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If one considers a abstract systematization of what constitutes modern philosophy, it is very natural to come up with something like wikipedia's outline: metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, logic, political philosophy, philosophy of mind, and many other narrower subjects. This is pretty comprehensive, of course with the difficulties of overlap and vagueness.

Yet when I think of the great philosophers and philosophical schools, many of them just don't fit into any of these categories. Not even some strange overlap, just 'other', and this applies particularly to what is called continental philosophy.

Existentialism, phenomenology, pragmatism, post-modernism...these all seem so important and so pervasive but none fall into any of the aforementioned categories and hardly astride. The first maybe ethics (how you should act) or political philosophy (by extension), and there are some epistemological tendencies in post-modernism, but that's about it.

To be utterly simplistic about this, what subcategory do these major schools belong in? I informally think of them as 'humanistic' philosophy but that does not seem to be a recognizable or commonly accepted label as far as I can tell.

So, where do these schools lie, and if there is no recognized category label why not, and if no recognizable category label, why not?

  • "Post-humanities" is a term I have heard used occasionally – Joseph Weissman Sep 23 '11 at 4:07
  • If it's not obvious, my agenda is that I feel there should be a major sub-category of philosophy to call all these things. – Mitch Sep 23 '11 at 15:16
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    @Mitch: Your agenda confuses me. Are you you suggesting that Continental philosophy should be a branch of philosophy on a par with, say, epistemology? – Michael Dorfman Sep 23 '11 at 19:04
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    @Mitch: Hmm. I'm not sure what it is that you are calling "humanism", but I certainly don't understand humanism as a branch of philosophy in the way that the others are. – Michael Dorfman Sep 23 '11 at 20:28
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    @Mitch: I think there is a fundamental difference between systematizing by practitioners/schools, and by areas of inquiry. Epistemology is concerned with the theory of knowledge; it is a subject matter. There are lots of different practitioners/schools who address epistemology in differing ways. Existentialism, contrariwise, is a school, which addresses many different subject areas (i.e., epistemology, ethics, etc.) I find this distinction to be useful, and a good explanation of why "continental" (or "pragmatism") is of a different type than "ethics" (or "epistemology"). – Michael Dorfman Sep 27 '11 at 16:07
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If the big 4 fields in Philosophy are Metaphysics, Epistemology, Ethics, and Logic:

Phenomenology is clearly Philosophy of Mind, which falls under Metaphysics.
Existentialism might be seen as a "brother" to Epistemology, if it were more popular. I could also see it falling under Ethics in some ways.
Pragmatism I see as a branch under Philosophy of Science, which (confusingly) can be either metaphysics or epistemology.
Postmodernism falls under Aesthetics, which—strictly speaking—falls under Metaphysics.

The problem is that many fields overlap, and no real effort has been made to clearly define rigid boundaries between concepts, because while they could in theory be defined, it would require a vast amount of time to seriously do so.

  • Sure, there are no rigid concepts, but there are more or less clustering areas of concern. And I feel that there is a family resemblance among such huge areas of concern as existentialism/phenomenology/etc that they should get their own label. – Mitch Sep 23 '11 at 20:00
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    Publish a paper arguing for it! (seriously; that's not sarcasm) – stoicfury Sep 23 '11 at 22:49
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Existentialism, phenomenology, pragmatism, post-modernism...these all seem so important and so pervasive but none fall into any of the aforementioned categories and hardly astride.

I'd argue that all of these are cross-cutting concerns, and are astride the aforementioned categories.

For example, it is quite easy to identify an Existential metaphysics, an Existential epistemology, an Existential aesthetics, an Existential political philosophy, an Existential philosophy of mind, and an Existential ethics. (There's no need to identify an Existential logic, as Existentialism doesn't make any claims regarding logic that are at odds with classical logic.) In fact, I could name individual works by Sartre on each of those topics.

And this is as it should be. If we were expecting to slot philosophers or schools into your major categories, in which category would we place Kant? Aristotle?

  • I feel that one could say that many epistemological concerns cross boundaries of the other categories, so there's no real need for a special 'epistemology' category. And of course an individual can discuss many different things, and in some instances a particular named subject may have no adherents at all (e.g. (arguably) solipsism). – Mitch Sep 23 '11 at 19:56
  • +1, what a great answer! "Cross-cutting concerns" is such an apt way to put the problem. – Joseph Weissman Sep 23 '11 at 23:01
  • As to those cross-cutting concerns, to me it feels like there is only one, that having to do with ...philosophical extrapolations of...social concerns. How to be, how to think, I feel like there is one category that they all fall in to. Like empiricism or determinism fall into epistemology. – Mitch Sep 26 '11 at 21:15
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The problem is assuming that Continental Philosophy is a category, which it is not. It's a movement or a tradition. It's a collection of thinkers who influence and reference each other, and who share a common set of concerns and methods. Michael Dorfman has it right when he says that continental philosophy covers all of the categories you mention, but it's a bit more complicated than that.

Analytic philosophy is the other major tradition in contemporary philosophy, and you are probably familiar with the categories of philosophy as seen through the analytic lens: epistemology, metaphysics, ethics, and logic, plus various other categories that cut across one or more of the above four. That might be why you find it hard to see how Continental Philosophy fits into those categories. Analytic philosophy has a certain idea of what 'epistemology' is that doesn't quite fit with what continental thinkers think of it.

For instance, the central question in analytic epistemology is "What is knowledge?" That doesn't really come across in the continental philosophy. You have similar sounding questions, but they are subtly different, and they aren't approached in the same way.

Unfortunately, the best way to understand what I'm talking about is to put your categorizing on hold read up on some Continental thinkers. You'll see that they have similar questions, but their objectives and methods are different enough that they end up looking radically different.

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First I would like to say that Continental Philosophy is just European Philosophy carrying on as it always has, with a few new twists but carrying on the Western Philosophical Tradition. Thus it considers all the categories mentioned but is not caught up on categories because it is mainly concerned with synthesis not analysis. It is not based on specialization, but in the pursuit of philosophical insight.

In order to understand your question better, we need to contrast Continental Philosophy with Analytical Philosophy. This is an offshoot of European Philosophy that began in Vienna but soon transferred itself to Britain and then to the United States. Its lineage went from Kant to Frege to Schlick to Wittgenstein, but in England it was also rooted in Russell, Wittgenstein's advisor for his Ph.D. and Moore. From these roots the branches spread to Quine, Putnam, etc. I would venture that this off shoot of European Philosophy that became popular in England and America is a child of the Cold War and particularly of the McCarthy Era. I venture to say that now the Cold War is over it is going to vanish, slowly but certainly. See here.

So it is Analytic Philosophy that seems to be the norm in English speaking countries that is obsessed with Categories, and with Specialization, and particularly with Analysis rather than synthesis.

In my opinion the main topics of Continental Philosophy over the last century have been Phenomenology, Ontology (including Existentialism), Dialectics and Hermeneutics. But of course there is really every other topic under the sun in there somewhere like Psychoanalysis, Political Economy, Social, Cultural, or Political Critique, Marxism, Literary Critique, Poetics, (you name it, and it is in there somewhere). It is not specialized, it is not isolated in Academia, it has tended to be revolutionary, and politically active. And this is primarily because during the second world war the French Resistance were overwhelmingly communist and we made allies with them. And so even though after the war De Gaulle was placed into power, the intellectuals were all Marxists, and the only Marxists not dominated by the Soviet Union, and thus free to have their own thoughts about what Marxism is and how it related to things like the unconscious, or structuralism, or literature, etc. Semiotics for instance was born out of this mixture of approaches which took off from Russian Formalism.

The major names in this movement are Hegel, Nietzsche, Husserl, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Sartre, Derrida, Bataille, Lacan, Baudrillard, Levinas, Deleuze, Zizek, Badiou, etc. This Continental Tradition has been embraced by English Departments across the United States. This is because they give these English specialists a basis for critique of Literature. There are a lot more English Professors than Philosophy professors. And so Continental Philosophy is going Mainstream, as seen in the fact that Zizek spoke at Occupy Wallstreet. I did not hear of any Analytical Philosophers speaking to that crowd. Even though Analytical Philosophers have a grip on Philosophy Departments across the Commonwealth, including ex-commonwealth nations like the USA, they are doomed to irrelevance due to their specialization and their worship of categories or boxes that they dare not think outside of. Continental Philosophers long ago gave up the idea that their thoughts could be contained by any specialties, or categories, but instead they are transdisciplinary and interdisciplinary and will basically meddle in anything.

So there is a strict difference between Analytic and Synthetic traditions of thought. The Synthetic since Kant and Hegel has been the basis for all European thought. Analysis as Kant says comes after synthesis based on a priori projections of things like Spacetime and the Categories.

I noticed that this Q&A site tends have an Analytic bent so I thought I would say something provocative to see if I could liven things up. See my Quora answers for more quasi-Continental strangeness.

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    What a load of m̶a̶l̶a̶r̶k̶e̶y̶ continental propoganda. Analytic philosophy, if it is embraced, can solve mainstream problems. Continental philosophy can only interpret the problems and suggest a perspective to take in response. It is like religion. – 6005 Jul 22 '18 at 6:45

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