At the end of the 18th century, one could say Immanuel Kant, for a brief period of time, brought together the rationalist and empiricist philosophical approaches that dominated in Europe during the Enlightenment. This synergy, however, was short, lived; the two approached re-branched off from one another into what today is known as the Continental and Analytical traditions.
The Continental approach issues from idealism (the view, in short, that reality and knowledge is mostly or entirely made up of ideas, that material things, even if they exist, are neither perceived nor known beyond their “ideality”) that stems from the rationalist worldview and methodology initiated by Rene Descartes, which dominated in non-Anglophone European countries (that is, on the “continent” as as opposed to the United Kingdom). Continental philosophy takes root in 19th century Germany idealism via Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling, and, most influentially, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, and it branches out to other parts of the continent, notably France (e.g. Jean-Paul Sartre, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Derrida, while remaining pervasive and influential in Germany (e.g. Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche).
Continental philosophy is often characterised by a focus on certain themes; including history, politics (particularly the politics of gender and sexuality), the self and self-consciousness, freedom, desire and the will. The techniques of continental philosophy are as wide-ranging as its subject-matter, from close historical analysis of texts, to creative reading of ancient and modern literature, to reflection on one’s own lived experience.
Questions that one might find addressed in continental philosophy are, for example: ‘Has philosophy traditionally focused too exclusively on the being of objects in its understanding of being?’, ‘Are there different modes of being?’, and ‘Is our everyday understanding of ourselves mostly inauthentic and, if so, what would an authentic existence be?’
Analytic philosophy builds on the empirical methods of J.S. Mill and Auguste Comte, Gottlob Frege and Bertrand Russell. It seeks to conduct and conceive of philosophy as a science, often casting philosophical inquiry as that which serves science by analyzing the logic and premises of scientific inquiry. Analytic philosophy is marked by a focus on questions about the nature of language, meaning and thought, and on questions about how the mind relates to the world.
An example of such a question is: ‘Is the meaning of a name just the object in the world to which that name refers?’ On the one hand, it might seem obvious that the answer is ‘yes’. After all, we might think, a name’s function is to pick out particular objects in the world, and so it is natural to think that those objects are their meanings. On the other hand, there is a reason to think the answer is ’no’. After all, names like ‘Santa Claus’ seem to be perfectly meaningful. But they do not pick out any object in the world. So, what, then, is the meaning of a name?
Analytical philosophers have tended to pursue these questions through methods of argument and proof similar to those used in mathematics and logic.
Watch this video offering more about what is often called the Analytic/Continental “split” or “divide.”