Process versus Positivism: Philosophy’s Continental/Analytical Divide


In philosophy, there is a divide between continental philosophy and analytical philosophy. Some people say that this isn’t really a divide, it’s just a different approach that creates the divide. Some analytical philosophers are fond of saying that they work within the analytical tradition, and the word “tradition” is very appropriate, because analytical philosophy is an approach of working within a set of canonical texts and canonical methodologies.

A few years ago, Neil Levy wrote a very good paper that described analytical philosophy as philosophy conducted within and confined within a paradigm, whereas continental philosophy is much more open and that within these two approaches there are strengths and weaknesses. Very true.

Both analytical and continental approaches to philosophy offer something very valuable to us, but both have some very real weaknesses. How I describe the difference in the approaches of continental and analytical philosophy is to say it’s the difference between process and positivism. There were two schools of philosophy that went by the names process philosophy and logical positivism, and while those two terms only apply to very specific movements within philosophy, it does say a lot about the difference in approach between continental and analytical.

The Roots of the Analytical Tradition

So, what do I mean by process versus positivism? Well, let’s look first at the analytical tradition. Analytical philosophy has his roots, ironically, on the continent, and of course that’s what continental philosophy, the epithet created by analytical philosophy, is all about, and analytical philosophy has, as we shall see later, become predominantly associated with an Anglo-American school of philosophers, and they’re saying, “the continentals on the content in Europe, they’re doing something that we don’t do.”

Nevertheless, analytical philosophy has its roots in rationalism. Rationalism was a continental European tradition begun by French philosopher Rene Descartes. Rationalism as a philosophical approach said that we can know what is true through the exercise of our reason, and therefore, the way to truth is logical rational analysis of our thought.

Rationalism was advanced by the German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz who developed ways of applying logic to our language in order to bring us closer to truth and the type of certainty of our knowledge and our thoughts that we find within mathematics. Leibniz was very much an admirer of mathematics, geometry, and the precision and exact knowledge that you can have from those. As was Descartes, who thought that logic, mathematics, and algebra must form the foundation of all of our thinking. So Leibniz applied that approach, as did a number of philosophers in the late 1700s and throughout the 1800s in continental Europe.

Positivism as we know it today comes into play with the French philosopher August Comte, who used the term “positivism” to describe what he thought philosophy should aspire to: positive knowledge. Absolute certain knowledge that is completely devoid of speculation and superstition. Again, that’s not a new idea. That had been in the rationalist tradition for a while now and in fact, you can go back to the ancient Greek philosophers and see a very similar idea.


Comte’s conception of a positivist philosophy is colored by his deep hostility towards religion. He thought that religion was the worst thing that was happening to humanity and that his positive philosophy would eradicate religion and of course eradicate religious thought. Therefore, Comte said, all speculation and all thought that does not conform to (his version of) logic is to be dismissed. That includes even thinking within the sciences. He rejected, interestingly, a lot of the science of his time in the 1800s because he thought it was too speculative. He even rejected Isaac Newton who used modeling and theory to come to an understanding of gravity and motion.

Comte’s positivism of only positive knowledge is reducing everything in human thought to the hard sciences: logic, mathematics, physics, and so on. Although, Comte does suggest that there should be a new science that is a logical study of society, which he called “sociology.” Indeed, Comte is the father of sociology. His suggestion is that all human behavior, all human society, can be analyzed like you would study physics or chemistry. We would then uncover the materialist laws that determine human behavior just like we would see the materialist laws that determine things. Comte’s idea did indeed inspire the field of sociology, but more importantly it inspired a particular reductionist approach to doing sociology and all the social sciences. There are, of course, continental social sciences and analytical social sciences.

The bottom line for Comte is that only positivist knowledge, only a positivist approach that is firmly solidly grounded in logic and logical analysis of science is permissible. And yes, this has the flavor of religious dogma of which Comte is aware and quite ironically accepts, because he sees what he’s doing as a new religion. He does use that term, “a scientific religion” that will replace the old religions. What we see in analytical philosophy even to this day, and even among those people who aren’t specifically adopting Comte’s particular approach to positive philosophy, is this sense of we’re working within a tradition in which we have certain canonical texts and canonical methods that we apply with the understanding that knowledge is ultimately determined by what a rational analysis is.

Bertrand Russell

The foundation of positivist analysis was taken up by Bertrand Russell. Russell is who the idea of analytical tradition as opposed to continental tradition comes from. Russell was a very English philosopher. He was English gentry. He inspired many philosophers and thus, the analytical tradition became associated with English-language philosophy. Russell’s great love was mathematics and he believed that mathematics was grounded in logic.

He got that idea from, again, ironically, a German philosopher named Gottlob Frege. Frege invented a new system of logic that we now know as “symbolic logic” that allows us to analyze our words, our terms, our sentences. Frege argued that mathematics was not some sort of separate mystical entity but merely an extension of logical thought. All mathematical laws and proofs then are to be understood as pure logic.

Russell loved that idea, and thought that that idea can be converted into a system by which we can analyze all human thought, all scientific discovery, by subjecting it to logical analysis. So what Russell did was he took Frege’s system of logic, and with his professor Alfred North Whitehead, Russell wrote a formal system of the logical foundations of mathematics. Russell and Whitehead published in 1910 to 1913 the three volume set called the Principia Mathematica–The Principles of Mathematics. It is probably the most dense book ever written. Here, for example, is their proof that one plus one equals two.

It’s okay. I don’t understand either. 99.99% of the people on the planet don’t understand. But the 0.01% who do say this is really good stuff and we’ll just have to take their word for it. The point here is that Russell is saying that we know that one plus one equals two not out of some sense of intuition, which is subjective, but a logical knowledge that one plus one equals two.

Why that’s important for Russell, and for many analytical philosophers today, is that if our knowledge of mathematics is based in logic, then all human thought that could be said to be true also is based in logic, and logic being objectively true and absolutely certain in its assertions of truth, then logic forming the foundation of mathematics means that mathematics, which is the foundation of physics and science, and science and physics being a reading of the world and how the universe actually is, then everything that is objectively true in the universe can be properly understood as absolute truth if it’s subjected to logical analysis.

Simple, right? And I won’t get into Russell’s work on all of that, because it’s very large and complicated, but Russell said that everything can be described as a kind of logical atomism in which every thought that we have corresponds one-to-one with an atomic fact in the world. This doesn’t mean literally atoms, it just means indivisible units of logical thought.

The Empty Demands of the Logical Positivists

This basic idea was picked up by a group that called themselves the “logical positivists.” They took Russell’s idea of pure logic, Frege’s ideas of pure mathematics and logic, and Comte’s ideas of positivism, and said that indeed, yes, we can and should subject all human thought and all human language to a method of rigorous logical analysis. Ironically again, these logical positivists were called the “Vienna Circle” because they were all based in Vienna, Austria–on the continent.


The logical positivists said that we must reject all statements that cannot be verified in experience. So if I say there is a tree next to the driveway that is a meaningful statement because it can be verified as being either true or false by you going to the driveway and observing whether there is a tree there or not.

The meaning, the Logical Positivists said, of any factual statement is the method of its verification. And of course that means science and scientific observation. That eliminates, in the eyes of the Logical Positivists, any statement that cannot be subjected to this type of scientific analysis of testing and verification.

And that sounds really good at first glance. The problem, of course, is that as science tells us: yes, we have all these observations, but even the laws of physics themselves cannot be verified through observations. They can only be supported by observation.

As Russell found later in his work, this whole idea of logic is unverifiable itself. Logic is supported by our use of it, but we can’t prove logic. This gets a little weird because it seems a little bit beyond our power of words to describe, which is another deep irony of this all. Russell’s student, Ludwig Wittgenstein eventually concluded that no, logic cannot be proven, and he showed that this is the case. We accept logic because we just accept logic. It works for us.

Then that brings in a whole other set of messes, and the Logical Positivists eventually had to end their project, because they realized that the foundations of their project were unsupportable by anything other than pure intuition of, “we think this works.” Russell abandoned his analytical project saying that it doesn’t work, and then when subatomic physics and quantum mechanics came along, logical positivism completely melted down.

They had to admit that the verifiability principle can only at best be a recommendation. A good approach. And indeed, that’s all analytical philosophy is–it’s an approach. It works in some instances. It doesn’t work in other instances.

The demand, the almost religious dogmatic demand, that all human knowledge conform to a specific structure was ultimately an empty demand. Analytical philosophy doesn’t entirely work. It does not live up to its promise. Does that mean it’s worthless? No, absolutely not. The analysis of language, the logical analysis of the words that we use and the way that we use words is absolutely necessary. It is when people don’t subject their thoughts and their words to a logical, rigorous analysis that we get all kinds of irrational crap.

The Continental Approach

So, does that mean that continental philosophy is the preferred approach? Well, continental philosophy has some serious weaknesses as well. Mostly in that if you do say we reject a paradigm, we do not allow ourselves to be constrained by logical thought and logical analysis, then that does mean you can go off the deep end. Some philosophers who could properly be considered within the continental tradition have indeed gone off the deep end into irrational crap.

Continental philosophy has its roots in George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Hegel saw history as process, as an ongoing happening, and even philosophers today who would call themselves continentals, who aren’t directly doing Hegelian philosophy, are deeply influenced by that conception of process, that approach of what philosophy should do.

This difference between process and positivism is perhaps best described by the French philosopher Henri Bergson. He was active in the late 1800s and early 1900s. For a number of decades he was the single most famous philosopher in the world, but he is largely forgotten because the Anglo-American analytical tradition of philosophy which dominates academic philosophy today, has incorrectly dismissed Bergson’s philosophy as mere speculation because it doesn’t fit in their paradigm of what philosophy should be.

Regardless, Bergson has a lot of very interesting and valuable ideas which I cannot go into here, but it is appropriate to describe how Bergson explains the analytical and continental divide. Bergson said that there are two methods of gaining knowledge of any object, and he’s thinking here in terms of both science and just our everyday observation of an object.

The one method is how science and analytical philosophy think knowledge has to be obtained. It is a very habitual way that western people have learned to think, and that is the method of analysis. Analysis is the approach based on two assumptions. One is that how objects appear in the world are as they are, and two, that we can have knowledge of these objects as they are. These are two big assumptions about objectivity: there are objective truths out there and we can have objective knowledge about them. Analysis, Bergson says, is the method that comes from these assumptions. Analysis is detached and disinterested in its method of separating the object from its surroundings, conceptually breaking down an object into parts, interpreting the divided parts, and reconstituting a view of the object after analysis, because, of course, the assumption is we can do this.


But Bergson says analysis depends on symbols that represents parts of the object, but these symbols are simply words and mathematical equations that we have created, They are human creations, and Bergson says that these human creations are barriers between us and reality. Therefore, this allegedly detached and objective method of looking at objects in the world, studying objects in the world, taking them apart, and understanding them in that way is not really empiricism, despite the fact that we think that it is empiricism, and have thought that it’s empiricism for centuries.

Bergson says that the true empiricism is what he calls “intuition.” He’s using the word “intuition” very differently than other philosophers. Bergson’s use of intuition is as a sympathetic entering into what is observed, not pretending that we are looking at the world from outside the world. We are within the world. We cannot escape being within the world. There is no privileged standpoint outside the world by which we get a God’s eye view of it.

By “sympathetic,” Bergson does not mean any type of emotional attachment, but as a way of operating through affinity with and understanding our interdependence with the objects in the world. It’s similar to the concept of a sympathetic vibration of two strings. If you pluck one string in an instrument it will sympathetically cause another string in the instrument to vibrate.

Bergson’s idea of intuition is entering into an experience, acknowledging that we’re already part of the experience that we have, that we are bringing something into the experience, and that we cannot help but bring something into this experience. So our observations about anything are not detached and objective but an ongoing process of experience. Intuition is an integral experience. A series of actions, a series of experience.

So, the method of understanding the world in continental philosophy, in process philosophy, is to understand all of this: we are part of what we are experiencing, we bring something to the experience, as does every other human being bring something to their experience. Therefore, this idea of a perfect objective, perfectly pristine logical experience of anything is a false notion. It’s, dare we say, a superstition, a chimerical belief that it is possible to capture reality within my words and within my logic.


One of the examples that Bergson gives of this difference between process and positivism is the experience of a city. You can look at photographs of a city. Even if you’ve never been to a city, you can look at photographs of it, even videos of it. You can look at the collection of photographs of a city taken from every possible viewpoint from every possible perspective, but even with all of that you can’t reconstruct what it is to be in that city. Only by entering the city and walking through it can you grasp what it is to be in that city.

Bergson’s other example is that you could read a commentary on a poem or work of fiction. But no matter how many commentaries you read, you will never be able to grasp the value of experiencing the poem, the novel, the person, unless you go into its original state, unless you actually read it. If the work was written in a foreign language, in translation you will never capture the full meaning and experience of that poem or novel, unless you do so and it’s original language.

Analysis can give us photographs and commentary, but it can’t give us the experience of the things themselves. Analysis has a value. Analytical philosophy has value. It provides us with some essential understandings of how things are and how we think, but Bergson is correct that knowing the things themselves, how objects are, what objects are, requires this type of sympathetic entering into experience that he calls intuition but which most philosophers now just simply call, well, living life, being within the world.

Bergson believed that through this intuition we can, in his words, seize reality from within. There are philosophers who follow in a Bergsonian view who promise some sort of grand knowledge of the things themselves of how things really are through this kind of intuitive process. Most continental philosophers would not go that far, but all continental philosophers worth anything would definitely agree with this basic approach of rejecting the false idea of objective knowledge, detached knowledge, and understanding that history, society, and even science itself can never have this perfect pristine God’s eye viewpoint.

A Conclusion of Sorts

We are human beings. We are embedded in a world. We are embedded in a society. A society which is constantly changing, constantly, well, in process. The only way that we can understand our world is to understand our world as a process. A process in which we are existing, and of which we are a part of, and all the logical analysis in the world isn’t going to help us to understand a process fully. Still, we do need logical analysis. We do need analytical philosophy, but, as William of Ockham said, way, way back in the 1300s logic tells us nothing about the world. Logic only is a relation of ideas. To learn about the world, we must observe it.

My view is that the strength of analytical philosophy is the tools that it provides to us, but that the weakness of analytical philosophy is that it mistakes the use of a tool for knowledge. Hammers and saws are great and hammers and saws are necessary to build a piece of furniture. But hammers and saws in there themselves cannot build a piece of furniture. You need a vision. You need a process.

Continental philosophy, it’s strength is understanding the world as process, and understands us as being a part of the world, not detached from the world. A judicious use of the tools of analytical philosophy, an application of basic reasoning, critical thinking, and logic, to a process approach to the world will hopefully lead us to greater understanding and reign in the excesses of flyaway, believe anythingism of some continental philosophy.

Ultimately, the purpose of philosophy is to make our life and our society better, and logic chopping doesn’t accomplish that. Process accomplishes that because process is meeting reality and people where they live.

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