PHIL 4150: Analytic Philosophy
Dr. Robert Lane
Lecture Notes: Thursday August 23, 2012


[1.2.] Continental Philosophy.


There is an alleged division within contemporary professional, academic philosophy between philosophers who practice the style of analytic philosophy and those who identify themselves as practitioners of continental philosophy.


The word “continental” refers to continental Europe, especially France and Germany. However:

·         not all philosophers in continental Europe are thought of as continental philosophers. Frege, Wittgenstein, Carnap and other members of the tradition of analytic philosophy and practitioners of the analytic style, were from the Continent; Russell, Ayer and others were from Britain.

·         not only philosophers in continental Europe have practiced continental philosophy.  There are many continental philosophers outside of Europe, including in the United States.

So the phrase “continental philosophy” should NOT be understood as a geographic term.


The phrase “continental philosophy” is a blanket term for a set of related traditions, doctrines, and methods that originated in continental Europe and that have adherents in various parts of the world. This set includes (but is not necessarily limited to):

·         existentialism: “a philosophical movement that focuses on questions of the meaning of human existence. It begins with the idea that we have no preset essence or meaning thus resulting in our absolute freedom, absolute responsibility, and possibly utter meaninglessness. E.g. Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Sartre, Camus.”[1]

·         phenomenology: “a response to modern philosophy, phenomenology is a way of describing whatever appears in the manner in which it appears, that is as it manifests itself to consciousness apart from theoretical impositions upon experience.  E.g. Husserl, Heidegger, Levinas.”[2]

·         Also: hermeneutics, post-modernism, critical theory, structuralism, post-structuralism, and deconstructionism.


As contemporary continental philosopher Simon Critchley writes:


…Continental philosophy is an invention, or, more accurately, a projection of the Anglo-American academy onto a Continental Europe that would not recognize the legitimacy of such an appellation—a little like asking for a Continental breakfast in Paris.[3]


The description of CP that follows is a generalization that cannot be said to hold for all continental philosophers. It is a sort of weighted average that is accurate of many of them, but not all.



[1.2.1.] Suspicions About Truth and Science.


Recall the idea of Philosophy as Inquiry: philosophy is a form of inquiry (i.e., truth-seeking, research), an attempt to discover and articulate accurate, correct, true answers to a certain type of question.


Some proponents of continental philosophy (CP) do not approve of the idea of Philosophy as Inquiry. This is because:

·         they do not conceive of philosophy as an attempt to discover and articulate true answers to the questions it asks; and

·         they are suspicious of the traditional idea of truth as accuracy of representation (i.e., the idea that a belief is true when it represents the world accurately).


This suspicion about truth is related to the suspicion of science shared by some CPers. In particular, some CPers are suspicious of

·         the idea that science makes claims that are true; and

·         the idea that science is the source of our best possible conception of the world, especially of human nature and experience [this is one of the component claims of naturalism; see above].


Some CPers tend to think of philosophy as more literary and less like a form of inquiry (research, truth-seeking). So precision and argumentation are viewed by them as less important than by practitioners of the style of analytic philosophy.


And this makes sense. If you are suspicious of the very concept of truth, you will be suspicious of the claim that an argument is “good” in some way other than rhetorically good. To understand why this is so, let’s consider a simple philosophical argument:


1.      You cannot doubt that you have a mind.

2.      You can doubt that you have a body (brain).

3.      Therefore, the mind and the body (brain) are not the same thing.

[This is one of Descartes’ arguments for dualism, in his Meditations.]


There are three ways to evaluate any argument:


  1. factually: are its premises true or false?
  2. logically: would the truth of its premises guarantee the truth of its conclusion? would the truth of the premises simply make the conclusion more likely? or neither?
  3. rhetorically: does the argument convince people to accept its conclusion?


If there are no such things as true statements (or true judgments, beliefs, etc.) then evaluating an argument in either of the first two ways is at best beside the point and at worst a sham.


So, if there are no such things as true statements, philosophical argumentation (and argumentation in general) becomes nothing but an attempt to convince someone to believe what you are saying, by whatever rhetorical means necessary.[4]


A significant complication:

·         some defenders of continental philosophy might insist that they do engage in inquiry… but then say that they have a different conception of what inquiry is, a conception on which it is something besides truth-seeking;

·         or, they might say that they do engage in inquiry and then define inquiry as truth-seeking… but then say that they have a different conception of what truth is.


However, if one takes “true statement” to mean something like “a statement that says how things really are, that accurately represents some aspect of the world,” and if one then defines inquiry as truth-seeking, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that many CPers are suspicious of the idea of philosophy as inquiry.



[1.2.2.] Continental Criticism: Analytic Philosophy is Irrelevant to Life.


As we have seen, many proponents of Continental Philosophy (CP) are suspicious of the idea of Philosophy as Inquiry that is associated with the style of analytic philosophy.


In addition, some CPers criticize analytic philosophy as being dry, sterile, trivial, and irrelevant to human life. Philosopher Stephen Hales (Bloomsburg University) has put the point this way:


                Some have objected to the analytic approach on the grounds that it downgrades philosophy from its lofty historical role as a set of meditations on the grand questions of human existence and turns it into a crabbed, narrow series of nit-picking exchanges over picayune [i.e., trivial] topics. Some think analytic philosophy degrades existence for us in the way Nietzsche once spoke of reason, reducing philosophy “to a mere exercise for a calculator and an indoor diversion for mathematicians.” (The Gay Science, §373)[5]


A defense against this criticism might go like this:


1.      Some work in the analytic style can seem irrelevant to human life, especially in more technical areas like philosophy of logic, philosophy of math, philosophy of language. The same is true for esoteric work in the physical sciences, social sciences and mathematics. But sometimes such work in science and math can have important results that impact society. And similarly, sometimes seemingly trivial work in very technical and dry areas of philosophy can have similarly important results, e.g., logical positivism (introduced briefly last time) implies that religious and moral claims are literally meaningless.


2.      Some analytic philosophy directly addresses issues of vital importance to human life, e.g.

·         some work by classical analytic philosophers, such as Bertrand Russell’s Marriage and Morals (1929), in which he argued in support of living together (and having sex!) before marriage;

·         many of the most important late-20th century practitioners of the style of analytic philosophy have taken on “big issues”: “Thomas Nagel, John Searle, and Bernard Williams, to mention only three, have taken on central topics of human concern and have been as insightful as any other philosophers over the last hundred years.” (Martinich and Sosa, p.4)

·         contemporary work in applied ethics that employs clear, careful, and explicitly stated arguments, such as Judith Jarvis Thomson’s and Don Marquis’s arguments about abortion, or James Rachels’ arguments about euthanasia.



[1.2.3.] A Fourth Sense of “Analytic Philosophy,” and a Second Continental Criticism.


Related to the first continental criticism of analytic philosophy is, perhaps, an additional meaning of the phrase “analytic philosophy,” on which it refers, not to a tradition, doctrine, or style, but to a specific group of philosophers operating primarily in the English-speaking world in the latter part of the 20th century and up to today:

·         Many of these philosophers are “genealogically” connected to the philosophers belonging to “the tradition of analytic philosophy” (“analytic philosophy” in the first sense we examined)—they were students, or students of students, of people like Carnap, Quine, Davidson, Putnam... etc.

·         These philosophers were trained in the graduate schools that are alleged to be the “best” (NYU, Princeton, Rutgers, Michigan, Pittsburgh, etc.); they work in and control the philosophy departments that are supposed to be the “best” (ditto); and they edit and get published in the philosophy journals that are supposed to be the “best” (Journal of Philosophy, Ethics, Mind, Noús, etc.).


The scare-quotes around “best” are meant to express skepticism on the part of continental critics that those philosophers, departments, graduate programs, and journals are in fact the best.

·         Some critics probably think that those claims to be the best are false because there are other philosophers, etc. that are better, or at least equally good...

·         other critics probably think those claims are false because they are suspicious of the very idea that philosophers, etc., can be impartially ranked according to quality.


The suspicion as to claims of being the best are based at least in part on the seeming fact that the standards of what count as the best philosophers, programs, departments and journals are interwoven:

·         How do you know that X is one of the best philosophers? Why, she works in one of the best departments, was trained in one of the best programs, and edits and publishes in some of the best journals.

·         And how do you know that X’s department is one of the best? Well, it hires new faculty members trained in the best programs and its faculty members edit and publish in the best journals.

·         And how do you know those journals are the best? Because it publishes work by the best philosophers, i.e., those trained in the best programs and working at the best departments.


No doubt, all of these philosophers would claim to be devoted to the analytic style of philosophy—but many of their critics would, too.


The Philosophical Gourmet ( is a biannual ranking of philosophy departments compiled by Brian Leiter, a professor of philosophy and law at the University of Chicago, one of whose research specializations is Nietzsche.[6] One recurring criticism of this report is that it succumbs to exactly this sort of circular standard of quality. It has also been criticized for marginalizing, if not outright excluding, departments that are primarily orientated towards continental philosophy.



William Blattner, a scholar of Heidegger who teaches philosophy at Georgetown University, concludes:


… the so-called Continental-analytic division within philosophy is not a philosophical distinction; it's a sociological one. It is the product of historical accident. It is unreasonable to cleave to it, and the insistence on remaining closed to work that is either presumptively "analytic" or presumptively "Continental" is irrational and unphilosophical. Further, rejecting or refusing to consider positions one has not studied and consequently does not understand is not a philosophical stance. It is, if anything, the very antithesis of the philosophical attitude. In light of this conclusion, I prefer to the extent possible not to use the terms "Continental philosophy" and "analytic philosophy." They perpetuate the divisions of the past, divisions that it behooves us to overcome.[7]



Stopping point for Thursday August 23. For next time, no new reading; during the next class I will work through material that you need to know before you begin reading the next assignment, Frege’s “On Sense and Reference.” Spend some time over the weekend browsing your textbook and familiarizing yourself with its contents; reading carefully through the instructions for writing response papers; and reading carefully through the instructions for writing your term paper. Let me know asap if you have questions about either of those instructions documents.

[1] The definitions of “existentialism” and “phenomenology” given here were written by Dr. Janet Donohoe. For an example of how a contemporary practitioner of the method of analytic philosophy approaches the question, “What is the meaning of life?” see Susan Haack, “Worthwhile Lives: Coming to Grips with Ourselves,” Free Inquiry, Winter 2001, 50-51.


[2] Husserl is also respected by analytic philosophers. He corresponded with, and worked on some of the same problems as, Gottlob Frege.


[3] Simon Critchely, Continental Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, 2001, p.32.


[4] This calls to mind Richard Rorty’s characterization of philosophy as “carrying on the conversation.” Charles Peirce attributed something like this view of logic to Cicero and Peter Ramus: “This identification of logic with the art of discussion, is at once the narrowest and lowest view of the subject which has ever been taken.” (The Writings of Charles Sanders Peirce 1:163-164, 1865)


[5] Hales, “A Brief Introduction to the Nature and Origins of Analytic Philosophy,” p.8.

[6] Leiter is the John P. Wilson Professor of Law and Director of the Center for Law, Philosophy & Human Values at the University of Chicago. He is well-known within academic philosophy, not so much for his own philosophical work (he specializes in both Nietzsche and the philosophy of law) but for his creation of the Philosophical Gourmet and for his blog The Leiter Reports ( ), on which he is frequently rude and insulting to those with whom he disagrees. In April  2008, a story in the Boston Globe described Leiter as both “the most powerful man in academic philosophy” and a “troglodyte in cyberspace.” (Mark Oppenheimer, “The Philosopher King-Maker,” Boston Globe, April 20, 2008 < >, retrieved November 18, 2008) For a critical assessment of Leiter’s rankings, see .



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