Twentieth-century philosophy

DOI: 10.4324/0123456789-DD3596-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 2017
Retrieved June 12, 2024, from

6. “Analytic” and “continental” philosophy

The 1950s and 1960s witnessed the growing predominance of what became known as “analytical” or “analytic” philosophy in the Anglophone world, as well as the initial use of the label of “continental” philosophy to group together a wide variety of distinct non-analytic movements, including those of phenomenology, existentialism, Marxism, hermeneutics, critical theory, and structuralism. Somewhat ironically, this moment of the growing predominance of philosophical approaches that saw themselves as developing from the analytic tradition of Russell, Wittgenstein, and the philosophers of the Vienna Circle also coincided, in many cases, with the development of decisive internal critiques of the actual methods of analysis that these philosophers had employed. Nevertheless, the emigration of prominent Vienna Circle representatives such as Carnap and Reichenbach to the United States, as well as the wide influence of post-positivist but nevertheless recognizably “analytic” American philosophers such as Quine, Davidson, Putnam, and Sellars, quickly led to the dominance of this style of philosophy in the United States, while a partially distinct tradition of analytic philosophy, more heavily influenced by the later Wittgenstein, developed and flourished in Britain (see Analytic philosophy).

Although it has no unique subject matter, the analytic philosophy that became dominant in these years can nevertheless be characterized by several typical stylistic or methodological features. These include a privileging of clarity of expression, the use of argumentation rather than description or interpretation to establish philosophical claims and positions, piecemeal work on relatively narrow topics and questions rather than the pursuit of grand synthetic pictures of the world, and often (though not invariably) the use of formal methods and techniques of demonstration. As has often been pointed out, these features are by no means exclusive to analytic philosophy, but are often exhibited by works within the various stylistically and methodologically diverse traditions that were then grouped together as “continental” as well. Nevertheless, the label came to function as shorthand for those projects which were not within the analytic tradition as it then understood itself. The resultant divide or split between analytic and continental philosophy soon became a relatively entrenched and enduring feature of academic philosophy throughout much of the world, and remains characteristic of widespread patterns of philosophical identification and interaction today.

There are many views about the origin, nature, and philosophical basis (or lack thereof) of the analytic-continental divide. Some have seen analytic and continental philosophers as divided according to the distinct kinds of questions they are likely to take up, analytic philosophers favoring questions about the implications of science and logic, while continental philosophers rather take up questions about history, culture, and aesthetic expressions. Others have seen the traditions as divided according to the attitude each takes toward the pre-twentieth-century history of philosophy, analytic philosophers tending to see their work as having no essential relationship to this history, while continental philosophers see themselves as irreducibly located within its broader sweep. Another suggestion (see, e.g., Dummett 1993) is that the traditions differ primarily in their attitude toward the linguistic turn (see §2 above), the analytic tradition having at least implicitly taken this turn already with Frege, while Husserl and those who followed him in phenomenology failed to do so. Each of these suggestions for a philosophical basis for the divide has some plausibility, but to each there are also many prominent counter-examples. Yet another possibility is to account for the divide largely in terms of political or sociological factors. For instance, it has been suggested (e.g., by McCumber 2001) that at least part of the resistance of analytic philosophers to the schools and methods they grouped as “continental” in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s is to be referred to what was seen as the tendency of the latter to support Marxist and socialist politics; and some were also concerned to resist the influence of Heidegger’s philosophy, especially given his association with Nazism.

While younger philosophers of either tradition are today less likely simply to reject the other one categorically out of hand, and there have been several prominent attempts to philosophize beyond or across the divide, it remains difficult for students to find training and resources that enable them to be genuinely conversant with both traditions. Whether the contemporary development of new approaches to the divide, and new ways of drawing on both traditions in positive philosophical work, will lead over the next several decades to a gradual lessening of the divide and to the possibility of a genuine inheritance of twentieth-century philosophy as a whole, remains very much to be seen.

Citing this article:
Livingston, Paul M.. “Analytic” and “continental” philosophy. Twentieth-century philosophy, 2017, doi:10.4324/0123456789-DD3596-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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