Continents for dummies
July 19, 2006 12:40 AM   Subscribe

What should I read if I want to understand continental philosophy?

The Valve (which I read religiously but rarely understand), tells me that there's been a bit of a dustup over a recent n+1 article which made sloppy assertions about the nature of modern analytic and continental philosophy. This article only further confirms the sense I have that these two "schools" (if they can be called that) have a lot of very fundamental differences. Unfortunately, I don't have the first clue about what those differences are. I figure that the best way to figure them out is to go to the soure of the divide.

Basically, my question is whether or not there is a central thinker whose ideas/style continental philosophers rely on which differentiates them from the analytic sort. From the few precis I've read, many continental philosophers seem to like Lacan, but I'm not sure if he's the prime mover for all this. I'm a university student, and I would take a class on it if I could, but the n+1 article says that my university, Princeton, is notoriously analytic.

So where should I go to get the inside scoop on what makes continental philosophy tick?
posted by jweed to Religion & Philosophy (15 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Wikipedia is always a great place to start.

Continental Philosophy

Analytic Philosophy


After that I would check out this book.
posted by sophist at 2:00 AM on July 19, 2006

I will definitely say do NOT start with Lacan.

For 20th century "philosophy" be sure to read your Deleuze, but brush up on older stuff, the Hegel, Heidegger, et al., and especially Nietzsche.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 5:20 AM on July 19, 2006

I think Nietzsche would likely be considered a foundational thinker for Continental philosophy and, in my opinion, a bit more accessible than Lacan or Deleuze. Hegel is also central to many of the ideas associated with continental thinking, but Hegel is a very difficult read.

To me, a quintessential Continental text would be 'Beyond Good and Evil' by Nietzsche. This is a rather infamous dissection of Abrahamic religious values. Nietzsche produces one of the first 'deconstructionist' texts here (although really, Socrates was deconstructin' all over the place) in discussing how much of what is valued as 'good' in the mainstream Christian morality that surrounded him was to his thinking actually 'evil.'

My feeling, in short, having been educated as an undergrad in a very Continental way and then having two Analytic classes as a grad at UMichigan, is that Analytic philosophers carry out the project of science - to believe that there is a truth and that such truth can be apprehended through logic. The Continental philosophers carry out the projects of language and politics - to believe that truth is a shifting and ephemeral state at best that can be approached by layers of metaphor. I find that you can pick up things of value in both schools as long as you can understand where to apply them.
posted by Slothrop at 6:07 AM on July 19, 2006 [3 favorites]

This has been an ongoing topic of discussion on Brian Leiter's blog. Here are some links from that blog that bear upon the analytical/continental question.

Link one; Link two; Link three; Link four; Link five; Link six
posted by jayder at 7:04 AM on July 19, 2006 [1 favorite]

Heh, a friend and I were just discussing how Leiter claims to be a Continentalist. Perhaps that's true in that he studies people who Continentals study, but I think the more important distinction between the two schools is in the method they employ to study philosophy. Namely, analytics use a method much more similar to the scientific method (just without all the empirical data) or mathematical proof. The central notion of analytic philosophy is producing a valid deductive argument or an strong inductive argument.

The central method for people normally spoken of in the Continental tradition is more historical, sometimes with attention to race, class, culture, and gender as fundamental categories. I can't claim to be an expert on it. Typically, Continentalists and Analytics share the history of philosophy, but write about it differently up until Kant. From there, the stereotype is that analytics forget about history until Frege, whereas Continentalists continue on with Fichte, Schiller, Hegel, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Husserl, Marx, Bergson, Derrida, and so on. Then, by the 20th century, mainstream analytic and continental philosophy have very different central figures.

Now, this is mostly a stereotype. There are Continentalists who write about Frege and Quine and plenty of analytics who write about Marx, Nietzsche (like Leiter), Hegel, and even Derrida and Heidegger. But the approach to these figures is done by the different methods described above.

Princeton is indeed a very analytic department. In my attempts to learn about Continental philosophy, my Continental-minded friends have always recommended Irrational Man by William Barrett. It's a pretty good read. Concentrates more on existentialism than some other branches of Continental Philosophy. I'd give it a good try.

Also, if you know something about Kant (who is really the last point before divergence between the two), try the Oxford series "A Very Short Introduction"'s little book on Continental Philosophy. A nice read.

Oh, and definitely not Lacan. Continentals may claim him, but he's not easy, nor am I convinced that if you get to the bottom of his ramblings about psychoanalysis, there's all that much payoff. Take Slothrop's advice. Nietzsche is central to existentialism and existentialism is central to Continental philosophy. But you definitely won't get the feeling for all of Continental philosophy from reading Nietzsche. There's the whole phenomenology side of things, for example. The Barrett book, on the other hand, explores a lot of ground and leaves a lot of departure points for further reading.
posted by ontic at 7:35 AM on July 19, 2006 [1 favorite]

Depending on what your feelings are about either of them, you could start with Derrida's Memoirs for Paul de Man. It's accessible, sort of.

Some of this also depends on your background. I got into continental philosophy through a lot of political and feminist theory. You could get your feet wet with with thinkers like Iris Marion Young, or Habermas. (Or even Foucault.)

Henri Bergson is also another accessible continental philosopher. So accessible, in fact, I think he won a nobel prize for literature. It's not necessary orthodox continental philosophy, but you should probably read Bergson if you ever want to read Deleuze.

Don't be afraid of starting with some literature, either. You could do worse than one of Camus' novels, or even Kafka.

Long story short, there aren't really any THOU SHALT READ THIS TAND THOU SHALT UNDERSTAND type of books in continental philosophy. It depends on your goals, your politics, and your own background. But, get a taste for it. It's addictive.
posted by generichuman at 7:41 AM on July 19, 2006

Memoires for Paul de Man has too much of its own history to deal with for an intro into continental philosophy. I would recommend Kant, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Hegel, etc. as foundational texts, but as a basic intro, it might be worth reading something popular like Wittgenstein's Poker which reveals some basic differences of thought between analytics (Wittgenstein) and continental philosophy (Popper).
posted by mattbucher at 7:45 AM on July 19, 2006

no continental philosopher would ever tell you there existed ONE succinct and satisfying book on continental philosophy, whereas an analytic one would. that's the difference in a nutshell
posted by yonation at 8:07 AM on July 19, 2006

Lacan was a psychoanalyst, and while he had some things to say of a philosophical bent, his theory came out of his practice with patients. It's a measure of how messy this issue is that anyone would either consider suggesting his ideas in the context of this question, or, more to the point, feel the need to suggest not reading him. His ideas really make very little sense outside of a Freudian, patient-centered framework, and the extent to which his ideas have been embraced by academic theoriticians in the US is the extent to which they are largely misunderstood. Of course, that's just my opinion, and I'm not trying to scold anyone, just trying to highlight how delicate a question it is that's being asked.
posted by OmieWise at 8:47 AM on July 19, 2006

If it helps, in "Analytical Philosophy and and Continental Philosophy: The Campbell Thesis Revisited," (2004) Stephen Buckle writes:

Analytic philosophy has certainly had a long and public flirtation with Platonism, but it is not wedded to Platonist metaphysics – in contrast to quasi-Platonist styles of explanation – and it has also been marked by powerful empiricist commitments. Continental philosophy has shown a marked attraction to historical modes of explanation, but this is not without exception, and, in any case, to point this out is not to explain its sources. So the difference between the two camps is better thought of as a contrast between logical empiricists deriving from non-metaphysical species of Kantianism, on the one hand, and, on the other, thoroughgoing empiricists, but whose commitment to this viewpoint is often obscured because they are concerned less to affirm it than to apply it to the world of action and affairs.


To the analytic philosopher, the Continental philosopher’s lack of regard for independent rational standards will be the salient feature: in fact, from this perspective, the Continental philosopher can seem scarcely philosophical at
all, because lacking concern for, and frequently denying, rational standards immunized against historical contingencies. In contrast, to the Continental philosopher, the analytic philosopher’s logicism is what is salient: the
analytic philosopher thus seems a sort of latter-day Platonist, obsessed with formalisms and detached from the business of putting philosophical insight
into practice.

posted by Aghast. at 9:58 AM on July 19, 2006

generichuman, which book by Bergson would you start with?

My first taste of the Continentals was Nietzsche followed by a good dose of Foucault, Marx, Derrida, and (if you count him) Rorty. But I'm still a novice, so any advice on what else to read is welcome.
posted by wheat at 11:40 AM on July 19, 2006

Ugh. I couldn't do Lacan (just like I shamefully admit that I couldn't do Foucalt). As far as stuff that's fun to read and gives you a grounding in Continentals, you should read both Being and Time and Being and Nothingness by our friends Heidegger and Sartre, respectively.
Then go into Derrida, Barthes and Baudrillard. Those are the ones that are enjoyable to read, at least to me.
posted by klangklangston at 11:43 AM on July 19, 2006

and don't forget bourdieu... he's not quite a lost author, but in my opinion more radical and fruitful than foucault, and yet taught in substantially less american continental departments, perhaps because he was actually politically involved whereas foucault had all that "all politics is polemical" bullshit that prevented him from allying with revolutionary forces
posted by yonation at 12:17 PM on July 19, 2006

Alasdair Macintyre's book Three Rival Versions of Moral Inquiry offers some pretty good insight into the differences between Analytic/Continental traditions in ethics and moral theory.

Bernard Williams' book, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy is a great read that sheds light on the distinctions in ethics and moral theory.

There's a book that looks quite promising, called Prophets of Extremity, that gives a kind of nutshell look at the Continental tradition, mainly focusing on Nietzsche, Heidegger, Foucault, and Derrida. It is not written by a philosopher, but by a historian, but Richard Rorty cites it quite heavily in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity.
posted by jayder at 12:48 PM on July 19, 2006 [1 favorite]

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