Our time has been rife with great ideological battles: Communism vs Capitalism, Materialism vs Spirituality, Punk vs Metal, Trump vs the Truth, etc….
But there is one great battle which has raged on for most of the 20th century, and which still lingers to this day, yet very few outside of the ivory towers of academia have ever heard of: The Analytic Philosophy vs Continental Philosophy death match.
In what follows, I will try to show the difference between the two, using my favorite thing in the world: Prog Rock. I won’t go too much into the historical details, other than to mention that the major rift between the two started in the early 20th century, although the seeds of the divide can be traced back to Kant and Hegel (~1800). It should also be mentioned that Analytic philosophy is popular mainly with English speaking academics, while Continental philosophers are mostly German, French, etc…(i.e. Continental).
More importantly, you should note that Analytic philosophy and Continental philosophy are not specific schools of thought or ideologies per se, they are two opposing styles of doing philosophy. Two philosophers who are both considered Analytic can have radically opposing views on questions such as whether God exits (Alvin Plantinga) or not (Daniel Dennett), or whether computers can think or not, etc….similarly, there are for example right wing Continental philosophers (the notorious Heidegger) and left wing Continental philosophers (Adorno, Derrida, etc…).
Now here’s how and Analytic philosopher would talk about Pink Floyd vs how a Continental philosopher would talk about Pink Floyd:
Here is the introduction to the biography of Pink Floyd taken from Wikipedia:
Pink Floyd were an English rock band formed in London. They achieved international acclaim with their progressive and psychedelic music. Distinguished by their use of philosophical lyrics, sonic experimentation, extended compositions and elaborate live shows, they are one of the most commercially successful and influential groups in the history of popular music.
This would correspond to the analytic style of describing concepts.
Now here is the introduction to the biography of Pink Floyd taken from Allmusic.com:
Some bands turn into shorthand for a certain sound or style, and Pink Floyd belongs among that elite group. The very name connotes something specific: an elastic, echoing, mind-bending sound that evokes the chasms of space. Pink Floyd grounded that limitless sound with exacting explorations of mundane matters of ego, mind, memory, and heart, touching upon madness, alienation, narcissism, and society on their concept albums of the ’70s.
This description is closer in spirit to the continental style of describing concepts.
A proponent of the analytic style will argue that the second description is at best very difficult to understand, and requires someone to know a lot about Pink Floyd before hand for it to make any sense at all. They would accuse the author of the second definition of being “obscurantist”. A “hard core” analytic philosopher, i.e. a logical atomist or a logical positivist will go even further, stating that the second description is meaningless all together (How does one go about “grounding limitless sound” with “exacting explorations”? And what exactly is “limitless sound” anyway?). The first description on the other hand is clear and unambiguous, and carries relevant information by it’s logical and precise structure.
A proponent of the continental style will argue that the first description of Pink Floyd, for all of its clarity and unambiguity, fails to convey the true artistic impact of the band. It’s dry and could be applied to just about any Prog Rock or Classic Rock band from the 70s. The reader doesn’t take away from it any real feel for who Pink Floyd were or what their impact was. The second description, which uses metaphors and subjective terminology in a way that analytic philosophers don’t usually subscribe to, succeeds in giving a better feel for Pink Floyd’s influence and it’s perception among critics and the public, that a ‘mere’ analytic description can never convey.
Consider the following quote from Nietzsche (who is retroactively categorized as a continental philosopher) “Thus Spake Zarathustra”:
I teach you the overman. Man is something that shall be overcome. What have you done to overcome him?
All beings so far have created something beyond themselves; and do you want to be the ebb of this great flood and even go back to the beasts rather than overcome man? What is the ape to man? A laughingstock or a painful embarrassment. And man shall be just that for the overman: a laughingstock or a painful embarrassment…
A proponent of continental philosophy would argue that there is no way to fully describe Nietzsche’s overman (übermensch) using analytic, clear cut definitions à la Tractatus. You would be forced to use a metaphorical and subjective style if you wanted to convey the full meaning of the overman.