What is "Continental" Philosophy?

"Continental philosophy" was a pejorative term first used by 19th century British philosophers to refer to what they saw as the "unhinged" ideas emanating out of mainland Europe after Immanuel Kant. In the latter half of the twentieth century, English speaking philosophers reclaimed the term, using it to refer to the study of a range of 19th and 20th century philosophical thinkers and traditions including (but not limited to): German IdealismPhenomenologyExistentialismHermeneutics,
StructuralismPost-StructuralismContinental FeminismPsychoanalytic TheoryCritical Theory, and branches of Western Marxism. Furthermore, discourses critical of the hegemonic "continental" tradition have been, and continue to be, integral to its ongoing development: Critical Race Theory, Post-Colonial Theory, Black Feminism, Queer Theory, Transgender Studies, Intersectionality.  

According to Michael E. Rosen, Continental philosophies typically incorporate some (if not all) of the following characteristics:

  • First, continental philosophers generally reject the view that the natural sciences are the only or most accurate way of understanding natural phenomena. This contrasts with many analytic philosophers who consider their inquiries as continuous with, or subordinate to, those of the natural sciences. Continental philosophers often argue that science depends upon a "pre-theoretical substrate of experience" (a version of Kantian conditions of possible experience or the phenomenological "lifeworld") and that scientific methods are inadequate to fully understand such conditions of intelligibility.

  • Second, continental philosophy usually considers these conditions of possible experience as variable: determined at least partly by factors such as context, space and time, language, culture, or history. Thus continental philosophy tends toward historicism (or historicity). Where analytic philosophy tends to treat philosophy in terms of discrete problems, capable of being analysed apart from their historical origins (much as scientists consider the history of science inessential to scientific inquiry), continental philosophy typically suggests that philosophical argument cannot be divorced from the textual and contextual conditions of its historical emergence.

  • Third, continental philosophy typically holds that human agency can change these conditions of possible experience: "if human experience is a contingent creation, then it can be recreated in other ways". Thus continental philosophers tend to take a strong interest in the unity of theory and practice, and often see their philosophical inquiries as closely related to personal, moral, or political transformation. 

  • A final characteristic trait of continental philosophy is an emphasis on metaphilosophy. In the wake of the development and success of the natural sciences, continental philosophers have often sought to redefine the method and nature of philosophy. In some cases (such as German idealism or phenomenology), this manifests as a renovation of the traditional view that philosophy is the first, foundational, a priori science. In other cases (such as hermeneutics, critical theory, or structuralism), it is held that philosophy investigates a domain that is irreducibly cultural or practical. 

Ultimately, the foregoing themes derive from a broadly Kantian thesis that knowledge, experience, and reality are bound and shaped by conditions best understood through philosophical reflection rather than exclusively empirical inquiry.


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