There's been much ado about the divisiveness between Heidegger and Husserl fans on the one side, with Frege and Russell stalwarts on the other. I'm mostly amused by accounts of name-calling between Derrida and Searle. With regards to the C/A divide itself, there remains all too much disagreement about what the disagreement is, and I'm not, for the moment, very interested in an account of the debate.

What I'm curious about is if anyone can identify with any precision where, when, or with who the division began. The SEP's article on Consciousness and Intentionality seems to suggest it was Brentano who started it, but I'm not able to verify the veracity of such a claim with any degree of accuracy. Can anyone else?

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    Please take a look at Peter E. Gordon's book entitled, Continental Divide: Heidegger, Cassirer, Davos (2010). One of the best books I have read on the subject to date. He really does a great job of looking at this monumental event which did much to perpetuate the philosophical schizophrenia. Jan 20, 2013 at 23:38
  • I read @Myron suggested book as well and I can warmly recommend it as a companion to Friedman's book. (PS: You might want to turn your comment into an answer)
    – DBK
    Feb 22, 2013 at 13:30

6 Answers 6


I'd say it started around the 1950 and got off the ground around 1980 ;)

That is to say, the divide as been introduced as a fighting word from the beginning; it is more about asserting the divide than about giving an adequate picture of the philosophical landscape. And it is really not advisable to do proper history of philosophy by using fighting words!

Furthemore it becomes a pain (it seems even absurd) to distinguish between continental philosophy and analytic philosophy when studying a development which took place in continental Europe.

Nonetheless, we can certainly trace back some distinctive features among different philosophical traditions and schools. I can warmly recommend a wonderful book by Michael Friedman: A Parting of Ways: Carnap, Cassirer, and Heidegger (Open Court Publishing, 2000).

Since the 1930s, philosophy has been divided into two camps: the analytic tradition which prevails in the Anglophone world and the continental tradition which holds sway over the European continent. A Parting of Ways looks at the origins of this split through the lens of one defining episode: the disputation in Davos, Switerzland, in 1929, between the two most eminent German philosophers, Ernst Cassirer and Martin Heidegger. This watershed debate was attended by Rudolf Carnap, a representative of the Vienna Circle of logical positivists. Michael Friedman shows how philosophical differences interacted with political events. Both Carnap and Heidegger viewed their philosophical efforts as tied to their radical social outlooks, with Carnap on the left and Heidegger on the right, while Cassirer was in the conciliatory classical tradition of liberal republicanism. The rise of Hitler led to the emigration from Europpe of most leading philosophers, including Carnap and Cassirer, leaving Heidegger alone on the continent.

Enjoy the read!

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    +1 for Friedman's really great book. Also, on roughly the same period, his "Reconsidering Logical Positivism" is great too.
    – Schiphol
    Nov 28, 2012 at 16:34
  • Thank you! Brilliant application of Google's nGram viewer- I hadn't thought to try that approach. Friedman's going on the wish list.
    – Ryder
    Nov 29, 2012 at 9:29
  • On the nGram side, compare the French corpus: books.google.com/ngrams/…
    – Lucas
    Apr 2, 2014 at 4:36
  • with the English corpus: books.google.com/ngrams/…
    – Lucas
    Apr 2, 2014 at 4:36

Your question, "What is the origin of the Continental vs. Analytic divide?" will probably not return many satisfying answers. There is no precise origin because the topic is very complicated and not well defined. The terms "continental" and "analytic" are not even clearly applicable to the differences today because of the global prominence of analytic philosophy approaches, and the increasing treatment of "continental" approaches by prominent "analytic" philosophers.

There are, however, several approaches one could take to answering the question. Here are the most prominent approaches:

The first is historical. DBK's recommendation of "The Parting of the Ways" is good, but, in my opinion, it could leave readers with the mistaken impression that "continental" philosophy derives its philosophical positions from Heidegger's ostensible politics. Ostensible because there has been a lot of ink spilled on what to make of Heidegger's membership in the National Socialists (i.e. Nazis) and the strange series of events surrounding the departure of his mentor Husserl from Freiburg in 1928 and Heidegger's eventual acceptance of the rectorship in 1933. Historically speaking, a large fraction of what is today considered "continental" philosophy derives from Phenomenology, e.g. from thinkers like Brentano, Husserl, Merleau-Ponty, Sartre, Derrida, among others.

The next approach is stylistic. The principal complaint that is leveled against or attribute that is used to describe Continental is that its "style" is characterized by dense, opaque, verbose language filled with word-play contortions, and inconsistent application of clean logical argumentation. In contrast, analytic proponents will often emphasize the importance of distilling philosophical disputes into formal logical representation, and will also argue that continental philosophy would be improved if it could just clean up its language, noting that analytic treatments of continental topics are often better. Brian Leiter is strong proponent of this kind of answer.

The next approach is philosophical/technical. Technical differences are too complex to get into in this forum, but for a good introduction to "continental" philosophical assumptions and approaches see Simon Critchley's book Continental Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction and Hans-Johann Glock's book What is Analytic Philosophy for a good overview of what is "analytic" philosophy today, or Dummett's Origins of Analytic Philosophy for a more technical treatment.

  • Thanks for the booklet recommendation - I'd forgotten I actually have a copy of that Very Short Introduction, but haven't gotten around to reading it yet. The account you gave of the split is quite good, but I'm not really looking for an description. The question's not likely to turn up many satisfying answers, no - but that's not my concern here. Intellectual fights tend to center on particular arguments or personalities, and I'm really just hoping to narrow the view on who the starting players are in this particular disagreement. Thanks again, though- pointing out the politics was helpful.
    – Ryder
    Nov 29, 2012 at 9:22

There's a book, Time in the Ditch; American Philosophy and the McCarthy Era by John McCumber, that makes the argument that, despite the pre-WWII disagreements between logical positivists and the others, the reason so many American philosophy departments became exclusively analytical was to avoid controversy from McCarthy and his ilk. Marx had read Hegel, so most philosophy after Kant had a potential to be demagogued. It was safer if philosophy professors stuck to specialized problems in logic, rather than make potentially controversial remarks about ethics, morals, politics, and so on.


The answer to your question has proven to be much more complex than anticipated. Have a look at Hans-Johann Glock's What is Analytic Philosophy? (2008), where the author answers his central question by distinguishing analytic from continental philosophy on a variety of fronts: historical, methodological, topical (topics/problems addressed by each), ideological, ethical/political and geographical. A very interesting and revealing analysis. For instance, Glock argues that AP initially distinguished itself from traditional philosophy (pre-socratics to Kant), but that this contrast was later superseded by the AP-CP contrast as a result of two distinct events: the migration from Europe of the analytics, and the fact that AP essentially returned to the (traditional) fold from the 1960s onward with "the rehabilitation of metaphysics and the reversal of the linguistic turn", which removed its “most fundamental doctrinal conflicts with traditional philosophy." (p.85-86). The book is enlightening and a great read.


The divide was caused by those who thought that Kant's noumena could be know and those who didn't.

It seems that Hegel is influential in continental thinking. He apparently thought that it didn't make sense for Kant to be able to talk about noumena if it was beyond perception, and yet Kant did. So, Kant's constraint could be ignored.

This explains a key difference in character between the two systems of thought - namely the degree of constraint. Analytical philosophy being more measured and precise, whereas continental philosophy has a reputation for flamboyance and verbosity.

As an aside, I wonder if this Kantian "constraint" on knowledge could be the same constraint that's used by economist Thomas Sowell in his book, "A Conflict of Visions", which proposes two visions of political thought - the constrained and unconstrained.

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    Welcome and thanks for the answer! Is there any chance you might be able to unpack this a little further? Why is this a persuasive answer to the question for you? What research could confirm it?
    – Joseph Weissman
    Feb 23, 2017 at 19:04
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    How's that? I just read some articles on the internet today. :) Feb 23, 2017 at 19:20

The origin, as it appears, is with Kant who, in a much repeated phrase, sought to put philosophy on "the secure path of science". This is Rorty's main thesis in "Phphy and the Mirror of Nature". Scientists embraced Kantianism as it allowed them to pursue their own interests without considerating 'higher' matter pertaining to morals, theology etc. But as sciences gained autonomy, philosophy, understood as kind of meta-science, lost most of its subject matter. Willy-nilly it returned to scholasticism - analysing verbal forms and refraining from judging content. The tools developed for the needs of mathematics were found to be most useful. Frege is probably the figure who marks the divide. The kind of analysis he proposed actually works most naturally for the German languages (English, German, etc) but needs some adaptations for the Roman languages (French, Latin, etc).

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