On the Meaning and Use of the Terms “Analytic Philosophy” and “Continental Philosophy.”

By Robert Hanna


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The term “Analytic philosophy” has six basic and closely related, but also non-trivially distinct, meanings: (i) prior to 1950, the tradition of late 19th century and early 20th century Anglo-Europeanphilosophy that presents and defines itself as essentially distinct from and opposed to all forms of idealistic philosophy, especially Immanuel Kant’s transcendental idealism[i] and 19th century neo-Kantian philosophy, and G.W.F. Hegel’s absolute idealism and late 19th century British neo-Hegelian philosophy;[ii] (ii) after 1950, the tradition of mid- to late-20th century and early 21st century Anglo-American philosophy that presents itself as essentially distinct from and opposed to “Continental philosophy”; (iii) philosophy carried out by means of the methods of logical or linguistic analysis; (iv) philosophy committed to the thesis that there exists one and only one kind of necessary truth: logical truths, aka analytic truths; (v) philosophy principally concerned with formulating and knowing logical or analytic truths; and (vi) philosophy that mirrors and valorizes the formal sciences (especially logic and mathematics) and the natural sciences (especially physics).[iii]

As per the above, the 140-year tradition of Analytic philosophy has two importantly distinct phases: classical Analytic philosophy (from roughly 1880 to 1950), and post-classical Analytic philosophy (from roughly 1950 to the present).

Classical Analytic philosophy began in the 1880s with the work of Gottlob Frege (especially his Foundations of Arithmetic, and his logical and semantic writings, especially his Concept-Script [Begriffsschrift] and “On Sense and Meaning [or Reference]” [Über Sinn und Bedeutung]), and then got fully underway in late 19th and early 20th century with the work of G.E. Moore (especially his essays “The Nature of Judgment” and “The Refutation of Idealism” and his book Principia Ethica) and Bertrand Russell (especially his co-authored book with A.N. Whitehead, Principia Mathematica, and his essay “On Denoting”).

Frege, Moore, and Russell were the founding Trinity of classical Analytic philosophy: the Father (Frege), the Son (Moore), and the Holy Ghost (Russell).

In 1921, Russell’s research student and subsequently his collaborator, Ludwig Wittgenstein, published the most important book in classical Analytic philosophy, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, which heavily influenced the Logical Empiricist, aka Logical Positivist, doctrines of the Vienna Circle, whose most important members or fellow-travellers included Rudolf Carnap, Moritz Schlick, Otto Neurath, Frank Ramsey, A.J. Ayer, Kurt Gödel, Alfred Tarski, and W.V.O. Quine.

During the period from 1900–1940, classical neo-Kantian philosophy in Germany and France, and British neo-Hegelian philosophy (carrying over somewhat into the USA — see, for example, T.S. Eliot’s Harvard PhD dissertation on F.H. Bradley, and the philosophy of Josiah Royce more generally[iv]), both came to a more or less bitter end.

Slamming the door behind the idealists, and triumphantly (indeed, even triumphalistically) replacing them, and just as often also taking up their vacated university positions, a group of Young Turk avant-garde philosophers carrying the banner of the new tradition of classical Analytic philosophy came onto the scene, following on from Frege but led by Moore, Russell, the young Wittgenstein, the Vienna Circle Logical Empiricists/Positivists (especially Carnap), and Quine.

Classical Analytic philosophy also stands in an important elective affinity with the rise of what James C. Scott calls high modernism, especially in the applied and fine arts and the formal and natural sciences.[v]

At the same time, the classical Analytic philosophers were engaged in a serious intellectual competition with phenomenology, especially Husserlian transcendental phenomenology[vi] and Heideggerian existential phenomenology.[vii]

Simultaneously, however, there was also an emerging organicist movement in philosophy, including Henri Bergson’s Matter and Memory in 1896, Creative Evolution in 1907, Samuel Alexander’s Space, Time, and Deity in 1920, John Dewey’s Experience and Nature in 1925, and especially A.N. Whitehead’s “philosophy of organism” in Process and Reality in 1929.

By the end of World War II, the early Cold War, and the period of the sociopolitical triumph of advanced capitalism and technocracy in the USA, classical Analytic philosophy had triumphed in a social-institutional sense; organicist philosophy had virtually disappeared except in a vestigial form, as an aspect of American pragmatism; and existential phenomenology and all other kinds of non-Analytic philosophy, under the convenient and pejorative catch-all label, “Continental philosophy,” gradually became the social-institutional Other and slave of Analytic philosophy.[viii]

Indeed, the post-classical Analytic tradition and so-called “Continental philosophy” came into existence simultaneously.

Correspondingly, some have interpreted this social-institutional fact as the creation of Analytic philosophy itself. For example, Christopher Schuringa argues that

[i]f there is a decisive moment of birth [of Analytic philosophy], it is the publication in 1949 of Readings in Philosophical Analysis, whose editors, Herbert Feigl and Wilfrid Sellars, consciously set out to shape the teaching of philosophy in the United States in an ‘analytic’ mould. This publication, and others such as Arthur Pap’s Elements of Analytic Philosophy (also published in 1949), helped crystallize the idea of “analytic philosophy,” in which a number of different approaches to philosophy were combined: the “logico-analytical method” of Russell, the commonsense/realist “analysis” of Moore, the logical positivism of the Vienna Circle, the logic of the Lwów-Warsaw school, and American approaches flowing from the pragmatist and realist traditions. By 1958 a group of curious French philosophers could invite leading Anglophone philosophers to a conference at Royaumont under the title La philosophie analytique, to see what all the fuss was about. In the very same period, however, the death knell was already being sounded for analytic philosophy in various quarters. In 1956 the Oxford philosopher J.O. Urmson published a history of analytic philosophy, Philosophical Analysis, which ends in an obituary for what he calls “the old analysis.” The obituary notices have kept coming. In his book Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979), the apogee of a sustained self-critique of analytic philosophy that had begun with the publication of W. V. Quine’s “Two Dogmas of Empiricism” in 1951, Richard Rorty wrote: “I do not think that there any longer exists anything identifiable as ‘analytic philosophy’, except in some […] stylistic or sociological way.”… The claim that analytic philosophy was born after 1945 will seem startling to many. Wasn’t there widespread talk of “analytic philosophy” (or “analytical philosophy”) before that? The answer is no, at least if what is said in print is our guide. This by itself doesn’t settle whether analytic philosophy existed — perhaps it wasn’t necessary to use the phrase. But it is striking that philosophers felt the need to self-apply the label only after 1945. This Google Ngram (showing the incidence of the phrases “analytic philosophy” and “analytical philosophy” in books published over the period 1900–2010) illustrates the point well:

The term “analysis” was, certainly, much used by both Russell and Moore (even if they meant different things by it), and the founding of the journal Analysis in 1933 was a significant event (not least since the question of how to do philosophical “analysis” was much discussed in its pages). But the phrase ‘analytic philosophy’ is in no way commonplace until after 1945. In the first appearances in print of the phrase “analytic philosophy,” the authors use it to express a critical attitude to the approaches they see as falling under it (R. G. Collingwood in An Essay on Philosophical Method and W. P. Montague in “Philosophy as Vision,” both published in 1933) — although John Wisdom had written with approval of “analytic philosophers” (in a book on Jeremy Bentham) in 1931. There seems to be nothing earlier than this, other than a lone use of “the analytical philosophy” in an anonymously authored report of a meeting of the Aristotelian Society in 1915, where the phrase appears in a description of a point made by Russell in the discussion session.[ix]

Nevertheless, Schuringa’s conclusion from all this interesting and relevant information, namely, that

[t]he idea that there was one thing that philosophers were doing prior to 1945 that could be called “analytic philosophy” is, then, a retrospective interpretation,[x]

is too strong, and arises from the failure to distinguish sharply between (i) classical Analytic philosophy (roughly 1880 to 1950) and (ii) post-classical Analytic philosophy (roughly 1950 to the present).

Moreover, as Schuringa himself notes, it’s not a necessary condition of there being a set of philosophers who fully belong to a genuine philosophical tradition that’s later accurately dubbed “X-ian philosophy,” that at that time they typically or even ever call themselves “X-ian philosophers.”

For example, obviously the Pre-Socratic philosophers never called themselves “the Pre-Socratic philosophers” — since Socrates hadn’t been immortalized by Plato’s dialogues yet — nevertheless, they were genuinely Pre-Socratic philosophers just the same.

Analogously, the classical Analytic philosophers didn’t typically call themselves “Analytic philosophers,” but they were genuinely Analytic philosophers just the same.

Still, Schuringa’s overly-strong conclusion does also highlight a crucial point: namely, that post-classical Analytic philosophers were the first Analytic philosophers to entrench Analytic philosophy inside the professional academy, in part by officially labelling themselves “Analytic philosophers,” and in part by simultaneously creating their own philosophical Enemy of the People, so-called “Continental philosophy.”

In conformity with that, the first use of the term “Continental philosophy” seems to have been in 1945, in Russell’s History of Western Philosophy, where he talks about “two schools of philosophy, which may be broadly distinguished as the Continental and the British respectively.”[xi]

But the term didn’t come into general use in its recent and contemporary sense until roughly 1980, as Andreas Keller points out:

An Ngram of the term “Continental Philosophy” shows that it took off around 1980[xii] shortly after the smash-hit appearances of Richard Rorty’s two highly controversial books, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature in 1979, and Consequences of Pragmatism in 1982. It seems that before that time, many instances of the term were meant just in a geographic sense, not implying a contrast with “Analytic philosophy.” This hints at an invention, or at least popularization, of the term in its current meaning around 1980. Perhaps there was not merely a temporal succession, but also some sort of causal connection, between the publication of Rorty’s books and the later Anglo-American entrenchment of the term.[xiii]

Schuringa’s Ngram of uses of the terms “analytic philosophy” and “analytical philosophy,” which also spikes sharply upwards in the 1980s, smoothly conforms to Keller’s suggestion that there’s an important connection between the appearance and impact of Rorty’s books Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature and Consequences of Pragmatism, and the entrenchment of the term “Continental philosophy.”

Post-classical Analytic philosophy emerged and became social-institutionally dominant after 1950, but it didn’t fully achieve a decisive social-institutional hegemonic victory — in part via the creation of its own social-institutional Other, so-called “Continental philosophy” — until the late 1970s and early 1980s, when Rorty explicitly and famously (or notoriously) pointed out these facts.

In any case, by 1950, Quine’s devastating critique of the analytic-synthetic distinction in “Truth by Convention,” “Two Dogmas of Empiricism,” “Carnap and Logical Truth,” and Word and Object effectively ended the research program of classical Analytic philosophy and initiated post-classical Analytic philosophy.

In the early-to mid-1950s, post-classical Analytic philosophy produced a Wittgenstein-inspired language-driven alternative to Logical Empiricism/Positivism, ordinary language philosophy.

In the late 1950s and 1960s, powered by the work of H. P. Grice and Peter Strawson, ordinary language philosophy became conceptual analysis.[xiv]

In turn, during that same period, Strawson created a new “connective” — that is, holistic — version of conceptual analysis, that also constituted a descriptive metaphysics.[xv]

In the 1970s, 1980s, and early 1990s, Strawson’s connective version of conceptual analysis gradually fused with Donald Davidson’s non-reductive naturalism about language, mind, and action (sometimes rather misleadingly called semantics of natural language), John Rawls’s holistic method of “reflective equilibrium,” and Noam Chomsky’s psycholinguistic appeals to intuitions-as-evidence, and ultimately became what can be called The Standard Model of mainstream post-classical Analytic philosophical methodology, by the end of the 20th century.[xvi]

In the late 1990s and first two decades of the 21st century, a domestic critical reaction to The Standard Model, combining direct reference theory, scientific essentialism and modal metaphysics,[xvii] yielded recent and contemporary Analytic metaphysics.[xviii]

In contemporary mainstream post-classical Analytic philosophy, co-existing and cohabiting with The Standard Model and Analytic metaphysics, is also the classical Lockean idea that philosophy should be an “underlaborer” for the natural sciences, especially as this idea was developed in the second half of the 20th century by Quine and Wilfrid Sellars, and their students, as the materialist or physicalist (whether eliminativist, reductive, or non-reductive) and scientistic doctrine of scientific naturalism, and again in the first three decades of the 21st century, in even more sophisticated versions, as experimental philosophy, aka “X-Phi,” and the doctrine of second philosophy.[xix]

More precisely, scientific naturalism includes four basic theses: (i) anti-mentalism and anti-supernaturalism, which says that we should reject any sort of explanatory appeal to non-physical or non-spatiotemporal entities or causal powers, (ii) scientism,[xx] which says that the formal sciences (especially logic and mathematics) and the natural sciences (especially physics) are the paradigms of knowledge, reasoning, and rationality, as regards their content and their methodology alike, (iii) materialist or physicalist metaphysics, which says that all facts in the world, including all mental facts and social facts, are either reducible to (whether identical to or “logically supervenient” on) or else strictly dependent on, according to natural laws (aka “naturally supervenient” or “nomologically supervenient” on) fundamental physical facts, which in turn are naturally mechanistic, microphysical facts, and (iv) radical empiricist epistemology, which says that all knowledge and truths are a posteriori.

So, to summarize, scientific naturalism holds first, that the nature of knowledge and reality are ultimately disclosed by pure logic, pure mathematics, fundamental physics, and whatever other reducible natural sciences there actually are or may turn out to be, second, that this is the only way of disclosing the ultimate nature of knowledge and reality, and third, that even if everything in the world, including ourselves and all things human (including language, mind, and action), cannot be strictly eliminated in favor of or reduced to fundamental physical facts, nevertheless everything in the world, including ourselves and all things human, is metaphysically grounded on and causally determined by fundamental physical facts.

Generalizing now, the central topics, or obsessions, of the classical Analytic tradition prior to 1950 were meaning and necessity, with special emphases on (i) pure logic as the universal and necessary essence of thought, (ii) language as the basic means of expressing thoughts and describing the world, (iii) the sense (Sinn) vs. Meaning, aka reference (Bedeutung) distinction, (iv) the conceptual truth vs. factual truth distinction, (v) the necessary truth vs. contingent truth distinction, (vi) the a priori truth vs. a posteriori truth distinction, and (vii) the analytic vs. synthetic distinction.

Correspondingly, a common and profoundly embedded thread running through all of these sub-themes is the following rough-and-ready multiple identity (or at least necessary equivalence):[xxi]

So, a very useful way of characterizing classical Analytic philosophy from late 19th century Frege to mid-20th-century Quine, is to say that it consisted essentially in the rise and fall of the concept of analyticity.

By vivid contrast to classical Analytic philosophy, however, the central commitment, and indeed dogmatic obsession, of post-classical Analytic philosophy since 1950 until today at 6am, continues to be scientific naturalism.

Therefore, if scientific naturalism is false — as I strongly believe it is, precisely because its metaphysical foundation, the mechanistic worldview, is false[xxi] — then for at least the last 35 years — i.e., since at least the mid-1980s — post-classical Analytic philosophy has been powered essentially and indeed almost exclusively by the brute fact of its social-institutional domination of, and indeed hegemony over, professional academic philosophy, especially including its mythical Enemy of the People, so-called “Continental philosophy.”


[i] See, e.g., R. Hanna, Kant and the Foundations of Analytic Philosophy (Oxford: Clarendon/Oxford Univ. Press, 2001).

[ii] See, e.g., P. Hylton, Russell, Idealism, and the Emergence of Analytic Philosophy (Oxford: Clarendon/Oxford Univ. Press, 1990).

[iii] See R. Hanna, The Fate of Analysis: Analytic Philosophy From Frege to The Ash-Heap of History, and Toward a Radical Kantian Philosophy of The Future (New York: Mad Duck Coalition, forthcoming in 2021).

[iv] See, e.g., B. Kuklick, The Rise of American Philosophy (New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press, 1977).

[v] See J.C. Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Conditions Have Failed (New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press, 1999); A. Janik and S. Toulmin, Wittgenstein’s Vienna (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1973); The Vienna Circle, “The Scientific Conception of the World,” in S. Sarkar (ed.), The Emergence of Logical Empiricism: From 1900 to the Vienna Circle (New York: Garland Publishing, 1996), pp. 321–340, also available online at URL = <http://www.manchesterism.com/the-scientific-conception-of-the-world-the-vienna-circle/>; P. Galison, “Aufbau/Bauhaus: Logical Positivism and Architectural Modernism,” Critical Inquiry 16 (1990): 709–752; G. Reisch, How the Cold War Transformed Philosophy of Science: To the Icy Slopes of Logic (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2005); and J. Isaac, “Donald Davidson and the Analytic Revolution in American Philosophy, 1940–1970,” Historical Journal 56 (2013): 757–779.

[vi] See, e.g., R. Hanna, “Transcendental Idealism, Phenomenology, and the Metaphysics of Intentionality,” in K. Ameriks and N. Boyle (eds.), The Impact of Idealism (4 vols., Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2013), vol. I, pp. 191–224.

[vii] See, e.g., R. Hanna, “Kant in the Twentieth Century,” in D. Moran (ed.), Routledge Companion to Twentieth-Century Philosophy (London: Routledge, 2008), pp. 149–203, at pp. 149–150.

[viii] See, e.g., R. Rorty, “Philosophy in America Today,” in R. Rorty, Consequences of Pragmatism (Minneapolis, MN: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1982), pp. 211–230; J. McCumber, Time in the Ditch: American Philosophy and the McCarthy Era (Evanston, IL: Northwestern Univ. Press, 2001); T. Akehurst, “The Nazi Tradition: The Analytic Critique of Continental Philosophy in Mid-Century Britain,” History of European Ideas 34 (2008): 548–557; T. Akehurst, The Cultural Politics of Analytic Philosophy: Britishness and the Spectre of Europe (London: Bloomsbury, 2011); A. Vrahimis, “Modernism and the Vienna Circle’s Critique of Heidegger,” Critical Quarterly 54 (2012): 61–83; A. Vrahimis, “Legacies of German Idealism: From The Great War to the Analytic/Continental Divide,” Parrhesia 24 (2015): 83–106; J. McCumber, The Philosophy Scare (Chicago IL: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2016); S. Bloor, “The Divide Between Philosophy and Enthusiasm: The Effect of the World Wars on British Attitudes Towards Continental Philosophies,” in M. Sharpe et al. (eds.), 100 Years of European Philosophy Since the Great War (Cham, CH: Springer, 2017), pp. 201–213; J. Katzav and K. Vaesen, “On the Emergence of American Analytic Philosophy,” British Journal for the History of Philosophy 25 (2017): 772–798; J. Katzav, “Analytic Philosophy, 1925–1969: Emergence, Management and Nature,” British Journal for the History of Philosophy 26 (2018): 1197–1221; and A. Vrahimis, “Russell Reads Bergson,” in M. Sinclair and Y. Wolf (eds.), The Bergsonian Mind (London: Routledge, forthcoming), also available online at URL = <https://www.academia.edu/41702088/Russell_Reads_Bergson>.

[ix] C. Schuringa, “The Never-Ending Death of Analytic Philosophy,” Noteworthy: The Journal-Blog (28 May 2020), available online at URL = < https://blog.usejournal.com/the-never-ending-death-of-analytic-philosophy-1507c4207f93>.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] B. Russell, A History of Western Philosophy (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1945), p. 643.

[xii] Google, available online HERE.

[xiii] A. Keller, “On the Use of the Term ‘Continental Philosophy’.” Against Professional Philosophy (13 April 2018). Available online at URL = <https://againstprofphil.org/2018/04/13/on-the-use-of-the-term-continental-philosophy/>.

[xiv] See, e.g., R. Hanna, “Conceptual Analysis,” in Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 10 vols., ed. E. Craig (London: Routledge, 1998), vol. 2, pp. 518–522, available online at URL = <https://www.academia.edu/11279103/Conceptual_Analysis>.

[xv] See P.F. Strawson, Individuals: An Essay in Descriptive Metaphysics (London: Methuen, 1959); and P.F. Strawson, Analysis and Metaphysics: An Introduction to Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1992).

[xvi] See, e.g., F. Jackson, From Metaphysics to Ethics: A Defense of Conceptual Analysis (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1998).

[xvii] See, e.g., R. Hanna, “A Kantian Critique of Scientific Essentialism,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 58 (1998): 497–528; R. Hanna, “Why Gold is Necessarily a Yellow Metal,” Kantian Review 4 (2000): 1–47; R. Hanna, Kant, Science, and Human Nature (Oxford: Clarendon/Oxford Univ. Press, 2006), chs. 3–4; and R. Hanna, Cognition, Content, and the A Priori: A Study in the Philosophy of Mind and Knowledge (THE RATIONAL HUMAN CONDITION, vol. 5) (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2015), section 4.5.

[xviii] The leading figures of Analytic metaphysics include David Lewis, David Chalmers, Kit Fine, John Hawthorne, Theodore Sider, and Timothy Williamson; and some of its canonical texts are Lewis’s On the Plurality of Worlds (Oxford: Blackwell, 1986), Sider’s Writing the Book of the World (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2011), Chalmers’s Constructing the World (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2012), and Williamson’s Modal Logic as Metaphysics (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2013).

[xix] See, e.g., W.V.O. Quine, “Epistemology Naturalized,” in W.V.O. Quine, Ontological Relativity and Other Essays (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1969), pp. 69–90; W. Sellars, Science, Perception, and Reality (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1963); J. Knobe and S. Nichols (eds.), Experimental Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2008); and P. Maddy, Second Philosophy: A Naturalistic Method (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2007).

[xx] On the crucial distinction between science and scientism, see R. Hanna, THE END OF MECHANISM: An Apocalytic Philosophy of Science (Unpublished MS, 2021), available online HERE; and also S. Haack, Science and its Discontents (Rounded Globe, 2017), available online at URL = <https://roundedglobe.com/books/038f7053-e376-4fc3-87c5-096de820966d/Scientism%20and%20its%20Discontents/>.

[xxi] I’m grateful to Otto Paans for his creative assistance with this diagram.

[xxii] See, e.g., R. Hanna and O. Paans, “This is the Way the World Ends: A Philosophy of Civilization Since 1900, and A Philosophy of the Future” (co-authored with Otto Paans), Cosmos & History 16, 2 (2020): 1–53, available online at URL = <http://cosmosandhistory.org/index.php/journal/article/viewFile/865/1510>; and J. Torday, W.B. Miller Jr, and R. Hanna, “Singularity, Life, and Mind: New Wave Organicism,” in J.S. Torday and W.B. Miller Jr, The Singularity of Nature: A Convergence of Biology, Chemistry and Physics (Cambridge: Royal Society of Chemistry, 2020), ch. 20, pp. 206–246.


Mr Nemo, W, X, Y, & Z, Monday 19 July 2021

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