Analytic & Continental in Political Philosophy & Theory

A forthcoming special issue of the European Journal of Political Theory will take up the topic of analytic and Continental approaches in political philosophy and political theory. The introduction to the issue, “Introduction: Analytic, Continental and the question of a bridge” by Clayton Chin and Lasse Thomassen (University of London) is now online (may be gated). Their central claim is that the distinction has survived because people haven’t really studied it. From the opening of the paper (notes and citations removed):

In philosophy and political theory, divisions come and go, but some persist despite being obviously problematic. The analytic and Continental divide is one such division. Coming out of debates between analytic theory and phenomenology in the 1950s, the divide has been read backwards into history; continues to structure academic discourse, publishing and appointments in philosophy and political theory; and has even underwritten methodological differences between different camps in sociology, history, anthropology, literary theory, law and many other fields. It has thus had a fundamental impact on academic thought and practice.

In political theory, these effects have been particularly pronounced. Analytic and Continental thinkers are divided not only over substantial issues but also over the very nature of political theorising. Those working within one tradition often view with scepticism the work and conclusions of theorists within the other tradition, and the two traditions often speak past one another, disagreeing about such fundamental categories as theorising, politics and the political in the first place. Consequently, analytic and Continental political theory, and the associated division between liberal normative theory and post-structuralism, operates with different understandings of the role of, and relationship between, philosophy and politics.

In spite of this fundamental nature, theorists often seem to assume that, as a division, the analytic/Continental divide requires no explanation. It is immediately understood when invoked by those in the field, and most theorists, if not readily identifying with one or the other side of the division, implicitly assume or employ it in their choice of questions and sources. Equally, when it is engaged, there is little consensus over the nature of the division and what actually divides ‘analytic’ from ‘Continental’. We suggest that, as a central division within political theory, and despite being acknowledged as problematic for quite some time and in many ways, it has persisted because it has not been adequately examined.

They argue that there is no unproblematic way to state the essential features of either school, observe that there is a increased tendency to downplay the importance of the distinction (“though, when the other side is engaged, the tendency is to do so only on one’s own set of terms and questions”), and note that “both traditions seem to have now entered a self-conscious period of meta-reflection.” However, “the continued institutional separation -– in terms of employment, publishing and research activities –- and the space between their respective philosophical vocabularies suggest that, while the time is ripe for work here, there is still much to be done.”

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Greg Littmann
9 years ago

I applaud such efforts to bridge the gap. It seems counterproductive that we have so much trouble understanding one another. One thing that I think would help to bridge the gap is for philosophers to try to write philosophical works in language that is as close to ordinary English as they can reasonably get. This is not to say that philosophers shouldn’t also produce work that is filled with jargon. There can be perfectly good reasons to use jargon or to otherwise produce work that isn’t easily accessible to those who aren’t specialists in a given field. However, communicating more broadly is also valuable.

Terence Blake
9 years ago

“There is no unproblematic way to state the essential features of either school”, as I learned to my detriment on this blog. See:

9 years ago

The claim that the analytic and continental approaches hold different substantive views and basic presuppositions is interesting. The received view among analytic philosophers is that analytic philosophy is that analytic philosophy is not defined by any substantive views or basic presuppositions. Rather, it’s more of a historical tradition, like “ancient philosophy” or “medieval philosophy”. I would think the same is true of continental philosophy. It may be true that certain views happen to be more popular in continental (Marxism, perhaps) than in analytic philosophy, and vice versa (liberalism, perhaps). But is it more useful to view this as a difference between analytic and continental as well as a difference between Marxism and liberalism, instead of just a difference between the latter?