Analytic & Continental Philosophy

Yesterday the Australian philosopher Paul Patton was featured on Australia’s Philosopher’s Zone radio program. First, let’s give a huge round of applause to Australia for having a radio program devoted to philosophy.


I’ve met Paul Patton a few times and I have always been impressed.  The main point he makes here is that the analytic / continental division in philosophy is part and parcel of the larger division in intellectual circles between science and the humanities. Patton notes that as a higher ed administrator in a research university he has come up against the perplexity of scientists who wonder just what new knowledge the humanities are discovering.  At the same time, Patton makes an impressive case that the humanities’ sort are much more engaged in the real world problems of actual peoples, especially those who have been marginalized, like the Australian aboriginal people.

Patton also notes a difference between analytic and continental philosphers over what is taken as given and taken for granted.  Analytic philosophers often take rights as given, and then they worry — quite rightly — over how such rights ought to be distributed.  [Edit: should read how goods should be distributed on the basis of these rights, not rights distributed.] Continentals worry about how such rights might, or might not, emerge at all, especially in contexts where “the other” is barely recognized as worthy of recognition.

I have been working between these traditions, mostly from the continental side but also mostly trying to engage the issues that analytic political philosophers care about more than continental philosophers seem to do.  This always gives me a sense of vertigo or imbalance. Currently I am finishing up an article on democratic “epistemology” though I feel like I am hardly getting off the ground because I can hardly recognize what epistemology, in the usual sense, has to do with democratic deliberation. I have to constantly do a self-check: am I on Neptune or are these other folks on Neptune?  Fortunately I have had lots of experience on planet earth with people actually engaged in democratic life so that I can pause and say to myself: I have something to say here.

In the end, the analytic / continental divide is best checked by  lived experience — not a seminar in modal logic.

By Noelle McAfee

I am professor of philosophy at Emory University and editor of the Kettering Review. My latest book, Fear of Breakdown: Politics and Psychoanalysis, explores what is behind the upsurge of virulent nationalism and intransigent politics across the world today. My other writings include Democracy and the Political Unconscious; Habermas, Kristeva, and Citizenship; Julia Kristeva; and numerous articles and book chapters. Edited volumes include Standing with the Public: the Humanities and Democratic Practice and a special issue of the philosophy journal Hypatia on feminist engagements in democratic theory. I am also the author of the entry on feminist political philosophy in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and well into my next book project on democratic public life.


  1. I don’t know that Continentals don’t worry about how rights are to be distributed. You seems to be implying that Continentals are worried about abstract concepts only relevant to other Continentals.

    Wouldn’t Rorty be considered a Continental Philosopher? He wasn’t worried about how rights might be distributed?

    I know that someone like Nietzsche disputed that humans had any rights at all, but I don’t think even he would dispute that humans ought be treated as if they do have those rights (whether they existent or not).

    If you’re philosophy is busy in details only relevant to other Continentals, I suppose that’s acceptable, but I don’t know what could possibly motivate you.

  2. Bahram,

    Thanks you for your interest in this blog. If you read what I said again you’ll see that I never said that continental philosophers are not worried about how rights are to be distributed. And if you read other posts you’ll see that my work is far from “busy in details only relevant to other Continentals.” Read carefully, please.


  3. You write that scientists wonder just what the people in the humanities are discovering and continue to distinguish more between A vs. C in a more philosophical context with the statement, “Analytic philosophers often take rights as given, and then they worry — quite rightly — over how such rights ought to be distributed. Continentals worry about how such rights might, or might not, emerge at all, especially in contexts where “the other” is barely recognized as worthy of recognition.”

    How rights emerge or don’t emerge at all is a detail relevant only to other CP’s. Though Quine may argue against normative ethics, the former AP’s distribution of rights seems much more relevant to a working democracy.

    What am I missing? You never said CP’s aren’t worried about how rights are distributed but you said AP’s definately are, and never mentioned whether it was any of CP’s concern.

    I thought the failure to mention what CP’s do which is relevant to life and the world rather than to other CP’s implies that what they do is not relevant to life and the world. As a self-identified CP (as you claim to be) I think this is a great failure. You only need read Nietzsche, Zizek, Diderot, Deleuze, Habermas, etc… to see how wrong you are. That you are a CP who is concerned with technical CP bs is your business; I would appreciate if you didn’t paint all CP’s with the same brush.

  4. Hey, relax. This is just a blog. In my original post I was simply summarizing Paul Patton’s main argument that the continental / analytic divide my map on to the humanities / hard science divide. I don’t have any hard views on this. And as a pragmatist, as much as a continental philosopher, my guess is that non-scientists of both analytic and continental camps greatly overestimate “the rigor” of the sciences. (Pragmatism nicely draws on the actual scientific method to give a non-cognitivist account of truth and discovery.)

    Anyway, I shouldn’t try to summarize analytic philosophy so much or speak for continental philosophy tout court. I’ll speak for myself. Pour moi, I find it deeply problematic to start with a premise that there are rights that somehow come with being a human being. This is like a religious view, not an empirical one. I think any good philosopher should inquire about where such supposed rights came from. By asking such questions, I’ve been developing something I find more plausible: that rights are claims that people make in actual social circumstances. These claims come to be understood as rights when they are taken up by others. If not recognized, those making claims may well keep struggling. Rights claims are performative utterances. And the recognition of rights also occurs performatively. (I could go into more detail if needed.)

    This kind of view helps make sense of human rights discourse in civil rights movements and in international law much more than unreflective premises that rights are “given” in advance. This kind of view can do some good work in the world.

    If I am somehow still missing whatever concern you have, please let me know.

  5. My hope is for the widespread diffusion of the philosophical attitudes of open-mindedness, the suspension of judgment until arguments and evidence have been considered, and hospitality towards those bearing alternative perspectives, ideas, and arguments. Specifically, it is a hope that these philosophical attitudes will be applied across the received sociological divisions within the profession, divisions that are no longer either doctrinally or methodologically motivated.

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