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Continental philosophy is a general term for several related philosophical traditions that (notionally) originated in continental Europe from the nineteenth century onward, in contrast with Anglo-American analytic philosophy. Continental philosophy includes phenomenology, existentialism, hermeneutics, structuralism, post-structuralism and post-modernism, deconstruction, French feminism, critical theory such as that of the Frankfurt School, psychoanalysis, the works of Friedrich Nietzsche and Søren Kierkegaard, and most branches of Marxism and Marxist philosophy (though there also exists a self-described Analytical Marxism).


The distinction between continental and analytic philosophy is relatively recent, probably dating from the early twentieth century. The break in the philosophical tradition which it claims to recognize, however, dates back a century earlier to Immanuel Kant, the last major philosopher to be indisputably significant to both traditions. Analytic philosophy has traditionally been less interested in the German philosophers of the nineteenth century who followed Kant. These included foremost the German Idealists, such as Schelling and Hegel, and those whose work developed in response to them, such as Arthur Schopenhauer, the Dane Søren Kierkegaard, Marx, and Friedrich Nietzsche. Many other thinkers (such as Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis), despite not having developed as directly out of this tradition, are still considered "continental" due to sharing similar methods and thematic elements.

However, a few philosophers from continental Europe are not continental philosophers. Gottlob Frege is considered one of the foundational figures in analytic philosophy. Significantly, his background was largely mathematical, and he responds more to John Stuart Mill than to Hegel. The Austrian Ludwig Wittgenstein, who studied in Britain, is also considered an analytic philosopher. Other philosophers such as the Vienna Circle and the founders of Logical Positivism also originated in continental Europe, but are figures in analytic philosophy. Brentano and Meinong also had some presence in both traditions.

In addition, it is a great oversimplification to think of the analytic tradition as developely seperately from the continental tradition, and vice versa. The impact of 19th continental philosophy on 20th century ethicists who are often labelled "analytic" has been particularly important. To name only two examples, Bernard Williams, perhaps the greatest British moral philosopher of the 20th century, was decisively influenced by Nietzsche, while John Rawls was seriously engaged with the study of Hegel's moral philosophy.

In the twentieth century, Continental philosophy includes:

In the early-to-mid twentieth century, Germany continued to have the most vital philosophical scene in continental Europe, until the rise of Hitler. This had the initial effect that many of Germany's most eminent philosophers, who were largely Jewish or left-wing, had to flee abroad, particularly to America, as in the case of the members of the Frankfurt School. The remaining philosophers, particularly Martin Heidegger, the most eminent German philosopher of the time, remained due to their affiliation with Nazism. After the fall of Nazism, Heidegger found himself banned from teaching, his reputation as a philosopher tarnished until after his death.

After World War II there was an explosion of interest in German philosophy in neighbouring France. On the one hand, the role of the French Communist Party in liberating France meant that it became, for a brief period, the largest political movement in the country. The attendant interest in communism translated into an interest in Marx and Hegel, who were both now studied extensively for the first time in the conservative French university system. On the other hand, there was a major trend towards the ideas of the phenomenologist Edmund Husserl, and toward his former disciple Martin Heidegger. Most important in this popularisation of phenomenology was the author and philosophy teacher Jean-Paul Sartre (by then a noted intellectual), who called his philosophy existentialism.

Continental philosophy in English-speaking countries

While it derives from the philosophical traditions of non-Anglophone Europe, much "continental" philosophy at least since the 1980s has been taught and written in the United States and the United Kingdom. While continental philosophy has a central place in university philosophy departments in Germany and France, in the English-speaking world analytic philosophy is generally taught in philosophy departments while some movements in continental philosophy are taught in various other departments, including literature, film, architecture, art history among the humanities (where it is often known as literary theory or critical theory), and sociology, social anthropology, and social psychology among the social sciences (where it is sometimes known as social theory or critical social theory). These include primarily post-structuralism, feminism, more recent Marxism, and the parts of phenomenology and psychoanalysis most relevant to them. German Idealism, on the other hand, where it is studied at all is more likely to be found in philosophy departments.

Differences from analytic philosophy

There are such large differences among the various "continental" schools of thought that the term probably has no great or absolute descriptive value, but it does at least denote certain general differences from analytic philosophy in emphasis and style. One common theme of continental philosophy might be a certain kind of anti-transcendent skepticism, which holds that thought can not be abstracted away from some natural or material preconditions, and also that the philosopher must struggle with this impossibility. For example, in Hegel, thoughts can't be abstracted away from history; for Marx, they can't be abstracted away from the class struggle; for Nietzsche, from the will to power; for Kierkegaard, from faith; for Heidegger and Sartre, thought would always have to arise from a determinate manner of "being"; and for Derrida, the contingent histories and interdependencies of words themselves cannot be transcended. In contrast, continental philosophers often see analytic philosophers as believing methodologically that they can work unproblematically with abstract ideas and their relationships. Though sometimes analytic philosophers might derive similar skepticism as a result, this skepticism is not viewed as a methodological presumption.

Moreover, while analytic philosophy is generally carried on around certain perennial topics of dispute, as debates in which individual philosophers give their piecemeal contributions, continental philosophy has a tendency to center instead on key thinkers and to discuss their philosophies in relation to each other. Stanley Cavell describes the distinction between analytic and Continental philosophy similarly:

[P]hilosophy may be inherited either as a set of problems to be solved (as Anglo-American analysts do) or else as a set of texts to be read (as Europe does – except of course where it has accepted, or reaccepted, analysis). You can sense how different imperatives for training, different standards for criticism and conversation, different genres of composition, different personas of authorship, will arise from this difference in modes of inheritance. ("The Philosopher in American Life," in Emerson’s Transcendental Etudes, 45-46.)

Because continental philosophy is not a specific school or doctrine, individual philosophers often have widely different views on different streams within it. 19th century philosophers, such as Hegel, Schopenhauer, Marx, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche, are widely read and taught by Anglo-American philosophers[How to reference and link to summary or text], and they are usually recognized as important thinkers, even if they are not as widely agreed with.

References and further reading

  • Simon Critchley, Continental Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press (2001) ISBN 0-19285359-7
  • C. Prado, A House Divided: Comparing Analytic and Continental Philosophy. Prometheus/Humanity Books (2003)
  • A. Cutrofello, Continental Philosophy: A Contemporary Introduction. Routledge (2005)

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