It is difficult to identify non-trivial claims that would be common to all the preceding philosophical movements. The term "continental philosophy", like "analytic philosophy", lacks clear definition and may mark merely a family resemblance across disparate philosophical views. Some scholars have suggested the term may be more pejorative than descriptive, functioning as a label for types of western philosophy rejected or disliked by analytic philosophers. Nonetheless, some scholars have ventured to identify common themes that typically characterize continental philosophy.
First, continental philosophers generally reject scientism, the view that the natural sciences are the best or most accurate way of understanding all phenomena. Continental philosophers often argue that science depends upon a "pre-theoretical substrate of experience", a form of the Kantian conditions of possible experience, and that scientific methods are inadequate to understand such conditions of intelligibility.
Second, continental philosophy usually considers these conditions of possible experience as variable: determined at least partly by factors such as context, space and time, language, culture, or history. Thus continental philosophy tends toward historicism. Where analytic philosophy tends to treat philosophy in terms of discrete problems, capable of being analyzed apart from their historical origins (much as scientists consider the history of science inessential to scientific inquiry), continental philosophy typically suggests that "philosophical argument cannot be divorced from the textual and contextual conditions of its historical emergence".
Third, continental philosophy typically holds that conscious human agency can change these conditions of possible experience: "if human experience is a contingent creation, then it can be recreated in other ways". Thus continental philosophers tend to take a strong interest in the unity of theory and practice, and tend to see their philosophical inquiries as closely related to personal, moral, or political transformation. This tendency is very clear in the Marxist tradition ("philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it"), but is also central in existentialism and post-structuralism.
A final characteristic trait of continental philosophy is an emphasis on metaphilosophy. In the wake of the development and success of the natural sciences, continental philosophers have often sought to redefine the method and nature of philosophy. In some cases (such as German idealism or phenomenology), this manifests as a renovation of the traditional view that philosophy is the first, foundational, a priori science. In other cases (such as hermeneutics, critical theory, or structuralism), it is held that philosophy investigates a domain that is irreducibly cultural or practical. And in some cases, continental philosophers (such as Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, the later Heidegger, or Derrida) harbor grave doubts about the coherence of any conceptions of philosophy.
Ultimately, the foregoing distinctive traits derive from a broadly Kantian thesis that the nature of knowledge and experience is bound by conditions that are not directly accessible to empirical inquiry.
The term "continental philosophy," in the above sense, was first widely used by English-speaking philosophers to describe university courses in the 1970s, emerging as a collective name for the philosophies then widespread in France and Germany, such as phenomenology, existentialism, structuralism, and post-structuralism.
However, the term (and its approximate sense) can be found at least as early as 1840, in John Stuart Mill's 1840 essay on Coleridge, where Mill contrasts the Kantian-influenced thought of "Continental philosophy" and "Continental philosophers" with the English empiricism of Bentham and the 18th century generally. This notion gained prominence in the early 1900s as figures such as Bertrand Russell and G.E. Moore advanced a vision of philosophy closely allied with natural science, progressing through logical analysis. This tradition, which has come to be known broadly as "analytic philosophy", became dominant in Britain and America from roughly 1930 onward. Russell and Moore made a dismissal of Hegelianism and its philosophical relatives a distinctive part of their new movement.
Meanwhile in Europe at the turn of the 20th century, Brentano, Husserl, and Reinach were developing a new philosophical method of their own, phenomenology. Heidegger took this phenomenological approach in new directions, and, after WWII, French philosophers led by Jean Paul Sartre developed Heidegger's ideas into a movement known as existentialism. In the 1960s, structuralism became the new vogue in France, followed by poststructuralism.
In general, during the 20th century, there was relatively limited contact between philosophers working in the Anglophone tradition and philosophers from the European continent working in the traditions of phenomenology, existentialism, and structuralism. Commenting on the history of the distinction in 1945, Russell distinguished "two schools of philosophy, which may be broadly distinguished as the Continental and the British respectively", a division he saw as operative "from the time of Locke".
Since the 1970s, however, many philosophers in America and Britain have taken interest in continental philosophers since Kant, and the philosophical traditions in many European countries have similarly incorporated many aspects of the legacy of the "analytic" movement. Self-described analytic philosophy flourishes in France, including philosophers such as Jules Vuillemin, Vincent Descombes, Gilles Gaston Granger, François Recanati, and Pascal Engel. Likewise, self-described "continental philosophers" can be found in philosophy departments in the United Kingdom, North America, and Australia. "Continental philosophy" is thus defined in terms of a family of philosophical traditions and influences rather than a geographic distinction. It remains relevant that "continental philosophy" is a contested designation, with many analytic philosophers laying claim to offer better "continental philosophy" than traditional continental philosophy, particularly at the level of graduate education.
The history of continental philosophy (taken in its narrower sense) is usually thought to begin with German idealism. Led by figures like Fichte, Schelling, and later Hegel, German idealism developed out of the work of Immanuel Kant in the 1780s and 1790s and was closely linked with both romanticism and the revolutionary politics of the Enlightenment. Besides the central figures listed above, important contributors to German idealism also included Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi, Gottlob Ernst Schulze, Karl Leonhard Reinhold, and Friedrich Schleiermacher.
As the institutional roots of "continental philosophy" in many cases directly descend from those of phenomenology, Edmund Husserl has always been a canonical figure in continental philosophy. Nonetheless, Husserl is also a respected subject of study in the analytic tradition. Husserl's notion of a noema (a non-psychological content of thought), his correspondence with Gottlob Frege, and his investigations into the nature of logic continue to generate interest among analytic philosophers.
A particularly polemical illustration of some differences between "analytic" and "continental" styles of philosophy can be found in Rudolf Carnap's "Elimination of Metaphysics through Logical Analysis of Language", which argues that Heidegger's lecture "What Is Metaphysics?" violates logical syntax to create nonsensical pseudo-statements. With the rise of Hitler, many of Germany's philosophers, especially those of Jewish descent or leftist political sympathies (such as many in the Vienna Circle and the Frankfurt School), fled to England, America or the USSR. Those philosophers who remained—if they remained in academia at all—had to reconcile themselves to Nazi control of the universities. Others, such as Martin Heidegger, among the most prominent German philosophers to stay in Germany, embraced Nazism when it came to power.
Both before and after World War II there was a growth of interest in German philosophy in France. The role of the French Communist Party in liberating France meant that it became, for a brief period, the largest political movement in the country. The attendant interest in communism translated into an interest in Marx and Hegel, who were both now studied extensively for the first time in the conservative French university system. Additionally, there was a major trend towards the ideas of Husserl, and toward his former assistant Heidegger. Most important in this popularization of phenomenology was the author and philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, who called his philosophy existentialism. (See Twentieth-Century French Philosophy)
From the early 20th century until the 1960s, continental philosophers were only intermittently discussed in British and American universities. However, philosophy departments began offering courses in continental philosophy in the late 1960s and 1970s. With post-modernism in the 1970s and 1980s, British and American philosophers became more vocally opposed to the methods and conclusions of continental philosophers. Derrida, for example, was the target of criticism by John Searle and, later, assorted signatories protesting an honorary degree given to Derrida by Cambridge University. Meanwhile, university departments in literature, the fine arts, film, sociology, and political theory have increasingly incorporated ideas and arguments from continental philosophers into their curricula and research. The most prominent organization for continental philosophy in the United States is the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy (known as [SPEP] ).