Is there (still) a continental-analytic divide in philosophy?

Analytic-continentalby Massimo Pigliucci

As is well known (to philosophers), perhaps one of the most controversial, often even acrimonious [1], splits in modern philosophy is the one between the so-called “analytic” and “continental” approaches. To simplify quite a bit, the split has become apparent during the 20th century, though it can be traced back to the immediately post-Kantian period (with Kant himself often depicted as straddling the two).

Analytic philosophy refers to a style of doing philosophy characteristic of the contemporary British empiricists, like G.E. Moore and Bertrand Russell, with an emphasis on argument, logical analysis, and language, and it is what one finds practiced in many (though by no means all) philosophy departments in the United States and the UK. Michael Dummett [2] famously said that  the “characteristic tenet [of analytic philosophy] is that the philosophy of language is the foundation for all the rest of philosophy … [that] the goal of philosophy is the analysis of the structure of thought [and that] the only proper method for analysing thought consists in the analysis of language.”

Continental philosophy — the name deriving from the fact that its leading figures have been German or French thinkers — is seen as a more discursive, even polemical, way of doing philosophy, often characterized by not exactly an extremely transparent way of exposing one’s ideas, and more concerned with social issues than its analytic counterpart.

There are two questions that concern me here: how can we understand the nature of the split and what it says about philosophy in general? And to what extent is some of what is going under the heading of continental philosophy sufficiently different from the core discipline and its tools that we might want to think of it as a different type of activity? Richard Rorty [3] famously answered the second question somewhat categorically, foreseeing a day when “it may seem merely a quaint historical accident that both bear the same name of philosophy.” Then again, Rorty was notorious for that sort of not entirely helpful quipping.

Perhaps the first thing that becomes obvious when comparing analytic and continental works is their difference in style. As D.E. Cooper [4] put it, “We know where Quine or Derrida belongs, before grasping what he is saying, from the way he says it. Or consider the fact that much continental writing can be parodied in a way that analytical generally cannot.” More charitably, N. Levy [1] puts it in terms of style, characterizing continental philosophy as more “literary” as opposed to the clearer but more rigid analytic style. As we shall see in a moment, this difference in style also points toward a deeper division between the two modes of doing contemporary Western philosophy: one more “scientific” (and science-friendly), the other humanistic (and often critical of science). Another consequence is in the type of work produced within the two traditions, as well as their intended audiences: with the usual caveat that there are plenty of exceptions, analytic philosophers prefer scholarly papers to books, and aim them primarily at a very restricted set of specialists; continentalists, instead, prefer books which, at least to some extent, are meant to engage the general educated public (not in the sense of being introductions to philosophy, but in that of putting the philosopher in the role of a cultural critic with broad appeal).

I find Cooper’s analysis of the two modes of philosophic discourse particularly convincing, though I will integrate it with the one proposed by Levy, who also builds on Cooper, and of course with my own considerations. According to Cooper, the best way to understand the difference between analytic and continental styles is in terms of three themes present in the latter and largely absent in the former, styles that are in turn underlined by a fundamental difference in mood between practitioners of the two traditions (we are, of course, talking about philosophical mood, not the psychological profiles of the individuals involved — though that would perhaps be an excellent topic of research for experimental philosophers [5]).

The three themes identified by Cooper are: cultural critique, concern with the background conditions of inquiry, and what for lack of a better term he calls “the fall of the self.” Cultural critique is perhaps the chief activity continental philosophers are associated with in the mind of the general European public, particularly in France (think Foucault, Derrida, etc.). But it is the sort of thing that hardly any analytical philosopher dabbles in, and when they do — as astutely observed by Cooper in the case of Bertrand Russell — it is in an “off duty” mode, as if the thing had no connection with their “real” work as philosophers.

As far as the second theme is concerned, both analytic and continental philosophers are preoccupied with the conditions for inquiry and knowledge, but from radically different perspectives. As I shall elaborate upon below, philosophy of science (firmly planted in the analytic tradition) approaches the issue from the point of view of logic and epistemology, with talk of logical fallacies, validation of inferences, testability of theories, and so on. On the other side we have “science studies,” a predictably heterogeneous category that includes everything from philosophy of technology to feminist epistemology, with more than an occasional dip into postmodernism. Here the emphasis is on science as a source of power in society, on the social and political dimensions of science in particular, and on the construction of knowledge in general.

The third theme — the fall of the self — is also shared by the two traditions, in a sense, but again the two approaches are almost antithetical. Analytical philosophers generally tend to have a deflating if not downright eliminativist attitude toward “the self,” dismissing out right any form of Cartesian dualism as little more than a medieval superstition, and even in some cases arriving at what some of them think is a science-based conclusion that there is no such thing as “the self” or even consciousness at all, yielding something like a strange marriage of cognitive science and Buddhist metaphysics. Continental philosophers do not mean anything like that at all when they talk about the self, the death of the author, or the death of the text — though what exactly they do mean has been up for grab for years now.

For Cooper these three thematic differences are themselves rooted in a fundamental difference of philosophical mood: to put it a bit simplistically, analytic philosophers are sons (and daughters) of the Enlightenment, and they are by and large very sympathetic toward the scientific enterprise, even to the point of using it (wrongly, it can reasonably be argued) as a model for philosophy itself. Just consider Russell’s [6] classic essay, “On the scientific method in philosophy.” Continentalists, on the contrary, tend to be markedly anti-scientistic [7] (if not downright anti-science), and are instinctively suspicious of claims of objective knowledge made by a cadre of experts. Just think of Foucault’s [8] classic work on madness. From the continental point of view, philosophers of science like Popper [9] are hopelessly naive when they look (and think they found) simple logical rules that can determine the validity of scientific theories, and they would argue that too much emphasis on a scientific worldview ends up discounting the human dimension altogether — ironically, philosophy’s original chief concern (at least according to Plato). Indeed, if one reads, say, analytical philosopher Alex Rosenberg’s [10] The Atheist Guide to Reality one is cheerfully encouraged to embrace nihilism because that’s where fundamental physics leads. Imagine how Camus would have reacted to that one.

So far, I do find Cooper’s analysis largely on target. It also provides Levy’s point of departure, to which he adds an interesting, if in my opinion debatable, twist. Somewhat ironically, Levy uses Thomas Kuhn’s [11] ideas on the nature of science as a way to separate the analytical and continental modes of philosophizing. I say ironically because Kuhn is claimed to some extent by both camps: among philosophers of science (analytic) he is credited as beeing the first to take seriously the social-cultural aspects of science, not just the logical-formal ones. From the perspective of science studies (continental) he is associated with having dismantled the idea of objective progress in science (an “accomplishment” he himself denied vehemently).

Levy’s idea is that analytic philosophy has modeled itself as a type of activity akin to Kuhn’s “normal,” or “puzzle-solving,” science, i.e. science working within an established paradigm, deploying the latter to address and resolve specific issues. The paradigm Levy has in mind for analytic philosophy is chiefly the result of the works of Frege and Russell, i.e. a paradigm that frames philosophy in terms of logic and language. As in normal science, analytical philosophers therefore specialize in highly circumscribed “puzzles,” and Levy is ready to grant (though he leaves the notion unexplored) that such philosophy makes progress. However, this depth of scholarship inevitably trades off against an inability to address broadly relevant issues (just like in normal science, according to Kuhn).

That’s where — in Levy’s analogy — the contrast with continental philosophy becomes evident. It functions rather in a perpetual state of Kuhnian revolution, moving from one paradigm to the other (presumably, without ever experiencing significant periods of puzzle-solving in the middle). In a sense, argues Levy, continental philosophy models itself after modernist art, where the goal is not to make progress, at least not in the sense of gradually building on the shoulders’ of previous giants, but to completely replace old views, to invent fresh new ways of looking at the world.

The trouble with this model, as Levy himself acknowledges, is that it makes the two philosophical modes pretty much irreconcilable: “If this [view] is correct, we have little reason to be optimistic that AP [analytic philosophy] and CP [continental philosophy] could overcome their differences and produce a new way of doing philosophy that would combine the strengths of both.” But perhaps such pessimism is a bit hasty. Let us consider one possible way in which the two traditions may be merged into a third way that emphasizes the strengths of both and minimizes their weaknesses.

A case study: philosophy of science vs science studies

Contra Levy, I do think that there is quite a bit that can be done to reconcile analytical and continental approaches, combining them into an expanded view of philosophy that has both depth and breadth, and is concerned both with specific technical “puzzles” as well as with broad socio-political issues. I will use the contrast between philosophy of science (analytical) and “science studies” (more continental) as an example of where the contrast lies and how to overcome it. Not everything will be rosy in the picture that I propose, as what some analytical philosophers have been doing may turn out to be somewhat irrelevant, while what some (extreme) continentalists have been arguing will reveal itself as pretty close to nonsense on stilts.

Let us begin with a thumbnail sketch of the two approaches to the study of the nature of science. Philosophy of science, as it has been understood throughout the 20th century, is concerned with the logic of scientific theories and practices, which range from broad questions about science at large (say, whether falsifiability of scientific theories is a valid criterion of progress) to fairly narrowly defined problems within a given special science (e.g., the concept of biological species, [12]). In other words, philosophy of science is a standard type of analytical practice, where one is concerned with the logic of arguments and the logical structure of concepts, in this case those deployed by scientists in the course of their work.

Science studies — as I am using the term here — is a bit more fuzzy, as it includes a number of approaches to the study of science that are not necessarily directly compatible with each other. These include philosophers who use what may be termed an ethnographic approach to science [13], those who are interested in cross-cultural comparisons among similar types of science laboratories [14], and of course those who take a feminist approach to scientific epistemology [15], among others. What these authors have in common is a focus on the social and political dimensions of science, which is seen primarily as a human activity characterized by ideologies and issues of power.

The clash between the two perspectives has led to the infamous “science wars” of the 1990s, of which the iconic moment was represented by the highly embarrassing (for the continental/postmodern side), and yet also somewhat overplayed, “Sokal affair” [16]. As is well known, New York University physicist Alan Sokal, fed up with what he perceived (largely, it must be said, rightly) as postmodernist nonsense about science, concocted a fake paper entitled “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” submitted it to the editors of the prestigious postmodernist journal Social Text, and managed to get it published before exposing it as a hoax. While certainly shaming for the editors in question, and a highly visible black mark for a whole way of criticizing science, the import of the affair should not have been as large as it turned out to be. Sokal himself recognized that one can hardly impugn an entire tradition of scholarship on the basis of one editorial mistake, particularly given that Social Text is not even a peer reviewed publication. Nonetheless, one can understand the frustration of scientists (and of analytical philosophers of science) in the face of, for instance, extreme feminist epistemology, where one author boasts (with precious little to back up her extraordinary claim) that “I doubt in our wildest dreams we ever imagined we would have to reinvent both science and theorizing itself” [17]; or of another’s embarrassingly scientifically naive, almost tragicomical re-interpretation of Einstein’s theory of general relativity [18].

What got lost in the kerfuffle is that of course science is both an epistemic activity that at least strives (and has been historically remarkably successful) for a rational use of evidence and a social activity with inevitable ideological, political and even personal psychological components playing a non inconspicuous part in it. In some sense, this is nothing new. John Stuart Mill, one of the early “philosophers of science” (in the broadest sense of the term, which of course was not in use at the time) was well aware of the fallibility of science as a human enterprise [19], which brought him to the conclusion that the best science is the result of collective cross-criticism. But Mill was also very much a philosopher of science in what would later become the analytical sense of the term, for instance engaging in a famous debate with William Whewell on the nature of induction [20].

It is also not the case that 20th century philosophers of science completely ignored the social (and even historical) dimension of science. That is what made Kuhn’s famous work so notable (and controversial). And of course let us not forget (however much at times one would wish to) the radical critique of science produced by enfant terrible Paul Feyerabend [21]. While neither Kuhn nor Feyerabend can reasonably be considered part of the postmodern-continental tradition, they have both been invoked as forerunners of the latter when it comes to science studies — Feyerabend would have likely been pleased, while Kuhn certainly wasn’t. Both of them made points that should serve as part of a blueprint for an expanded philosophy of science, albeit not necessarily following the exact lines drawn by these two authors. For instance, Feyerabend was simply being irritating when — in what sounds like a caricature of postmodernism — he said that the only absolute truth is that there are no absolute truths, or when he wrote “three cheers for the fundamentalists in California who succeeded in having a dogmatic formulation of the theory of evolution removed from textbooks and an account of Genesis included” [22]. Then again, he did realize that the fundamentalists from California would in turn soon become a center of power and cause their own problems: “I have no doubt that they would be just as dogmatic and close-minded if given the chance.” A more equitable assessment of the situation might be that religious fundamentalists are much more likely than mainstream scientists to be dogmatic and close-minded, but that this doesn’t mean that scientists cannot be or have not been.

Kuhn — who interestingly started out as a physicist, moving then to history and philosophy of science — contrasted his descriptive approach to understanding how science work with Popper’s more traditional prescriptive one. While Popper (and others) pretended to tell scientists what they were doing right (or wrong) based on a priori principles of logic, Kuhn wanted to figure out how real science actually works, and one sure way of doing this is through historical analyses (the other one, taken up by many scholars in the continental tradition, is to do sociology of science). The reason he became a precursor of a certain type of science studies, and at the same time got into trouble with many in philosophy of science, is that his model of normal science equilibria punctuated by paradigm changes does not have an immediate way to accommodate the idea that science makes progress. This was not, apparently, Kuhn’s intention, hence his 1969 postscript to clarify his views and distance himself from a postmodern reading of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Again, though, it seems to me that in Kuhn as in Feyerabend there is a tension that is not really necessary: one can reasonably argue that science is a power structure prone to corruption if left unchecked, and yet not go all relativist and say that it is no different than a fundamentalist church. Equally, one can stress the importance of both historical and sociological analyses of science without for that reason having to throw out logic and epistemology.

Can, then, the insights and approaches of philosophy of science and science studies be reconciled to forge a better and more comprehensive philosophy of science? Yes, and this project has already been under way for close to three decades, a synthesis that constitutes a good example of (conceptual) progress in philosophy. While there are a number of scholars that could be discussed in this context, not all of them necessarily using the same approach, I am particularly attracted to what Longino [19] calls “reconciliationists,” a group that includes M. Hesse [23], R. Giere [24], and P. Kitcher [25].

Giere, for instance, applies decision theory to the modeling of scientific judgment, which allows him to include sociological parameters as part of the mix. His approach led him to formulate a broader theory of the nature of science from a perspectivist standpoint [24]. The analogy introduced and develop by Giere is with color perception: there is no such thing as an absolutely objective, observer-independent, perception of color; and yet it is also not the case that color perception is irreducibly subjective. This is because the perception of color is the result of two types of phenomena: on the one hand, color is the outcome of observer-independent phenomena such as diffraction and wavelength of incident light on physical objects with certain surface characteristics; on the other hand, it is made possible by the brain’s particular way of interpreting and transducing external stimuli and internal electrical signals. Similarly, science is a process by which the objective, mind-independent external world is understood via the psychological and sociological factors affecting human cognition. The result is a (inherently subjective, yet often converging) perspective on the world. A nice compromise between the “view from nowhere” assumed by classical philosophers of science and the irreducible relativism of postmodern science studies.

Hesse’s [23] approach is intriguing in its own right, and builds on W.V.O. Quine’s famous concept of a “web of knowledge” (as opposed to, say, an edifice of knowledge, an image which raises endless and futile questions concerning the “foundations” of such edifice: [26]). Hesse reaches even further back, to the work of Duhem as presented in the latter’s The Aim and Structure of Physical Theory, even though modern scholars recognize important distinctions between the views of Duhem and those of Quine in this respect [27]. The basic idea is to build a Duhem-Quine type web of belief, some of the elements of which are not just scientific facts and theories, but also social factors and other criteria that go into the general practice of science: “there is [thus] no theoretical fact or lawlike relation whose truth or falsity can be determined in isolation from the rest of the network. Moreover, many conflicting networks may more or less fit the same facts, and which one is adopted must depend on criteria other than the facts: criteria involving simplicity, coherence with other parts of science, and so on” [23: 1974, 26]. This is an expansion of the famous underdetermination thesis to include logical (coherence), aesthetic (simplicity) and sociological considerations. While it is far more permissive than perhaps a strict logical positivist might like, it is certainly no nudge in the direction of Feyerabend-like methodological anarchism, and much less is it of any comfort to epistemic relativism.

What I have presented here, of course, is but a sketch of a large and continuously evolving field within the broader scope of philosophy. Nevertheless, I think I have made a good argument that analytical and continental approaches to the study of science can both be pruned of their excesses or dead weight, as well as that the best of the two traditions can (indeed, should) be combined into a more vibrant and relevant conception of philosophy of science. As a bonus, we have also encountered what I think is a compelling example of how philosophy makes progress.


Massimo Pigliucci is a biologist and philosopher at the City University of New York. His main interests are in the philosophy of science and pseudoscience. He is the editor-in-chief of Scientia Salon, and his latest book (co-edited with Maarten Boudry) is Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem (Chicago Press).

[1] Levy, N. (2003) Analytic and continental philosophy: explaining the differences. Metaphilosophy 34:284-304.

[2] Dummett, M. (1978) Can analytical philosophy be systematic, and ought it to be? In: Truth and  Other Enigmas. Duckworth, p. 458.

[3] Rorty, R. (1991) The Priority of Democracy to Philosophy. In: Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth. Philosophical Papers, Volume 1. Cambridge University Press, p. 23.

[4] Cooper, D.E. (1994) Analytical and continental philosophy. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 94:1-18.

[5] Why Phi Needs XPhi, by Mark O’Brien, Scientia Salon, 16 May 2014.

[6] Russell, B. (1918) On the scientific method in philosophy. In: Mysticism and Logic and Other Essays. Longmans, Green and Co.

[7] On scientism, see: Staking positions amongst the varieties of scientism, by Massimo Pigliucci, Scientia Salon, 28 April 2014.

[8] Foucault, M. (1961 / 2006) History of Madness. Routledge.

[9] Popper, K. (1963) Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge. Routldedge.

[10] Rosenberg, A. (2011) The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life without Illusions. W.W. Norton & Company. For a critique of the book, see my review of it for The Philosopher’s Magazine.

[11] Kuhn, T. (1963) The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. University of Chicago Press.

[12] See, for instance: Brigandt, I. (2003) Species Pluralism Does Not Imply Species Eliminativism. Philosophy of Science 70:1305–1316. / Ereshefsky, M. (1998) Species Pluralism and Anti-Realism. Philosophy of Science 65:103–120. / Pigliucci, M. (2003) Species as family resemblance concepts the (dis-)solution of the species problem? BioEssays 25:596–602.

[13] Latour, B. and Woolgar, S. (1986) Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts. Princeton University Press.

[14] Traweek, S. (1988) Beamtimes and Lifetimes: The World of High Energy Physicists. Harvard University Press.

[15] Keller, E.F. (1983) A Feeling for the Organism: The Life and Work of Barbara McClintock. W.H. Freeman. / Longino, H. (1990) Science as Social Knowledge: Values and Objectivity in Scientific Inquiry. Princeton University Press.

[16] Sokal, A. and Bricmont, J. (2003) Intellectual Impostures. Profile Books. See also, by Alan Sokal, What is science and why should we care?, Scientia Salon, 26 March 2014, 27 March 2014, and 28 March 2014.

[17] Harding, S. (1989) Value-free research is a delusion. New York Times, 22 October.

[18] Latour, B. (1988) A relativistic account of Einstein’s relativity. Social Studies of Science 18:3-44.

[19] Longino, H. (2006) The social dimensions of scientific knowledge. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

[20] Whewell, W. (1847) Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences. John W. Parker. / Mill, J.S. (1874) A System of Logic, Ratiocinative and Inductive: Being a Connected View of the Principles of Evidence and the Methods of Scientific Investigation. Harper & Row.

[21] Feyerabend, P. (1975) Against Method. Verso.

[22] Feyerabend, P. (1974) How to defend society against science.

[23] Hesse, M. (1974) The Structure of Scientific Inference. University of California Press. / Hesse, M. (1980) Revolutions and Reconstructions in the Philosophy of Science. Indiana University Press.

[24] Giere, R. (2010) Scientific Perspectivism. University of Chicago Press.

[25] Kitcher, P. (1993) The Advancement of Science: Science Without Legend, Objectivity Without Illusions. Oxford University Press.

[26] Fumerton, R. (2010) Foundationalist theories of epistemic justification. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

[27] Ariew, R. (1984) The Duhem thesis. British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 35:313-325.


Categories: essay

Tags: , , ,

73 replies

  1. I agree completely.

    Wittgenstein’s insistence on the primacy of language to thought even while recognising that any language can be thoroughly deconstructed is what marries the continental/analytical divide.

    If there ever will be some sort of grand unified theory of philosophy, it will have the language-game at its core.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Good article. I’m a big metaphilosophy fan and an “analytic” naturalist who is a fan of many “continental” philosophers. That being said, I have a few concerns I’d like to raise:

    1. I’m not sure pro-science/anti-science is the most helpful dividing line. Naturalist/anti-naturalist might be better, since “pro-scientific” is a little nebulous. Is it pro-scientific to think that science is in some minimal sense a good thing and that we should argue for out claims? Well you’d be hard pressed to find a major 20th century who wouldn’t agree with that (though they exist).

    2. Related to 1, much “analytic” philosophy was very much anti-naturalist, and the contemporary flowering of naturalist approaches has more to do with the death of “analytic” philosophy than it is an outgrowth of it. Dummettian “philosophy as conceptual analysis” had pretty much nothing to do with science, and of course was often used to deflate philosophy and the critical power it could have in tandem with the natural sciences (let us not forget that many of the arch 1950s and 1960s conceptual analysts were conservative Catholics who used this deflating of scientific and philosophical pretensions to make the world safe for conservative Catholicism and unjustified ethical beliefs). Current naturalist approaches of course grew importantly out of Quinean and scientific (Chomsky etc.) demolitions of this notion of “analysis.”

    3. Related to the above, it might be best to say “Anglophone post-positivist” philosophy because naturalism largely grew out of the emigre logical positivists/empiricists working out internal criticism of their own tradition, plus some pragmatist influences and the demise of the “conceptual analysis” program from 2. Of course, a very different sort of conceptual analysis is popular today, but this naturalistic conceptual analysis is more about 1) understanding our intuitions 2) using modal reasoning involving our intuitions to help us clarify concepts like “causation.” You’ve described this sort of thing before as mapping out “logical space.” Regardless this sort of “conceptual analysis,” the sort defended in Jackson (2000)[1] has little to with the sort of “conceptual analysis” that earned the term “analytic philosophy.” At the very least conceptual analysis these days is more of a tool that complements postpositivist projects of various sorts, rather than itself being the central and defining task of philosophy. And of course there are a good portion of philosophers who fall on the “anglophone naturalist” side of the sociological divide who have no sympathy for even this form of conceptual analysis, like Quine and many Quineans, Hintikkaa Jerry Fodor, Kornblith, the Churchlands, Stich, Cartwright, Kitcher, etc.

    4. I think the tendency towards wanting to come up with a revolutionary new worldview every few weeks is more a tendency of certain Anglophone academics who self-identify as “continentalists” rather than it is of the actual philosophers they use. Most of the “big name” figures like Derrida, Deleuze, Foucault, Althusser, Lyotard etc. were, whatever else we may think of them, responding to the inherited problems of their context.

    5. Related to 4, I think we should separate people who define themselves as capital-C Continental philosophers in opposition to those dirty analytics and to whom most of your generalizations definitely apply, and of anybody who works on philosophers from France and Germany, and indeed from the canonical figures themselves. The former, whom Brian Leiter calls “party-line continentalists” and has a great piece about[2], are mostly restricted to a handful of mediocre-to-bad departments and non-philosophy humanities and exist in a perpetual incestuous orgy of cross-citation, reinventing the wheel, and fads. The latter simply treats figures like Nietzsche or Foucault as philosophers worthy of our interest and engagement. Indeed, we are arguably living in a golden age of continental philosophy in the non-party-line sense, with a flowering of historical scholarship on figures like Hegel and Nietzsche, the prominence of Hegelian (Brandom, McDowell, Pippin) and Kantian (Michael Friedman and in a totally different way Christine Korsgaard) motifs in much philosophy, which of course really go all the way back to Sellars and Strawson. Nietzsche is being used very seriously in x-phi influenced metaethics.

    6. I share the hesitation of many commenters to identify “science studies” with continental philosophy. While there certainly are “science studies” figures who are continental philosophers in some sense (Latour and in different ways the “posthumanists” borrow from Deleuze a lot, sometimes without realizing it, Plotnitsky is a Derridean, many use a kind of caricature of Foucault), it is hardly characteristic of “science studies.” Just as, perhaps even more influential are forms of glib historical relativism stemming from misunderstandings of Kuhn, or thinking that caricatured Kuhn + Feyerabend is the takeaway of philosophy of science, the “strong programme” which is based in a form of British Wittgensteinianism, and feminist standpoint epistemology is only distantly continental (there are some parallels between it and the “Geschichte und Klassenbewusstein” era Lukács). So I’d say there is non-negligible overlap between part-line-continentalists and science studies, and science studies is where party-liners mostly get their understanding of science from, but party-line-continentalism is hardly characteristic of science studies, which doesn’t make any of those other approaches any less…bad, of course.

    At the beginning of this post I described myself as “an “analytic” naturalist who is a fan of many “continental” philosophers,” and I like to think that my very existence problematizes the notion that the divide is as fundamental as some still think. I’m a naturalist who think philosophy is continuous with science and that Nietzsche is a great ally in this. I love Quine and Carnap but find Kripke’s reception puzzling. I think eliminative materialism should be taken very seriously but I find Nagel, even pre-mind and cosmos, thoroughly unimpressive. I think Foucault and Marx have infinitely more to teach us about politics than Nussbaum, Dworkin, or Sandel. I think metaethics is awesome but find most “analytic” normative and applied ethics embarassing and find more value in even a page of Adorno. I think Darwin allowed biology to dynamite essentialism and that this one of feminist critique’s best friends, not its enemy. Luckily, I think cases like mine are becoming increasingly common.

    [1]Jackson, F. 2000. From Metaphysics to Ethics: A Defense of Conceptual Analysis. Oxford University Press


  3. *our and *major twentieth century philosopher, sorry for the typoes.


  4. Thank you, first of all, for such an inspiring range of philosophical topics!

    You had written (which I quote):

    “From the continental point of view, philosophers of science like Popper [9] are hopelessly naive when they look (and think they found) simple logical rules that can determine the validity of scientific theories”

    – Interjection: from the continental point of view (a loaded predisposition) are you asserting this or simply accepting such an opinion? It seems to be a very simple negation (as in just saying not so) for a complex reasoning string in falsification, to show how something could be disproven before accepting anything as proof (but denying that such a method is logically valid for failure to perform it). Your reference doesn’t actually cite Popper, does it? Why not just say what he had said, rather than paraphrase?

    “and they would argue that too much emphasis on a scientific worldview ends up discounting the human dimension altogether — ironically, philosophy’s original chief concern (at least according to Plato).”

    Would you subsume post-modernism (PM) and pragmatism (P) under skepticism or positivism? PM denies moral autonomy, asserting that anything truly human is institutionally human, and basically caving to the prospect that people could agree on anything. P, on the other hand, accepts as meaningful the idea that the future may be predictable, but tries to naturalize discovery (which is entirely optimistic, at best, unrealistically so).


  5. SciSal,

    >Well, authors within science studies do think themselves as continental, not analytic, at the least those I talked to.As for writing philosophy, ah, well, that’s an interesting question, and it’s not limited to science studies either.<

    I would say the question addressed determines whether or not it is philosophy and if so what kind. Are philosophical questions really the priority of "studies" departments?


  6. I think you’re reading too much into Massimo’s invocation of Popper. It’s not the nuances of Popper’s views that are important here, just that he is a (famous) example of the sort highly abstract, generalized approach to philosophy of science that historicists find naive.


  7. “However, the process of ‘testing common sense against logic’ is really the testing of a certain claim, which has been extracted from common sense, against assumed definitions which are essentially unquestioned for purposes of the analysis.”

    But I’m not sure that’s the case either. Part of the process is about technically defining terms, often in ways that deviate from common usage, before we even begin making claims using them. A perfect example is the compatibilist’s use of the term free will, a usage arguably at odds with the ‘common sense’ understanding, but arrived at through reflection and reasonable argument. You’re also equating common language usage with common sense. The first is about shared meanings of words (largely for pragmatic reasons), the latter is about the unquestioned adoption of particular claims or views because they’re self evident and/or culturally instilled without reflection. Different things. The whole point of analytic philosophy is to question and reflect on, to provide reasons for or against, particular claims or views, thereby either taking them out of the realm of ‘common sense’ by reasonably affirming them, or rejecting a ‘common sense’ claim as illegitimate when founding wanting against the test of reason.

    So it’s incorrect to say analytic philosophy ‘derives truths’ from common sense claims. It doesn’t. It’s not on common sense that its claims ultimately rest, but on logical analysis and reasonable inference. Whether that negates or affirms common sense in and of itself is irrelevant to analytic philosophy.


  8. Thanks for the comments Massimo. Definitely agree with your point on keeping in mind how different uses of science can affect certain groups of people. Need to maintain that constant vigilance.


  9. Yes, I believe that in a way every conversation about the analytic/continental split is marred by giving too much attention to the post-1960s French philosophy, probably due to the vast attention it has received in the US for decades.

    In Italy, for example, there has been an ample reception of analytic philosophy, often mixing it with the ideas they were receiving from the other traditions (hermeneutics, idealism, marxism, deconstructionism, phenomenology, neo-kantism) flourishing around them. For example, some of these philosophers are: Aldo Giorgio Gargani, Francesco Barone, Ludovico Geymonat, Franca D’Agostini, Giulio Giorello, Maurizio Ferraris.

    Even Massimo’s otherwise excellent article has the problem of conflating the reception that post-60s French philosophy had in the US with continental philosophy in general, which is extremely varied and not always political and anti-science. One has to think that, even in the post-1960 group, people like Lacan and Derrida were often attacked in France for not being political enough and that neither of them had a hostility towards science (Lacan even declared himself a son of the Enlightenment and to be consistent he maintained that psychoanalysis is not a science), but the reception of those philosophers was instead often both politicized and critical of science.

    In the end I believe that a great leap forward will be made once we understand the diversity of what is called continental philosophy and start of speaking of analytic philosophy alongside a plurality of other traditions. Also I think that what pigeonholes any thinker in any tradition is more a question of her/his genealogy rather than any particular quality.

    Still, if I had to specify a characteristic, often ignored, that underlies analytic philosophy and is usually absent in other philosophical currents, I would go with a certain instrumental idea of language and skepticism towards the notion that style influences the content of thought. That is the belief that language is mainly a tool that has as its function the communication of meaning. Consequently, it stresses conformity of style and lexicon, and the disavowal of personal idiosyncrasies, exactly because they become an impediment to the clearest expression of thought.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Hi Christian,

    Well, I wanted to be sure, because paraphrasing is easy for us. Philosophy of history is actually hard work, even though it be robustly preposterous or as interesting as Nostradamus and all the prophet before him. We have the ancients leading the way with brilliant examples of paradox, e.g., how the world began, or how the world will end, etcetera, and our contemporary paradox being whether or not to regard something as scientific or religious? The paradox is how someone could actually know something that they have not performed any logic required to meaningfully say something (reduced simply to an absence of logic). After all that I have learned, I just find myself scratching my head with historicism and the attention it deserves. Historicism is presumed significant of all philosophy, enough to regard philosophy subordinate to something that sells. I think that is ultimately why Popper regarded historicism as impoverished (and why philosophy is treated often as though it were nothing but a brand of historicism, when in fact historicism is ideological, not philosophical). I feel pedantic explaining it like this. Philosophy of history differs from history of philosophy, of course, but there is the controversy: what history should sell or not? What philosophy is true? Of course, there are many philosophers, having lived extraordinary lives during history, with experiences that may never be duplicated in any way (some thankfully, e.g., WWI and WWII). Forgive my use of ‘I think’ so often; it’s not an egoistic problem, but we don’t know each other well enough to realize what an ego truly and meaningfully could be between us, over the Internet..

    I think it is difficult to appease everyone’s desires for a grand meta-narrative of the history of Western philosophy (beginning with Hegel himself, grand historian, but grandiose philosopher of history as well).

    I think there are either mistakes after Kant, like Hegel, who moved on without fully realizing what they left behind (as presumed enlightened autonomous persons, nevertheless living vicariously in a world of stuff for sale) or those who progressed and accepted the good out of existentialism (namely Kierkegaard onward to Sartre), all because there are philosophers (actual thinkers) and there are ideologues (to use Plato’s term “copies” of philosophers, actors at thinking, trying to replace thought with speech).

    Philosophy of history is ripe with ideologues, and the Continentals inherited that, struggling to produce satisfactory narratives of “enlightened” beings who survive worldly nonsense, whereas the Analytics basically took to demonizing metaphysics, inspired by the Austrian Vienna Circle. Telling the history of philosophy is almost as important as realizing the logic of the philosophers (whosoever that may be, labeling themselves or others). It’s just a lot to consider, and I think that treating skepticism to more intrigue than positivism really loosens or loses philosophy from historical importance.

    Are we mistaken about philosophy, due to the frequencies of historicism and post-modernism? What do you think?

    Thanks for reading and responding, Christian.

    I recommend: “The Seduction of Unreason: The Intellectual Romance with Fascism from Nietzsche to Postmodernism” (2006) by Richard Wolin

    For philosophy of history, I recommend Benedetto Croce and Roger Collingwood.


  11. I argue that defining terms is an act of synthesis or “concept creation” in the realm of “continental” practice. Regardless of how different they are from other usages in other times and places, they must become fixed and treated unreflectively as “common sense” as a practical necessity in order to use them in argument (as you seem to understand). Philosophers can fret about “reasonably argued” definitions all they’d like, but ultimately it comes down to whatever are the rules of usage that one can share with another in dialogue. And even compatibilists arguing for a particular definition over another are still arguing by an appeal to pre-existing notions (taken as common sense) of how language ought to change, etc. (insofar as they are arguing by means of logical analysis).

    “The first is about shared meanings of words (largely for pragmatic reasons), the latter is about the unquestioned adoption of particular claims or views because they’re self evident and/or culturally instilled without reflection. Different things.”

    I really don’t think these are different things. “A bachelor is an unmarried man” is self evident and/or culturally instilled without reflection. For pragmatic reasons, it is the meaning of the word “bachelor”. As far as I know, the meanings of words for pragmatic reasons are in general self evident and/or culturally instilled “common sense”. Of course, not all (self-evident/culturally instilled) “common sense” is based properly in the meanings of words, and that’s where common sense contradicts itself–places revealed by the philosopher in her push for coherence.


  12. Thanks – yes Eastern stuff does seem to strike people as being more like continental than analytic philosophy. I’m not sure how much of that is a reaction to the aphoristic style of a lot of Eastern texts, the collapsing of distinctions that you get in a lot of Eastern thought, or just the fact that both Eastern and continental can be stylistically opaque. (Not that analytic philosophy is always a model of lucidity either).


  13. Jason, you might want to read Bernard Williams [2002] “Truth and Truthfulness” and his ‘Avant-propos’ to the French edition of “Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy” (Gallimard, NRF). Williams is as sensitive to the perils of trading in the usual cliches as any contemporary anglophone writer on the subject. He offers a reading of Nietzsche which blocks the standard (often hysterical**) ‘relativistisms’. But, and this is my point, Williams defends a line of thought which preserves the very Enlightenment (us/them) demarcation to which you object here. I think Williams is right to do so.
    ** Both Foucault and Lacan are guilty of hysteria when the large part of the works are taken up with reinventing certain wheels (Nietzsche, Freud, even Hume).


  14. “… contemporary Western philosophy, … one more “scientific” (and science-friendly), the other humanistic (and often critical of science). … the two philosophical modes pretty much irreconcilable: “If this [view] is correct, we have little reason to be optimistic that AP [analytic philosophy] and CP [continental philosophy] could overcome their differences and produce a new way of doing philosophy that would combine the strengths of both.”

    Difference indeed. But they are only the different sides of the same pyramid, that is, it can of course be unified. Your approach of using the ‘philosophy of science’ as the cut-in place is great. Yet, we must know exactly what the ‘science’ is first. And we have discussed this issue many times in this Webzine. Obviously, we have progressed with light speed from the simple (A to Z) to your great writing below.

    “What got lost in the kerfuffle is that of course science is both
    [1] an epistemic activity that at least strives (and has been historically remarkably successful) for a rational use of evidence
    And [2] a social activity with inevitable ideological, political and even personal psychological components playing a non-inconspicuous part in it.”

    In general, [2] is in the background but is the ‘true’ dominant force. As long as the [1] is not in conflict with the [2], [2] is happy to be in the ‘backseat’. But, as soon as the ‘evidence’ is in conflict with the ideology (the current paradigm), that ‘evidence’ must be totally destroyed or ignored.

    Now, we are in an ideology-total-domination ‘period’ in physics. The ‘only game in town’ strategy is only a squire of that ideology master. Yet, we have seen recently that the lost-herd even worships that squire as a Gospel. When a ‘leading sheep’ fell off the cliff, all the following herd jump off in suicide. Your pointing out the fact of [2] signifies a new life for science, especially for physics. I must congratulate on your great work.

    Again, pointing out Qunie’s idea of ‘web-knowledge’ {… a Duhem-Quine type web of belief … there is [thus] no theoretical fact or lawlike relation whose truth or falsity can be determined in isolation from the rest of the network. … to include logical (coherence), aesthetic (simplicity) and sociological considerations. …} is again very important here. It helps greatly to clarify the inadequacy of the Popperian’s ‘isolated-point’ epistemology.

    It is so sad that Quine (a prominent philosophy of science) had pointed out the inadequacy of the Popperianism so many years ago, but almost no one (in the herd) takes his saying seriously. Obviously, there is a long (very, very long) battle ahead on this. It will take God’s power to change this herd-mentality ‘quickly’. If (a big if) we can realize that the Western-philosophy is only ‘one-side’ of a coin, we can then open up our wisdom eye to find the key to unlock our closed-mind. When we understand Yijing (a great wisdom of 3,000 years ago), we can see another side of this philosophy-of-science coin. We will definitely be shocked about this ‘philosophy-of-science’.

    Unfortunately, ‘all’ (all, not a single exception) the Yijing books in the West before 2010 were wrong and bad. They have done all the great Western philosophers in in understanding the true Yijing. I was invited by “Chinois en France @ LinkedIn ( )” to give an entire lecture on Yijing. For anyone who is not a group member of LinkedIn, I have post my lectures at . If one does not know about this ‘philosophy-of-science’, one is just doing all the gaga while denying all the yaya.


  15. For what its worth, citations to some degree reflect the influence of writings. I checked all the writers mentioned above on Google Scholar, and here are the citations of all of them with a paper or book with over 1000 citations, ordered by the topmost cited one. Foucault wins by a massive amount.

    M Foucault, 483,580 citations: Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison 40,742 citations, The history of sexuality: An introduction 32,446 citations, Power/knowledge: Selected interviews and other writings, 1972-1977, 25,699 citations, The archaeology of knowledge, 20,285 citations, The order of things: An archaeology of the human sciences 14,785 citations, Microfísica del poder, 14,387 citations, The Foucault effect: Studies in governmentality, 11,130 citations, 33 other books over 2,000 citations

    Thomas Kuhn, The structure of scientific revolutions, 72,686 citations, The essential tension: Selected studies in scientific tradition and change, 3,231 citations, 2 other books over 1000 citations, 2500 citations

    Paul Feyerabend Wittgenstein’s philosophical investigations, 28,731 citations, Against method, 8,132 citations, Science in a free society, 1,087 citations

    Karl Popper, The logic of scientific discovery, 19,568 citations, Conjectures and refutations: The growth of scientific knowledge, 12,664 citations, Objective knowledge: An evolutionary approach, 8,505 citations, The open society and its enemies, 7,508 citations, The poverty of historicism, 4,317, 3 other books, over 1000, 4000 citations

    Jacques Lacan: Ecrits, 11,000 citations, 3 books on psychoanalysis, 8,000 citations

    John Stuart Mill, On liberty, 11,000 citations, Utilitarianism, liberty & representative government, 5,707 citations, A System of Logic Ratiocinative and Inductive, 5,213 citations, 3 other books over 1000 citations, 4,000 citations

    Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, 10,590 citations, Contingency, irony, and solidarity, 7,977 citations, Consequences of pragmatism: Essays, 1972-1980, 3,623 citations, Objectivity, relativism, and truth: philosophical papers, 2,640 citations, 2 others over 1000 citations, 3,000 citations

    W.V.O. Quine, ] Word and object, 8,410 citations, From a logical point of view: 9 logico-philosophical essays, 3,806, Ontological relativity and other essays, 2,652, 5 other books over 1000 citations, 6,000

    Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy, 4,922 citations, The principles of mathematics, 3,246 citations, Principia mathematica, 3,088 citations, The problems of philosophy, 3,152 citations, six other books at over 1000, 9,000 citations

    G.E. Moore, Principia ethica, 4,703 citations

    Luce Irigaray, This sex which is not one, 4,070 citations, Speculum of the other woman, 2,850, An ethics of sexual difference, 1,535

    Michael Dummett, Frege: Philosophy of language, 2,620 citations, 2 other books over 1000, citations, 2,400

    P Duhem, The aim and structure of physical theory, 1,983 citations

    Mary Hesse, Models and analogies in science, 1,843 citations, Revolutions and Reconstructions in the Philosophy of Science, 1,043 citations

    Alan Sokal, Transgressing the boundaries: Toward a transformative hermeneutics of quantum gravity, 1,064 citations


  16. Ok I should have put Foucault second, but his total is so overwhelming compared with everyone else …


  17. I think youre absolutely right and this a very important point. In fact it may be the most important thing on this post. The way Merleau-Ponty, Husserl, Habermas, Brentano and I think even Heidegger (once you cut through the neo-logisms) thought about philosophy and the positions they held are much more continuous with analytic conceptions than those of Deleuze, Derrida, Lacan etc but somehow (probably because of the the science wars) the analytic community takes the latter list to be paradigmatic examples of “Continental” thinking. Accordingly the rift becomes very exaggerated.


  18. “Also I think that what pigeonholes any thinker in any tradition is more a question of her/his genealogy rather than any particular quality.”
    Once I again I agree profoundly. I think one of the main sources of the divide (at least in theoretical philosophy) is that Hegel found one account of representation and intentionality and Frege, Russell and More found another very different one. Much of the split follows from this.


  19. Keep in mind that this is total citations, not necessarily citations by the relevant scholars, philosophers. Foucault, Lacan, Feyerabend, Kuhn, and Popper are all (albeit for EXTREMELY different reasons) very popular outside of philosophy, particularly in other humanities disciplines. Popper also gets cited a lot in shitty conservative books.

    This is especially the case with Foucault (of whom I am a fan) as he is not just concerned with the history and philosophy of science, he has relevance to almost any conceivable social topic. For example, Foucault’s influence is huge in gender and sexuality studies.

    It would be wonderful if someone did a citation index of some sort for top philosophy journals, but I don’t think Foucault, Kuhn, and Wittgenstein would be at the top, though they’d of course be significant presences unlike Lacan, for example, who is an insignificant charlatan in all but the backwaters of academic philosophy.


  20. “Keep in mind that this is total citations, not necessarily citations by the relevant scholars, philosophers”
    – well yes that is one of the issues, and that would be interesting. But another is to what degree the respective philosophical views affect public perceptions. That is where broader citation counts becomes relevant.


  21. From someone with just an elemental interest in philosophy, would it be coherent to say analytic is mechanistic, while continental is organic?
    While science tends to be reductionistic, in attempting to distill clear observations from a less than clear reality, the continental approach, for all its gibberish, seems like planting a seed in the soil and seeing what grows and where it goes.
    This dichotomy might also fit in with complexity theory, in that while the analytic approach tries to extract order, the continental method is to encompass chaos. Hence the gibberish.
    One might describe reality as the dichotomy of energy and information/form. Energy manifests form, while form defines energy. The tension being that while energy is obviously dynamic, form is inherently static. So as energy is trying to ‘move,’ form is trying to assert stability(equilibria punctuated by paradigm shifts). This sets up the effect of time, as form comes into being and dissolves, while energy goes onto the next. To use a factory as analogy, while the product/entity goes from start to finish, the process points the other way, consuming raw material and expelling finished product. As in biology, the individual goes from birth to death, as the species moves onto succeeding generations, shedding the old. So as form contracts into the past, energy expands into the future. As with a factory, creating the product radiates lots of excess energy/waste, so form can never be a complete view of reality and can only digitize it into ever smaller increments.
    Thus while analytic extracts those blocks of form, continental explores the energy radiating through the gaps.


  22. Hi Brodix, I think we have very similar views on the divide (I’ve linked to my blog on the subject in my response to SciSal above). Rather than energy and form (which seem to be taken respectively from scientific physics and Aristotle), I consider the subject of the two traditions as analogous to position and velocity (both in the sense taken from scientific physics). With limited instruments and for a single data point, one can measure either one with accuracy, or both with inaccuracy. Likewise, one can philosophize sensibly in an analytic manner, or sensibly in a “continental” manner, or nonsensically in both at the same time.

    From an analytic frame of reference, continental thought is meaningless; from a continental one, analytic philosophy is meaningless. But they are both necessary to philosophy as such, because common sense (which I argue is the subject of philosophy) can be critiqued either as a phenomenon in history or as a collection of intelligible thoughts independent of their historical context.


  23. Benny,
    One of the main arguments I use for the dichotomy of informations/energy is that after billions of years of evolution, we have a very distinct information processing function, in the central nervous system and a very significant energy processing apparatus in the digestive, respiratory and circulatory systems(not to mention that creating vitamin D is our own form of photosynthesis). As a distinction it may not be useful for the focused measurements of physics, but emerges when one steps back to look at the bigger picture.
    As for measuring velocity versus position, isn’t that a problem which applies to all scales? A moving car doesn’t have an exact location, or it wouldn’t be moving. If you were to take a picture of a moving car, even at the fastest shutter speed, there would still be some incremental movement. If you have a dimensionless point in time, that would be equivalent to not opening the shutter. Any multiple of zero is zero.
    If one were to actually stop quantum movement, what would even exist? Most of the energy is in the movement. Actual mass seems quite nebulous.
    This goes to the point that form is inherently static, while energy is necessarily dynamic, yet the platonic realm of pure form doesn’t exist, just as any energy carries some information.
    So analytic is trying to extract the form, while continental tries to ride the flow, like the seed absorbing energy to grow.
    Like sides of a coin, you can only see one at a time, but two are necessary for it to exist.


%d bloggers like this: