What is continental philosophy?

Existentialism, phenomenology, critical theory, and structuralism all represent what is now called "continental philosophy." Existentialism is a philosophical perspective on the world, which begins from the standpoint of one individual in ways that apply to all individuals. Phenomenology is a more abstract and systematic development of the processes of individual knowing and understanding. (Existentialists have tended to be more literary than phenomenologists.) Critical theory is a twentieth-century development of the theoretical methodology of Marxism. Structuralism is an application of a number of continental traditions to social criticism, resulting in analyses of social structures.

One thing they all have in common is that their original foundational ideas came from European thinkers. But more than geography is at stake with this name. Continental philosophy is often contrasted with Anglo-American analytic philosophy, which has dominated in twentieth-century philosophy departments in American colleges and universities, since philosophy became a profession in higher education during the 1930s. It should be noted that what is true of American academic philosophy departments has not been true of English, French, and German departments in the United States, which over the twentieth century welcomed continental philosophy into their curricula. Moreover, continental philosophy is not alone in its stepchild status among American professional philosophers, because the same thing happened to American philosophy, also known as pragmatism, after the 1950s.


What is existentialism?

Existentialism is a kind of philosophy that begins from the concrete reality of the human individual's existence in the world. What is shared by all humans in their day to day life becomes a foundation for knowledge and the nature of reality. Existentialism is focused on human experience from the first person, some "me" or "I."

How are existentialism and phenomenology historically related?

Existentialism and phenomenology both begin with the facts of human reality, from the standpoint of the first person. As distinctive traditions of thought, both have roots in the nineteenth century, existentialism going back to Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821-1881), Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), and Friedrich Nietsche (1844-1900), and phenomenology originating with Franz Brentano (1837-1917). Strictly speaking, existentialism is older than phenomenology, although some twentieth-century existentialists have sought to base their work on that of more contemporary phenomenologists, rather than their nineteenth-century existentialist predecessors.

Soren Kierkegaard

Who was Soren Kierkegaard?

Soren Aaybe Kierkegaard (1813-1855) was a Danish christian existentialist who extolled religious faith as an individual and emotional "leap" from all that was reasonable and rational. He wrote from his heart and the emotional circumstances of his own life.

What were the emotional conditions in Soren Kierkegaard's life?

Kierkegaard's father, Michael, was a very gloomy man who had married a former maid as a second wife. He felt himself under a cloud of God's wrath and expected punishment through his children predeceasing him—five of them did. The sins of Kierkegaard's father apparently consisted of his having impregnated his wife before they were married and in

Danish Christian existentialist Soren Kierkegaard based his philosophy on his religious faith (Art Archive).

Danish Christian existentialist Soren Kierkegaard based his philosophy on his religious faith (Art Archive).

cursing God during severe weather as a 10-year-old shepherd. He later became well off as a wool merchant.

Kierkegaard was sickly as a boy, but he could reduce larger boys to tears with his sarcasm and mockery. At the University of Copenhagen, he did not find Hegelianism congenial because it did not address "a truth, which is true for me, to find the idea for which I can live and die." The religion of Lutheranism did not speak to him, either, and for a while he indulged in expensive food and drink and wore fashionable clothes because he believed that immediate pleasure was the most important thing. But his father's despair haunted him and became his own.

Kierkegaard was intending to become a pastor when he became engaged to Rigene Olsen in 1841. He had met her when she was 14, three years earlier, and they were deeply in love. But Kierkegaard broke off the engagement, and she subsequently married her tutor, Frederick Schlegel (who became governor of the Danish West Indies). An original life's path was taking shape for Kierkegaard, and when he decided not to marry he also decided not to become a Lutheran pastor.

Kierkegaard believed that philosophy was neither about system-building nor analysis, but rather the expression of individual existence. He had no respect for professors because he did not think there was any way they could comprehend his subjectivity.

Kierkegaard's most important works were all written in the 1840s: Either/Or: A Fragment of Life (1843), Fear and Trembling (1843), The Concept of Dread (1844), Philosophical Fragments (1844), Concluding Unscientific Postscript (1846), and The Sickness unto Death (1849). His autobiographical writings and journals shed considerable light on his personal thoughts and feelings. Nonetheless, it was not his intention to disclose everything. He wrote:

After my death no one will find among my papers a single explanation as to what really filled my life (that is my consolation); no one will find the words which explain everything and which often made what the world would call a trifle into an event of tremendous importance to me, and what I look upon as something insignificant when I take away the secret gloss which explains it all.

When Kierkegaard was near death he refused a pastor's sacrament, remarking: "Pastors are royal officials; royal officials have nothing to do with Christianity." His epitaph read, as he had requested: "That individual."

< Prev   CONTENTS   Next >