What is Continental Philosophy?

Continental philosophy is the name for a 200-year period in the history of philosophy that begins with the publication of Kant’s critical philosophy in the 1780s. The term refers to everything that happened during 19th and 20th century philosophy in mainland Europe, and it is commonly distinguished from the analytic movement in the English-speaking world. Continental philosophy therefore includes a whole array of movements and schools: German idealism, phenomenology, existentialism from Kierkegaard and Nietzsche to today, hermeneutics, structuralism, post-structuralism, French feminism, and the critical theory of the Frankfurt School, which blends Marxism with psychoanalytic theory.

Summary in four points

Is there a common denominator in all this diversity? Michael Rosen has a good analysis in his essay: “Continental Philosophy from Hegel”, printed in: Grayling, A.C., Philosophy 2: Further through the Subject, p. 665. Here is his summary in four points:

  1. First, continental philosophers generally reject scientism, the view that the natural sciences are the only or most accurate way of understanding phenomena. This contrasts with analytic philosophers, many of whom have considered their inquiries as continuous with, or subordinate to, those of the natural sciences. Continental philosophers often argue that science depends upon a “pre-theoretical substrate of experience” (a version of the Kantian conditions of possible experience or the phenomenological concept of the “lifeworld“) and that scientific methods are inadequate to fully understand such conditions of intelligibility.
  2. Second, continental philosophy usually considers these conditions of possible experience as variable: determined at least partly by factors such as context, space and time, language, culture, or history. Thus continental philosophy tends toward historicism. Where analytic philosophy tends to treat philosophy in terms of discrete problems, capable of being analyzed apart from their historical origins (much as scientists consider the history of science inessential to scientific inquiry), continental philosophy typically suggests that “philosophical argument cannot be divorced from the textual and contextual conditions of its historical emergence”.
  3. Third, continental philosophy typically holds that conscious human agency can change these conditions of possible experience: “if human experience is a contingent creation, then it can be recreated in other ways“.Thus continental philosophers tend to take a strong interest in the unity of theory and practice, and tend to see their philosophical inquiries as closely related to personal, moral, or political transformation. This tendency is very clear in the Marxist tradition (“philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it” – Marx, Theses on Feuerbach), but is also central in existentialism and post-structuralism.
  4. A final characteristic trait of continental philosophy is an emphasis on metaphilosophy. In the wake of the development and success of the natural sciences, continental philosophers have often sought to redefine the method and nature of philosophy.In some cases (such as German idealism or phenomenology), this manifests as a renovation of the traditional view that philosophy is the first, foundational, a priori science. In other cases (such as hermeneutics, critical theory, or structuralism), it is held that philosophy investigates a domain that is irreducibly cultural or practical. And some continental philosophers (such as Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, the later Heidegger, or Derrida) doubt whether any conception of philosophy can coherently achieve its stated goals.

The Continental – Analytic divide originates in Kant’s approach, who develops his philosophy after reading Hume. He postulates that knowledge and our experience of reality itself are somehow connected; therefore philosophy should proceed by self-reflection and analytic reduction, and not just focus on empirical inquiry.

Key movements and writers: :

  1. German idealism and romanticism and its aftermath (Fichte, Schelling, Hegel, Schlegel and Novalis, Schleiermacher, Schopenhauer)
  2. The critique of metaphysics and the ‘masters of suspicion’ (Feuerbach, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, Bergson)
  3. Germanophone phenomenology and existential philosophy (Husserl, Max Scheler, Karl Jaspers, Heidegger)
  4. French phenomenology, Hegelianism, and anti-Hegelianism (Kojève, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Levinas, Bataille, de Beauvoir)
  5. Hermeneutics (Dilthey, Gadamer, Ricoeur)
  6. Western Marxism and the Frankfurt School (Lukacs, Benjamin, Horkheimer, Adorno, Marcuse, Habermas)
  7. French structuralism (Lévi-Strauss, Lacan, Althusser), poststructuralism (Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze), postmodernism (Lyotard, Baudrillard), and feminism (Irigaray, Kristeva)

Further Reading:

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