Brian Leiter on the Analytic/Continental Distinction

by Luke Muehlhauser on December 12, 2010 in General Philosophy

I regularly use the terms “analytic philosophy” and “continental philosophy”, but Brian Leiter is convincing me that the distinction isn’t useful:

…it is time to pronounce… analytic philosophy laid to rest: so called “analytic” philosophers now include quietists and naturalists; old-fashioned metaphysical philosophers and twentieth-century linguistic philosophers; historians of philosophy and philosophers who show little interest in the history of the field. Given the methodological and substantive pluralism of Anglophone philosophy, “analytic” philosophy survives, if at all, as a certain style that emphasizes “logic”, “rigor”, and “argument” – a stylistic commitment that does little to demarcate it, of course, from Kant, Hegel, Descartes, or Aristotle. The oft-vaunted “clarity” of analytic philosophy… would, if deemed essential now to membership, place major contemporary Anglophone figures like John McDowell and Christopher Peacocke in some other, still unnamed philosophical camp. Prototypical non-analytic figures, like Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, are far clearer (and more beautiful) writers than many of the dominant figures in Anglophone philosophy today…

Dummett identified three distinguishing features of the “linguistic turn” in “analytic” philosophy: that it is concerned with “thought”; that the account of “thought” is not to be a naturalistic (i.e. psychological) one; and that the account requires an analysis of “language”. Yet, as Williamson remarks, this appears to “much of what is usually called “continental (supposedly non-analytic) philosophy.” It is not obvious that Jacques Derrida does not subscribe in his own way to Dummett’s three tenets.

This is but a small snippet from his extended and forceful case against the analytic/continental distinction in his introduction to The Future for Philosophy, which is definitely worth reading. The distinction may be useful historically – certainly, Russell and Moore can be called “analytic” philosophers. But the distinction probably doesn’t work for today’s philosophical landscape.

I suspect “analytic” and “continental” will still slip into my speech, but from now on I’ll try to employ more useful terms.

Even a category like naturalism is already vague enough; we certainly don’t need to try to defend a category called “analytic” that somehow includes everyone from Michael Dummett to Peter van Inwagen to John Bickle to Peter Hacker!

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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Bradm December 12, 2010 at 1:05 am

I’m curious what Leiter said to convince you that wasn’t already told to you 6 months ago. And if you read the William Blattner essay I linked to back then, you’ll see that even “style” doesn’t “survive.”


John W. Loftus December 12, 2010 at 3:14 am

Got to hand it to you Luke. You keep growing as you learn almost every day. You’re good, really good.

In my day Richard Rorty had an impact on analytic philosophy with the publication of his work, “Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature”


Luke Muehlhauser December 12, 2010 at 6:57 am


See, now, to call Rorty a quietist is much more descriptive! :)


Chris Hallquist December 12, 2010 at 8:49 am

I don’t think any proponent of the analytic/continental distinction would care to call Feser an analytic. Roughly, analytics are people engaged with the mainstream of English-speaking philosophy of the past 50 years, not any philosopher who happens to speak English from the past 50 years.


Bill Maher December 12, 2010 at 12:16 pm

I think the distinction is useful in a historical sense. The difference in the early 20th century between Sartre & Heidegger and Russell & Moore is pretty substantial. One school is talked about by douchebags that wear berets and the other is based around logic and rigor. For the most part though, “analytic” has now won out and most of Europe can now be said to do analytic philosophy, including Germany and Scandinavia.


Luke Muehlhauser December 12, 2010 at 2:58 pm


I dunno. Anyway, I changed my example to Peter van Inwagen. Thanks.


Luke Muehlhauser December 12, 2010 at 3:00 pm

Bill Maher,

Oh yes, there once was something called analytic philosophy. I’ll add that clarification.


Fire December 12, 2010 at 3:31 pm

As Maher said, the distinction is useful mainly in a historical sense. When you read Russell or the other analytic philosophers, their clarity of thought if evident, and when something does go wrong, you can actually point to a particular paragraph and highlight a specific logical failing. The ramblings of Nietzsche, however, while grand, is easily susceptible to the ‘where’s your evidence?’ objection.


juhou December 13, 2010 at 2:29 am

This whole thing about analytical and continental seems false to me. I think even clarity is not a real issue. I studied philosophy in high school under a teacher who was doing a PhD in Heidegger and thought us to appreciate philosopher of continental tradition (against the mainstream in Finland). Due to studying Heidegger and Derrida at high school, mostly for fun, I always found those two and Nietzsche, Kierkegaard and Sartre easier to understand than the likes of Frege, Russel and especially Wittgenstein. I have continued to struggle with Wittgenstein while taking some courses for fun at my university. Maybe that is because I am more literally minded person rather than mathematical (despite majoring economics). It’s strange to me that somebody can say that Russel, etc, have more clarity. I think most of the divide is indeed sociological and anyway annoying.


Robert Gressis December 13, 2010 at 9:34 am

For what it’s worth, Feser does engage with Ruth Millikan, Daniel Dennett, and John Searle in THE LAST SUPERSTITION. He also wrote a book on the philosophy of mind that engages with the Churchlands, Fodor, Searle, Dennett, Chalmers, Ned Block, Lycan, J.J.C. Smart, Ryle, Wittgenstein, Davidson, Quine, and others. He also wrote a book on Locke that treats the work of Nozick, Rawls, Michael Ayers, A. John Simmons, and MacIntyre. So I disagree with what Chris Hallquist said above about Feser, though I grant I may have misunderstood it.


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