The term `continental philosophy` refers to the trends of philosophy prevalent in the European continent, particularly in 19th-20th century France and Germany. Philosophical ideas that fall beneath the title of continental philosophy include: German idealism, phenomenology, existentialism and deconstruction. Notable thinkers include Edmund Husserl, Franz Brentano, Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Jacques Derrida.

The term continental philosophy refers to the trends and concerns of 20th century and contemporary philosophy prevalent in the European continent, particularly in France and Germany. The term serves to differentiate ideas such as phenomenology, existentialism and deconstruction from ideas prevalent in Anglo-American philosophy such as logical atomism, logical positivism, scientism and pragmatism—which comprise analytic philosophy.

Continental philosophy was very much rooted in German idealism and grew out of the work of Immanuel Kant and G. W. F. Hegel, and out of critical reactions to these philosophers from the likes of Friedrich Nietzsche, Karl Marx and Søren Kierkegaard; following German idealism and its critics, phenomenology came as a culmination of the Cartesian tradition (the subject/object distinction; cogito ergo sum...) which inspired a radical, game-changing rejection of that tradition from Martin Heidegger, whose return to Greek philosophy and re-examination of the most fundamental question of Being inspired a new generation of philosophers wholly more aware of themselves and less eager to explain the world in some grandiose system, instead turning their gazes inward to try and comprehend the difficulties that come in simply existing.

In parallel to this learning experience and the absolute turning of the tables on Hegel's attempt to create an encyclopaedic solution to everything, a new found interest in linguistics and the role of language in philosophy emerged. Ferdinand de Saussure's A Course in General Linguistics attracted attention and the question of signifier and signified inspired many thinkers to apply the ideas to philosophy, psychology and the arts, particularly Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan and Michel Foucault. The end result, after structuralism fell out of favour, was deconstruction from Jacques Derrida. Deconstruction is difficult to define because deconstruction highlights the dynamic and transient nature of definitions, and has itself been misinterpreted and redefined as it was imported to various other areas of thought, from structuralist linguistics to philosophy, literary criticism and feminism.

Deconstruction is not dissimilar to Heidegger's destruktion in that it is not a tool or a method of doing something, but rather it is simply the reality that the dichotomies of philosophy are power dynamics that are beyond solution, that these binary oppositions (subject/object, man/woman, etc.) cannot simply be resolved as an equation. Both sides of the opposition are not going anywhere and form a master/slave relationship that shifts with the times. While Derrida's grammatology, the art of deconstructing, is a positive 'science', it nevertheless highlights the limits of philosophy and human epistemology as limits of human language and history. An idea common to all true continental philosophers is an awareness of the limitations of philosophy and a desire to step outside of those limitations, to expand the scope of thought beyond philosophy.

Though both continental philosophy and analytic philosophy deal with the philosophy of language, they approach the topic from very different angles; the former follows the structuralist and semiotic accounts of language use, while the latter looks at languages more scientifically and psychologically. That is not to say that the two branches do not arrive at similar conclusions however; thinkers from both sides arrived at the conclusion that meaning divides into signifier and signified, sense (sinn) and reference (bedeutung), for instance. Continental philosophy can be considered a qualitative approach to philosophy, whereas analytic philosophy emphasises quantitative methods and seeks to root everything in well-formed propositions that can be broken down into truth-values.

Continental philosophers have endured a great deal of criticism from Anglo-American philosophers for speaking in riddles and failing to make any clear or real points. Nevertheless, the continental flavours of philosophy are still very much alive in contemporary philosophy and have spread with much more interest into the domain of the popular press and creative media, inspiring art, films and literature. This is thanks to continental philosophy capturing, often very poetically, the feelings that have haunted recent generations in an increasingly open and nihilistic society in the developed world.