as it developed in later German Idealism.  That aspect of German idealism was itself formed by Cultural-Historical works of Enlightenment thought, as in Giambattista Vico, Montesquieu and Adam Ferguson.  We can go back further to Pascal and before Pascal, Montaigne.  Both Foucault and Derrida indicated that they were deeply affected by Montaigne.  We can then think of the Continental-Analytc split as the split between Montaigne in the Renaissance and the slightly later thought of Francis Bacon, then Descartes, who was the object of Pascal’s criticisms. 


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