Continental philosophy is a general term for several related philosophical traditions that (notionally) originated in continental Europe, 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 work of Friedrich Nietzsche, and most branches of Marxism and Marxist philosophy (though there also exists a self-described analytic Marxism ).
The distinction between continental and analytic philosophy is relatively recent, probably dating from the early twentieth century. In terms of a break in the philosophical tradition, however, its roots can be traced back to Immanuel Kant – analytic philosophy is generally not interested in the German philosophers of the nineteenth century who followed Kant, such as Hegel, Schopenhauer, Marx, and Nietzsche. What came to be called "continental philosophy" is largely descended from the tradition of these thinkers, as well as earlier thinkers like Kant who are also important to analytic philosophy.
In the early-to-mid twentieth century, Germany continued to have the most vital philosophical scene in 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 with 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, they often found themselves banned from teaching, and their philosophies fell out of favour.
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. (Also, some French and German-speaking European philosophers such as Gottlob Frege and the Vienna Circle were important contributors in the analytic tradition, but these are not generally considered continental philosophers.)
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 continental philosophy is 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, anthropology, social psychology among the social sciences (where it is sometimes known as social theory or critical social theory).
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 Heidegger and Sartre thought would always have to deal with some version 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)
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