Continental Philosophy

By Ron Reda

Beginning in Europe, the response to Hegelian idealism spread out across the European continent but also into the United States where it became known as Continental philosophy. Analytic philosophy was the preferred tradition in England. At the same time in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, pragmatism was being developed in the United States. It seems there are many schools of thought concerning pragmatism which include: existentialism, phenomenology, hermeneutics, deconstruction, and critical theory.

Both existentialism and phenomenology have their roots in the nineteenth century, and many of their themes can be traced back to Socrates and even to the pre-Socratics. Each school of thought has influenced the other to such an extent that two of the most famous and influential Continental philosophers of this century, Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) and Jean-Paul Sartre (1905 -1980), are important figures in both, although Heidegger is primarily a phenomenologist and Sartre primarily an existentialist (The Continental Tradition, Axia College, 2005). (solid introductory paragraph)

Søren Kierkegaard (1813 -1855) scorned Hegel’s system, in which the individual dissolves into a kind of abstract unreality. By contrast, Kierkegaard emphasized the individual and especially the individual’s will and need to make important choices. Where Hegel was abstract to a degree rarely found outside, say, mathematics, Kierkegaard was almost entirely concerned with how and what the individual actually chooses in the face of doubt and uncertainty.

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 -1900) read Arthur Schopenhauer (1788 -1860) and became convinced that the world is driven by cosmic will, not by reason. Nietzsche rejected Hegel’s idealism and all similar rationalist metaphysics. However, he disagreed with Schopenhauer as to the nature of the cosmic will (The Continental Tradition, Axia College, 2005).

For Nietzsche, the world is driven and determined by the will-to-power. However, according to Nietzsche, Western society had become increasingly decadent. People had come to lead lives largely devoid of joy and grandeur. They were enslaved by a morality that says “no” to life and to all that affirms it. They had become part of a herd, part of a mass that is only too willing to do what it is told. The herd animal, he held, is cowardly, reactionary, fearful, desultory, and vengeful.

The mediocrity of Western civilization, he believed, was a reflection of these qualities. Only the rare and isolated individual, the Superman, or Übermensch (good to note this concept relative to Nietzsche) -a famous concept in Nietzsche’s philosophy-can escape the triviality of society (The Continental Tradition, Axia College, 2005).

The first great phenomenologist, Edmund Husserl (1859-1938), attempted to rekindle Europe’s waning faith in the possibility of certainty by proposing a universal phenomenology of consciousness, a “science” that studies the structures that are the same for every consciousness. Accordingly, he developed transcendental phenomenology, whose purpose it was to investigate phenomena without making any assumptions about the world.

To investigate phenomena in this way is to “bracket” or “exclude” one’s presupposition about the existence or nature of an “external” or “physical” or “objective” world. Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) was stimulated by Husserl’s call to return to the things themselves and by Husserl’s major work, Logical Investigations (1900).

Heidegger, too, was convinced that it was necessary to look at things with fresh eyes, unshrouded by the presuppositions of the present and past. He, too, wanted rigorously to ground things in a deeper source of certainty.

But for Heidegger, this source is not phenomena, as it was for Husserl, or anything subjective at all. On the contrary, for Heidegger, the ultimate source is Being itself. Sartre studied in Germany for a brief time in the 1930s and was influenced by Heidegger. Sartre attributed the concept of abandonment to Heidegger, and Sartre and Heidegger both were concerned with the concepts of bad faith, authenticity, a life’s project, and others. Still, in decisive ways, Heideggerian and Sartrian philosophies are dissimilar.

Heidegger never did abandon his belief in Being as the basic principle of philosophy, whereas for Sartre individual existence was of paramount importance. Sartre believed that as a consequence of the nonexistence of God nothing about Being is necessary; Heidegger believed that Being is absolutely necessary. Politically, Sartre considered himself a Marxist and accepted much of the Marxist view of historical events, whereas Heidegger was not in any sense sympathetic to the Marxist worldview.

All in all, Heidegger and Sartre philosophically are quite different, despite the superficial resemblance (The Continental Tradition, Axia College, 2005).

Existentialism and phenomenology has influenced Western philosophy greatly insomuch that there have been many key contributors who have added their own theories to reach for even more understanding of the universe. That they all sought to explain away reasons for nonexistence or to assume man in not in control of some destiny all for the sake for certainty, or truth is essentially what being a philosopher is about. Irrationality reigns supreme as meaningless truth.

References: Axia College. (2005). The Continental Tradition. McGraw-Hill. Week Three overview. Retrieved February 15, 2009, from Axia College, Week Three, .PDF file. PHI 105

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