Difference between analytic philosophy & continental philosophy 


If my experience of Anglo analytic philosophy is of a practice obsessed with the effort to formulate absolutely transparent propositions and their logical linkages or de-linkages bent on forming implacable movement towards unassailable conclusions, what about Continental philosophy? What has my experience of immersing myself in continental philosophy revealed?

We should remember an old adage: the point of greatest strength is also the point of greatest weakness. Thus for anglo analytic philosophy the concentration on clarity and logic is both its greatest strength and its greatest weakness. On the one hand, it means that their writing is clear and compelling, but on the other hand it is nit-picking and reductive: any gestures towards larger claims or illuminating metaphors or passionate speech are frowned on and denigrated. Analytic philosophy is thought, spoken and written in the most literal prose possible, in logical symbols even better; and thus draws a strong boundary between itself and any thinking/discourse/writing that is figurative, rhetorical, imaginative, emotional, expansive, or in any way ‘excessive’: this is the realm of literature and fiction.

So, what is my experience of continental philosophy? The first thing that stands out is that it cannot be read analytically—in the way I was taught to read in analytic philosophy. Perhaps I could put the difference like this: although continental philosophy can seem to be stringing propositions together in logical fashion to form an argument, in fact it is doing something different: it is bringing a range of considerations, metaphors, thoughts and ideas together in order to form a picture of things as a whole—not a concluding statement about some thing specifically. Continental philosophy is focused on trying to convey a sense of the whole; if you like, the whole of who we are, where we are, and possibly why we are. Thus continental philosophy is concerned with, if you like, the meaning of life, whereas analytic philosophy has narrowed down its interest to the meaning of propositions and their logical relations with other propositions. Analytic philosophy is not interested in projecting a sense of the whole—of reality, of the world, of history, or language, of culture, of our lives, of our hopes or desires. But these are precisely what interests continental philosophy.

This means that even the style of writing is different. Continental philosophy is trying to help the reader form a sense or feeling for the whole. This means its writing is more flowery, more rhetorical, more metaphorical, is more poetic, has more twists and turns, more jokes and irony, and is more playful—in short, is less driven by logic. The injunction underlying continental philosophy is: You must change the way you see things; use your reading of this text as a help to do this’. This contrasts with the injunction underpinning analytic philosophy which is: ‘You must follow this line of reasoning to its final conclusion with absolute attention; this will safe you from getting silly or grandiose ideas’. One focuses on the ‘meta’, the other on the ‘micro’.

OK, so far so good. But now this neat opposition between nit-picking logic and grandiose gestures must be complicated. For in another sense continental philosophy is also opposed to grandiose gestures too. What I mean by this is that historically in philosophy, grandiose gestures took the form of philosophical systems. That is, what was gestured at was a structure of strict concepts – just like the concepts that analytic philosophy is dedicated to refining and burnishing. These conceptual structures are what has been called metaphysics. That is, they are the underlying structure of reality, of everything, of us, of knowledge, of morality, of politics, of life.

Analytic Philosophy as a dead-end

Rhetoric is not only concerned with the how of what we say, but also with the what. That is, it is just as concerned with how we work out what to say, how we find and follow ideas or thoughts as with how we shape them to create a convincing speech or text.

So, I will begin with some reflections on my own ways of finding what to say.

I was trained in philosophy, analytic philosophy, a discipline that was obsessed with logical reasoning. The idea was that you would begin with one thought or proposition and then realise that that logically led to another one, and then on to a further one, and so on until you reached the final concluding thought or proposition. Each link in the chain of thoughts was a logical necessity, a deductive relation. There could be no jumps or gaps between the thoughts. Those trained in philosophy will immediately associate this description with three things: the practice of reasoning formulated by Descartes; the flow of ideas in philosophy articles or books; and the aggressive search by reading or listening philosophers for any jumps or gaps or ‘holes’ in the necessary flow of propositions.

This game of finding the hole in an argument was an intellectual game I threw myself into with relish when young. Read more of this post