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What Is the Difference between Analytic and Continental Philosophy?

Posted in Friendly Philosophy

Three Ways of Understanding the Distinction

I find it helpful to understand the difference between Analytic and Continental philosophy in three different ways, all of which get the same results.

1. Historical/Genetic

Analytic philosophy descends from Frege and Russell through Wittgenstein, the student of Russell, who went astray and made Analytic philosophy even more interesting than it already would have been.

Continental philosophy descends from Brentano and Husserl through Heidegger, the “student” of Husserl, who went astray and made Continental philosophy even more interesting than it already would have been.

If you find yourself developing your ideas in dialogue with someone who developed her or his ideas in dialogue with . . . Russell, Frege, and Wittgenstein, you’re doing Analytic philosophy. But if you trace the dialogue you’re having back to Brentano, Husserl, and Heidegger, you’re doing Continental philosophy.

2. Worldview

Analytic philosophers take modern science to provide their fundamental worldview, and see themselves as working within that worldview to clarify blurry areas or fill in gaps.

Continental philosophers, in contrast, are in search of a more fundamental worldview in which modern science would fit, but which would also be able to account for extra- or non-scientific methods of experience and knowledge.

If you think scientists are really the ones discovering how the world really is, and you think it’s your duty to make your theories compatible with theirs, you’re Analytic. But if you think that while scientists are discovering truths about reality, even if they found a “theory of everything” it wouldn’t actually cover everything — and thus you think science is just one data point your theories have to be able to account for — you’re Continental.

3. Personality

Analytic philosophers want to be mathematician-scientists. Thus, they feel the need to live up to mathematical and scientific standards especially keenly, and would really like it if what they do could be defended as mathematical or scientific.

Continental philosophers want to be poet-prophets. Thus, they feel the need to live up to the sense of depth, importance, and power one finds in religion and great art, and would really like it if what they do could be defended as at long last uncovering the deep truth about reality.

If you’re not sure which personality you have, ask yourself who you hang out with. If you hang out with the people from the Sciences, you’re probably Analytic. If you hang out with people from English and Religion, you’re probably Continental. If you do both, you’re both (or else you belong to the Historical branch of contemporary philosophy).

Will the Rift Ever Be Healed?

When poets become scientists and mathematicians become prophets, perhaps. Or, when enough of us are taught both and find both so intriguing that we end up having to talk out both sides of our mouths, as it were, in order to say everything we want to say, perhaps.

Remember: Husserl was a mathematician, Frege critiqued Husserl as a colleague in the same philosophical endeavor, and Husserl and Russell corresponded. So, our traditions are united at the head.

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