The term Continental philosophy has no singularly accepted formal definition, nor does it even signify a “you know it when you see it” kind of activity, because it is not really a distinguishable activity at all. Indeed, most people who study philosophy on the continent have no idea that it is “continental philosophy” they are studying, but simply see it as philosophy proper. The term continental philosophy itself was not used by any academic departments until the 1970s and it hadn't been until the 1920s that really any kind of major divide in philosophy became noticeable at all.
This is because continental philosophy is, by default so to speak, defined no more explicitly than as that which isn't analytic philosophy. Analytic philosophy emerged in the early twentieth century as an explicit rejection of the history of philosophy as something littered with logical mistakes and conceptual unclarity. The founding belief of the analytic school was that if you were just as precise as possible about the language you were using, most philosophical problems would either disappear, become meaningless or solve themselves. Whilst this position is not explicitly part of analytic philosophy today, it still structures its practices and its prejudices. It is still very common to find a suspicion in the mind of the analytic philosopher that the history of philosophy is just a series of mistakes largely due to imprecision.
The reduction of philosophy to logic, that is from the study/theory of concepts to the study/theory of the formal structure by which concepts are linked, has been partly an obscuring force in philosophy. It has led some to believe that the formal structure is the philosophy itself, whereas it is merely an insubstantial, if more precise way, of formulating ideas. It is, however, ideas that are meat on the bone.
The transition point at the founding of analytic philosophy was immediately preceded by centuries of philosophical conversation--Aristotle speaking to Kant, and Hegel speaking to Descartes--with all these voices, through generations of philosophers and their followers, going back to each other’s works and responding to them. It is this broad, far reaching conversation that continues in continental philosophy today and which partly explains why it is much harder to jump into it than analytic philosophy often is. To do analytic philosophy, one simply has to learn logical analysis and address isolated problems, whereas to take part in the “continental conversation” you not only have to know what the philosophers themselves said but how they have been interpreted, reinterpreted and replied-to throughout time.
Continental philosophy is often treated or defined by its relationship to Kant. At the fracturing point in philosophy at the beginning of the twentieth century, the philosophical conversation was continuous with Kant – of course! And it is the vaguely Kantian strains of thought that analytic philosophers seemed mostly to take issue with. However, I think this neat conceptual divide (between people who take Kant seriously and people who do not) does not explain why their practices, approaches and styles of philosophical methodology differ. It seems to explain much more to say that analytic philosophers abandoned philosophy as it was at the beginning of the 20th century and re-founded it on the logical analysis of language, whereas continental philosophers were those who didn’t do this but simply continued on with the philosophical conversation.” And this is why Kant is still around: he was never explicitly forgotten.
Isn’t that division part of or a symptom/reflection of a deeper division between Anglo-Saxon societies and so-called continental ones?
Major continental societies all saw political conflicts in the 20th century that both the U.S. and the U.K. missed out on: the danger of fascism, strong Communist movements, even terrorism from the radical left (Red Brigades in Italy, Red Army Faction in Germany, etc.). Marxism, which has never been taken seriously in Anglo-Saxon philosophy, has always been important in continental philosophy and in the general society.
Contemporary capitalism in Anglo-Saxon countries tends to emphasize the free market, while on the continent the welfare state is a more important feature.
When I converse with Americans about politics, they generally emphasize freedom as the most important political goal, while those from continental societies seem to see social justice as the priority.
Dan Langlois says
I’m a bit nonplussed at the characterization of ‘ideas’ as being ‘meat on the bone’, as contrasted w/something ‘insubstantial’.
Wayne Schroeder says
That form (insubstantial structure) over content (ideas) error. Thanks for putting in words what I have sensed.
Wayne Schroeder says
Good analytics helps us with the other error, content (ideas) without substantial structure.
Dan Langlois says
I’m not entirely satisfied with this gloss that ‘To do analytic philosophy, one simply has to learn logical analysis and address isolated problems’. If we don’t see Russell and Wittgenstein as having developed a metaphysical system, then how much are we even getting into saying about Analytic philosophy?
Daniel Horne says
I think both Russell and Wittgenstein would have said the whole point of their analytic philosophy was to do away with metaphysics. That was its original mission statement, one might say.
Geoff Edwards says
From my limited understanding it was the logical postivists who waged war on metaphysics – they were influenced by Russell, but he it seems was happy to continue with metaphysical speculation.
IEP has an article on Russel’s metaphysical poistions through the years
Daniel Horne says
Thanks for this! I’m also not as up on this as I could be, but I still hold that the logical positivists’ war on metaphysics began with Russell’s and Wittgenstein’s publications in the 1st quarter of the 20th century. In short, I don’t see Russell or Wittgenstein having creating a “metaphysical system” as referenced in the original question.
Perhaps I have an unduly strict view of what constitutes “metaphysics”, but the metaphysical “positions” I see described in this IEP article seem to be imputed to Russell in a way I’m not sure he’d claim for himself. For example, phrases like:
“These epistemological doctrines have latent metaphysical implications”
“‘metaphysics’ can be understood in a variety of ways, so any discussion of Bertrand Russell’s metaphysics must select from among the various possible ways of understanding the notion”
“The word “metaphysics” sometimes is used to…”
“a system may be called metaphysical if….”
These turns of phrase all feel a bit weaselly to me. I remain unconvinced Russell would consent to these characterizations. I’m not sure that talking about metaphysics means that you are performing metaphysics. (That doesn’t mean he wouldn’t, just that the case isn’t well made from the IEP article.) I’m also skeptical that all a priori argument constitutes metaphysics, or we might as well call arithmetic metaphysics, and the term loses all meaning.
Admittedly, my understanding of Russell is limited, but I’m thinking of quotes of his like this:
“I think that practically all traditional metaphysics is filled with mistakes due to bad grammar, and that almost all the traditional problems of metaphysics and traditional results—supposed results—of metaphysics are due to a failure to make the kind of distinctions in what we may call philosophical grammar….”
B. Russell, The Philosophy of Logical Atomism (Routledge Classics) (Excursus Into Metaphysics: What There Is)
“All [metaphysical speculation] is rejected by the philosophers who make logical analysis the main business of philosophy. They confess frankly that the human intellect is unable to find conclusive answers to many questions of profound importance to mankind, but they refuse to believe that there is some ‘higher’ way of knowing, by which we can discover truths hidden from science and the intellect. For this renunciation they have been rewarded by the discovery that many questions, formerly obscured by the fog of metaphysics, can be answered with precision, and by objective methods which introduce nothing of the philosopher’s temperament except the desire to understand. Take such questions as: What is number? What are space and time? What is mind, and what is matter? I do not say that we can here and now give definitive answers to all these ancient questions, but I do say that a method has been discovered by which, as in science, we can make successive approximations to the truth, in which each new stage results from an improvement, not a rejection, of what has gone before.
B. Russell, History of Western Philosophy (Routledge Classics) (p. 744). (Chapter 31: The Philosophy of Logical Analysis)
Perhaps we can characterize Russell as replacing “traditional metaphysics” with “new metaphysics,” but I won’t. I seemed to me more like Russell was rejecting metaphysical speculation as it was (and remains?) currently understood. It’s not at all clear to me what metaphysical claims he was making during the period he was contributing to analytic philosophy.
Quite aside from Russell, it’s hard for me to determine what metaphysical claims Wittgenstein ever made during his Tractatus period (which is the only period relevant to a discussion of logical analysis).
“Quite aside from Russell, it’s hard for me to determine what metaphysical claims Wittgenstein ever made during his Tractatus period (which is the only period relevant to a discussion of logical analysis).”
That’s a strange claim since most of the time you hear philosophers of mathematics or logic mention Wittgenstein they mention the investigations or other work not related in any way to the Tractatus (Dummet, Kreisel, Kripke, etc).
I don’t know what you take to be methaphysical claims, but if you think that claims about the existence and nature of numbers are such things then Wittgenstein surely made such claims, he also thought about what meaning is, what a proposition is and other such things.
Daniel Horne says
I agree that much of the problem here may be coming to terms with what how we define metaphysics. But no, I don’t find a discussion of the quality of numbers to be metaphysics, unless a claim is to being made about some ontological status they hold or don’t hold.
Typically, when I see Russell and particularly Wittgenstein discussing properties, they are stand-ins for what Russell would call “logical fictions”. In other words, we have to make up linguistic constructs (i.e., “logical simples” or “atomic facts”) if we are to discuss these matters in depth, but they are simply (useful) rhetorical devices. I’m uncertain what claim Wittgenstein ever made that we could describe as metaphysical, but I’d be keen to see a case study.
Even to use the common TLP quote “The world is the totality of facts, not of things,” Wittgenstein isn’t rejecting the existence of things, or asserting that “facts” are some kind of super-“thing” that is somehow more “real” than a “thing” is.
I’ve already provided a Wittgenstein quote where he accuses anyone of making metaphysical claims as incorrectly performing philosophy, and simply getting into a confusion over language. Perhaps others may want to accuse Wittgenstein of making metaphysical claims, but I would see him rejecting such a charge.
The reason why references to the PI seem inapt here (though it also makes no metaphysical claims that I can identify) is that Dan L’s original question discussed problems in analytic philosophy. The PI isn’t a work of analytical philosophy so much as a critique of analytical philosophy.
Dan Langlois says
If this is what they would have said, then why didn’t they say it? Is there a better way to say it? Is there..another way to say it? I might allow that various schools of philosophy began to deny the legitimacy and desirability of a priori metaphysical theorizing, but I wonder how one overlooks that Russell remained emphatically a metaphysician throughout his life.
Daniel Horne says
I’m not overlooking that “Russell remained emphatically a metaphysician throughout his life,” I’m challenging that characterization.
Even the IEP section you excerpted for this claim describes Russell as a metaphysician only because he wrote about metaphysics (“that is, doctrines not in metaphysics but about it and its feasibility…”). In other words, Russell was a metaphysician because he was a “meta-metaphysician”? That seems weird. I don’t think one is a metaphysician by regularly writing about metaphysics’ limits, any more than Carl Sagan was an astrologer because he wrote a great deal about astrology’s failings.
As for why Russell and Wittgenstein “didn’t say it,” well…I believe they did say it.
You can find some relevant quotes from Russell in my earlier response to Geoff.
As for Wittgenstein, I think he said it most clearly in his own work.
From TLP 6.53:
“The correct method in philosophy would really be the following: to say nothing except what can be said, i.e. propositions of natural science–i.e. something that has nothing to do with philosophy — and then, whenever someone else wanted to say something metaphysical, to demonstrate to him that he had failed to give a meaning to certain signs in his propositions. Although it would not be satisfying to the other person–he would not have the feeling that we were teaching him philosophy–this method would be the only strictly correct one.”
Wayne Schroeder says
Willaim Blattner of Georegetown University states (http://www9.georgetown.edu/faculty/blattnew/contanalytic.html): “the so-called Continental-analytic division within philosophy is not a philosophical distinction; it’s a sociological one.” If nothing else, this points out how important it is to specify what we mean by our terms. When we speak of Continental, or Analytic, what do I mean. Only then can you speak rationally with me about the subject. Continental versus Analytic philosophy especially needs this specificity.
Blattner concludes his article:
“. . . cross-fertilization and rapprochement [between Continental and Analytic philosophy] is still only partial and halting. It is my hope that it will flourish and that in ten or fifteen years, say, we will treat the distinction between so-called Continental and so-called analytic philosophy as an historical artifact. This hope is not, I would like to urge, merely a personal preference. It is a hope for the widespread diffusion of the philosophical attitudes of open-mindedness, the suspension of judgment until arguments and evidence have been considered, and hospitality towards those bearing alternative perspectives, ideas, and arguments. Specifically, it is a hope that these philosophical attitudes will be applied across the received sociological divisions within the profession, divisions that are no longer either doctrinally or methodologically motivated.”