Analytic and Continental Philosophy: Histories, Differences, and Modern Application

Copyright: Kile Jones 2007

Abstract:  What are the differences between Analytic and Continental Philosophy?  Many modern scholars have attempted to answer this question but have found it quite difficult to do so.  This article will attempt to define these different traditions with the awareness that all definitions fall short.  I focus on the history of the division between these two camps and how they might be used, each in their own way, to further contemporary philosophy.

Keywords:  Analytic, Continental, Kant, Hegel, Vienna Circle, Logical Positivism, Phenomenology, Existentialism, Postmodernism.


What’s in a name?



            Shakespeare never met Wittgenstein, Russell, or Ryle, and one wonders what a conversation between them would look like.   ‘What’s in a name, you ask’, Wittgenstein might answer ‘A riddle of symbols’, Russell might respond ‘An explanation of concepts’, and Ryle might retort ‘Many unneeded problems.’  What might Hegel, Husserl, or Nietzsche answer?  It seems odd to even ask such a question, but why?  The answer to this lies in understanding the various philosophical traditions and trajectories that these men inherit and apply.  The answer would reveal the differences that lie at the heart of the division that has become known as ‘Analytic’ (AP) and ‘Continental’ (CP) Philosophy.  This paper will attempt at defining these two unique traditions as well as warding off false oversimplifications that are too often found in definitions.  The hope is that by understanding these two philosophical camps we may better understand their differences and similarities as well as how they might compliment each other through their integration into contemporary philosophy. 

The Typical Definitions

            In order to begin contemplating the differences between AP and CP one must first start with the typical definitions that scholars give to these differing philosophical traditions.  As will eventually be noted, these definitions sometimes tend toward overgeneralizations or oversimplifications, but for the sake of this paper the typical definitions must be laid out in order to lay a general framework as well as to understand what contemporary philosophers think on this issue. 

In his well known collection of essays on this subject titled ‘A House Divided’, C.G. Prado begins with their difference in methodology, he says that

The heart of the analytic/Continental opposition is most evident in methodology, that is, in a focus on analysis or on synthesis.  Analytic philosophers typically try to solve fairly delineated philosophical problems by reducing them to their parts and to the relations in which these parts stand.  Continental philosophers typically address large questions in a synthetic or integrative way, and consider particular issues to be ‘parts of the larger unities’ and as properly understood and dealt with only when fitted into those unities.[i]     


This definition clearly lays out why one camp is called ‘Analytic’ and the other ‘Synthetic’ (Continental).  AP is concerned with analysis; analysis of thought, language, logic, knowledge, and mind; whereas CP is concerned with synthesis; synthesis of modernity with history, individuals with society, and speculation with application.  Reflecting on the differences between CP and AP Hans Glock remarks that “analytic philosophy is a respectable science or skill; it uses specific techniques to tackle discrete problems with definite results”.[ii]  Neil Levy sees this methodological difference as well; he describes AP as a “problem solving activity”, and juxtaposes CP as closer “to the humanistic traditions and to literature and art’ and that it tends to be more ‘politically engaged.”[iii]  The table below is the typical ways that these two traditions are juxtaposed:


                                                         AP                                    CP

      Thought                                   History

                     Logic (Modal and Symbolic)               Literature

      Language                            Existentialism

     Knowledge                                  Art

         Mind                                       Ethics

       Science                                    Politics

       Physics                              Phenomenology

   Mathematics                        Postmodernism



The Problem of Generalizations

            Although these generally accepted distinctions are helpful in understanding the larger picture, they can also serve as problematic overgeneralizations.  To say for instance that there are no thinkers in AP that write political philosophy or harvest the blessings of history is to be sadly mistaken.  One can only think of A Theory of Justice by John Rawls or The History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell.[iv]  On the other side, it is not as if CP has nothing to contribute to logic or language; Hegel wrote extensively on logic and Heidegger extensively on language.  In fact, every individual philosopher can be stripped down and (if they are at all comprehensive) found to make this line more blurry.  Therefore, we must be watchful in our generalizations and labels realizing that any definitive assertion is likely to be tentative at best.    

The Partial Truths of Generalizations

With this warning in mind it should equally be noted that generalizations make broad understanding more actual and contain partial truths.  Philosophy of Mind, for instance, is strictly analytical; Hilary Putnam, Jaegwon Kim, David Chalmers are all analytic thinkers and to think that one could find such analysis in traditional CP is to be in search of Prester John.  Likewise, it is almost impossible to find analytic philosophers discussing phenomenology or art.  What this reveals is that these two camps are clearly divergent in emphasis and can be respected for their individual places under the umbrella of philosophy.  They have different trajectories, motives, goals, and tools, and must be understood in light of their independent and differing traditions.  The question is ‘how did these different traditions come about?’

The Split of Traditions

            If we must start somewhere within the history of philosophy to find the beginning of this split, we must start with Kant.  As is well known, Kant constructed a theory of knowledge by which synthetic cognition is possible a priori.[v]  One crucial step in this process is the bifurcating of the noumenal (things-in-themselves) and the phenomenal (things-as-they-appear) realms, by which an epistemic chasm is placed between what is available in appearance and what is unknowable and beyond any possible experience (i.e. God, immortality, freedom).  With the entrance of these two Kantian doctrines into philosophy came the two backlashes against it.           

The Reaction of Hegel

            Hegel’s backlash was primarily against Kant’s separation of the noumenal from the phenomenal.  For Hegel there could be no such division within reality, for, as is commonly known, Hegel believed in a strict ontological monism.  Since for Hegel all of reality was united in one Idea, there could be no epistemic chasm between the knowable and unknowable, for there was nothing outside of the unified Idea left to be unknown.  In this process Hegel becomes the precursor to tradition Continental emphasis on grand meta-narratives (whether positive or negative) and the inclusion of all reality (i.e. literature, history, art, etc.) into philosophy’s quest.[vi]  Foucault, speaking on this aspect of CP, notes that “from Hegel to Sartre [CP] has essentially been a totalizing enterprise.”[vii]  What we will eventually come to find is that AP will part ways with Hegel and other Continental thinkers with their reductionist atomism and general focus on particular logical problems, in opposition to any sort of ‘totalizing enterprise.’

The Reaction of the Vienna Circle

            While Hegel reacted to Kant’s two tiered epistemic reality, others reacted against Kant’s synthetic a priori.  Ernst Mach, a leading physicist and philosopher, saw Kant’s joining of metaphysics and epistemology as hazardous to science and even referred to Kant’s epistemology as “monstrous.”[viii]  A group of philosophers eventually gathered around the

positivist philosopher Moritz Schlick, with the intention of furthering Mach’s philosophy, calling themselves the ‘Ernst Mach Society’ and eventually becoming known as the Vienna Circle.  Among the many goals of this circle of philosophers, not including the eradication of metaphysics (Carnap), reclaiming the supremacy of logic in philosophy (Gödel), and linguistic conventionalism (Waismann), was the debunking of Kant’s synthetic a priori.  Those in the Vienna Circle rejected the idea that one can know synthetic truths a priori, and instead made the Humean distinction between a priori (relation of ideas) and a posteriori (matters of fact) truths; the only truths out there to be understood are either tautological (true by definition) or empirical (verified by observation).  What has now happened is that two reactions towards Kant have lead to the formation of two distinct schools of philosophy, each with their separate attitude towards metaphysics and epistemology, having differing philosophical trajectories and methodologies. 




Heidegger Widens the Split

            As the post-Hegelians formulated their various Dialectic metaphysics, and while the Vienna Circle’s philosophers constructed logically oriented theories of knowledge, the famous German professor Martin Heidegger was constructing his theories of ontology.  For Heidegger

philosophy is (and should be) essentially ontology.  Heidegger, seeking to prove this point, describes philosophy as “universal phenomenological ontology” while placing Being in an elite philosophical category because “it pertains to every entity.”[ix]  Contrary to the Vienna Circle, which saw philosophy as mainly an epistemological project, Heidegger felt that Being precedes knowledge, and that phenomena must be studied as it is prior to any logical categorization or interpretation; Heidegger says that we must approach phenomena with the mental attitude of “To the things [phenomena] themselves!”[x]  This turn to phenomenology creates in Heidegger a genuine distaste for logical analysis on philosophical problems; Richard Matthews describes Heidegger as “trying to place limits upon logic” and seeking “to free philosophy from logic”,[xi] yet one could easily go further and say that Heidegger cancels out logic for a pre-logical phenomenology. 

Wittgenstein’s Influence on AP

            So far this ever widening gap between AP and CP has been over epistemology and logic, yet there are numerous shifts in emphasis between AP and CP coming about in the 20th century.  As we have seen, Heidegger shifted CP in the direction of phenomenology while the Vienna Circle took AP into logic and epistemology.  The Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein added an additional element into AP: philosophy of language.  Wittgenstein taught a theory of language which saw propositions in terms of their truth-function, i.e. their ability to internally cohere within sentences, and their ability to mirror atomic facts of the world.[xii]  In turn this meant that language was only intelligible if it referred to something mirrored in nature, thus, along with Carnap, Wittgenstein found himself destroying metaphysics and God-talk.  Speaking on religious language in a lecture he gave on ethics, Wittgenstein noted that       

in ethical and religious language we seem constantly to be using similes. But a simile must be the simile for something. And if I can describe a fact by means of a simile I must also be able to drop the simile and to describe the facts without it. Now in our case as soon as we try to drop the simile and simply to state the facts which stand behind it, we find that there are no such facts. And so, what at first appeared to be simile now seems to be mere nonsense.[xiii]


Not only did Wittgenstein begin the long analytic tradition of anti-God-talk, he created in AP an overall mentality which saw the analysis of language as the tool whereby philosophical pseudo-problems were deflated.  What were once held to be conceptual or logical philosophical problems Wittgenstein turned into problems of language (i.e. problems created by stepping beyond the limits of language or semantically misguided statements that confuse the logic of language) and solved them by an analysis of the propositions in question.

The Rise of Continental Existentialism

After the great Idealism of Hegel and during the ontological discoveries of Heidegger, the rise of existentialism came about.  In France, Jean Paul Sartre would introduce existential phenomenology, which had decided effects on the Continent up to the present.  In his famed phenomenological work Being and Nothingness Sartre dissolves the phenomenal dualism of Berkeley which viewed humans as both appearance and essence.  For Sartre, human ontology is united by its own subjectivity; it cannot escape itself as a being in this world, with its complete subjectivity and condemnation to freedom the self is nothing other than what it is as experienced.  Picking up Heidegger’s teaching of the dasien (being-there), Sartre identifies humans as existential beings, that is, humans are trapped in their existence, in the world, and in their own finitude.  Sartre famously remarks:

I am abandoned in the world, not in the sense that I might remain abandoned and passive in a hostile universe like a board floating on the water, but rather in the sense that I find myself suddenly alone and without help, engaged in a world for which I bear the whole responsibility without being able, whatever I do, to tear myself away from this responsibility for an instant.[xiv]


What Sartre wants people to realize is that they are themselves and only themselves, they are trapped in an existence which is faced with nothingness, change, and uncertainty, and have only themselves to face the full responsibility. 

The French writer Albert Camus would find genuine absurdity in our existential state of being.  For Camus “the absurd is the essential concept and the first truth”[xv] and “accepting the absurdity of everything around us is one step, a necessary experience.”[xvi]  Camus wanted people to realize the absurd, irrational, and nonsensical character of the world of experience.  It was through embracing and challenging this character of the world that brought about true and genuine experience; yet it embracing the absurd their were two threats, it might lead one to despair and eventual suicide, or it could lead to idealism and ignorance.  The goal is to balance between these extremes.  At this period of time, when Sartre and Camus were publishing numerous works, there was a shift in CP.  No longer were Continental thinkers engaged in a totalizing project, in fact, the reaction was a firm individualism.  Hegel’s utopian concepts had not seen WWII and the rise of National Socialism.  During and after the war, CP realized that any enterprise which sought a monopoly, even philosophy itself, was to be disregarded.


The Rise of Logical Positivism

            As was mentioned earlier, both CP and AP emerged in reaction to Kant’s philosophy as put forth in his Critique.  “The rise of analytic philosophy”, Robert Hanna noted, “decisively marked the end of the century-long dominance of Kant’s philosophy in Europe.”[xvii]  AP however, initially emerged as an engagement with Kantian epistemology as it found itself critiquing Kant’s Critique on numerous levels.  Logical Positivism, was the movement which brought the thoughts of the Vienna Circle into full fruition and solidity while decisively framing the focus of AP.  Bertrand Russell, one of the founders of Logical Positivism, after rejecting the validity of religious dogma and metaphysics, described his program of ‘logical analysis’:

All this [religious dogma and metaphysics] is rejected by the philosophers who make logical analysis the main business of philosophy…For this renunciation they have been rewarded by the discovery that many questions, formerly obscured by the fog of metaphysics, can be answered with precision.[xviii]


Russell wanted philosophy to be cleared from the “fog of metaphysics” by the use of logic, mathematics, and scientific procedure which he names ‘logical analysis.’  This procedure was to focus on logical issues, philosophical problems, and epistemology with the tools of scientific testing and procedure and was not to be caught in the unprofitable web of speculative metaphysics.  This system of analysis became the trademark of AP and defined its methodology and trajectory; this was the period when AP was truly defined as a separate way of doing philosophy over and against Continental methods. 

Postmodernism as Modern CP

            In modern times, postmodernism is considered a major part of CP.  Specifically in France and Germany, postmodernist thought has landed on welcoming ears.  Postmodernism though, is still in a process of change and discovery; Foucault raised issues of government control and hegemony; Derrida brought deconstructive hermeneutics into consideration; yet Baudrillard is still raising questions on hyper reality and simulacra and Vattimo is resurrecting nihilism.  What

can be said regarding postmodernism is that it is still about the task of deconstructing modernist views of reality, truth, value, and meaning.  The Meta-narratives of German Idealism come sharply under scrutiny in postmodernism, for these overarching systems of meaning have never passed the test of time and have, in their view, only left their hopefuls sadly disappointed.  Similarly, postmodernists view parts of AP as too optimistic and overly confident; for instance, analytic philosophy’s trust in logic and science can be seen as ignorant to the big issues of meaning and existence.  Postmodernism can now be seen as one of the main terminuses within CP for it retains its place as continuing many of the traditions within classical CP.

Philosophy of Mind as Modern AP

            As the postmodernist movement continues various emphasizes within CP, Philosophy of Mind has arisen as a new form of AP.  Hilary Putnam, who is now considered one of the great pioneers of modern Philosophy of Mind, introduced ideas that he thought would solve the long Mind-body problem.  Putnam became one of the founders of functionalism, a theory which analyses mental states in terms of their functionality.  Putnam also put forth his theory of multiple realizability, which posits that differing physical entities could experience the same mental state given the identical nature of the surroundings.  Jaegwon Kim, a prominent philosophy professor at Brown University, has become the champion for a theory of consciousness known as non-reductive physicalism.  This theory states that only physical objects can cause physical effects (physicalism) but that the mind is not entirely reducible to the physical brain.  On the other side, David Chalmers, director of the Center for Consciousness at Australian National University, has argued that the mind cannot be reducible to the physical brain because of the possibility of Zombies, possible worlds, and various other modal arguments.  All of these theories, given their analytic nature, place themselves within the continuing tradition of AP.  The table below reveals how the issues of modern Philosophy of Mind compare with AP in general:



                                            Philosophy of Mind                     AP


                                                Consciousness                                Mind

                                                Physicalism/Dualism                       Physics

                                                 Modal Arguments                            Logic

                                                 Neurobiology                              Science

                                              Perceptual Experience                 Epistemology

                                                     Phenomenal Judgments                  Language





Summary of the Split

            At this point a quick historical recap of the split between AP and CP is in order.  With the arrival of Kant’s metaphysical and epistemological theories, two separate responses occurred: one by Hegel and some time later the other by the Vienna Circle.  Hegel rejected Kant’s two tiered epistemology by advocating a strict ontological monism, while the Circle rejected Kant’s synthetic a priori by dividing what can be known in terms of tautologies and empirically verifiable data.  Heidegger translates Hegel’s Idealism and ontology into phenomenology by placing strict emphasis on Being in opposition to rigorous logical analysis.  Wittgenstein enters the philosophical scene with his analysis of propositional language and his truth-value hypothesis.  Wittgenstein fuels the anti-metaphysical fire of the Vienna Circle by postulating the criteria that language must mirror nature, and nature alone, if it is to be considered meaningful at all. 

Over on the Continent, existentialism would take in many of the teachings of the phenomenologist’s and add to it issues of existence, freedom, angst, and absurdity.  In parts of Germany and England, Logical Positivism would continue the analytic tradition of the Vienna Circle and construct various theories of knowledge and methods of logical analysis.  Positivism would become the defining moment for AP, as Russell and Ayer solidified the movement in terms of trajectory: AP was to be concerned with epistemology, language, mathematics, and logic.  In recent times Postmodernism would triumph as a dominant strand of CP.  Postmodernism as a movement started as a reaction to the Idealism of Modernity and in turn conveyed numerous critiques of philosophy which influence many present day philosophers.  Postmodernism still launches various attacks of absolutist views of truth, meaningful historical Meta-narratives, idealistic metaphysics, and linguistic/semantic realism.  On the analytic side, modern Philosophy of Mind has emerged as a strong movement which incorporates analytic methodology with biology, neuroscience, and physics.  With this history in mind it is easy to see how the distinction came about between AP and CP.  CP started with Idealism, which was

translated into phenomenology, reconstructed in existentialism, and ending in postmodernism.  AP started as an epistemological reaction to Kant in the Vienna Circle, picked up its linguistic impetus in Wittgenstein, became strictly formulated by Logical Positivism, and continues today in modern Philosophy of Mind.  The timeline below reveals this history:          



The Split of AP and CP:



        Mach                                                                Hegel




                                                     Vienna Circle

     Carnap                                                             Phenomenology

                                                      Waismann                                                         Husserl

                                                                       Feigl                                                                                         Heidegger










                                      Logical Positivism                                                               Derrida

                Russell                                                     Baudrillard 

                                                 Ayer                                                           Vattimo



                                                 Philosophy of Mind





What to do with the Split

                    In light of the various distinctions made between AP and CP, the question we must ask ourselves as modern philosophers is ‘what are we to do with AP and CP?”  Neil Levy, after comparing AP and CP offers a great and simple wish when he writes that we “could hope to combine the strengths of each: to forge a kind of philosophy with the historical awareness of CP and the rigor of AP.”[xix]  What Levy is offering is a simple answer to what we are to do with AP and CP.  To put it simply we must, if we are to keep a balanced philosophy, understand that both camps have methods, trajectories, and emphasis that can be honored and incorporated into a synthetic way of doing philosophy.  This is not to mean that we must adopt philosophical fideism, rather, it should be realized that there are correct and incorrect methods, starting points, and answers in both AP and CP.  Depending on what a philosopher is dealing with, specifically what question she is trying to answer, determines in large what emphasis she will have in her process.  Yet there are interchangeable ways in which philosophy can be done: there is a way of doing analytic phenomenology and phenomenological analysis, scientific history and historically minded science, epistemological ethics and ethical epistemology.

                    Although there is a possibility of using both of these camps to construct a balanced philosophy of life, once one gets into specialized fields it becomes quite difficult.  If the traditional definition of AP as relating to logic, science, and epistemology holds true, then once

anyone enters into Philosophy of Mind, for instance, that person necessarily finds herself utilizing the methods of AP.  Likewise, once a philosopher becomes interested in art and existentialism that same person naturally finds herself within the scope of CP.  At that point one might easily ask ‘why even bother separating these camps by differing definitions?”  I feel that this question is completely valid, for it realizes the limits and constraints that definitions bring with them.  Yet I also recognize that one can trace the history of intellectual movements and find where they pick up and possibly react to previous movements.  The so called ‘golden thread’ within the history of philosophy, once traced, reveals the divergence and formation of different schools within philosophy and helps point out that there are genuinely solidified perspectives and ways of doing philosophy which are divergent from one another.

What to learn from both Traditions

                    If modern philosophers are open enough to realize that each camp has something unique to contribute to philosophy in general, then we must point out what that ‘something’ is.  From an analytic standpoint, AP should be able to enter into phenomenology, existentialism, literature, and politics with the same enthusiasm as CP.  AP should realize that philosophy is not a historical; philosophy is a historical movement which answers social questions and political cries as well as more technical questions of logic and epistemology.  Yet to assume that AP is above the social and historical currents of its time is to canonize a golden calf and ignore the wider reality which philosophy finds itself in.  Similarly, the average person on the street may not care about answering the Problem of Induction or the Liar’s Paradox, but may wonder what life, existence, and history means to herself.  She may be questioning her present day political situation or her place within society and to presume that what she is asking are not philosophical problems is to belittle the scopes of philosophy.

                    CP may have some things to learn as well.  CP might need to realize that in all of our reasoning we assume that logic is meaningful and necessary, that language is intricately connected with our ability to convey meaning, and that epistemology is one of the most crucial areas to investigate.  It is obvious that existence and Being are aspects which are vital to philosophy, yet AP might ask how it is that we know that very statement.  Whenever we are making assertions or expounding propositions we acting as if our ability to know is able, correct, and justified.  CP may be forgetting their presuppositions and those unchallenged beliefs which are necessary for intelligible experience.  Just as science, logic, and analysis of language are not all that matters in the world, so too are literature, art, and history.


                    After these various negative exhortations, I will end on more promising notes.  There is a great hope, somewhere between skepticism and dogmatism, nihilism and idealism, logic and art, which lies before contemporary philosophy.  There is a hope for progress with humility, one which will aid not only in epistemic terms but in ethical ones.  What is the difference between an academically minded scholar and a lowly philanthropist?  One is rightfully questioning issues pertaining to the life of the mind, while the other is rightfully engaging in social concern and virtuous living.  We must never negate one for the other, they both have a role to fill, and to harmonize them is the greatest of goals.  The balance between love and knowledge, the knowing and the doing of the good, is the philosophers ideal location, and the promise land to which the modern sage must set her eyes.   



[i] Prado, C.G., A House Divided, Humanity Books: New York, 2003, pg 10

[ii] Glock, Hans-Johann, The Rise of Analytic Philosophy, Blackwell Publishers: Oxford, 1997, pg 1

[iii] Levy, Neil, Analytic and Continental Philosophy: Explaining the Differences, Metaphilosophy, Vol. 34, No, 3, 2003, pgs 288, 290, 293

[iv] For an even more exact analytic work on history one must look at Russell’s How to Read and Understand History. 

[v] Kant, Immanuel, Critique of Pure Reason, trans. Werner Pluhar, Hackett Publishing Company: Indianapolis, 1996, pg 58

[vi] Many Continental philosophers, specifically in the earlier years of CP, use Meta-narratives; there is Hegel’s Dialectic, Schopenhauer’s Will and Idea, and Nietzsche’s Will to Power, to name only a few. 

[vii] Martin, L.H., Technologies of the Self: A Seminar with Michael Foucault, University of Massachusetts Press: Amherst, 1988, pg 38

[viii] Mach, Ernst, The Analysis of Sensations, Dover Edition, 1959, chapter 3

[ix] Heidegger, Martin, Being and Time, Harper and Row: New York, 1962, pg 62

[x] Ibid, pg 50

[xi] Matthews, Richard, Heidegger and Quine on the (IR)Relevance of Logic for Philosophy, in A House Divided, edited by C.G. Prado, Humanity Books: New York, 2003, pg 171

[xii] Wittgenstein, Ludwig, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, (4-5)

[xiii] Wittgenstein, Ludwig, Lecture on Ethics, 1929

[xiv] Sartre, Jean-Paul, Being and Nothingness, Washington Square Press: New York, 1956, pg 710

[xv] Camus, Albert, An Absurd Reasoning, 1942, pg 15

[xvi] Ibid, pg 16

[xvii] Hannah, Robert, Kant and the Foundation of Analytic Philosophy, Clarendon Press: Oxford, 2001, pg 5

[xviii] Russell, Bertrand, The History of Western Philosophy, Simon & Shuster: New York, 1945, pg 835

[xix] Levy, Neil, Analytic and Continental Philosophy: Explaining the Differences, Metaphilosophy, Vol. 34, No, 3, 2003, pg 302