Continental philosophy

Last updated

Continental philosophy is a set of 19th- and 20th-century philosophical traditions from mainland Europe. [1] [2] This sense of the term originated among English-speaking philosophers in the second half of the 20th century, who used it to refer to a range of thinkers and traditions outside the analytic movement. Continental philosophy includes German idealism, phenomenology, existentialism (and its antecedents, such as the thought of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche), hermeneutics, structuralism, post-structuralism, deconstruction, French feminism, psychoanalytic theory, and the critical theory of the Frankfurt School and related branches of Western Marxism. [3]

Philosophy Study of general and fundamental questions

Philosophy is the study of general and fundamental questions about existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language. Such questions are often posed as problems to be studied or resolved. The term was probably coined by Pythagoras. Philosophical methods include questioning, critical discussion, rational argument, and systematic presentation. Classic philosophical questions include: Is it possible to know anything and to prove it? What is most real? Philosophers also pose more practical and concrete questions such as: Is there a best way to live? Is it better to be just or unjust? Do humans have free will?

Continental Europe continent of Europe, excluding European islands

Continental or mainland Europe is the continuous continent of Europe, excluding its surrounding islands. It can also be referred to ambiguously as the European continent – which can conversely mean the whole of Europe – and by Europeans, simply the Continent.

Analytic philosophy style of philosophy

Analytic philosophy is a style of philosophy that became dominant in the Western world at the beginning of the 20th century. The term can refer to one of several things:


It is difficult to identify non-trivial claims that would be common to all the preceding philosophical movements. The term continental philosophy, like analytic philosophy , lacks clear definition and may mark merely a family resemblance across disparate philosophical views. Simon Glendinning has suggested that the term was originally more pejorative than descriptive, functioning as a label for types of western philosophy rejected or disliked by analytic philosophers. [4] Nonetheless, Michael E. Rosen has ventured to identify common themes that typically characterize continental philosophy. [5]

Family resemblance

Family resemblance is a philosophical idea made popular by Ludwig Wittgenstein, with the best known exposition given in his posthumously published book Philosophical Investigations (1953). It argues that things which could be thought to be connected by one essential common feature may in fact be connected by a series of overlapping similarities, where no one feature is common to all of the things. Games, which Wittgenstein used as an example to explain the notion, have become the paradigmatic example of a group that is related by family resemblances. It has been suggested that Wittgenstein picked up the idea and the term from Nietzsche, who had been using it, as did many nineteenth century philologists, when discoursing about language families.

Simon Glendinning philosopher

Simon Glendinning is an English philosopher. Glendinning is currently Professor of European Philosophy in the European Institute at the London School of Economics. He is Director of the Forum for European Philosophy.

Michael Eric Rosen is a British political philosopher active in the traditions of analytic philosophy and continental European intellectual thought. He is best known for his work on Hegel and the Frankfurt School. He is currently the Senator Joseph S. Clark Professor of Government at Harvard University.

Natural science Branch of science about the natural world

Natural science is a branch of science concerned with the description, prediction, and understanding of natural phenomena, based on empirical evidence from observation and experimentation. Mechanisms such as peer review and repeatability of findings are used to try to ensure the validity of scientific advances.

Kantianism Kantianism

Kantianism is the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, a German philosopher born in Königsberg, Prussia. The term Kantianism or Kantian is sometimes also used to describe contemporary positions in philosophy of mind, epistemology, and ethics.

Lifeworld may be conceived as a universe of what is self-evident or given, a world that subjects may experience together. For Edmund Husserl, the lifeworld is the fundamental for all epistemological enquiries. The concept has its origin in biology and cultural Protestantism.

Ultimately, the foregoing themes derive from a broadly Kantian thesis that knowledge, experience, and reality are bound and shaped by conditions best understood through philosophical reflection rather than exclusively empirical inquiry. [10]

The term

Henri Bergson Henri Bergson (Nobel).jpg
Henri Bergson

The term continental philosophy, in the above sense, was first widely used by English-speaking philosophers to describe university courses in the 1970s, emerging as a collective name for the philosophies then widespread in France and Germany, such as phenomenology, existentialism, structuralism, and post-structuralism. [11]

However, the term (and its approximate sense) can be found at least as early as 1840, in John Stuart Mill's 1840 essay on Coleridge, where Mill contrasts the Kantian-influenced thought of "Continental philosophy" and "Continental philosophers" with the English empiricism of Bentham and the 18th century generally. [12] This notion gained prominence in the early 20th century as figures such as Bertrand Russell and G. E. Moore advanced a vision of philosophy closely allied with natural science, progressing through logical analysis. This tradition, which has come to be known broadly as "analytic philosophy", became dominant in Britain and the United States from roughly 1930 onward. Russell and Moore made a dismissal of Hegelianism and its philosophical relatives a distinctive part of their new movement. [13] Commenting on the history of the distinction in 1945, Russell distinguished "two schools of philosophy, which may be broadly distinguished as the Continental and the British respectively", a division he saw as operative "from the time of Locke". [14]

John Stuart Mill British philosopher and political economist

John Stuart Mill, usually cited as J. S. Mill, was a British philosopher, political economist, and civil servant. One of the most influential thinkers in the history of classical liberalism, he contributed widely to social theory, political theory, and political economy. Dubbed "the most influential English-speaking philosopher of the nineteenth century", Mill's conception of liberty justified the freedom of the individual in opposition to unlimited state and social control.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge English poet, literary critic and philosopher

Samuel Taylor Coleridge was an English poet, literary critic, philosopher and theologian who, with his friend William Wordsworth, was a founder of the Romantic Movement in England and a member of the Lake Poets. He also shared volumes and collaborated with Charles Lamb, Robert Southey, and Charles Lloyd. He wrote the poems The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Kubla Khan, as well as the major prose work Biographia Literaria. His critical work, especially on William Shakespeare, was highly influential, and he helped introduce German idealist philosophy to English-speaking culture. Coleridge coined many familiar words and phrases, including suspension of disbelief. He had a major influence on Ralph Waldo Emerson and on American transcendentalism.

Jeremy Bentham British philosopher, jurist, and social reformer

Jeremy Bentham was an English philosopher, jurist, and social reformer regarded as the founder of modern utilitarianism.

Since the 1970s, however, many philosophers in the United States and Britain have taken interest in continental philosophers since Kant, and the philosophical traditions in many European countries have similarly incorporated many aspects of the "analytic" movement. Self-described analytic philosophy flourishes in France, including philosophers such as Jules Vuillemin, Vincent Descombes, Gilles Gaston Granger, François Recanati, and Pascal Engel. Likewise, self-described "continental philosophers" can be found in philosophy departments in the United Kingdom, North America, and Australia, [15] and some well-known analytic philosophers claim to conduct better scholarship on continental philosophy than self-identified programs in continental philosophy, particularly at the level of graduate education. [16] "Continental philosophy" is thus defined in terms of a family of philosophical traditions and influences rather than a geographic distinction. The issue of geographical specificity has been raised again more recently in post-colonial and decolonial approaches to "continental philosophy", which critically examine the ways that European imperial and colonial projects have influenced academic knowledge production. For this reason, some scholars have advocated for "post-continental philosophy" as an outgrowth of continental philosophy. [17]


Martin Heidegger Heidegger 4 (1960).jpg
Martin Heidegger

The history of continental philosophy (taken in its narrower sense) is usually thought to begin with German idealism. [18] Led by figures like Fichte, Schelling, and later Hegel, German idealism developed out of the work of Immanuel Kant in the 1780s and 1790s and was closely linked with romanticism and the revolutionary politics of the Enlightenment. Besides the central figures listed above, important contributors to German idealism also included Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi, Gottlob Ernst Schulze, Karl Leonhard Reinhold, and Friedrich Schleiermacher.

As the institutional roots of "continental philosophy" in many cases directly descend from those of phenomenology, [19] Edmund Husserl has always been a canonical figure in continental philosophy. Nonetheless, Husserl is also a respected subject of study in the analytic tradition. [20] Husserl's notion of a noema, the non-psychological content of thought, his correspondence with Gottlob Frege, and his investigations into the nature of logic continue to generate interest among analytic philosophers.

J. G. Merquior [21] argued that a distinction between analytic and continental philosophies can be first clearly identified with Henri Bergson (1859–1941), whose wariness of science and elevation of intuition paved the way for existentialism. Merquior wrote: "the most prestigious philosophizing in France took a very dissimilar path [from the Anglo-Germanic analytic schools]. One might say it all began with Henri Bergson."

An illustration of some important differences between "analytic" and "continental" styles of philosophy can be found in Rudolf Carnap's "Elimination of Metaphysics through Logical Analysis of Language" (originally published in 1932 as "Überwindung der Metaphysik durch Logische Analyse der Sprache"), a paper some observers[ who? ] have described as particularly polemical. Carnap's paper argues that Heidegger's lecture "What Is Metaphysics?" violates logical syntax to create nonsensical pseudo-statements. [22] Moreover, Carnap claimed that many German metaphysicians of the era were similar to Heidegger in writing statements that were syntactically meaningless.

With the rise of Nazism, many of Germany's philosophers, especially those of Jewish descent or leftist or liberal political sympathies (such as many in the Vienna Circle and the Frankfurt School), fled to the English-speaking world. Those philosophers who remained—if they remained in academia at all—had to reconcile themselves to Nazi control of the universities. Others, such as Martin Heidegger, among the most prominent German philosophers to stay in Germany, developed a diplomatic relationship with Nazism when it came to power.

Both before and after World War II there was a growth of interest in German philosophy in France. A new interest in communism translated into an interest in Marx and Hegel, who became for the first time studied extensively in the politically conservative French university system of the Third Republic. At the same time the phenomenological philosophy of Husserl and Heidegger became increasingly influential, perhaps owing to its resonances with French philosophies which placed great stock in the first-person perspective (an idea found in divergent forms such as Cartesianism, spiritualism, and Bergsonism). Most important in this popularization of phenomenology was the author and philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, who called his philosophy existentialism. (See 20th-century French philosophy.) Another major strain of continental thought is structuralism/post-structuralism. Influenced by the structural linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure, French anthropologists such as Claude Lévi-Strauss began to apply the structural paradigm to the humanities. In the 1960s and '70s, post-structuralists developed various critiques of structuralism. Post-structuralist thinkers include Jacques Lacan, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze.

Recent Anglo-American developments

From the early 20th century until the 1960s, continental philosophers were only intermittently discussed in British and American universities, despite an influx of continental philosophers, particularly German Jewish students of Nietzsche and Heidegger, to the United States on account of the persecution of the Jews and later World War II; Hannah Arendt, Herbert Marcuse, Leo Strauss, Theodor W. Adorno, and Walter Kaufmann are probably the most notable of this wave, arriving in the late 1930s and early 1940s. However, philosophy departments began offering courses in continental philosophy in the late 1960s and 1970s.

American university departments in literature, the fine arts, film, sociology, and political theory have increasingly incorporated ideas and arguments from continental philosophers into their curricula and research. Continental Philosophy features prominently in a number of British and Irish Philosophy departments, for instance at the University of Essex, Warwick, Sussex, Dundee, Aberdeen (Centre for Modern Thought), and University College Dublin, as well as Manchester Metropolitan, Kingston, Staffordshire (postgraduate only), and the Open University. North American Philosophy departments offering courses in Continental Philosophy include the University of Hawai'i at Mānoa, Boston College, Stony Brook University (SUNY), Vanderbilt University, DePaul University, Villanova University, the University of Guelph, The New School, Pennsylvania State University, University of Oregon, Emory University, Duquesne University, the University of Memphis, University of King's College, and Loyola University Chicago. The most prominent organization for continental philosophy in the United States is the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy (known as SPEP). [23]

Significant works

See also

Lesser-known continental movements


  1. Leiter 2007 , p. 2: "As a first approximation, we might say that philosophy in Continental Europe in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is best understood as a connected weave of traditions, some of which overlap, but no one of which dominates all the others."
  2. Critchley, Simon (1998), "Introduction: what is continental philosophy?", in Critchley, Simon; Schroder, William (eds.), A Companion to Continental Philosophy, Blackwell Companions to Philosophy, Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, p. 4.
  3. The above list includes only those movements common to both lists compiled by Critchley 2001 , p. 13 and Glendinning 2006 , pp. 58–65
  4. Glendinning 2006 , p. 12.
  5. The following list of four traits is adapted from Rosen, Michael, "Continental Philosophy from Hegel", in Grayling, A.C. (ed.), Philosophy 2: Further through the Subject, p. 665
  6. Critchley 2001 , p. 115.
  7. Critchley 2001 , p. 57.
  8. Critchley 2001 , p. 64.
  9. Leiter 2007 , p. 4: "While forms of philosophical naturalism have been dominant in Anglophone philosophy, the vast majority of authors within the Continental traditions insist on the distinctiveness of philosophical methods and their priority to those of the natural sciences."
  10. Continental philosophers usually identify such conditions with the transcendental subject or self: Solomon 1988 , p. 6, "It is with Kant that philosophical claims about the self attain new and remarkable proportions. The self becomes not just the focus of attention but the entire subject-matter of philosophy. The self is not just another entity in the world, but in an important sense it creates the world, and the reflecting self does not just know itself, but in knowing itself knows all selves, and the structure of any and every possible self."
  11. Critchley 2001 , p. 38.
  12. Mill, John Stuart (1950). On Bentham and Coleridge. Harper Torchbooks. New York: Harper & Row. pp. 104, 133, 155.
  13. Russell, Bertrand (1959). My Philosophical Development. London: Allen & Unwin. p. 62. Hegelians had all kinds of arguments to prove this or that was not 'real'. Number, space, time, matter, were all professedly convicted of being self-contradictory. Nothing was real, so we were assured, except the Absolute, which could think only of itself since there was nothing else for it to think of and which thought eternally the sort of things that idealist philosophers thought in their books.
  14. B. Russell, A History of Western Philosophy, (Simon & Schuster, 1945), p. 643 and 641. Russell proposes the following broad points of distinction between Continental and British types of philosophy: (1) in method, deductive system-building vs. piecemeal induction; (2) in metaphysics, rationalist theology vs. metaphysical agnosticism; (3) in ethics, non-naturalist deontology vs. naturalist hedonism; and (4) in politics, authoritarianism vs. liberalism. Ibid., pp. 643-647.
  15. See, e.g., Walter Brogan and James Risser (eds.), American Continental Philosophy: A Reader (Indiana University Press, 2000).
  16. Brian Leiter is most commonly associated with such claims.
  17. Laurie, Timothy; Stark, Hannah; Walker, Briohny (2019), "Critical Approaches to Continental Philosophy: Intellectual Community, Disciplinary Identity, and the Politics of Inclusion", Parrhesia: A Journal of Critical Philosophy, 30: 1–17
  18. Critchley 2001 and Solomon 1988 date the origins of continental philosophy a generation earlier, to the work of Jean-Jacques Rousseau
  19. E.g., the largest academic organization devoted to furthering the study of continental philosophy is the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy.
  20. Kenny, Anthony (ed). The Oxford Illustrated History of Western Philosophy. ISBN   0-19-285440-2
  21. Merquior, J.G. (1987). Foucault (Fontana Modern Masters series), University of California Press, ISBN   0-520-06062-8.
  22. Gregory, Wanda T. Heidegger, Carnap and Quine at the Crossroads of Language Archived 2006-08-21 at the Wayback Machine , and Abraham D. Stone. Heidegger and Carnap on the Overcoming of Metaphysics
  23. Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy

Related Research Articles

A subject is a being who has a unique consciousness and/or unique personal experiences, or an entity that has a relationship with another entity that exists outside itself.

Martin Heidegger German philosopher

Martin Heidegger was a German philosopher and a seminal thinker in the Continental tradition of philosophy. He is "widely acknowledged to be one of the most original and important philosophers of the 20th century." Heidegger is best known for his contributions to phenomenology, hermeneutics, and existentialism, though as the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy cautions, "his thinking should be identified as part of such philosophical movements only with extreme care and qualification". Heidegger was a member and public supporter of the Nazi Party. There is controversy over the degree to which his Nazi affiliations influenced his philosophy.

Phenomenology is the philosophical study of the structures of experience and consciousness. As a philosophical movement it was founded in the early years of the 20th century by Edmund Husserl and was later expanded upon by a circle of his followers at the universities of Göttingen and Munich in Germany. It then spread to France, the United States, and elsewhere, often in contexts far removed from Husserl's early work.

German philosophy, here taken to mean either (1) philosophy in the German language or (2) philosophy by Germans, has been extremely diverse, and central to both the analytic and continental traditions in philosophy for centuries, from Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz through Immanuel Kant, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Arthur Schopenhauer, Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger and Ludwig Wittgenstein to contemporary philosophers. Søren Kierkegaard is frequently included in surveys of German philosophy due to his extensive engagement with German thinkers.

19th-century philosophy philosophy-related events during the 19th century

In the 19th century, the philosophies of the Enlightenment began to have a dramatic effect, the landmark works of philosophers such as Immanuel Kant and Jean-Jacques Rousseau influencing new generations of thinkers. In the late 18th century a movement known as Romanticism began; it validated strong emotion as an authentic not of aesthetic experience, placing new emphasis on such emotions as trepidation, horror and terror and awe. Key ideas that sparked changes in philosophy were the fast progress of science; evolution, as postulated by Vanini, Diderot, Lord Monboddo, Erasmus Darwin, Lamarck, Goethe, and Charles Darwin; and what might now be called emergent order, such as the free market of Adam Smith within nation states. Pressures for egalitarianism, and more rapid change culminated in a period of revolution and turbulence that would see philosophy change as well.

Objective idealism is an idealistic metaphysics that postulates that there is in an important sense only one perceiver, and that this perceiver is one with that which is perceived. One important advocate of such a metaphysics, Josiah Royce, wrote that he was indifferent "whether anybody calls all this Theism or Pantheism". It is distinct from the subjective idealism of George Berkeley, and it abandons the thing-in-itself of Kant's dualism.

Modern philosophy

Modern philosophy is philosophy developed in the modern era and associated with modernity. It is not a specific doctrine or school, although there are certain assumptions common to much of it, which helps to distinguish it from earlier philosophy.

20th-century philosophy philosophy-related events during the 20th century

20th-century philosophy saw the development of a number of new philosophical schools—including logical positivism, analytic philosophy, phenomenology, existentialism, and poststructuralism. In terms of the eras of philosophy, it is usually labelled as contemporary philosophy.

Contemporary philosophy

Contemporary philosophy is the present period in the history of Western philosophy beginning at the early 20th century with the increasing professionalization of the discipline and the rise of analytic and continental philosophy.

Absolute idealism

Absolute idealism is an ontologically monistic philosophy "chiefly associated with Friedrich Schelling and G. W. F. Hegel, both German idealist philosophers of the 19th century, Josiah Royce, an American philosopher, and others, but, in its essentials, the product of Hegel". It is Hegel's account of how being is ultimately comprehensible as an all-inclusive whole. Hegel asserted that in order for the thinking subject to be able to know its object at all, there must be in some sense an identity of thought and being. Otherwise, the subject would never have access to the object and we would have no certainty about any of our knowledge of the world. To account for the differences between thought and being, however, as well as the richness and diversity of each, the unity of thought and being cannot be expressed as the abstract identity "A=A". Absolute idealism is the attempt to demonstrate this unity using a new "speculative" philosophical method, which requires new concepts and rules of logic. According to Hegel, the absolute ground of being is essentially a dynamic, historical process of necessity that unfolds by itself in the form of increasingly complex forms of being and of consciousness, ultimately giving rise to all the diversity in the world and in the concepts with which we think and make sense of the world.

Walter Kaufmann (philosopher)

Walter Arnold Kaufmann was a German-American philosopher, translator, and poet. A prolific author, he wrote extensively on a broad range of subjects, such as authenticity and death, moral philosophy and existentialism, theism and atheism, Christianity and Judaism, as well as philosophy and literature. He served more than 30 years as a professor at Princeton University.


In late modern continental philosophy, neo-Kantianism was a revival of the 18th-century philosophy of Immanuel Kant. More specifically, it was influenced by Arthur Schopenhauer's critique of the Kantian philosophy in his work The World as Will and Representation (1818), as well as by other post-Kantian philosophers such as Jakob Friedrich Fries and Johann Friedrich Herbart.

James Ferguson Conant is an American philosopher who has written extensively on topics in philosophy of language, ethics, and metaphilosophy. He is perhaps best known for his writings on Wittgenstein, and his association with the New Wittgenstein school of Wittgenstein interpretation initiated by Cora Diamond. He is currently Chester D. Tripp Professor of Humanities, Professor of Philosophy, and Professor in the College at the University of Chicago, he is Humboldt Professor of Philosophy and co-director of the Center for Analytic German Idealism (FAGI) at the University of Leipzig. He is also Director of the Center for German Philosophy at the University of Chicago. Under his leadership, these two research centers form the main axis of an international philosophical network, spanning Germany, Israel and the United States.

Western philosophy philosophy of the Western world

Western philosophy is the philosophical thought and work of the Western world. Historically, the term refers to the philosophical thinking of Western culture, beginning with Greek philosophy of the pre-Socratics such as Thales and Pythagoras, and eventually covering a large area of the globe. The word philosophy itself originated from the Ancient Greek philosophía (φιλοσοφία), literally, "the love of wisdom".

Dermot Moran is an Irish philosopher specialising in phenomenology and in medieval philosophy, and he is also active in the dialogue between analytic and continental philosophy. He is currently the inaugural holder of the Joseph Chair in Catholic Philosophy at Boston College. He is a member of the Royal Irish Academy and a Founding Editor of the International Journal of Philosophical Studies.

Steven Crowell is an American philosopher who has taught at Rice University since 1983 and is the department chair. Crowell earned his Ph.D. in Philosophy from Yale University in 1981. His work has largely focused on twentieth-century European philosophy, including phenomenology, existentialism, hermeneutics, and post-structuralism.

This is a list of articles in continental philosophy.

Buddhism and Western philosophy

Buddhist thought and Western philosophy include several parallels. Before the 20th century, a few European thinkers such as Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche had engaged with Buddhist thought. Likewise, in Asian nations with Buddhist populations, there were also attempts to bring the insights of Western thought to Buddhist philosophy, as can be seen in the rise of Buddhist modernism.