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"Analytic vs Continental Philosophy: The Weirding of the Divide": An Essay by Tzuchien Tho

White house on hill

From The Philosopher, vol. 111, no. 1 ("Where is Philosophy Going?").

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“Jazz isn’t dead, it just smells funny.” Frank Zappa

The methodological assertion of concept analysis as the exclusive, or at least privileged, basis of philosophical practice was started in the late 19th century by theorists around the Vienna Circle (Rudolf Carnap, Moritz Schlick, Otto Neurath as key figures) as a progressive intellectual movement against what were perceived as reactive and calcified traditions (mainly Neo-Kantian and Hegelian ones) in the Austrian (or more broadly the German-speaking) context, but was ultimately installed in Great Britain (promoted by Bertrand Russell, G.E. Moore, A.J. Ayer, and the like) due to the political upheavals of the early 20th century. The very notion of a divide between analytic and continental philosophy (hereafter, the divide) was the result of this development.

The idea was that the new logical and mathematical tools of the 20th century could allow for the revolutionary elimination of false problems. But this self-assertion of a philosophical method contained a distinct spiritual shift. It revived a distinctly Anglophone style of philosophy, underlined in the 17th century by Locke, as taking on the role of “underlabourer” to the sciences. Philosophy thereby cedes autonomy to the sciences (including the social sciences) in favour of a utility gained by grounding them and problem-solving with new tools.

This is held against a “continental” style which emphasises the construction of systems under the banner of the grand “author”. The autonomy of philosophy as a theoretical architecture for all knowledge (a system of “science”), subordinating the partial and local concerns of the sciences, was therefore the self-conception of philosophical practice in this camp. Philosophy here connects disciplines, identifies and critiques overarching ideas, and produces a coherent picture of the state of humanity and the world by ranging over the forms of human inquiry and activity. The difference between the words “science” and “wissenschaft” (the German equivalent in usage) can highlight this distinction. The Anglophone “science” refers to a rarefied form of knowledge corresponding to strict criteria of production, whereas its German cognate “wissenschaft” refers to the generic contents of disciplines.

Even if some 17th and 18th thinkers (say, Locke and Hume) provided a path for the installation of the underlabourer and problem-solving ethos of concept analysis, the mainstream of Anglophone philosophy at the time of its emergence was still unmistakably what would retroactively appear as “continental” (Spinoza, Leibniz, Kant, Hegel, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Husserl, etc.). The divide is therefore something internal to the reconfiguration of the Anglophone discipline of philosophy rather than the confrontation of national traditions. Analogically, we might say that in the way that the dish “spaghetti and meatballs” or “chop suey” does not exist in Italy and China but only as American creations, “continental philosophy” only originates in the Anglophone world (spreading back to Europe). The contemporary “continental” field matured through the long exiles of Frankfurt School and Structuralist thinkers in the Americas. We add to this Hannah Arendt, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Derrida’s long residencies in American universities. In this sense, the phenomenon of “continental” philosophy or even “French theory” is a thoroughly Anglophone one.

The phenomenon of “continental” philosophy or even “French theory” is a thoroughly Anglophone one.

The internal consistency of the early 20th century project of an analytic philosophy was not long lived. In the works of Ludwig Wittgenstein and W.V.O. Quine, we find fundamental rejections of the key assumptions of the analytic project. In the former, we find the rejection of the logical constitution of meaning which undermined scope of the project to rectify philosophical language through the use of logic. This led to a prodigious reflection on rules, belief, and, language which are the focus of Wittgenstein scholars today. In the latter, we find the rejection of the distinction between analytic and synthetic. Either thinker, if taken seriously, would infer serious problems to the continuity of the conceptual core of the project of philosophical reform championed by Carnap and Russell. With the positive mission compromised, what nonetheless remain in the concept of an analytic philosophy are an ethos (deflation of “false” problems, underlabourer of science, etc.) and a style (clear distinctions, precise and consistent terminology, distance from irony and polysemy, etc.)



What I think should be asserted for the consideration of the future of the divide between these two schools is the banal truism that academic philosophy is made in the academy. Funding, publication, and pedagogy play a much stronger role than the tendencies and constraints of ideas in cultivation of the next generation of teachers and authors, the publication of works, and the transmission of methods and norms, i.e., the practice of philosophy itself. For this reason, the conceptual, methodological, or even aesthetic differences on the two sides of the divide are usefully analysed for understanding the stakes of the divide as it stands, but only a sense of the transformation of practice can illuminate its continuation.

The weirding of the divide, then, will stem partly from the internal ethos of the analytic spirit. The very Carnapian and Russellian spirit of analytic philosophy has been to engage with cutting-edge mathematical and scientific approaches to eliminate what can be seen as “false” problems and to focus attention on “real” ones. This problem-solving (or underlabourer) ethos remains central to the tradition. However, the irony here is that despite the purported humility of this reformist spirit, early analytic philosophy developed along the lines of the key research programmes indexed by the grand figures of the philosophical academy (Carnap, Russell, Moore, Karl Popper, etc.). In recent decades, however, these grand figures (say, Quine, David Lewis, Peter Geach, Michael Dummett, etc.) have largely waned and a more open-ended range of problems now dominates the analytic field. Important traditions that form habits of thought show no signs of going anywhere, but the general outlook of the analytic thinkers tends to steer clear of a hard adherence to the research programmes of these grand figures. In this, thinkers employ an increasingly wide range of sources. This is not at all to say that current thinkers of the analytic traditions are now systematically studying Gilles Deleuze and Jacques Lacan; rather, the problem-oriented spirit of the analytic tradition allows for an entry into a conversation across the divide.

Whereas mid-century theorists may have appealed to science in an abstract and derivative way, philosophers are more and more directly engaging with the details of scientific work.

Further, the emergent centrality of the philosophy of science, replacing the philosophy of language in recent years as the progressive edge of philosophical research within the Anglosphere, is not surprising insofar as it is consistent with the spirit of the analytic forebears. Yet this has introduced a more profound interdisciplinarity within the field. Whereas mid-century theorists may have appealed to science in an abstract and derivative way, philosophers are more and more directly engaging with the details of scientific work. This is most evident in philosophy of physics and biology, while in fields like cognitive science, philosophy and experimental methods meet half-way. Furthermore, the philosophy of the social sciences also now plays a more dominant role in pedagogy, research funding, and public prestige, while methods of logic, traditional epistemology, and experimental psychology are the points of reference for the philosophy of economics and formal epistemology. These waves of pluralisation have remade Anglophone analytic philosophy in recent decades.

Having said this, we could note that especially in the history of philosophy, Anglophone scholars have become more in touch with the work of European (esp. German, Romanian, French, Italian, Spanish) scholars in these domains, instead of borrowing a framework from traditional analytical methods. To take a specific example, in contrast to Bernard Williams’ creative though context-free analysis of Descartes, it is now common for analytic philosophers to refer to the more exegetically rigorous Martial Gueroult or Jean-Luc Marion. Through these sub-disciplines, continental sources are finding their way into the analytic mainstream. Hence, not only is this pluralism opening up analytic philosophers to important figures from Europe, leading some to explore their theoretical influences, but it is also changing the internal composition of what constitutes a “continental philosophy” itself.

Another aspect of this increased importance of the history of philosophy is the development of historical methodology. While the study of some aspects of the history of philosophy according to canonical figures (Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Kant, etc.) has always held some prestige in Anglophone departments, they were mostly presented out of historical context and through the linguistic and logical toolbox of analytic philosophers. The recent rise of a historical treatment of philosophers in this field has set upon the task of recreating context and developing alternative narratives that move away from that of the “great thinkers”. The most significant aspect here is the inclusion of erased female and non-Western figures in this history, a process which highlights, especially for students, the constructed nature of the philosophical canon. The relaxing of canonical rigidity in philosophical research and education has allowed a return to the very sources of the divide itself, the historicising of these differences, and the recognition of unsuspected common origins.

The grand system-building projects of the German and French traditions have often been identified by its autonomy.

The mirror image of this is also occurring within so-called “continental” philosophy. The grand system-building projects of the German and French traditions have often been identified by its autonomy – the idea that philosophical self-assertion should range over and dominate the special sciences and local disciplines. In figures like Alain Badiou, a system builder himself, philosophy’s autonomy is ironically sacrificed for an adherence (or, as he prefers, a “faithfulness”) to truths wherever they occur, whether in politics, scientific practice, love, or art. And here, despite their bitter differences, Deleuze, whose deep well of non-orthodox interpretations of classical philosophical works are never mute in his writings, always allows literature, film, painting, and politics to upstage the philosophical pretensions to autonomy.



We might therefore suggest thinking about the future of the divide in three trends, all which are occurring and will continue to occur in the years ahead: toolbox, synthesis, negation.

1. The toolbox model of philosophical practice is more present than ever. Recognizable both in the recent trend of conceptual engineering (in which the philosophical task is taken not as unfolding conceptual implications but rather producing concepts that answer to desiderata) and in Deleuze’s later notion of philosophy as the creation of concepts, this interesting but perhaps predictable pole of philosophical development inherits the original ethos of the analytic spirit and the critique of philosophy’s aloof self-possession. This trend can be widely felt in areas like philosophy of biology (e.g., the work of Charles Wolfe) and philosophy of medicine (e.g. the work of Havi Carel) where analytic and continental sources sit side-by-side as tools.

2. Synthesis can occur retrospectively or prospectively. In some of the historical work, authors have provided a genealogical common root of the divide, theorising a previously available juncture for the passage of one tendency with the other. Catarina Dutihl Novaes, for instance, develops a genealogy of logic that unfolds the internal conceptual conflicts within logic as debates about the nature of cognition and meaning. Behind the apparent positivity of logical systems, she explores the common sources of the divide and injects them into the history of logic itself. The synthesis can also be prospective, fusing elements of two tendencies together to form a previously unavailable systematic whole. With Robert Brandom, for example, we see an ambitious translation of Hegelian methodologies to mainstream analytic terms. Aided by a pragmatist scaffold, Brandom’s work treats the Hegelian dialectic as an unrecognised description of scientific cognition. This synthesis reasserts a philosophical autonomy that now re-fuses the previous division.

3. Negation is more subtle. What is sought is not a new synthesis but the use of different traditions to negate the divide itself in order to identify what is missed by both. When the divide is taken as an opposition, we can take the historical or conceptual relaxing of the opposition as an opportunity to develop new syntheses. However, an inverse alternative is to strengthen the opposition in order to identify the failures of both and reject the self-conception of the philosophical task set out by both tendencies. Here, neither the reform of philosophy in the norms of formal logic (stereotypically “analytic”), nor the deconstruction of logocentrism (stereotypically “continental”) is acceptable. For thinkers like Badiou, the capture of formal logic by natural language was insufficiently criticised by the founders of the analytic school. The formal modulations of logical systems therefore provide unexplored modes to examine traditional philosophical questions: ontology, ethics, politics, etc. Another tendency here is historical epistemology (e.g. the work of Ian Hacking, Hans-Jörg Rheinburger, Lorraine Daston, Peter Galison, etc.). These theorists use genealogical and historical methods to identify the modes of rationality at work across disciplines including philosophy, mathematics, the natural and social sciences. What is available here is a consideration of reason as an accrual of practices that rejects both the technical orthodoxy of rational reform and philosophical autonomy. Here, thought operates under an historical horizon that cannot be captured either by the most rigorous logic or by the phenomenological reduction in its various guises. This provides a “neither is better” via negativa. The assertion here is that a future systematics will be built on the blind-spots and dead-ends that the divide itself makes clear.


Any consideration of the future of one’s own discipline is a combination of anecdotal evidence and wishful thinking. If my analysis here has any predictive power, it will be due to a great deal of contingency. What I have claimed here is based on its normative and aesthetic appeal. This is how philosophy should, at least in part, develop. But again, I restate the truism that academic philosophy is made in the academy. This making is due to teaching, funding, employment, and cultural trends orthogonal to philosophical ideas. The divide is therefore subject to changes outside the discipline rather than the oppositions within.

Tzuchien Tho is a philosopher and a historian of mathematics, physics, and philosophy. He is currently employed by the University of Bristol.


From The Philosopher, vol. 111, no. 1 ("Where is Philosophy Going?").

If you enjoyed reading this, please consider becoming a patron or making a small donation.

We are unfunded and your support is greatly appreciated.

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