Modern European philosophy started as a single tradition but then split into two separate branches in the 1800s, the Continental tradition of Germany and France (also Italy, Spain and Russia) and the Analytic tradition of Britain and America (also Canada, Australia and South Africa, the English speaking countries of the former British Empire). The first several European philosophers we will study, those between and including Descartes and Kant, are shared by both traditions. Modern European philosophy taught at American universities typically covers Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Locke, Berkeley and Kant with few additions. While courses in Hegel, Nietzsche and Heidegger are offered as electives, the core classes focusing on mind, language, logic and ethics are taught from an Analytic perspective primarily using works by American Analytic philosophers.
The Analytic tradition continues after Kant to study the first Analytic philosophers: Frege from Germany, Russell from Britain, and Wittgenstein from Austria. After the initial German and Austrian, most Analytic philosophy comes from the English speaking countries of Britain and America. The Continental tradition largely consists of German and French thought, and continues after Kant to study the German philosophers Hegel, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and then several French philosophers influenced by these earlier Germans. Why the split between the two camps? Two strands of thought went in opposite directions from Germany, the Continental tradition embracing Hegel, the Analytic tradition rejecting him and Continental thinkers influenced by him. There are both political and philosophical reasons for this.
While Hegel became a conservative in later life, his thinking spelled out the path of radical change and revolution. As mentioned, Hegel saw history as a battle between right and left, between understanding and reason, and between dogmatism and skepticism, a major influence on Karl Marx, coauthor of the Communist Manifesto and the founding philosopher of Communism and Marxism. Marx argued that society was in need of radical revolution and change, and that just as the French Revolution had removed the aristocrats and clergy from power, a communist revolution would remove the capitalists from the top of society such that everything is democratically shared by the people. Britain and America, the wealthiest lands on the planet, were somewhat uncomfortable teaching Hegel and Marx, who were both studied centrally in communist countries. Several scholars have noted that it was only with the fall of the USSR in 1991 that Americans began to study Hegel as they had before the Cold War.
It has been said that Continental philosophy wants to be an art, while Analytic philosophy wants to be a science. German and French thought likes the profound and dramatic, British and American thought likes the dry and tidy. Too often, this means that Continental thought is confusing and difficult, but deep and meaningful, whereas Analytic thought is clear and precise, but shallow and uninspiring. Let us first look at the Analytic and then the Continental tradition to further understand this difference.
The term ‘Analytic’ was first used by American philosophy professors in the 1930s, and then increasingly by Americans and British professors after WWII to distinguish themselves from the Germans and French who followed Hegel. Analytic philosophy focuses on logic and language, prioritizing the objective and impersonal. Frege revolutionized logic, using mathematical structures to describe logical reasoning.
Russell, who saw in Frege’s logic a method for clarifying and solving philosophical problems, argued that the unclear and unnecessary can be stripped away, revealing the clear and objective truth, much as math strips away the qualities of things to analyze them in terms of pure quantity.Russell followed Kant, the last link between the two traditions, who wanted to legitimize philosophy as a distinct natural science using logic such that the subjective could be stripped away and the objective truth established. Unlike Hegel, who argued that subjectivity and objectivity are two sides of the same coin, Russell maintained Kant’s exclusive distinction between objectivity and subjectivity. For Russell and the Analytic philosophers who followed him, mixing subjectivity and objectivity confuses things that should be kept distinct. Writing against Hegelians by name, Russell identified two schools of philosophy, ‘Continental’ and ‘British’. While Hegel argued that reality is an evolving historical situation of oppositional perspectives and contradictions, Russell argued that mathematics and science work through eliminating contradictions to discard the subjective and historical leaving only the objective and universal, and that philosophy should do the same.
Wittgenstein followed Russell in his early period, inventing the truth table method we use today in logic, though in his later work Wittgenstein distanced himself from Russell and believed that objective truth “in the world” and subjective truth “in the head” could not be exclusively divided. Logical Positivists such as the Vienna Circle picked up and developed Wittgenstein’s earlier work, hoping that philosophical problems would disappear if logically analyzed. This continues to be the dominant position of British and American Analytic thought today, known as Positivism, though British Utilitarianism and American Pragmatism survive in the wings as offshoots that still value science and its methods but are skeptical of claims to absolute distinctions and objective truth. Both argue that concepts and descriptions are true insofar as they are useful and practical, and that there is no objective or exclusive truth beyond this.
“Continental” thinkers have only recently taken up the term to distinguish themselves from the Analytic camp, whom they don’t often admire. In America, there was a surge of interest in Continental thought in the political upheaval of the 1960s, and courses on Phenomenology, Existentialism, Structuralism, Post-Structuralism, and Postmodernism became popular amongst some professors and students. We will be studying each of these along with Positivism and Pragmatism in the second half of the course.
While Analytic thought, like Russell, sought to strip away the subjective and historical, revealing the objective and universal, Continental thought focused on the union of the perspective and personal together with the social and historical. Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, the two forerunners of Existentialism, argued that philosophy was always a personal confession, an experience of personal struggle. They agreed with Hegel that reality is composed of perspectives that are in agreement and disagreement, but they rejected Hegel’s claim to have revealed the objective and total unity of the full set of subjective perspectives, arguing that it is valuable to pursue truth but that claims to total objectivity are naive and foolish.
Rather than strip away the subjective as Russell advocated, or claim to have built objectivity out of the sum of subjectivities as Hegel had, Existentialists argued that the problem of subjectivity and objectivity was always open ended, never resolved, and that it was therefore the responsibility of individuals to discover truth for themselves. If individual, social and historical context is stripped away in the interests of simplicity and mathematical precision, the complex meaning of the problem likewise disappears, which does little to solve the problem as we live it. Philosophy should thus be meaningful like art, which has no simple answer, rather than attempt to legitimate itself as a science by focusing on accuracy and exclusion.
Which is stronger or more accurate, describing things simply, or complexly? Should we try for the clarity of black and white, or the complexity of shades of grey? If you want certainty and exclusivity, when there will be terrible consequences unless barriers are held in place, simple, absolute black and white is best. If you want complexity and inclusivity, when experimentation and alternatives are safe and permissible, complex, relative shades of grey is best.
Should philosophy close more than it opens, or open more than it closes? On the Analytic side, reason should bring us to secure understandings, such that we have a foundational basis for making important decisions. On the Continental side, much of what is most important to us, such as social struggle or our attitude towards death, are murky and not exclusively black and white, which is what makes them so dynamic, dramatic, emotional, and meaningful. Clarity can be relative. Ambiguity and plurality are as much our reality as clarity and singularity. There is a balance to be struck between clarity and depth.
Analytic philosophy has been accused of being socially impotent. Removing the situation and saying meaning is static and universal does not allow for social difference and change. Hence, feminists and critics of racism often turn to Continental thought. Questions of social identity, repression, ideology all are declared “meaningless” by the Analytical positivists, even though many people, particularly intellectuals, find these quite meaningful. Thus, at UC Berkeley, Continental thought thrives in the English and Rhetoric departments, particularly the latest French thought of Barthes, Foucault, Deleuze and Derrida, while these are almost invisible in the Philosophy department. This is why Judith Butler, the most famous philosopher in Berkeley and leading feminist theorist, teaches in the Rhetoric department and not in the philosophy department.
Some Continental thinkers have admired Analytic thought for its clarity, as much of Continental thought is overly complex and verbose, impossible for the average person to read. While Nietzsche is clear in his writing while asking deep questions, Hegel, Heidegger and later French thinkers can confound even experts. Monique Schneider, a French philosopher and psychoanalyst who admires the clarity of Analytic thinkers, said that she has attended Lacanian psychoanalysis lectures which overjoyed students would leave saying, “It was wonderful…I couldn’t understand a thing”, assuming that the incomprehensible must be profound. On an episode of the Simpsons, Homer watches a David Lynch movie, and says, “It’s brilliant…I have no idea what it means”. While surrealists such as Lynch enjoy intentional obfuscation, shunning simple narratives and morals,
Given the divide between the two traditions, what should we do as we study the history of thought? Rather than swear cultural allegiance to any particular side, we should each examine every side that we can and freely develop our own thinking as we like. Philosophy is an exercise, a training of the mind. Whether or not we close out answers or open up questions, we are training ourselves to think creatively and critically. This is why we study a great range of thought, with all of its disagreements and oppositions, as we learn just as much from a philosophy to which we are opposed as we do to a philosophy with which we agree.