For those outside of the discipline, the distinction between analytic and continental philosophy may seem trivial. After all, both traditions explore many of the same philosophical problems and often examine the same primary texts. But while the two each strive to clarify our knowledge of the world and our human nature, they carry out these projects with the aid of different intellectual toolsets. In applying these different tools to the same questions, analytic and continental philosophers yield distinct types of knowledge. As we’ll learn, one tradition tends to complement the other, but in some cases the subject matter dictates a specific approach that favors either analytic or continental methods.
The older of the two traditions, continental philosophy incorporates the philosophical subfields of metaphysics, ontology, epistemology, ethics and aesthetics. The majority of its practitioners reside in continental Europe, where during the late 18th century Immanuel Kant inaugurated the tradition that became known as German Idealism. His Critique of Pure Reason attempted to provide a solution to the skeptical empiricism of David Hume and founded a school of epistemology that remains influential today.
Kant and his intellectual successor Hegel indulged in highly abstract metaphysical speculation about the fundamental foundations of our knowledge of the world. They attempted to construct all-encompassing systems that subsumed disparate fields of philosophy under one meta-narrative, and their scope was comprehensive in that they believed philosophy could function as the explanatory cornerstone of human experience.
In the 19thcentury, continental philosophers responded to the apparent disparity between the advances of science and philosophy by rejecting the ambitious extravagancies of Kant and Hegel. Thinkers such as Kierkegaard and Nietzsche scoffed at the notion that philosophy could neatly embody the principles of every field of learning and became suspicious of systematic attempts to formalize human experience. Out of their influence emerged the existentialism of Sartre and Camus in the early 20th century.
While the priorities of continental philosophy changed over time, much of its style and basic tools remained intact. Works by the early German Idealists and Kierkegaard and Nietzsche share stylistic traits that distinguish them from analytic philosophy. Both engage in prose that sacrifices formal rigor in an effort to convey abstract meaning. Much of 19th and 20th century continental philosophy reads more like literature than philosophy, at least by analytic standards, and it’s true that the continental thinkers are typically more dynamic stylistically than analytic philosophers. For the continental philosophers, language does not function as a rigid set of symbols conveying strict denotations, but rather as a malleable instrument by which to explore the boundaries of human comprehension.
Against this perception, the analytic philosophers of the United Kingdom and the United States attempt to limit their usage of language to demonstrably logical statements about the world. Originating in the early 20th century with works by Bertrand Russell, G.E. More and Ludwig Wittgenstein the analytic school of philosophy views the abstract indulgences of the continental tradition as complicating our knowledge of things by introducing confusing language that is ultimately devoid of meaning.
Philosophers should, they argue, limit themselves to logically verifiable statements of the world that can provide reliable knowledge. By employing formal predicate logic, analytic thinkers attempt to validate their achievements with a rigor rivaling that of the natural sciences and mathematics. The prevalence of this methodology reached a peak in logical positivism, whose practitioners insisted that all philosophical statements must derive from either empirical observations or analytic tautologies.
But logical positivism, it turned out, couldn’t meet its own strict criteria for justification and essentially died out by the late 20th century. There was nothing logically necessary about its rules for valid statements, nor did empirical observation provide warrant for believing those rules to be fundamental. As a result, positivism has all but disappeared.
Other less dogmatic forms of analytic philosophy are practiced throughout the English-speaking world, and the tradition remains the dominant school of philosophy in Western universities. Analytic philosophers employ formal logic to reveal inconsistencies and errors in arguments that otherwise appear plausible, and have contributed a great deal to our understanding of how language often functions not to communicate objective facts, but to reinforce our prejudices.
To illustrate the relative strengths of the analytic and continental approaches, let’s consider a particular set of philosophical problems. The philosophy of religion is concerned with the philosophical underpinnings of religious claims, such as arguments for the existence of god, god’s attributes, the problem of evil and the existence of the soul. Let’s briefly consider how the analytic and continental traditions handle the question of god’s existence.
The analytic school employs logic and linguistic analysis to determine whether the claim “god exists” has any significant meaning. Does such a statement consider the actual conditions of the universe, or does it represent an emotional response to subjective experiences that cannot be verified empirically? Christian philosophers in the analytic tradition such as Alvin Plantinga and Richard Swinburne have used logic to argue that such statements are in fact coherent claims about the universe and warrant our consideration.
Continental philosophers will employ a different approach to the same question. Free from the formal strictures of the analytic school, continental philosophers can indulge in metaphysical speculation to explore the broader implications of the statement “god exists.” How might god’s existence shape our theories of beauty and justice? In questions where formal logic offers little insight, continental approaches reveal stimulating avenues of inquiry. The orthodox theologian and philosopher David Bentley Hart is a contemporary practitioner of continental philosophy of religion.
This brief overview of the two dominant schools of Western philosophy cannot cover the many subtle distinctions or subfields within each tradition. They are broad disciplines that incorporate diverse approaches, but our characterization clarifies the fundamental differences between them and gives at least a general indication of their respective merits.
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