An Overview of Continental Philosophy

Continental philosophy was a popular type of philosophy practised in the 19th- and 20th-century in Europe. The term, Continental philosophy, was used to refer to a range of thinkers and traditions outside the analytic movement. Continental philosophy includes German idealism, phenomenology, existentialism, hermeneutics, structuralism, post-structuralism, French feminism, psychoanalytic theory, and the critical theory of the Frankfurt School and related branches of Western Marxism.
Personally, my education is mostly that of the analytic school of thought. And I happen to have a certain degree of ill feelings towards the Frankfurt school (thanks to a particular professor of mine). As such, I can’t say as I’m a fan of this movement. Though I’d want to learn more about the role of French feminism and Western Marxism in this movement.
Continental philosophy is thought to have begun with German idealism. German idealism was led by the likes of Fichte, Schelling, and later Hegel. German idealism developed out of the work of Immanuel Kant in the 1780s and 1790s, and it was associated with romanticism and the Enlightenment. Much of the roots of Continental philosophy descend from phenomenology.
The term “Continental philosophy” is not clearly defined. Though, neither is analytic philosophy. Simon Glendinning has, apparently, suggested that Continental philosophy was meant to be more of a pejorative, rather than a descriptive, functioning as a label for types of western philosophy rejected or disliked by analytic philosophers. There is also a political component to Continental philosophy, which can be seen in the fact that Western Marxism and French feminism both made it onto the list of Continental philosophies.
There are some common elements shared by all Continental philosophies. For one, Continental philosophers tend to reject the view that the natural sciences are the only or most accurate way of understanding natural phenomena. This goes against the views of many analytic philosophers who consider their inquiries as continuous with, or subordinate to, those of the natural sciences. Personally, I find the wording a bit worrisome. The explanation, for one, is very general. It doesn’t say enough to give a clear understanding as to what they think can explain natural phenomena, or how they think it can be done. It comes across as people who reject science for very silly reasons, namely because they don’t want science to be the only explanation. Not wanting science to be the only explanation does not mean that you can throw in any explanation that you want. The second element is that Continental philosophy usually considers the conditions of possible experience to be variable. They believe that the experiences are determined in part by factors such as context, space and time, language, culture, or history. As such, Continental philosophy tends toward historicism. Analytic philosophy, however, tends to treat philosophy in terms of discrete problems that are capable of being analyzed without concern for their historical origins. In this, I would agree with the Continental philosophers. As a historian, I think it’s important to put things into the context of their origin. For example, when Darwin posited his theory of natural selection germ theory hadn’t been discovered yet. As it turned out, germ theory is actually quite important where natural selection is concerned. When discussing Darwin, it’s important to keep in mind what was known then compared to what we know today, something many people fail miserably at. Scientific discoveries don’t happen in vacuums. Nothing does. And context does matter. It matters to the accuracy of the discovery, it matters to how the discovery is interpreted, it matters to how the discovery is used, and it matters to how it was funded. The third element is that Continental philosophy typically holds that human agency can change the conditions of possible experience. As such, Continental philosophers tend to be highly interested in the unity of theory and practice. The often see their philosophical inquiries as closely related to personal, moral, or political issues and changes. Again, this is a very vague idea. How can human agency affect the conditions of possible experiences? Does this mean simply that we have freewill in their opinion? Or is it somehow more complex than that? How much control do we really have where our morals and political beliefs are concerned. Personally, I’m not sure where I stand on this issue. The final element of Continental philosophy is an emphasis on metaphilosophy. This often manifests as the idea that philosophy is the original science. But other times it is held that philosophy investigates a domain that is irreducibly cultural or practical. I think it’s dangerous to view philosophy as the original science. For one thing, science came out of philosophy. That is not to say that philosophy was ever a science, rather it is just to say that science came about as a result of philosophy. But even if philosophy was a science, that does not mean that it still is. Science has a very strict set of rules that determine whether or not something can be used as an explanation. No such rules really exist in philosophy. Yes, we have logic. But that merely determines whether an argument is a good argument. It does not determine whether the argument can accurately explain an event. Both science and philosophy are important, but they are important for different reasons. While neither should be discounted, they also shouldn’t be used where they other field is better suited. I much prefer the second view that philosophy investigates the irreducibly cultural or practical.
Continental philosophy has been adopted into American universities in such departments as literature, the fine arts, film, sociology, and political theory. A number of universities in the UK have also adopted much of Continental philosophy. They tend to have integrated it right into their philosophy departments though.
I mentioned the various schools that make up Continental philosophy, but I didn’t really explain them. It is difficult to understand Continental philosophy without understanding the schools that make it up. So here is a brief overview of each of the schools:
German idealism was a reaction against Immanuel Kant. Kant wrote the Critique of Pure Reason, which deals with questions concerning the foundations and extent of human knowledge. The book offers what are considered radically new ideas on the nature of space and time. There is also an argument that is meant to solve the problem Hume posed regarding our knowledge of the relationship between cause and effect. Kant claims that there are three areas where we might find knowledge “independently of all experience.” These areas include pure mathematics, pure natural science and metaphysics.
Phenomenology is the philosophical study of the structures of experience and consciousness. It was founded in the early 20th century by Edmund Husserl. Phenomenology is mainly concerned with the systematic reflection on and study of the structures of consciousness and the phenomena that appear in acts of consciousness.
Existentialism is a term applied to the work of certain late 19th- and 20th-century philosophers who believed that philosophical thinking begins with the human subject—not merely the thinking subject, but the acting, feeling, living human individual. Many existentialists have regarded academic philosophies to be too abstract and remote from concrete human experience.
Hermeneutics is the theory of text interpretation, especially the interpretation of biblical texts, wisdom literature, and philosophical texts. Hermeneutics was initially applied to the interpretation of scripture. It emerged as a theory of human understanding in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
Structuralism is a theoretical paradigm positing that elements of human culture must be understood in terms of their relationship to a larger, overarching system or structure. Structuralism is “the belief that phenomena of human life are not intelligible except through their interrelations.” Structuralism originated in the early 20th century. As an intellectual movement, structuralism was initially presumed to be the heir apparent to existentialism. However, by the late 1960s, many of structuralism’s basic tenets came under attack from a new wave of predominantly French intellectuals such as the philosopher and historian Michel Foucault.
Post-structuralism is a label applied by American academics in reference to the works of mid-20th-century French and Continental philosophers, as well as critical theorists who came to international prominence in the 1960s and ’70s. One of the major components of post-structuralism is the belief in the instability of the human sciences. Post-structuralism is a response to structuralism.
French feminism:
Psychoanalytic theory refers to the definition of personality organization. It is in relation to the dynamics of personality development, which underlie and guide the psychoanalytic and psychodynamic psychotherapy, called psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysis is a clinical method used for treating psychopathology. It was developed by Sigmund Freud in the late 19th century.
The Frankfurt School is a school of neo-Marxist social theories. The school initially consisted of dissenting Marxists who believed that some of Marx’s followers had come to parrot a narrow selection of Marx’s ideas, usually in defence of orthodox Communist parties. Meanwhile, many of these theorists believed that traditional Marxist theory could not adequately explain the turbulent and unexpected development of capitalist societies in the twentieth century. In order to fill in the perceived omissions of traditional Marxism, they sought to draw answers from other schools of thought.
Western Marxism is a body of various Marxist theoreticians based in Western and Central Europe.

3 responses to “An Overview of Continental Philosophy

  • NS

    Thanks for writing this. It’s a great overview. It’s interesting to me that you didn’t mention Wittgenstein or Derrida in this. Where does Wittgenstein fit in? I thought he was a major force in developing this idea that thought is inevitably constrained by language, and language is insufficient to talk about certain ideas (in a weird kind of analogy to the idea of the incompleteness of mathematics).

    Also, what is your impression of Derrida? I have heard a lot of people speak highly of Derrida, but I can’t get anything out of him. My personal theory of Derrida is that he was the greatest intellectual troll of the 20th century – he had us all for fools. This is what I imagine would be found if Derrida were ever to be exhumed:

    In my opinion, the key idea of Continental philosophy that is underappreciated over in the States is the idea that we should be able to come up with useful abstractions for representing complex human phenomena. Whitehead was all about this idea. It doesn’t help that phenomenology itself hasn’t been particularly productive. But how about linguistics? From the perspective of science, it is pretty terrible compared to the main branches of natural science, but it’s still doing pretty well compared to most other attempts at analytical study of human phenomena – it would be more appropriate to compare it to psychology or anthropology or economics, not physics or chemistry. A lot of mathematics has come out of the study of economics, and a little bit has come out of linguistics – there’s no reason to think that we can’t come up with better abstractions (better math, better axioms, etc) to deal with these kinds of questions. We need such abstractions before we can even start to tackle problems in the way that analytic philosophers like.

    PS. I would find your long posts much easier to read if you’d put a blank line between paragraphs. Your post looks like a huge wall of text. I wouldn’t have made it through if I wasn’t already super interested in these topics.


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