The philosophical world in the West, since the beginning of the 20th Century, is thought to be—and maybe is—quite divided.  Setting aside the differences (and similarities) between philosophy in the West and philosophy elsewhere (in India, China, Japan, Africa, and perhaps among indigenous peoples worldwide, not to mention Marxists), sharp differences are noticed today just within the tradition that traces itself back through modern and medieval European philosophy to ancient Greece.

If you were to check graduate school philosophy departments around the U.S., you would find that in many cases they characterize themselves as either Analytic or Continental, either exclusively or in emphasis.  Certainly individual philosophers often so characterize themselves.  If you were to ask what this means, you might get a surprising and mysterious answer in terms of literature.  That is to say, Analytic philosophers read and respond to a certain set of books and articles, while Continental philosophers read and respond to a different set, and there is very little overlap, if any.  Why?  Is this an ideological difference?  A methodological one?  A historical schism?  A difference in subjects addressed?

As a matter of fact, when you try to pin down the difference, it turns out to be pretty difficult to do so clearly.  Partly, this is because it would take quite a lot of research to specify the ideological and methodological commitments of philosophers working today, or to trace their philosophical histories and influences, or even to catalog the subjects they address.  I suspect that if you did this research, you would find a complicated picture, with many intersections across the Analytic/Continental divide, and little in the way of a clear picture of the divide itself.  But I can’t prove that without writing a book about it; a daunting project.  Another reason why the difference is difficult to pin down is that the perception of it is based largely on geography:  Analytic philosophers are commonly defined as those who work in an Anglophone tradition, found in the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia, and Canada; Continental philosophers are commonly defined as those who work in a largely Francophone tradition, found in the countries of Continental Europe—France, Germany, Italy, Spain, etc.—North Africa, and Canada.  But the definitions break down as soon as you set them up.  It’s not hard to find “Continental” philosophers in the United States working in English, nor is it hard to find “Analytic” philosophers in Europe working in German.

However, geography is not now and has never been the defining criterion of distinct schools of philosophy.  In ancient times, when philosophy sprang up, as tradition has it, in Ionia (modern Turkey), just about as soon as Thales developed his theory that water is the arche of the kosmos, other philosophers—Anaximander and Anaximenes—developed competing theories.  They all lived in Ionia, and they’re called “the Ionians,” or “the Milesians,” but they differed philosophically as radically as water does metaphysically from the infinite or from density.  Later on, Plato and Aristotle differed on many points, including methodology; both count as Greek philosophers, though.

There is also a logical difficulty with the expressions ‘Analytic’ and ‘Continental’ as they are used today to designate schools of philosophy.  The terms are not comparable (except geographically—a fruitless interpretation).  ‘Analytic’ is a term referring to method; Analytic philosophers get their name from their method of analyzing ordinary language, among other things they do.  Continental philosophers analyze ordinary language, too, among other things, but their name, ‘Continental,’ does not designate a method.  Rather it designates a lineage.  Of course, Analytic philosophers have essentially the same lineage.  So the terms, ‘Analytic,’ and ‘Continental,’ differentiate schools of philosophy neither on the basis of method nor on the basis of lineage.

Yet, philosophers will tell you that they can tell the difference between Analytic philosophers and Continental philosophers, moreover that they agree with the one and disagree with the other, and even that they dislike and have no interest in the one and feel very passionately enthusiastic about the other.  What is going on?  As a matter of historical fact, for instance, Franz Brentano (1838-1917) taught Edmund Husserl (a key “Continental” philosopher), but also attracted the attention of G.E. Moore (a key “Analytic” philosopher).  Husserl’s student, Martin Heidegger, was deeply influenced by Brentano’s habilitation thesis, On the Several Senses of Being in Aristotle.  Moore’s colleague, Bertrand Russell, went to great lengths to answer the ontological claims of Brentano’s student, Alexius Meinong.  Does this simply represent the initial stages of a great rift?  No.  Several decades after Brentano’s death, Jacques Derrida (a Francophone Algerian Jew, designated “Continental”) was deeply influenced by J.L. Austin (an Englishman, designated “Analytic”).  Both therefore have a clear debt as well to a slightly earlier philosopher, Russell’s and Moore’s student Ludwig Wittgenstein (an Austrian, designated “Analytic”).  Analytic and Continental philosophers also share a common debt to Hegel and to Kant, as well as to the whole prior history of philosophy going back to the Greeks.  And their current interests are similar:  sense perception; subjectivity; the cultural effects of modern science; ethics; aesthetics.

The Polish logicians (if Poland isn’t Continental, what is?) exercised influence especially over the Analytic philosophers, but their education was Eastern European, and traceable to the school of Brentano.  However, Analytic philosophers typically complain that Continental philosophers are “literary” rather than “philosophical” or “logical,” while Continental philosophers complain that Analytic philosophers do not speak to people where they live, that they do not address the “meaning of life” issues philosophy ought to be concerned with.  And so it goes.  How do I even know who’s who?  We’re brought back to an answer in terms of literature.  Almost every philosopher who publishes today betrays him- or herself by the sources he or she cites, and those sources are categorized by the nearly arbitrary Analytic/Continental distinction.  My father once promised me a dollar for every reference to Jesus Christ that I could find in a Unitarian hymnal.  I promise you the same for every reference to a recent Analytic philosopher that you can find in a Continental book or article, or vice versa, and I expect to lose about as much money as Dad did!  But all of us, whatever our initial sympathies, should become at least reasonably well-versed in the philosophies from the “other side.”  Even Wittgenstein’s family resemblances obtain among philosophers in general, and not just among Analytic or Continental philosophers in juxtaposition.