The Continental-Analytic Split (In Our Time Episode)


  • About a hundred years ago the discipline of philosophy seemed split into two main camps one is known today as the analytic school and  continental school.
    • The founders of the analytic tradition who included Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein believed it should be as impersonal and exact as the sciences. For them it was logic and language rather than human experience though answer the important questions.
    • Continental philosophers such as Martin Heidegger rejected this approach and commonly they were not just using different methods about asking different questions.
    • For much of the last century philosophers have been categorised as either analytic or continental and there’s been some bitter exchanges between the two camps but what are the differences between them.
    • With commentary from:
      • Stephen Mulhall, Professor of philosophy at New College University of Oxford.
      • Beatrice Han-Pile, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Essex
      • Hans Johann-Glock, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Zurich.

Listen to the episode

Introduction to Analytics Tradition by Stephen Mullhall

  • It began in the early decades of the 20th century in Cambridge when Russel and Wittgenstein put to a very creative philosophical use a revolution in logic that was in effect brought about by Gottlab Frege. 
    • It was a revolutionary development in logic. The tools Frege came up with allowed logicians to clarify and provide formal presentation of much more complex forms of reasoning. 
    • Example?
      • For a long time before Frege, logic was built around basic Aristotelian model where subject predicated structure, which was very close to the ordinary surface grammar of language. It was taken to be the main model for logical structure.
      • What Freger did was to use some concepts taken from mathematics. A distinction between function and argument, which has significant mathematical significance and then he generalised the notion of a function. Used to to represent predicate structure in ordinary propositions. 
      • That allowed him to capture forms of reasoning and forms of structure in propositions, particularly ways in which we use general ideas in a way that wasn’t possible with the resources of Aristotelian logic. 
      • Wittgenstein and Russel applied it to philosophical problems. Russel had a general eye for philsophical problems.  
      • Example?
        • The present king of France is bald.
        • The problem with that sentence is that the “present king of France” looks like it’ a name. It picks out an object inthe world and there is no object in the world corresponding to that name.
        • This created a problem about how one understand the meaning of the sentence.
        • Why? Becasue there wasn’t a king of France.
        • Question is: How do you give meaning to names if there’s nothing in the world corresponding to them?
        • Frege’s logic helped Russel to show that there’s a way of presenting hte strucurrew of such proposition wichi removes the appearance that there’s a reffering experession in the propositon.

Introduction to Continental Philosophy by Beatrice Han-Pile

  • One important thing to note, these philosophers didn’t think of themselves as continental philosophers. It was a term used in the 50s by analyticals to refer to this type of philosophy and these philosophers.
    • Hard to give a precise defintion but it never existed. It’s more individuals than school.
    • Important names: Martin Heidegger, Karl Marx, Schopenhauer, Nitche, Jean- Paul Sarter, Foucault.
    • One charactaristic is that most of these philosophers dealt mainly with the problem of existince. ( a phrase by Schopenhauer)
    • What is the problem of existince? It’s our awareness of our finitude as beings. Being born, life, death.
    • They don’t look at this question from a detached person’s point of view, like a mathematical problem. You have to feel this person’s involvement with it.
    • Generally, contentical philosophy is hermeneutic in approach and contextualist. The primary job of philosopher is to udnerstand a problem rather than disolving it through logical analysis or provide an explanation to it.
    • Example:
      • When Nitche was asked about the meaning of life, he didn’t do it in a timeless perennial fashion.
      • He linked that to a phenomenon like the rise of nationalism, the devaluation of the highest valiues in Germany. Lots of contexts.
    • In short, continental philosohpy rejects the notion that the methods of natural sciences are the most appropriate to settle existential issues. They aren’t settled by imperical facts.
    • Example:
      • Understanding anxiety.
        • It may help to know facts about the nurophysiology of hte brain.
        • It won’t tell you what it feels like to be depressed or what it means.
    • Another common aspect, is that most continental philosophers tend to be social critics.

A bit of history with Hans Johann-Glock

  • While the label analytics philosophy is accurate (at least for early members), the label continental is complete misnomer. Many of hte analyic philosophy pioneers came from Europe (the continent).
  • The label analytic philosophy, was first used by American philosophers was to refer to the phoenomenon that they regarded explicity as European. Most Analytic Philosophers were driven out of Europe due to facism to UK or USA.
  • The label is a misnomer, not univertsally used. It was institutionalised by 1960s in USA by people who were craving continental philosophy, whith the rise of certain courses on Nitche, Heidegger.
  • But what are the real distinctions?
    • Wheather or not you can solve philsophical problems by way of natural science. But a lot of analytical philosophers didn’t really like that, like Wittgenstein.
    • Analytical Philosopher had greater emphasis on logical rigor, clarity of exposition.
    • The difference is in the way of going about philosophy.
    • Of course, you can’t generalise. But on the wholel, the premium is on clarity of exposition and logical rigor for analytical philosophy.
    • Continental Philosophy can have a clear strand: Hegelians and Marxists perhaps exaggerated hopes in the pwer of human reason to improve life for the btter.

On the Originis

  • Russel was reacting to the dominance of the Hegelian idealism in British philsophical circles.
  • There’s a series of ciritcal engagement that happened after Kant completed his critical project. This culminated in Hegel’s project.
  • Very simple overview:
    • Kant was trying to provide us with a way of legitimating the possibility of human knowledge with establishing some kind of reliable connection between subjects and objects in the world. But the story he had to tell in order to guarantee the possiblity of knowlesge left him having to impose a whole series of dualisms or oppositions of his own system of thinking.
    • They also involve divisions within both the subjects and the objects that he was talking about.
    • So he was led to posit the concept of a thing in itself that lay beyond any possible experience of objects.
    • He was also led to positive distinction within the subject, between the empirical psychology of the subject and what he called a transcendental aspect of the subject, which was actively involved in constituting the world of our experience.
    • German idealists, Victor, Schelling, and then Hagle were fundamentally concerned to try to overcome those dualisms, to find a way of telling a story about the development of human consciousness and spirit in such a way that the subject wasn’t constrained or conditioned by limits that they couldn’t make any rational sense of.
    • So what you got was a story about the subject overcoming those oppositions, essentially through the process of history and the development of culture.
    • This might be the origin of the connection with social criticism.
    • So it’s a conception of the enlightenment as a project, which has a fundamentally social dimension.

On Kant

  • Kant realized that the revolutionary developments of the natural sciences really put pressure on philosophy to legitimize its existence as a fundamental autonomous subject.
  • Option 01: Kant thought that there was a way of showing that philosophy was a non empirical discipline, which in some sense provides foundations to science and human experience.
  • Option 02: The second way is to go the way of naturalism. Respectable philosophy, it’s better be part of natural science (like American philosopher Quine)
  • Option 03 What underlines a lot of continental philosophy: philosophy should give up its claim to be a strictly academic discipline. it’s closer to poetry than to academic discursive writing.

On Heidegger

  • Being and Time by Heidegger is one of the seminal texts in continential philosophy. Very debatable book.
  • First time anyone proposed a phenomenology of the everyday. Traditionally philosophers, tended to focus on objects (ideal, concentual, emirical) and asked many questions about them. Heidegger thougth that hte existience of the world of objects is predicated on more primary layer of engagement of the world which doesn’t work through interactio of objects.
  • Example:
    • You have a microphone in front of you.
    • That’s a physical object and without it no one outside of the room could hear you
    • But until you say that, the microphone as a physical object was just not part of your world because (when you were using it) even though you were adjusting your position, your voice to suit it, you world is organized by your activity when you do in this case, talking.
    • That’s also what determines what is relevant and irrelevant in your environment.
    • So not having competing noises is relevant, whether the light is good, isn’t relevant.
  • So the thought is that a prior tothis explicit engagement with objects, we have this non-reflective practical interaction with the world and it’s out of that, the world of objective mergers, but the main task of a phenomenology certainly is to try to describe and understand this primary engagement with the world.

What about the state of it now?

  • The analytic philosophical tradition still exists, much greater variety of projects, a much greater degree of internal criticism than it did.
  • On the continent, a variety of traditions still exists although the really major figures in those traditions have died and it’s much harder to come up with the names of philosophers who inherit those traditions who have the same kind of weight or significance as philosophers.
  • Instiutionally: it’s much more common now than it used to be for British and American departments to have philosophers working on continental traditions amongst their number than it used to be.
  • The situation is more pluralistic, but there still remains some pretty fundamental worries about differences of method, differences of style and different conceptions of what the rigor of a philosophical investigation ought to look like.
  • The distinction between analytic and continental philosophy will lose its significance, mainly because an analytic philosophy is losing its distinctive identity.

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