Analytic vs. Continental Philosophy

The origins of the modern divide in philosophy

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There is a chasm in modern philosophy so broad that only a handful of voices have managed to be heard on both sides. Each is a peculiarity to the other — something foreign and quaint.

The origins of this modern split in philosophy can be traced to the two founding philosophers of these movements — Gottlob Frege and Edmund Husserl.

Near the end of his career in 1929 Husserl wrote that:

“To be sure, we still have philosophical congresses. The philosophers meet but, unfortunately, not the philosophies. The philosophies lack the unity of a mental space in which they might exist for and act on one another.”

But this was not always the case. Four decades earlier at the end of the 19th century, there was no chasm between Frege and Husserl. These two progenitors studied and criticised each other’s works; they corresponded and had mutual interactions on the philosophical matters of their day.

In this article, we are going to explore these origins of the contemporary divide in philosophy, look at the common trunk these two movements grew out of, and explore the possibility that this divide has less to do with philosophy than it has to do with a temperamental difference between the Anglophone and Continental worlds.

A Tale of Two Schools

There are two broad schools in modern philosophy; they are called Analytic Philosophy and Continental philosophy. It doesn’t take a philologist to figure out which camp came up with the distinction.

Analytic Philosophy is named based on its analytical philosophical methodology. The term Continental Philosophy however tells us less about the movement itself than it does about the geographical location from which it was named. There is a long-standing history of the British referring to Europe as “the continent” and this philosophical distinction is just one more example of this prejudice.

The Analytic/Continental distinction is essentially saying there’s the philosophy we do here that’s called Analytic Philosophy and there’s the philosophy they do over there, across the English Channel, and we’ll call that Continental philosophy. Perhaps a more accurate distinction would be between Continental Philosophy and Anglo-American Philosophy.

Setting aside this historical curiosity around naming, there is without a doubt two very different types of philosophy that developed in the Anglophone and European worlds of the 20th century.

The school we call Analytic Philosophy is practised in the philosophy faculties of universities across the English-speaking world. Its origins as we have noted can be traced to the 19th-century German philosopher Gottlob Frege who was a significant influence on Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein through whom this analytic tradition was fully born. The philosophy produced in this Anglo-American tradition follows the Fregean vein of thinking.

On the other hand, we have Continental Philosophy. This is the school that developed on mainland Europe and spanned many different traditions from Phenomenology and Existentialism to Postmodernism and Poststructuralism. The origins of this school can be traced to the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl and his star student Martin Heidegger.

The divide between these two schools had already widened substantially enough between Heidegger and Bertrand Russell for Russell to be utterly baffled by the German philosopher:

“Highly eccentric in its terminology, his philosophy is extremely obscure. One cannot help suspecting that language is here running riot.”

But this chasm was not existent in the days of Frege and Husserl.

Husserlian Phenomenology

With Phenomenology, Husserl was trying to create a science of the subjective experience.

Husserl believed that if we looked at the structure of consciousness and the ways it interacted with the world, then we would discover certain universal laws of consciousness. By bracketing these interactions of consciousness off from the external aspects of experience Husserl hoped to create a science of subjective experience. This was the goal of Phenomenology.

Husserl’s view of philosophy was still grounded enough in a modernist scientific worldview to not be alien to our Anglo-American view of philosophy. It was a desire to make philosophy more rigorous and to rise to the standards of scientific thinking. With Phenomenology, Husserl was trying to clean up the messy problem of consciousness.

But this vision perished with the followers of Husserl and we can see how the Continental tradition parts ways from this scientific worldview. With Heidegger, this attempt at creating a science of subjective experience is written off forever.

From Husserl to Heidegger

Heidegger’s explorations reveal that there are no universal structures of consciousness. It is always contextual. Thus the way you interpret a particular situation is going to be different than that of a Somali peasant or an Ancient Babylonian nobleman.

Heidegger shifts the focus of the Husserlian school of thought from an epistemological investigation into knowledge to an ontological investigation into being. This is where Heidegger’s concept of Dasein enters the scene as the idea of being in the world.

So with Heidegger we find the proper break from the scientific modernist worldview. For him, philosophy is more fundamental than science. Science is merely one worldview that has arisen from a very specific cultural context. It is not the golden yardstick by which everything should be measured but merely another among many ways of viewing the world.

To Sartre and beyond

This view is expanded on by the next giant of Continental philosophy Jean-Paul Sartre who situates this discussion in his existential nihilism and his philosophy of freedom. With Sartre we see that we must create our meaning and this conviction comes out of the multiple perspectivism that the postmodern turn of Heidegger directs away from the solid modernist ground of science.

This scepticism of science as the worldview is a hallmark of the Continental tradition as it continues into the works of Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze and of Jacques Derrida who says that there is nothing outside the text — that is to say there is nothing that stands outside and can look objectively at the event. Everything is within the text, everything needs interpreting and this interpretation will always come from a subjective perspective.

Continental philosophy evolved out of Husserl’s investigations into the structures of consciousness. With Husserl we can still see a modernist outlook — he is trying to construct a science of consciousness and to generate knowledge. This is a pursuit that could still resonate with the modernist attitudes of Analytic Philosophy and this is the reason that Husserl and Frege could still fruitfully interact — they were both working from the same foundation, the same overarching worldview.

With Heidegger the postmodern attitude of relativism opened up and in Sartre this converged with the nihilistic relativism of existentialism. Science ceased to be the golden yardstick by which all intellectual pursuits ought to be measured. It became merely one more perspective among many. And with this birth of postmodernism, a chasm had opened between the European traditions and their Anglo-American cousins who were still anchored in the scientific mindset of modernism.

Without the shared mental space of modernism, the chasm is uncrossable. The Continentals seem to be speaking unrigorous nonsense to the Analytics while to the Continentals the Analytics seem to be outdated and myopic thinkers trapped in one perspective.

The Analytical Tradition

The Analytic tradition was born from a different stem. Gottlob Frege’s background was not in philosophy but Mathematics. Most of his studies in university were in Maths or Physics. He came to philosophy later and was the pioneer of predicate calculus. He formalised the symbols of predicate logic and shifted the paradigm from the Aristotelian and Stoic logics to a more rigorous formalised logic.

He provided the foundations for the modern discipline of logic by creating a clear method of representing the logic of thoughts and inferences. His reconceptualisation of logic opened up a whole new continent of possibilities in philosophy. His lifelong quest was the attempt to show that all mathematics could be reduced to logic.

Though he failed in this great endeavour, Frege’s work on logic and his development of the philosophy of language in terms of formal logic revealed an exciting world of possibility. Frege’s revolution in logic was comparable to developments in physics at the time. Einstein’s theory of relativity and the study of quantum mechanics brought with them a great excitement and hope that a grand unified theory explaining the physics of the universe was just around the corner.

Frege’s work inspired a similar enthusiasm and provided the impetus for the work of Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein and set the train of Analytic Philosophy in motion. Frege’s revolutionising of logical notation promised an exciting new continent of opportunity to be explored. This enthusiasm reached a pinnacle in Wittgenstein’s first work the Tractatus Logico-Philosphicus in which he claimed to have solved(or more properly — dissolved)all the major problems of philosophy.

Of course, as has been the case with physics, this enthusiasm never solidified into a final resolution but the inspiration of Frege’s new approach birthed a new paradigm and out of this Analytic philosophy emerged.


The term psychologism was coined in 1870 by the Hegelian philosophers and became a central concern for the philosophy of the day. Psychologism is the mistake of identifying non-psychological entities and ideas with psychological entities. The Psychologismus-Streitas this discourse was known was at the forefront of philosophical discussion from the 1890s until the outbreak of the First World War.

This debate around Psychologism offers a key perspective in understanding the divergence of the Analytic and Continental traditions. When Frege wrote his critique of Husserl’s Philosophy of Arithmetic, the charge he laid on Husserl was Psychologism. He felt that Husserl was conflating objective concepts with psychological ones.

There has been much written about the validity of Frege’s criticisms of Husserl (for example here, here and here) but ultimately it seems that they had different concerns. Frege — the mathematician and logician — was focused on creating a rigorous account of non-psychological realities while Husserl was focused on creating a rigorous science of subjective experience.

The one tended away from the human element while the other was directed right to the core of it. This difference in concern and orientation between the two founders makes the subsequent traditions they birthed seem a natural development. Whether Husserl was guilty of Psychologism is less important than that Frege believed him to be. The debate about Psychologism gave them a shared language to interact with each other but despite moves to reconcile their views, their divergent concerns led them and their followers in very different directions.

The fact that this led to a chasm between opposite sides of the English Channel is not surprising. Going one layer deeper into the history of philosophy, we can see that this split is part of a deeper divide along the same geographical lines.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, the British Empiricists argued for the primacy of sensory experience while the European Rationalists argued for the primacy of the mind. These Empiricists — Locke, Berkeley and Hume — which we looked at in a previous video, were focused on the external world and sensory experience as the origin of knowledge. The European Rationalists such as Descartes, Leibniz and Spinoza, however, looked to the mind as the source of knowledge.

And so with the Analytic/Continental divide can see history repeating itself: the Anglophones are focussed on objective knowledge separate from the human element — just as they were with Empiricism — while the Continentals are focused on consciousness and the realm of subjective reality — just as they were with Rationalism.

The Empiricism/Rationalism divide was only bridged by the genius of Immanuel Kant who synthesised the two movements and gave new life to philosophy. The reopening of this chasm within a century invites us to ask much deeper metaphilosophical questions as to whether this Anglophone/Continental divide might have less to do with philosophy per se and more to do with a cultural, temperamental difference.

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