Continental Philosophy

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The term continental philosophy was coined by English-speaking analytic philosophers in Great Britain and the United States shortly after World War II. Since then, the term has been used primarily by English-speaking philosophers but not by western European philosophers, who see no need to call themselves "continental."

The differences between analytic and continental philosophy are rooted in eighteenth-century European Enlightenment. Generally speaking, analytic philosophers tended to view the Enlightenment positively, while continental philosophers viewed it critically. Taking different stances toward the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (17241804), analytic philosophers focused primarily on Kant's epistemological work, Critique of Pure Reason, while continental philosophers stressed Kant's ethical and aesthetic works, the Critique of Practical Reason and the Critique of Judgment. The final divide between analytic and continental philosophy occurred in their respective stances toward post-Kantian German idealism and Romanticism, especially toward the dialectical system of the "Absolute Spirit" posited by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (17701831). Deeply influenced by Hegel and by the critique of religion devised by Hegel's former student Ludwig Feuerbach (18041872), Karl Marx (18181883) and Friedrich Engels (18201895) transformed Hegel's dialectical idealism into dialectical and historical materialism. In keeping with this post-Kantian philosophy, contemporary continental philosophers are concerned primarily with man's history and culture and with religious, moral, and social issues.

Wittgenstein and Analytic Philosophy

In order to understand continental philosophy, one has to refer indirectly to analytic philosophy, which originated in Germany and Austria through the work of Gottlob Frege (18481925) and the Austrian-born British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (18891951), its most famous representative. Analytic philosophy was preceded by the logical positivism of the "Vienna Circle" of the 1930s and drew its name from its logical "analysis" of language. Analytic philosophy soon became the mainstream philosophical movement in the English-speaking world, especially after the publication of Wittgenstein's Tractatus logico-philosophicus in 1921. With great originality, the later Wittgenstein overshadowed almost all of analytic philosophy with his posthumous book Philosophische Untersuchungen (1953; Philosophical Investigations ), which brought about a new "linguistic turn," wherein language came to be understood in terms of cultural diversity, or "language games," including ordinary, religious, moral, and aesthetic language. In his later years Wittgenstein criticized his own Tractatus and its one-sided, representational "picture theory" of language. The later Wittgenstein reinterpreted language as embedded in the action-oriented, social context of historical "forms of life." In addition, Wittgenstein was deeply concerned with the foundations of religious faith, the nature of religious language, fideism, and ethical and aesthetic issues, which brought him closer to the European, "continental" philosophy of Kant, Arthur Schopenhauer (17881860), and even Martin Heidegger (18891976).

Wittgenstein opened the way to encounters with continental philosophy. In spite of ongoing differences in subjects and methods, in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries continental and analytic philosophers have opened promising new dialogues as exemplified by Richard Rorty, Herbert Dreyfus, Charles Taylor, John McDowell, Hilary Putnam, Stanley Cavell, Alistair McIntyre, Hans-Georg Gadamer, and Jean-François Lyotard, among others. Contemporary philosophy of science, with its historical and sociological sensibility, has also been influenced by continental philosophy as exemplified by Thomas Kuhn, Gaston Bachelard, Jürgen Habermas, Karl-Otto Appel, Ernst Tugendhat, Ian Hacking, Paul Feyerabend, Patrick Heelan, Joseph J. Kockelmans, Ted Kiesel, and Thomas M. Seebohm. Continental philosophy has especially impacted Heidegger-influenced existential psychoanalysis as exemplified by the work of Jean Piaget, Ludwig Binswanger, Medard Boss, Erich Fromm, William J. Richardson, and Jacques Lacan.

With its roots in the Enlightenment, the analytic tradition, for the most part, stresses clarity and precision in thought and language, an ahistorical view of truth, reason, and human nature. It tends to critique traditional religion, morality, and metaphysics. With the exception of the more conservative Wittgenstein, analytic philosophers, for the most part, adhere to a progressive, liberal, and democratic worldview. In contrast, heavily influenced by Hegel's ideas about the intrinsic historicity of human thought and action, continental tradition, for the most part, is concerned with the historical, cultural, and social conditions of human life and tends to be focused on issues of liberation and "emancipation" from individual and social injustice. Some continental philosophers are critical of modernism and liberal democracy, especially Heidegger and some postmodernists. There are many exceptions, including the liberal Western Marxists György Lukács (18851971), Ernst Bloch (18851977), and Antonio Gramsci (18911937), as well as the Frankfurt School. In the twenty-first century, continental philosophy is strongly represented by French philosophers.

Because of the great impact of nineteenth-century German idealism and European Romanticism on continental philosophy, some continental philosophers, in the footsteps of Schopenhauer, Max Weber (18641920), Max Scheler (18741928), and Oswald Spengler (18801936), have been critical of modern, urbanized, and industrialized society. Haunted by the loss of a mostly idealized ancient, medieval world of agricultural and hierarchical life forms, they have sought to recover a holistic view of human life as adumbrated in the "philosophies of life" of Friedrich Nietzsche (18441900), Wilhelm Dilthey (18331911), and Henri-Louis Bergson (18591941). Some continental philosophers, especially feminist philosophers, have emphasized the dimensions of the aesthetic life, the emotional, imaginative, creative, and "unconscious" aspects of human existence.

Freud and the Unconscious

The pioneering work of Sigmund Freud (18561939) on the unconscious had a deep influence on modern literature, literary criticism, and on continental philosophy. When continental philosophy rediscovered the unconscious, it inspired a deeper appreciation of the human body and of human sexuality and also supported the rejection of the dualism of René Descartes (15961650). Concerned with issues presented by Freud's work, French philosophers such as Jean-Paul Sartre (19051980), Simone de Beauvoir (19081986), Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Jean Baudrillard, Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan, and the feminist philosophers Luce Irigaray (b. 1930), Julia Kristeva (b. 1941), Sarah Kofman (19341994), Michele Le Doeuff (b. 1948) and Helene Cixous (b. 1937) are now at the forefront of the crossroads between philosophy, linguistic theory, Marxism, psychoanalysis, and literature. For example, Irigaray writes: "Sexual difference is one of the major philosophical issues, if not the issue, of our age" (Ethique de la difference sexuelle, 1984; An Ethics of Sexual Difference, p. 19).

Phenomenology of Consciousness

In eighteenth-century Germany, Johann Heinrich Lambert (17281777), Kant, and Hegel, who wrote Die Phänomenologie des Geistes (1807; Phenomenology of Spirit ), used the term phenomenology in different contexts. Edmund Husserl (18591938), the founder of contemporary phenomenology, used the term as a pre-suppositionless description of human consciousness in constituting meaning. From his teacher Franz Brentano (18381917), Husserl adopted the theory of "intentionality," the notion that every mental act is directed toward something. According to Husserl, phenomenology describes the essential contents (noema ) of our intentional acts (noesis ), not objects in the world. The content of consciousness is neutral as to its reality or nonreality.

In his famous Logische Untersuchungen (19001901; Logical Investigations ), Husserl sought to go "back to the things themselves" (Zu den Sachen selbst ) as they appeared to pure consciousness in perceptual and "categorical intuition." Husserl maintained that "being" is given to "categorical intuition" like any other ideal essence. Heidegger critiqued Husserl, maintaining that being is not an "object" of intuition but is understood from the pretheoretical context of man's concrete, factical life. Heidegger transformed Husserl's phenomenology of consciousness into a hermeneutical and existential phenomenology of "being."

Husserl's first work, Philosophie der Arithmetik (1891; Philosophy of Arithmetic ), was written in terms of "psychologism," according to which "logical meaning" could be reduced to "psychological acts." When Frege criticized "psychologism," Husserl discarded it and developed a new method, which attempted to gain access to the data of "pure" consciousness by taking a step back ("reduction") from the "natural attitude" of common sense and the sciences. In his new method, Husserl described two different "reductions": (1) phenomenological reduction, or epoché (suspension), which "brackets" the ordinary, natural world, that is, the "existence" of things, and (2) eidetic reduction, which describes the eidos, the "essence" of noematic content. Husserl called the intentional activity of consciousness "object-constituting subjectivity" by which all meanings are "constituted," that is, disclosed and made manifest. Although Husserl remained within the Cartesian tradition of subject-object dualism, he consigned this dualism to the noetic-noematic structure of the intentional act. Thus, he undermined the modern "epistemological" problem of an isolated subject and an "external world."

In his early work Ideen zu einer reinen phänomenologie (1913; Ideas: General Introduction to Pure Phenomenology), Husserl and his students held a "realist" position, focusing on the contents of consciousness, whereas the later Husserl changed to a more "idealist" position, which he called "transcendental," that is, that the world is always "for" a mind. According to Husserl, transcendental consciousness "bestows" meaning upon everything, including its own functioning. In some respects, the later Husserl paralleled Heidegger by turning his phenomenological investigations to questions of "temporality," that is, the temporal flow of transcendental consciousness, and to "intersubjectivity" or social existence. In his later years, Husserl also focused on a "genetic" phenomenology in which the original "genesis" of intentional acts and objects is something passive for consciousness ("passive synthesis"), prior to any voluntary activity of transcendental consciousness. Husserl also became interested in the historical character of science and in the problem of the constitution of the "life-world" (Lebenswelt ) upon which science is based. Ironically, the later Husserl believed that phenomenology could even constitute the "essence" of the life-world.

Merleau-Ponty was one of the most famous French phenomenologists. Influenced by Husserl and Heidegger, opposed to Cartesian subject-object dualism, he developed an "ontology of the flesh," which centered on the primacy of perceptual experience and the role of the lived and living body as the primary access to a spatio-temporal world (Phénoménologie de la perception (1945; Phenomenology of Perception ). One's perceptions, which are always connected with the flesh of the living body, are historically situated interpretations of the world. Perceptions cannot be reduced to pure "sense-data" of intentional consciousness.

Heidegger and the Phenomenology of Being

Heidegger studied Scholastic philosophy and theology at the University of Freiburg, where he became acquainted with Husserl's new phenomenological movement. In 1927 he published his most famous work, Sein und Zeit (Being and Time ). In 1933 he served briefly as the rector of the University of Freiburg but was stripped of his professorship in 1945 because of his personal involvement with the national socialist movement and his membership in the Nazi Party. After the war, his stubborn silence about Nazi atrocities and the Holocaust cast a dark shadow over his otherwise brilliant career. He died in 1976, and in accordance with his wishes, he had a Catholic funeral.

In his student days, when he read Brentano's On the Manifold Meaning of Being since Aristotle (1862), Heidegger became absorbed with the question of time as experienced by human beings and with the question of the meaning of being (Seinsfrage ); that is, what it means "to be." He gradually came to the conclusion that all Western philosophy, beginning with Plato's theory of suprasensible Forms, had conceived being and time as opposites, mutually exclusive of each other. Even Aristotle had interpreted time as constant "presence" and as a "now," without reference to being and past and future horizons. Western metaphysics had described God too as eternal "Now" (Nunc stans ), beyond all time. Heidegger called attention to this "onto-theological" character of metaphysics and maintained that the actual, unitary relationship between being and time in human existence had been "forgotten" in lieu of dualisms such as time and eternity.

In addition to Heidegger's existential interpretation of such terms as techne, phronesis, and sophia in Artistotle's Ethics, his studies of time in early Christianity, Augustin, Luther, and Kiekegaard had a great influence on Being and Time. In turn, Heidegger had a deep impact on contemporary Protestant and Catholic theology.

Reevaluating the relationship between being and time, Heidegger argued that human existence must be understood from three dimensions of "ec-static" (i.e., existential) time: past, present, and future in their intimate, ontological interdependence. He used the German word Dasein to describe the human being with his/her implicit understanding of being. The "Da" or "there" of Dasein expresses that the human being is not a thing-like "substance" (Aristotle) or an enclosed "subject" (Descartes). Rather, the human being is an open realm, a "clearing" (Lichtung ) as in a forest, wherein the understanding of being, of other human beings and things, and of man's own self takes place simultaneously. Dasein is always already a "being-with-others" in a shared, communal way of life. For Heidegger, Dasein is ontologically gender neutral. Because of its temporal character, Dasein is not a static entity but a "potentiality-for-being" (Seinkonnen), a temporal movement of possible ways of being, which the individual chooses or lets others choose for him. Dasein is always a projecting of oneself into the future toward death, its "authentic" acceptance or its "inauthentic" denial.

Another related term for Dasein is existence, from the Latin ec-sistence, meaning "standing out" into the openness of being. Existence applies only to human beings and is characterized by "mineness," which can be "authentic" or "inauthentic." Still another relational word for Dasein is "being-in-the-world, " which negates the subject-object dualism of Descartes and Husserl, and articulates Dasein 's holistic and practical involvement with, and comportment toward, the world. Dasein is not disclosed to us through "categories" of things, but rather through its prescientific characteristics, which Heidegger called "existentials" such as disposition (Befindlichkeit ), existential understanding (Verstehen ), and speech (Rede ).

According to Heidegger, in Identität und Differenz (1957; Identity and Difference ), Western metaphysics erred in its inadequate understanding of time as pure "presence" for a subject. Furthermore, Western metaphysics forgot the primordial "ontological difference" between "being" and "beings" in favor of only "ontical differences" between beings such as God, world, and humanity. Heidegger maintained that metaphysics had to be "destructed" in order to positively unearth and retrieve its forgotten, primordial experience of being as the "unthought" in Western metaphysics. In Derrida's "deconstruction" of texts, which was originally influenced by Heidegger, the term took on a more critical, "disruptive" interpretation of literary texts. Heidegger "deconstructed" Western metaphysics by reinterpreting the texts of numerous Western thinkers from the sixth-century-b.c.e. Greek philosopher Parmenides to Nietzsche.

In his analysis of "being-in-the-world," Heidegger also distinguished between things "ready-to-hand" (Zuhanden ) objects of practical concern with a historical and/or social contextand things "present-at-hand" (Vorhanden ) things abstracted from their context and made objects of our theoretical, scientific knowledge. Heidegger demonstrated that Western philosophy overlooked the original human context of "ready-to-hand" things in favor of "present-at-hand" things, "objects" in abstract space and time, as exemplified by theoretical, scientific reasoning. In this "metaphysics of presence," being itself was described as a property or essence, constantly present in things as a "substance."

One can only enumerate a few other "existentials" in Being and Time, such as the anonymous "they" (das Man ); temporality in which "care," with its threefold structure of projection, thrownness, and fallenness is rooted; existential "guilt" and "conscience"; anxiety (Angst ); "death " as the ultimate disclosure of "my" finitude and mortality, the impossibility of all my possibilities. A central place in Being and Time and other writings is devoted to the distinction between "logical truth" and "ontological truth" as standing in the light of being. According to Heidegger, the Greeks already implicitly distinguished ontological truth as "unconcealment" (aletheia ) emerging from the background of a deeper "concealment" (lethe ) prior to any logical, propositional truth.

Heidegger's later philosophy, after his so-called turn (die Kehre ), was first expressed in the Brief über den Humanismus (1947; Letter on Humanism ), according to which Western "humanism," with its one-sided emphasis on "subject" and "reason," is, nevertheless, rooted in the prior but forgotten relationship of Dasein to being. As opposed to traditional "calculative" thinking, as critiqued in Beiträge zur Philosophie 19361938 (1989; Contributions to Philosophy ), Heidegger's later, "meditative" thinking concerned itself with many new themes, such as art, language, science, and technology. In a highly speculative apocalyptic manner, the later Heidegger considered the present technological stage of the history of being as the abandonment of humankind by being itself. Yet, Heidegger's later thinking, which he understood as a "thanking" response to the call of being, is focused on an "other beginning" for humankind. Humans must "listen" and respond in a new meditative-poetic thinking, which might lead to a transformed way of life after the ages of metaphysics, a "letting-be" (Gelassenheit ) of beings, a term taken from Johannes Eckehart (c. 1260?1327) and German, medieval, mystical tradition. In a few German poets (Hölderlin, Trakl, George) Heidegger saw the hidden prophets of the future "destining" (sending) of being itself to humans.

In his growing skepticism even about the use of the word "being," Heidegger looked for new words that would mark the postmetaphysical era. He chose the term "disclosive appropriating Event" (Ereignis, from ereignen, "appropriate," and eraeugen, to see and disclose), a pure subjectless happening, from which the "fourfold" regions of the world, in their interplay between heaven, earth, mortals, and the divinities, emerge into the nearness of humanity. Heidegger's other attempts to say the "unsayable" in expressing the mystery of being (which is not in human control) include the phrases: "dif-ference" (Unterschied ) of the simultaneous withholding and unfolding of being in beings; and the "fissure" (Zerklueftung ) of being itself. Finally, he talked about the singular "Event" that gives and appropriates being (es gibt Sein ) and time by a simultaneous self-withdrawal and "expropriation" (Enteignung ).


Existentialism, as originally presented by Sartre, de Beauvoir, and Albert Camus (19131960), emphasized the importance of individual existence, choice, and personal responsibility. It was opposed to impersonal systems of thought and to modern mass society. Partially rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition of faith, existentialism has also been influenced by Søren Kierkegaard (18131855), Fyodor Dostoyevsky (18211881), Nietzsche, and by Husserl and Heidegger. Kierkegaard's ethical-religious works impacted many twentieth-century religious existentialists such as Martin Buber, Paul Tillich, Karl Barth, Gabriel-Honoré Marcel, and Emmanuel Lévinas, while Nietzsche's supposed nihilism and atheism ("God is dead') deeply influenced Karl Theodor Jaspers, Heidegger, Sartre, Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze, and Luce Irigaray.

Sartre was a philosopher, playwright, social critic, and political activist who became famous with his work L'existentialism est un humanism (1946; Existentialism Is a Humanism ) and his phrase "Existence is prior to essence." In the late 1950s, he supplemented this individualistic, existential humanism with social and critical Marxism as expressed in his book Critique de la raison dialectique (1976, 1985; Critique of Dialectical Reason ). In his early work L'être et le néant (1943; Being and Nothingness ), influenced by Husserl and Heidegger, Sartre described the tension between human consciousness ("beingfor-itself," pour soi ), which is "not a thing" but an activity, and the brute existence of things ("being-in-itself," en soi ). According to Sartre, man has absolute freedom, even in the most constrained situations as exemplified by Sartre's own experiences in the French resistance movement and his imprisonment in Germany. For Sartre, the self is always an embodied, situated self. Sartre also talked about "bad faith," which he defined as "inauthentic" flight from the anguished burden of choice and responsibility.

Sartre's lifelong companion Simone de Beauvoir, who had a great influence upon Sartre, especially upon his later socially oriented work, wrote the famous early feminist work The Second Sex (1949), which described the historical and existential situation of women. According to de Beauvoir, women continue to be defined within a masculine worldview, which assumes an "eternal feminine," an unchanging biological destiny, and a feminine "essence." Men assume that women are "the other," a designation limiting women's freedom and autonomy. De Beauvoir insisted that femaleness is a social construct: "One is not born but rather becomes a woman." De Beauvior proposed the way for the first philosophical discussion of "sexual difference" within the context of the structures of powers, and forces of desire in later feminist writers.

Camus, like Sartre, de Beauvoir, and Merleau-Ponty, one of the famous representatives of the post-war existentialist movement in France, is known for his notion of the "absurd" as expressed in his poetic writings such as The Plague (1947). According to Camus, the absurdity of existence provokes the question of the meaning of life and the act of suicide as "the only truly serious philosophical problem" (Le mythe de Sisyphe, 1942; The Myth of Sisyphus, p. 1). The human being must engage in an ongoing "revolt" against absurdity: "I rebeltherefore we exist" (L'homme révolté, 1951; The Rebel, p. 22).

Jaspers (18831969), similar to the early Heidegger, saw the historically situated freedom of the individual within certain "boundary situations" such as guilt, suffering, anxiety, and death. Existence can only be realized in communication. He considered existences a gift of Being, which he called Transcendence, God, or the "Encompassing."

Hannah Arendt (19061975), who had studied under Husserl, Heidegger, and Jaspers, emigrated to the United States and became a renowned political philosopher despite her sometimes controversial involvement with the Jewish cause. In her works on totalitarianism, anti-Semitism, and imperialism she took a stance against National Socialism and Heidegger's involvement with it, and against Marxism. She favored political freedom, constitutional democracy, and pluralism as practiced in her adopted country, the United States. In addition to Claude Lefort, Cornelius Castoriadis (b. 1932), and Habermas, Arendt is the best known political philosopher in the continental tradition.


Hans-Georg Gadamer (19002002), Heidegger's student, who taught at many German and American universities after World War II, is the father of contemporary ontological hermeneutics. His great work, Wahrheit und Methode (1960; Truth and Method ), points to the problem underlying all modern philosophy (epistemology) from Descartes to Husserl, namely, the relationship between the original "truth" of human understanding within the "life world" and historical "traditions" on the one hand, and the "methods" of the sciences on the other. Inspired by Heidegger and influenced by Hegel and German Romanticism, Gadamer transformed the method of hermeneutical understanding (Verstehen ) in the human sciences, history, law, arts, and theology into a "universal" ontological hermeneutics. He went beyond the work of Friedrich Schleiermacher (17681834) and Dilthey, who had introduced the "hermeneutical circle" as the relationship of the parts to the whole, and the "implicit" to the "explicit," and of the correspondence of the knower to the known in any interpretation. Gadamer rejected natural sciences' explanations (Eklaren ) as the only way of understanding reality.

Gadamer maintained that as the art of interpretation, hermeneutics is based upon the human, linguistically constituted "life world," the living conversation and dialogue between people that is the horizon of all human experience and knowledge. Hermeneutics aims at mutual understanding between an historically situated "author" of a text and an historically situated "reader" or interpreter. Gadamer called the hermeneutical encounter between an author and a reader the "fusion of horizons." As such, in historical events, literature, or works of art, hermeneutics is always the relationship between two horizons of understanding and interpretation within a tradition, and it has the prospective goal of "consensus."

Criticizing Enlightenment for its ahistorical perspectives and denying that the methods of the natural sciences are the only means to "objective knowledge," Gadamer emphasized the deeper truth in historical understanding, which passes from generation to generation through written texts, which arecontrary to Derrida's primacy of "writing"always rooted in the living language. As texts are interpreted and reinterpreted throughout history, they produce a "history of effect" (Wirkungsgeschichte ), which shape and influence our present and future understanding of reality. Since there are hidden presuppositions and cultural "prejudices" in each interpretation, Gadamer sees that hermeneutics does not focus on the isolated "true meaning" of a text or on the author's intention. Rather, universal Hermeneutics focuses on the different suppositions and presuppositions of all interpretations in both the human and natural sciences. After the failed attempt for a fruitful encounter between Gadamer's "dialogical" hermeneutics and Derrida's "Deconstruction" in the 1980s, which both originated in Heidegger's work, hermeneutics and Deconstruction remain two as yet unreconciled paradigms in contemporary philosophy. The third paradigm is Habermas's "critique of ideology," which rejects Gadamer's positive evaluation of tradition, consensus, authority, and "prejudice," as the continual "distortion of communication" by masked social and political interest. Thus, the special, yet unacknowledged interest of modern bourgeois, capitalist society disrupts and disguises understanding and communication in a worldwide global consumer society.

Paul Ricoeur (b. 1913), the proponent of a phenomenological hermeneutics, is focused on narrative, symbol, metaphor, dreams, and ideologies as the means by which our experience of the world is interpreted. Opposed to postmodernism's abolition of the "subject," he elaborates a notion of "subject" stripped of modern subjectivism. In contrast to Gadamer, Ricoeur does not concede a dualism between "truth" (philosophy) and "method" (science) but bridges them by his interest in the methodological "validation" of interpretation by the methods of the human sciences. He calls the critical point of hermeneutics "the hermeneutics of suspicion" as it reveals the hidden, ideological meaning of texts, events, and social practice. For Ricoeur, the great "masters of suspicion" are Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud.


Modernism is characterized by Enlightenment values; that is, trust in the autonomous human "subject," scientific reason, and universal principles of law, morality, politics, and economics. In different ways, postmodern philosophers oppose the main ideas of the Enlightenment. Instead, they focus on a "decentered" subject, human knowledge as conditioned by history, and the mistrust of the "grand narratives" of modernity (Kant, Hegel, Marx). The French philosopher and novelist Georges Bataille (18971962) initiated the poststructuralist notion regarding the death of the "subject" in order to overcome its isolation in experiences of "excess" (laughter, tears, eroticism, death, sacrifice, and poetry). Similar to Nietzsche's "perspectivism," postmodernism critiques "objective" truth and favors a theory of multiple "interpretations" of texts. Post-modernism was preceded by poststructuralism in literature, the humanities, social sciences, and even architecture in the 1960s and 1970s. Poststructuralism partially opposed the linguistic structuralism of Ferdinand de Saussure (18571913). Similar to much of the analytical philosophy, Husserl, and also Derrida, Saussure saw language as a self-contained system of signs rather than as an ongoing, historical process of conversation and dialogue in the Socratic sense. In contrast to "subjective" existentialism, structuralism focused on super-individual structures such as language, kinship, and ritual in order to understand human existence. Saussure influenced the anthropological structuralism of Claude Lévi-Strauss (b. 1908), the Marxist structuralism of Louis Althusser (19181990), the social critique of Foucault, the political and cultural critique of Roland Barthes (19151980), and the psychoanalytic structuralism of Lacan. Rejecting the scientific pretensions of structuralism, poststructuralism questioned the "objectivity" of knowledge and truth, of the "subject" as a unified self, the oppressive nature of modern institutions, authority, and power. Postmodernism was marked by the abandonment of dogmatic Marxism by French intellectuals, especially after the student-worker revolution of 1968, its critique of Western imperialism, racism, and antifeminism.

Lyotard (19241998), through his book La condition post-moderne (1979; The Postmodern Condition ), represents the postmodern movement and its great influence on the literary, political, and cultural milieu beyond professional philosophy. Lyotard pointed out the demise of grand, foundational, totalizing "metanarratives"; that is, grand theories or systems of thought such as liberalism and Marxism, which are being replaced by local narrative or smaller stories of everyday life, which are expressed in limited but pluralistic "language games" (Wittgenstein). Lyotard uses the term "differend" (differend ) for the incommensurability or heterogeneity of these different language games, literary genres, and idioms, which can never be reduced to logical or ontological "sameness," not even to a political "consensus" in the sense of Gadamer, Habermas, or Rorty. For Lyotard, the knowledge of irreducible differends, that is, disputes and dissensions in politics, is the most important form of resistance to capitalism and its uniformity and injustice. In Heidegger et "les juifs" (1988; Heidegger and "the Jews" ), Lyotard criticized Heidgger's silence on the Shoah (Holocaust). He pointed out the philosopher's duty to stand for the "marginalized" and "the Forgotten."

The Algerian-born French philosopher Jacques Derrida (b. 1930) has had almost as much impact on French continental philosophy as Foucault, but he is criticized by analytic philosophers such as John Searle. Like Heidegger, Derrida attacks the traditional Western "metaphysics of presence" and its reduction of "being" to "substance" (entity). Like Wittgenstein, Derrida asserts that logical meaning is always embedded in the historical, social, and cultural matrix of language. He accuses Western metaphysical tradition of "logocentrism" and "phonocentrism," which favor the immediacy of the "meaning" of the spoken word rather than writing, which is characterized by distance, repeatability, and uncertainty of meaning. According to Derrida, logocentrism utilizes oversimplified, "binary opposites" such as reason-emotion, soul-body, male-female, and so on, which presuppose an unquestioned hierarchy of subordination in classical, philosophical texts and in political discourse.

Derrida's method of "deconstructing" the logocentrism demonstrates that a particular text usually does not have just one clear meaning, understood as what the author intended to convey. Rather, it may have alternative meanings ("alterity"), which do not fit into traditional notions of "binary opposites." The "double meaning" of texts reveals hidden ambiguities and "indeterminacies" of meaning underlying the text. In principle, it is impossible to show what a text "really means." In Derrida's writings, an important neologism is the term différance, which is a pun on a French verb meaning both "difference" of meaning and endless "deferral" of a fixed and privileged meaning. Meaning is only possible within a context and within a system where words have a "trace" of other, related words, just as speaking has a "trace" of writing.

Gilles Deleuze (19251995) and the psychotherapist Felix Guattari (19301992) also opposed the metaphysics of presence ("identity"), the representation of an "object" by a "subject." They favored a metaphysics of difference. In their controversial L'anti-Oedipe (1972; Anti-Oedipus), they synthesized their neo-Marxist rejection of capitalism with their rejection of Freudian psychoanalysis, which they criticized as a bourgeois repression of instinctual life ("desire") in the name of the bourgeois family (Oedipus complex). Although human nature is controlled socially, it is rooted in the chaotic presence of desire as expressed in its extreme form in schizophrenia. Deleuze also published works on theater, painting, and cinema.

Jean Baudrillard (b. 1929), whose analysis of contemporary culture was influenced by Marx, by structuralism, and by the communications theorist Marshall McLuhan's analysis of electronic media, reversed the Marxian distinction between epiphenominal "superstructure" (culture, the "symbolic") and fundamental "infrastructure" (economy, material production). He pointed out that the "symbolic" is primary for the contemporary media and consumer society, in which the boundary between image and truth, as well as between the virtual and the real, has been transformed into a new symbolic "hyper-reality" in the age of electronic media.

In the tradition of Hegel, Marx, and especially Nietzsche, Michel Foucault (19261984) focused on the structures used to create meaning and order in human knowledge and experience. In his early studies in the "archaeology of knowledge," Foucault showed how our present thoughts and social-institutional practices, especially in psychology, psychiatry, and medicine, are the historically contingent outcomes of past, anonymous "epistemes" (paradigms and frameworks of discourse), which can be changed and replaced by new forms of "epistemes." On the "threshold of modernity" at the end of the eighteenth century, the modern episteme brought about the emergence of the modern "subject" and the corresponding "human sciences," which prescribed how the individual (psychology) and society (the state) should act. Foucault attacked modern, universalizing mega-narratives of history as well as the notion of a pre-given "human nature." He saw the self (that is, the "subject") as always historically conditioned within particular situations and contexts. Foucault's antihumanist and anti-Enlightenment critique of the modern notion of "reason" is based upon very detailed historical studies, for instance, his investigations of "mental illness" and "madness" in the age of Enlightenment (Histoire de la folie á l'âge classique: folie et déraison, 1961; Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason ).

In his other works, Foucault discussed the theoretical, "discursive" practices within the larger context of "nondiscursive" practices as manifestations of social control and "power." According to Foucault, these "disciplinary power" systems and their power techniques (as exemplified by Jeremy Bentham's prison "panopticon") have paralleled the development of the human sciences, which have defined what is "natural" or "deviant," especially in sexual behavior. As the human sciences developed, the modern "subject" was defined both as a "self-responsible subject" and as an "object," controllable by disciplinary power. These definitions first appeared in modern psychology and medicine and were then applied in education, hospitals, asylums, factories, and military barracks. Like Nietzsche, Foucault called this later work a "genealogy," which explained the origin of the modern individual as a "subject" within institutional systems of nondiscursive power relations.

In his last work about sexuality, Foucault further developed his analysis of the subject in terms of "practices of the self." He was especially concerned with historical, aesthetic, and repressive practices regarding sexuality. According to Foucault, sexuality is not a category of an unchanging human nature, but is historically conditioned by social "power" practices.

Foucault summarized his work by maintaining that in spite of our involvement in power relations, we are free to struggle against and to resist systems of power by relating to ourselves in new alternative, creative ways, beyond society's system of order and discipline.

Lévinas and the "Other"

Emmanuel Lévinas (19061995), the Lithuanian-born, French-Jewish philosopher, introduced France to the work of Husserl and Heidegger, whom he later opposed. He was imprisoned in a German labor camp between 194044 and later became a professor at the Sorbonne. Like Buber, Marcel, Simone Weil (19091943), and Jaspers, he is usually classified as a philosopher of religion. Lévinas was deeply influenced by Franz Rosenzweig (18861929), the German-Jewish philosopher, and his book The Star of Redemption, which critiqued Hegel's philosophical totalitarianism in favor of a metaphysics of creation.

In his masterwork Totalité et Infini (1961; Totality and Infinity), Lévinas accused Western philosophy, from Parmenides to Husserl and Heidegger, of having reduced the "Other" (that is, the other person), to an "object" of consciousness and/or to a neutral, existential relationship. From the vantage point of his Jewish background, he asserted that the ontology of the "same," of being, and of identity leads to the idolatry of power and domination, as for example in Hegel's master-slave dialectic and in Heidegger's "fateful destiny of being." The "face" of the other, its absolute "alterity," cannot be objectified or totally comprehended. The "other" includes the victims of the Holocaust, vulnerable and defenseless, claiming: "Thou shalt not kill!" The face of the "other" reveals the priority of ethics over ontology. The infinity of the "other," which defies any objectification, leads to God, to the "Other" beyond the human "other." Human beings do not encounter God through "proofs" for God's existence but rather through their relationship to the human "other," who is a "trace of God."

Habermas and the Frankfurt School

Retrieving some of Marx's early humanistic writings, the original Frankfurt School of the 1920s and 1930s applied critical neo-Marxism to the analysis of the eventual transformation of modern society. The Frankfurt School was also known for its critical neo-Hegelianism, which resembled the phenomenological existentialism of certain neo-Marxist Italian philosophers such as Enzo Paci, the Polish neo-Marxists Adam Schaff and Leszlek Kolakowski, and the Yugoslavian existential-phenomenological Marxists associated with the journal Praxis. Max Horkheimer (18951973), Theodor Adorno (19031969), Walter Benjamin (18921940), Erich Fromm (19001980), and Herbert Marcuse (18981979) expressed the Frankfurt School's critical theory in various ways. Their theory was based on a synthesis between critical theory and social "practice" according to Marx's famous statement that appears as the eleventh of his "Theses on Feuerbach": "Philosophers have always interpreted the world, the point is to change it."

In contrast to orthodox Soviet Marxism and to the literary critic Fredric Jameson's economic interpretation of "late capitalism" and postmodernism, the Frankfurt School increasingly emphasized the importance of the society's "super-structure," including culture and ideology rather than its material "infrastructure." Furthermore, the Frankfurt School combined Marxist theory with Freudian psychoanalysis as important for the emancipation from social domination and from the repression of the individual mind.

Some members of the Frankfurt School, especially Horkheimer and Adorno in their collaborative work Dialektik der Aufklärung (1947; Dialectic of Enlightenment), stressed the importance of the arts, fantasy, and imagination because of their potential to subvert and emancipate society from its dependence on the one-sided, instrumental rationality of the Enlightenment and on modern science and technology. Yet, because of the failure of Soviet Marxism and the integration of its nonrevolutionary working class into the capitalist system after World War II, some members of the Frankfurt School lost confidence in a future Marxist revolution. Their initial revolutionary fervor gave way to political and cultural pessimism.

Jürgen Habermas (b. 1929), the German philosopher and social theorist, developed a new version of "critical theory" and a partially optimistic view of modernity as an "unfinished project of Enlightenment." Opposed to dogmatic Marxism, to positivist, empirical sociology, to uncritical elements in Gadamer's "universal hermeneutics," and to anti-Enlightenment post-modernism, Habermas attempted to harmonize the best of Kant, Hegel, Marx, and Wittgenstein with the scientific, explanatory systems of modern social science. In his early work Erkenntnis und Interesse (1968; Knowledge and Human Interests ), he argued against the prevailing positivism of the social sciences, distinguishing three basic, human, cognitive interests: (1) technical; that is, control of nature; (2) practical; that is, communication with the goal of an "ideal speech situation"; and (3) emancipatory; that is, the removal of limits to freedom and causes of alienation, oppression, and suffering, with the goal of building an open, liberal-democratic society.

In his book Theorie des Kommunikativen Handelns (1981; The Theory of Communicative Action ), Habermas developed a "critical theory of modernity," which was founded on the difference between "instrumental" and "communicative" rationality. Habermas also critiqued modern society's systems of rationalization, which increasingly "colonize" and destroy the "life world." Habermas's later "discourse ethics," which provided the linguistic background for communicative action, elaborated an intersubjective ethics of practical reason. This ethics too was directed against the modern, one-sided philosophy of the "subject."

Feminist Philosophy

Feminist philosophy examines gender issues and male-oriented "ideological" solutions in Western philosophy and science, while feminist epistemology, which is centered primarily in the analytic tradition, focuses on illegitimate authority and power relationships inherent in modern concepts of the knowing, scientific "subject." In general, feminist philosophers discuss human knowledge, truth, and objectivity in the broader context of gender, class, age, and race, while feminist moral philosophers demonstrate the importance of feminine "caring" in contrast to masculine "justice." Addressing the work of Wittgenstein and Heidegger, feminist philosophers emphasize the contextual, historical, and social aspects of language, while simultaneously critiquing male/female dichotomies, hierarchies, and "power-structures" in traditional "masculine" philosophy and science, which are assumed to be "universal" and "objective."

In her book The Man of Reason (1984), Genevieve Lloyd demonstrated that a metaphysical dualism of masculine "reason" and feminine "sense perception" and "emotion" dominates Western philosophy. According to Lloyd, the misogynistic notions of Schopenhauer and of Nietzsche are extreme forms of this antifeminist bias, which has permeated cultural, political, and economic development in the West.

In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, French and North American feminist philosophers have questioned traditional, masculine interpretations of gender issues. Michèle Le Doeuff (b. 1948) has even discussed the inherent tension between being a woman and being a philosopher in the West. The American philosophers Judith Butler, Jean Grimshaw, Sandra Harding, Nancy Hartsock, Helen Longino, Seyla Benhabib, and Susan Bordo have made significant contributions to feminist philosophy, while the French philosophers Luce Irigaray and Julia Kristeva have become the most notable in the field.

Luce Irigaray (b. 1932) critiqued "masculine"-oriented Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis and was subsequently expelled from the Paris Psychoanalytic Association and from the University of Paris, after which she became a private psychoanalyst and writer. Best known for "deconstructing" the work of Plato, Kant, Hegel, and Freud, Irigaray demonstrates woman's unique sexual differences; that is, her body and desire (jouissance ), which contradict masculine-oriented theories of "identity" and "sameness." Women, who have been defined traditionally in terms of "lack," absence," and "default," have been allowed to gain "identity" only by "mimicking" male language and male behavior. Going beyond social "gender roles" in the liberal, feminist fight of legal "equality" with men, Irigaray insisted on the unique "sexual difference" of women, their unique rights, and on the regaining of their own "subjectivity." She often uses Sophocles's Antigone and Hegel's interpretation of the play as the example of the masculine bias in Western civilization where Antigone loses her life against the command of king Creon.

The Bulgarian-born French feminist philosopher Julia Kristeva (b. 1941) showed an early interest in the problems of psychoanalysis and linguistics. Influenced by the Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin (18951975) and by Dostoyevsky, Kristeva distinguishes between "semiotic" language (as expressed in the unconscious maternal world of "drives," music, and poetry) and "symbolic" language (the logical world of the "father"). She maintains that "semiotic" language often "erupts" into "symbolic" language and subverts both male and female sexual identity. In contrast to Irigaray, who looks for a specific "female voice," Kristeva questions the very concept of identity, male or female. For Kristeva, the oppression of women is only a portion of contemporary society's more universal social, political, and economic oppression of "marginalized groups." Contrary to Freud and Lacan, Kristeva not only emphasizes the social role of the mother in the development of the human subject but also the important role of the child. Yet both are rooted in the mother's contact with the child prior to the "law of the father."

See also Consciousness ; Enlightenment ; Existentialism ; Identity ; Phenomenology ; Philosophies: Feminist, Twentieth-Century .



Adorno, Theodor, and Max Horkheimer. Dialectic of Enlightenment. Translated by John Cumming. London: Verso, 1989.

Askay, Richard, and Jensen Farguhar. Apprehending the Inaccessible: Freudian Psychoanalysis and Existential Phenomenology. Evanston, Ill: Northwestern University Press, 2004.

Beauvoir, Simone de. The Second Sex. Translated by H. M. Parshley. New York: Vintage, 1974.

Foucault, Michel. Madness and Civilization : A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason. London: Routledge, 1989.

Gadamer, Hans-Georg. Truth and Method. 2nd rev. ed. Translation revised by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall. New York: Continuum, 1989.

Habermas, Jürgen. Knowledge and Human Interests. Translated by Jeremy J. Shapiro. Cambridge, U.K.: Polity, 1987.

. Theory of Communicative Action. 2 vols. Translated by Thomas McCarthy. Cambridge, U.K.: Polity, 1991.

Heidegger, Martin. Basic Writings. Edited by David Farrell Krell. Rev. and expanded ed. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993.

. Being and Time. Translated by John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson. New York: Harper and Row, 1962.

. Zollikon Seminars: Protocols, Conversations, Letters. Edited by Medard Boss. Translated from the German and with notes and afterwords by Franz Mayr and Richard Askay. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 2001.

Irigaray, Luce. An Ethics of Sexual Difference. Translated by Carolyn Burke and Gillian C. Gill. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1993.

Lévinas, Emmanuel. Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority. Translated by Alphonso Lingis. The Hague: Nijhoff, 1979.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Phenomenology of Perception. Translated by Colin Smith. New York: Humanities Press, 1962.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Being and Nothingness: A Phenomenological Essay on Ontology. Translated by Hazel E. Barnes. New York: Washington Square Press, 1992.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations. Translated by G. E. M. Anscombe. 2nd ed. Oxford: Blackwell, 1958.


Critchley, Simon. Continental Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Critchley, Simon, and William Schroeder, eds. A Companion to Continental Philosophy. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 1998.

Holland, Nancy J., and Patricia Huntington, eds. Feminist Interpretations of Martin Heidegger. University Park: Pennsylvania State University, 2001.

Kearney, Richard, ed. Twentieth-Century Continental Philosophy. London and New York: Routledge, 1994.

Kearney, Richard, and Mara Rainwater, eds. The Continental Philosophy Reader. London: Routledge, 1996.

McNeill, William, and Karen Feldman, eds. Continental Philosophy: An Anthology. Oxford: Blackwell, 1997.

Solomon, Robert. Continental Philosophy Since 1750: The Rise and Fall of the Self. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

West, David. An Introduction to Continental Philosophy. Cambridge, U.K.: Polity, 1996.

Franz Mayr

Continental Philosophy

views updated May 17 2018


Continental philosophy is a term that arose after the Second World War in English-speaking countries as a name for philosophical approaches that take as their point of departure the work of certain nineteenth and twentieth centuries figures from Continental Europe, especially Germany and France, whose themes and methods were different from those of the analytical philosophy common at most leading British and American philosophy departments at that time. As a general term it includes movements such as phenomenology, existentialism, critical theory, hermeneutics, psychoanalytically oriented philosophy, structuralism, deconstruction, and postmodernism as well as feminist theory, race theories, and other critical social theories to the extent that they draw on one or more of these other movements. Its themes can range across all of the traditional philosophical areasfrom epistemology, metaphysics, and ethics to aesthetics, philosophy of language, philosophy of religion, philosophy of science, and studies in the history of philosophy, to name just a few.

General comparisons between the intellectual life in Britain and Continental Europe go back at least to the nineteenth century. However, the current opposition between analytical and continental philosophy can be traced back above all to polemical attempts on the part of leading English analytical philosophers, in particular those at Oxford, to justify their own approach to philosophy and distinguish it from the predominant philosophical movements in France and Germany during the 1950s such as phenomenology and existentialism. Gilbert Ryle (1971) and R. M. Hare (1960), for instance, were outspoken in contrasting the way they and their colleagues approached philosophy from philosophy as practiced in the rest of Europe, with a decidedly negative assessment of continental philosophy's Germanic roots. The primary targets at the time were Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre, and Merleau-Ponty, although it is not clear that their attackers had read many of their works closely.

The term became fairly common, however, only during the late 1960s and early 1970s when it was embraced, first in the United States and then later in Great Britain and other English-speaking countries, as a positive term by philosophers who used it as a name for their own work Continental philosophy was still defined in opposition to analytical philosophy, but without necessarily carrying the negative connotations it had for British and American analytical philosophers. Though discussions about the differences between analytic versus continental philosophy and the relative merits of each are still common, the term has increasingly become more of a commonly accepted, though still somewhat vague descriptive term used by both proponents and opponents of the different ways of doing philosophy that have been grouped together under the general heading of "continental" (often with a capital "C") in contrast to "analytical" philosophy.

From the outset, even though it suggests a geographical reference, the term "continental philosophy" has referred only to those figures from continental Europe whose approaches were not consistent with those of the project of earlier analytical philosophy. It specifically excluded thinkers such as Frege, Carnap, and Wittgenstein, whose work was viewed in a positive light by the English opponents of continental philosophy, because they were seen rather as precursors to or representatives of analytical philosophy. Moreover, even though the original point of difference goes back primarily to differences in philosophical work being conducted in Britain as opposed to continental European countries after the Second World War, these differences were projected backwards into the history of philosophy. Most observers agree that there were no clearly identifiable differences along geographic lines in philosophy as practiced in England and on the continent before the twentieth century. However, because analytic philosophy as practiced after World War II excluded idealistic philosophy and some other nineteenth-century movements that were originally from Germany or France from its lineage, the term continental philosophy soon came to include not only postwar and earlier twentieth-century philosophical movements from the continent, but also philosophers such as Kant, Hegel, Marx, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and others from eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European philosophy whose approaches were not consistent with the historical development of analytical philosophy.

Toward the end of the twentieth century it became common to speak of a "continental tradition" instead of simply referring to "continental philosophy." One reason for this is that many of the adherents and leading practitioners of these directions in philosophy come from countries all around the world instead of just Europe. Another reason is that, from the outset, the fate of this term has been tied to that of its opposite, namely "analytical philosophy," and critical developments within the latter movement led many of its adherents to refer to a "postanalytical" phase that is still part of an analytical tradition of philosophy. As philosophers from both traditions became increasingly familiar with each others' work and many of the original claims in both traditions have had to be modified, it became increasingly difficult to provide a simple characterization of what continental philosophy is and hence also of how it is and is not different from analytical philosophy. Increasingly, some scholars, especially those outside of English-speaking countries, have begun to draw on ideas and resources from both traditions to address philosophical problems across the differences that had previously divided them, so that it makes good sense to think of both continental and analytical philosophy as competing traditions of philosophy and less as two clearly delineated camps situated in different geographic locations.

See also Critical Theory; Deconstruction; Existentialism; Feminist Philosophy; Marxist Philosophy; Phenomenology; Postcolonialism.


Critchley, Simon. "Introduction: What Is Continental Philosophy?" In A Companion to Continental Philosophy, edited by Simon Critchley and William R. Schroeder, 117. Oxford, U.K.: Blackwell, 1998.

Glendinning, Simon. "Introduction: What is Continental Philosophy?" In The Edinburgh Encyclopedia of Continental Philosophy, edited by Simon Glendinning, 320. Edinburgh, U.K.: Edinburgh University Press, 1999.

Hare, R.M. "A School for Philosophers." Ratio 2 (1960): 107120.

Rorty, Richard. Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1979.

Ryle, Gilbert. "Phenomenology versus The Concept of Mind." In Collected Papers. London: Hutchinson, 1971.

Sallis, John, Hugh Silverman, and Thomas M. Seebohm, eds. Continental Philosophy in America. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1983.

West, David. An Introduction to Continental Philosophy. Cambridge, U.K.: Polity, 1966.

Thomas Nenon (2005)

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