Monday, August 11, 2014


158. Analytical and continental philosophy

 There is supposed to be a rift between analytical philosophy, with a mostly Anglo-Saxon tradition, and continental philosophy, mostly from continental Europe. What is the difference? Bernard Williams said that analytical philosophy was a matter not of substance but of style:

‘ .. a certain way of going on, which involves argument, distinctions, and, so far as it remembers to try to achieve it and succeeds, moderately plain speech’. [1] 

But continental philosophy, like any philosophy, also entails ‘argument and distinctions’. I admit that often it is difficult to read, obscure, not ‘moderately plain speech’, but that also occurs, though indeed less, in analytical philosophy.

So, if the distinction is to be meaningful, it must lie elsewhere.

First, it has to do with a striving for logic, rigour, parsimony and clarity, in analytical philosophy, while continental philosophy explores and often crosses the boundaries of clarity and logic, venturing into ambiguities, which indeed regularly derails into obscurity and rampant verbosity.

Second, related to this, analytical philosophy tends to separate intellectual, analytical activity from practical judgement, and takes pride in conducting only the first.

For example, Semantics, theory of meaning and truth, is seen as separable from, and prior to, pragmatics, practical language use. Discussion about what goodness is, in meta-ethics, is separable from, and prior to, considering what is good, in ethics.

Continental philosophy, but also American pragmatism, turn it around: practical judgement feeds (or should feed) intellect, practice feeds theory, and experience feeds understanding. While it is the job of theory to guide practice, it cannot give closure in regulating it. It gives partial and temporary guidelines, not universal, fixed rules. Pragmatics dominates semantics, and ethical judgement dominates meta-ethics.

Continental philosophy’s ventures beyond limits of meaning, into ambiguity, issue not from neglect but from conviction, steps deemed necessary. Logic and rigour have their limits and it is a task of philosophy to explore them. Exploration of limits, of knowledge and meaning, in ‘transcendental’ philosophy, is a goal of much philosophy. Heidegger is a paragon of such style and effort, but not necessarily the most attractive one.

Third, the term ‘analytical’ indicates that ‘proper’ thought engages in trying to understand wholes by taking them apart into their components, and processes or phenomena by reducing them to one or few basic principles. It is reductionist. Argument has become synonymous with analysis.

Continental philosophy, by contrast, is holistic. The meanings of parts depend on the meaning of the whole, and processes or phenomena can be irreducibly complex and variable. Truth is warranted assertability, and ethics is debatable, depending on context and culture. 

Now, can one combine elements from analytical and continental philosophy?

One can do one’s best to be clear about complexity and ambiguity. One can alternate between analysis and practical judgement. One can combine the notions of the whole being a function of parts with that of parts being a function of the whole. The hermeneutic circle, discussed in item 36 of this blog, does that. The notions of ‘sense’ and ‘reference’, taken from analytical (Fregean) philosophy, help understand the hermeneutic circle. 

Wittgenstein is an example. Often seen as an analytical philosopher, in fact he played a crucial role in continental philosophy, to the chagrin of his teacher Bertrand Russell, with ideas comparable to those of Heidegger, as I will discuss in following items in this blog.



[1] Bernard Williams, Ethics and the limits of philosophy, 2006 [1985], London: Routledge, p. xvi.