The Challenge of Reconciling Analytic and Continental Moral Philosophy

[This paper was prepared for presentation at the Dublin Annual Graduate Philosophy Conference 2017 — hosted at University College Dublin]

In this paper, I will present a cursory examination of the challenges faced by those analytic thinkers hoping to utilise continental moral philosophy in their work. I will use Christopher Norris’ paper ‘Fog Over the Channel’ as a template to structure this discussion. Norris attempts two projects in his paper: (1), to diagnose the rift that exists between continental and analytic philosophy of science — both the history and the significance of this rift; (2), a look at the ways in which contemporary thinkers are attempting to forge a rapprochement between these two disciplines, with a critical attention to the degree to which they are successful in this project. After outlining both of these parts of Norris’s argument I will look at the same two areas but turning my attention to moral philosophy rather than philosophy of science. I will conclude to project (1) that there is clearly a rift between continental and analytic moral philosophy, which I will characterise with reference to papers by John Deigh and Brian Leiter. Although this rift exists, there are certain differences that make the rift narrower in moral philosophy than it is in philosophy of science. To project (2), I will suggest that there are positive moves to build a rapprochement in moral philosophy, especially surrounding the use of Nietzsche, yet there are signs of similar revisionism in certain areas of the analytic exploration of Nietzsche. I will overall conclude that there is reason to be hopeful about bridging the divide between analytic and continental moral philosophy, but that Norris’ paper gives us an important template as to what pitfalls ought to be avoided in pursuit of this project.

§1 — Continental-Analytic Divide Introduction

To begin with a brief primer of the continental-analytic divide. The analytic tradition is widely accepted to have started with the split created by Moore and Russell in moving away from the idealism taught in Britain prior to 1900. This turning away from the lineage of Kant and Hegel was replaced by a focus on linguistics and a leveraging of logic as a philosophical tool. The analytic tradition is certainly not a homogenous body of work, however. There were a number of revolutions that occurred within the twentieth-century as part of the analytic tradition. One such revolution was the influence logical positivism in the 1930s (one of Norris’ main interests in his paper); another was the ordinary language movement that also began in the pre-war period. Although there were a number of internal disagreements within the analytic tradition, there are commonality in the way they rejected much of the thinking of idealism and the legacy of Kant and Hegel. Furthermore, as mentioned, they brought an interest in linguistics, language and logic to the forefront of philosophical enquiry. Analytic philosophy predominated in the twentieth-century in Anglophone countries such as the US and the UK. So much so that ‘Anglo-American’ and ‘analytic’ philosophy are often used synonymously. The conflation of these two terms often holds but, as is always the case, there are a number of examples to the contrary.

The continental tradition, on the other hand, could be thought of in one of two ways (or both, most likely). Either it can be thought of as philosophy that continued on the trajectory set by Kant and Hegel, without any clean break from such thinking, as we see in the analytic tradition. Or it can be seen as an independent, parallel school of thought that arose alongside analytic philosophy. In reality, both of these are true to some extent. Continental thinkers such as Nietzsche, Foucault, Sartre, Beauvoir, Merleau-Ponty, certainly have more of a direct lineage with Kant and Hegel than analytic thinkers. At least it can be said that continental thinkers see it as important to consider seriously and directly address the writings of these thinkers. Yet distinct schools of thought in the analytic tradition such as phenomenology and existentialism went well beyond simply responding to and addressing Kant and Hegel and created important positive theories in their own right.

I would like to caveat this discussion by accepting that this distinction is certainly not a sharp one. In no way was everything written in the Britain and the United States ‘analytic’ and everything written on mainland Europe ‘continental’. These are loose distinctions and fail to be informative if one looks too closely. However, consider them to be broadly useful for this discussion as they do point to important differences in how Anglo-American and European thinkers have conducted philosophy in the twentieth century.

§2 — Christopher Norris’ Diagnosis of Continental/Analytic Philosophy of Science

The first project of Norris’ paper is to diagnose the ‘rift’ that exists between analytic and continental philosophy of science (Norris, 2005, p.1). He does this with a focus on the case of the logical positivists as an exemplar of how and why the rift exists.

Starting in pre-war Austria, the Vienna circle composed the central tenet of the logical positivist stance: any statement that is non-tautological and cannot be empirically verified is meaningless (Carnap, 1936, p.420). Fleeing to Britain and the US during Nazi occupation, the thinkers of the Vienna circle influenced the rise of logical positivism in the analytic tradition. Following World War Two, the dominance of logical positivism collapsed. Quine’s powerful critique in 1953 was one cause of this collapse. In addition to this, was the influence of theories that rendered the empirical verification that underpinned logical positivism to be historically contingent (Thomas Kuhn’s ‘paradigm shifts’ being a prominent example of such thought thought) (Norris, 2005, p.3).

Norris sees the rise, dominance and collapse of logical positivism as symptomatic of the rift that exists between analytic and continental philosophy of science. Whereas continental thinkers have historically concerned themselves far more with the genesis of our scientific theories and the historical conditions which gave rise to our understanding of truth, the logical positivists attempted to treat the concepts of truth and knowledge in “rigorous quarantine” from thinking about their origins (Norris, 2005, p.3). This instinct to ‘quarantine’ is the Achilles heel of logical positivism, but, Norris suggests is also a useful way to characterise the difference in thinking between continental and analytic philosophers of science more generally. The former is concerned with the genesis of ideas whereas the latter is not, being more concerned with how to define concepts in isolations of this context. This we can term the genesis/isolation distinction for the remainder of this paper.

§3 — The Possibility of Rapprochement

The lack of focus on the genesis of ideas has, according to Norris, created issues for analytic philosophy of science generally in the same vein to how it created issues for logical positivists specifically — leaving it susceptible to accusations of lacking a foundation once the genesis of the ideas it is based upon are called into question (Norris, 2005, p.3). This has led some analytic thinkers to bring elements of continental philosophy into their work in an attempt to solidify the genetic foundations of their theoretical picture.

This rapprochement between continental and analytic philosophy of science is seen by Norris as a welcome move away from the divide that exists between the two disciplines. He does, however, have some concerns as to how this rapprochement takes place, specifically analytic attitudes to the post-Kantian continental canon. He cites thinkers such as Michael Dummett and John McDowell as spearheading this rapprochement, but considers them to have ignored much of the critical progress made by post-Kantian continental thinkers as to the legacy of Kant:

However these suggestions are often advanced in a spirit of ground-breaking novelty as if nothing much had happened on the ‘continental’ side since Kant first proposed them, or as if the whole history of post-Kantian thought — from Fichte and Schelling, via Hegel, down to Husserl — represented nothing more than a local aberration from reputable standards of truth, rationality, or common-sense warrant. (Norris, 2005, p.10)

To put Norris’ criticism simply, he is suggesting that thinkers attempting rapprochement are ignoring the legacy of Kant in the continental tradition and using Kant as if no work has been done to critically engage with Kant in the ensuing years.

Whether Norris is correct in his assessment is a peripheral concern for this essay. What is most pertinent for this discussion is whether we can find similar concerning themes in attempted rapprochement between continental and analytic moral philosophy; the topic which I will now turn.

§4 — Moral Philosophy: Continental and Analytic Rift

In any undergraduate moral philosophy class there will at least be taught: Kantian deontology, Mill’s utilitarianism, and (probably) Aristotelian virtue ethics. Given that in §1 we defined ‘analytic’ philosophy as rejecting the legacy of Kant and Hegel, this syllabus would suggest, on its face, that moral philosophy in Anglophone universities is not simply analytic to the bone. This would, by extension, suggest that any rift that exists in moral philosophy between ‘analytic’ and ‘continental’ thinkers, is perhaps narrower than that which exists in other sub-disciplines, given how the legacy of Kant is accepted as a worthy topic of investigation. Though for our purposes, it is necessary to look more closely at this rift. In doing this I will reference John Deigh’s paper ‘Ethics in the Analytic Tradition’ and Brian Leiter’s investigations in ‘Morality Critics’ (Deigh, 2013; Leiter, 2007).

As the title of his paper suggests, Deigh sees what I have so far called ‘analytic moral philosophy’ as more accurately the influence of the milieu of analytic ideas bleeding into the field of ethics while such ideas were dominant in the Anglo-American tradition. We therefore see in his picture many of the same players highlighted in Norris’ characterisation of analytic philosophy of science. Moore is again, a central figure who, in Principia Ethica, undermines the — until then — focus of moral philosophy (that of what counts as good conduct) and instead suggests the focus should be on what we define as ‘good’ (Moore, 1903; Deigh, 2013, p.583). This change of focus ushered into Anglo-American ethics an interest in language as the definition of ethical terms became central to the project of moral philosophy. As with Norris’ picture, we see the logical positivists engaging with ethics, applying the verification theory of meaning to ethical statements (Deigh, 2013, p.595).

In Deigh’s characterisation, analytic influence on ethics was not to take hold steadfastly. Instead, he suggests critiques of the Moorean project following WWII cumulated in a return in Anglo-American ethics to a study of what constitutes good conduct. The exemplar of this, for Deigh, is the publication of John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice in 1971 (Rawls, 1971; Deigh, 2013, p.605). This return is not to suggest that any analytic influence in the first half of the twentieth-century was lost by the 70’s[1]. Although there was renewed interest as to what we count as good conduct, how we define ‘good’ was and is a major part of the Anglo-American moral philosophical project, in the form of a focus on meta-ethics. Furthermore, there is obviously methodological influences on modern moral philosophy that have their roots in Moore and the turn towards a use of logic as a philosophical tool. From Deigh’s characterisation we can therefore suggest that although Rawls represented a move back to pre-analytic thinking, and therefore that any analytic-continental rift does not consist of an unbroken lineage from Moore. However, aspects of the dominance of analytic influence on moral philosophy can still be seen in today’s Anglo-American moral philosophy. We can also see reflected in Deigh’s characterisation of analytic moral philosophy the way in which Norris characterises analytic philosophy of science. The influences of the analytic tradition on moral philosophy that I stated above, point towards a similar focus on the concepts in moral philosophy in isolation from their genesis. Not exclusively, of course, but in the main these holdovers from the early twentieth-century have made modern moral philosophy in the Anglo-American tradition not in the business of examining the genesis of ideas.

With this characterisation of analytic philosophy, and the statement made in §1 that continental philosophy does not simply consist of the negative of analytic philosophy but a positive movement in its own right, it seems important to present a characterisation of continental moral philosophy. An informative way in which to view twentieth-century continental moral philosophers is what Leiter describes as ‘morality critics’:

One striking feature of post-Kantian philosophy in Europe has been the emergence of morality critics, philosophers who, contra the popular consensus, dispute the value of morality and moral life (Leiter, 2007, p.711)

While Leiter identifies that there are Anglo-American thinkers that have expressed similar views, he identifies continental morality critics as cutting “far deeper and more radically”. They do so by speaking from outside the formal structures of moral philosophy, instead sourcing their critique “at the level of social, political, and cultural life” (Leiter, 2007, p.712).

This characterisation of continental moral philosophy is certainly informative. It encapsulates the thought of many of the most prominent continental thinkers who dealt with the subject of moral philosophy. Leiter refers to Nietzsche and Foucault as central members of the class of morality critics, yet this definition can meaningfully be extended to include other continental thinkers such as Giorgio Agamben, and certain themes in Habermas. This definition also gels with Norris’ characterisation of genesis/isolation as defining the continental analytic divide. Morality critics, according to Leiter, base their critiques in the structure outside of academic philosophy, with a recognition of the societal context in which morality exists.

We can see from these two characterisations of continental and analytic moral philosophy that there are similarities but also differences as to how we characterise the rift in moral philosophy from how we characterise the rift in other areas such as philosophy of science. On the side of similarities we see both in Deigh and Leiter’s characterisation a reflection of Norris’ genesis/isolation dichotomy. There are also important stylistic differences that are shared by continental and analytic moral philosophy and continental and analytic philosophy of science. As Robertson and Owen put it in their study of Nietzsche’s influence on the analytic tradition:

until recently and still only to a limited extent, analytic philosophy’s own methodological commitments and related stylistic norms have left it unappreciative of forms of philosophy that involve historical and psychological approaches to ethical reflection or that, for reasons directly related to this, are expressed in highly rhetorical forms (Robertson & Owen, 2013, p.186)

These two pieces of evidence suggest that there are similarities as to the characteristics of a rift between continental and analytic moral philosophy.

When it comes to differences, as suggested earlier, Kant’s acceptance and engagement with as part of Anglo-American moral philosophy points towards there being less of a rift than that which exists in other areas of Anglo-American philosophy who take the legacy of Kant less seriously. Deigh’s characterisation also gives further grounding to there being a narrower rift in moral philosophy. A return to pre-Moorean interests in good conduct by thinkers such as Rawls suggests that although there was a period of analytic dominance of moral philosophy, this influence was weakened after WWII; this weakening signals a narrowing of the rift between continental and analytic.

This discussion is, of course, limited. Yet I think it at least indicates a way in which to characterise the rift that has historically existed between continental and analytic moral philosophy: as being narrower than in some other sub-disciplines of philosophy, but wide enough that an attempt at a rapprochement between the two sides is a worthwhile endeavour. How to assess these attempts at rapprochement is the subject to which I will now turn.

§5 — The Possibility of Rapprochement in Continental and Analytic Moral Philosophy

Given constraints of space, it is impossible to give any kind of full assessment of how far there has been a rapprochement between continental and analytic moral philosophy, and also whether this rapprochement has been successful. I will therefore focus my attention on an example of recent attempt to utilise Nietzsche in Anglo-American moral philosophy.

There have been a number of attempts to synthesise traditionally Anglo-American moral philosophy with Nietzsche studies. Prominent thinkers such as Philippa Foot, Bernard Williams and Alasdair MacIntyre have made attempts to bring Nietzsche into their particular moral viewpoints (Foot, 2002; Macintyre, 1981; Williams, 2000). As “dissident figures” who’s aims are to disrupt the traditional view of morality as an objection injunction to action, Nietzsche is an important source of new ammunition for said thinkers (Robertson & Owen, 2013, p.188). This attention by such prominent figures in Anglo-American philosophy certainly suggests that there is a growing hunger to utilise continental philosophy in traditionally analytic subject-matters.

In terms of assessing the success of the rapprochement, are we to consider it problematic in the way Norris does in the case of philosophy of science? Is it revisionary in similar way to how Norris sees attempts to utilise continental thought in philosophy of science? There are reasons for thinking both yes and no to these questions, firstly I will give evidence that there are reasons for thinking it is not, before suggesting that point to there being similar issues in moral philosophy to those Norris sees in other disciplines.

One sense in which Norris sees there as being problematic themes in the rapprochement that exists in philosophy of science is that continental ideas are presented “in the spirit of ground-breaking novelty”, an attitude which leads to an ignoring of the legacy and the conversation in continental circles that followed the original presentation of these ideas — ideas that are now being applied to analytic issues (Norris, 2005, p.10). I suggest that this is a problem not shared by the rapprochement in moral philosophy. Instead of this selective memory, there is a promising acceptance of the interpretive problems that come along with bringing continental ideas into analytic circles (both in terms of content and style) (Robertson, 2011, p.608; Hussain, 2012, p.112; Edelglass, 2012, p.225). This is encouraging for the prospects of a rapprochement and suggests that Anglo-American moral philosophers are not seeing these continental ideas as usable without a confrontation with the legacy and exegetical context surrounding the uptake of these ideas.

There do, however, remain some reasons for concern that similar revisionist tendencies are being used in contemporary analytic interpretations of Nietzsche. If we are to take Leiter’s characterisation of continental moral philosophy as defined by morality critics, certain work that tries to define the meta-ethical structures of Nietzsche’s philosophy may be seen as problematically revisionary. One paper that illustrates this is Hussain’s ‘Nietzsche and Non-Cognitivism’, which, as the name suggests, assesses how comfortably Nietzsche fits under the heading of a non-cognitivist (Hussain, 2012). The concern here is that if, as Leiter suggests, Nietzsche is distinctly continental in the way he criticises morality, not from within philosophical discourse, but from an assessment of the psychological and sociological structures of morality, then by fitting Nietzsche into a meta-ethical category, we are neutering the defining characteristic of Nietzsche’s philosophy. If Nietzsche’s point is that moral theory per se stunts human flourishing, then making Nietzsche part of a moral theory (however sceptical it is of traditional morality) would be problematically revisionary (Robertson & Owen, 2013, 203).

This critique is only limited but there has been a recent effort to define Nietzsche in meta-ethical terms in an attempt to properly fit his work into the meta-ethical canon. Although certainly a worthwhile aim, we can see from Norris’ argument that although attempts at rapprochement are often worthwhile, there execution must be thoughtful so as to not revise away that which is distinctive about the theory in question.

§6 — Concluding Remarks

There is certainly more that can be said about all areas that this essay covers. There is more complexity as to how to characterise continental and analytic philosophy generally, let alone specific sub-disciplines of each. The growing body of work that does aim to bridge the divide of continental and analytic moral philosophy adds data points to this discussion constantly. I think, however, that this paper has succeeded in raising important challenges associated with rapprochement between analytic and continental philosophy. There are great gains to be had in reconciling these two disciples and it is certainly a positive move to have philosophers seriously engaging across these boundaries, but to do so too hastily would perhaps lead to a neglect of some of the most beneficial aspect of building this rapprochement.


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[1] I will therefore distinguish the terms ‘analytic’ from ‘Anglo-American’ for the remainder of this essay. ‘Analytic’ representing the dominance of the Moorean programme and its offshoots in the first fifty years of the twentieth century. ‘Anglo-American’ representing the influence of Moore on post-war Anglophone philosophy that existed alongside the non-Moorean interests of the likes of Rawls.