On the Use of the Term “Continental Philosophy”.

A guest authored edgy essay by Andreas Keller

Believe it or not, I first came across the term “Continental Philosophy” a couple of years ago on a philosophy portal on Wikipedia. To my astonishment I learnt that current philosophy is to be divided into two kinds, “Analytic” and “Continental.” Somehow, I had not noticed this before.

Trying to find out what the term “Continental Philosophy” meant, I looked into some philosophy dictionaries.

The first one I tried was “Philosophisches Wörterbuch” (14th Edition, Georgi Schischkoff (ed.), 1957). The term “Kontinentale Philosophie” was nowhere to be found inside it. Probably, I thought, this dictionary is too old and the term originated later than that.

Next I looked into “Philosophielexikon” (edited by Anton Hügli and Poul Lübcke, 6th edition, 2005). Neither “Kontinentale Philosophie” nor “Continental Philosophy” can be found in that dictionary as well, (while “Analytische Philosophie” is there).

A glance into several other philosophy dictionaries in my local library (the Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Bibliothek in Hannover, Germany, relatively well equipped with philosophy stuff) led to the same zero result.

It seems, therefore, that so-called “Continental Philosophy” does not actually exist here on the continent.

Instead, there seem to be a lot of different philosophical schools and currents, as well as some philosophical loners who don’t fit anywhere. There is Analytic philosophy as well, but it is just one of many schools. The different currents are so diverse that it does not make much sense to lump everything else together under one heading. That’s why whoever invented the term could not come up with any concept that denoted the common content of these philosophies and produced a geographical term instead.

Furthermore, it looks like “Continental Philosophy” existed as an institutionalized thing only in the English-speaking world, that is, outside the European continent.

https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zeittafel_zur_Philosophiegeschichte#20._Jahrhundert gives you an impression of the multitude of schools and directions of 20th century philosophy. I don’t agree with some of the groupings made on that page (and generally, Wikipedia is a source that should be used only with some caveats), some of them have to be divided further and some additional groups have to be added (e.g., Neo-Vitalism and Neo-Thomism), but you get an impression of the multitude of different currents and schools.

To lump all the non-Analytic currents together as “Continental” does not provide any insights. One could also meaningfully group some of the Analytics together with some of the non-Analytics, along different dimensions, and come up with different groupings — however, that is beyond the scope of this little essay (but an interesting exercise to do).

I have not investigated the history and origin of the term “Continental Philosophy” very deeply, but my impression is that it is a rather recent invention by some people belonging to the “Analytic camp.” It looks to me that by inventing that term, they attempted to define a special position for Analytic Philosophy when actually it was only one of many directions.

An Ngram of the term “Continental Philosophy” shows that it took off around 1980 (see https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=continental+philosophy&year_start=1800&year_end=2000&corpus=15&smoothing=3&share=&direct_url=t1%3B%2Ccontinental%20philosophy%3B%2Cc0), 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.[i]

In any case, the use of the term “Continental Philosophy” as an opposite of “Analytic Philosophy” can be viewed as an instance of “centrism.” The paradigmatic example of centrism, of course, is Euro-centrism, where Europeans define a special role for European culture (in contrast to “Non-European” cultures).

Another example of centrism is the distinction between “vertebrate animals” and “non-vertebrate” animals:

(source: https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Bilateria&oldid=829081858)

The vertebrates are just one of several branches of the animals. Some of the animals denoted as “invertebrates” are actually more closely related to vertebrates than to some other “invertebrates”. For example, the Echinodermata (sea urchins, etc.) are more closely related to the vertebrates than to the arthropods. You find the vertebrates as a sub-group of the “craniata” on just one of the branches of the tree.

Lumping all other branches together as “invertebrates” does not make much biological sense, but the biologists who introduced this term were vertebrates themselves and obviously wanted to pretend that the group they belonged to themselves was the most special one in the tree of life and the pinnacle of the tree of life.

In a very similar manner, Analytic philosophers seem to have divided philosophy into the pinnacle of thought — Analytic philosophy — on one side, and everybody else under the heading of “Continental” on the other.

In general, centrism can be thought of as a mistake in the construction of a classification. Where you actually have a large number of different classes of something (perhaps with a complex structure, like a tree, for example), one of these classes is singled out as special and everything else is lumped together into a rest-group (invertebrates, non-European culture, continental philosophy etc.). A tree of the form

(a, b, c, … z)

(or any other more complex form) is replaced by a tree of the form

(a, (b, c, … z)).

The group singled out as special (here “a”) is defined as the center and as somehow superior. Distinctions among the other groups are disregarded and they are lumped together into an unstructured “other-“branch (b, c, … z).

This is, of course, an act of (claiming) social-institutional power. The people redefining the tree in this way, normally belong to the group defined to be the center.

If centrism is a mistake in a system of concepts (which I think it is) and “Continental Philosophy” is an example of centrism (which I think it is), then we should generally avoid the term. As the dictionary examples given above indicate, it is rarely used on the European continent itself since it does not provide any useful distinctions and appears rather ridiculous if you are face with the real complexity of things, hence it should also be avoided by American and British philosophers. People should instead look at the finer structures and distinctions of the many different traditions, schools and currents, of which “Analytic Philosophy” is just one among many.

The limited number of translations into English, concentrating on a subset of the real diversity of thinkers, obviously played a role in the construction of the concept “Continental Philosophy” since many texts have never been translated into English. The paradigm of the “Continental Tradition” influenced the choice of texts to be translated and the translated texts in turn shaped the understanding of what that alleged tradition was meant to be.

Nevertheless, it is necessary to look at texts in the original languages because the works of many philosophers have never been translated into English. For example, have you ever seen an English translation of the works of Hans André? Or Aloys Müller? Or Karl Faigl? (These are just a few examples from German; and I suppose that similar lists can be made for other languages).

If the concept of “Continental Philosophy” has been invented by Analytic philosophers as an “Analytico-centric” regrouping of the history of philosophy of the 20th century, then it should be avoided.

If you are doing Analytic philosophy, you should avoid the concept and term “Continental Philosophy” because it is bad analysis: it is blurring important distinctions, complexities and differences and using it means committing the “intellectual sin” of centrism.

If you are outside the Analytic current of philosophy, you should also avoid it because using it means playing the game according to the rules set by the Analytic “camp”, that is, giving power to the Analytic philosophers by using their invidious classification. You should instead play the game in terms of your own concepts and by your own rules. Just asbiologists have given up the old vertebrate/invertebrate distinction, I suggest viewing the Analytic current of philosophy as just one of many and making finer distinctions among all other schools and currents.

The term “Continental Philosophy” is not only not very useful but in fact downright misleading when we are trying to understand the philosophy of the 20th or the 21st century. The real history of philosophy is much more complex and much richer than the grossly simplified picture we are normally presented with. The paradigm and narrative of “Analytic vs. Continental” importantly shapes the perception and reception of philosophy, and brings about the unhappy result that significant thinkers who do not fit into that binary “A vs. C” structure are disregarded and forgotten.

Of course, there is always a tendency in the history of philosophy (and in writing history in general) to simplify the picture, a tendency to construct structures that are artefacts of the historian and that would not have been recognized by people living at the time. In the standard picture of 20th century history of philosophy, the multitude of thinkers is boiled down to just a few, while many others are forgotten. Who is forgotten and who rises to prominence is very often decided by the historians and translators, or by structures of power in academic circles later on.

Correspondingly, it turns out to be very interesting and illuminating to look into old (say 50 or 80 years old) histories and dictionaries of philosophies or old overviews of the “current currents” of philosophy. If you do so, you see that the modern histories omit whole schools of thought. You will find that in more recent editions of dictionaries, a lot of philosophical material is missing and that the names that survived and rose to prominence in newer dictionaries and histories sometimes did not have any special status at the time.

The institutionalization of the term “Continental Philosophy” in some university curricula should also be seriously questioned. Something is wrong if your university or college lets you study either “Analytic philosophy” or “Continental philosophy”. Such a curriculum is inherently ideological in its nature. It is like having to choose a course in either vertebrate or invertebrate zoology, while these wrong distinctions are institutionalized in different chairs or professorships.

If some people like to use the term for what they are doing, they can do so, but I regard it as an egregious misnomer.

I therefore propose that we stop using the term “Continental Philosophy” altogether.


[i] Thanks to Z for drawing my attention to this possibility.



Mr Nemo, W, X, Y, & Z, Friday 13 April 2018

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