What can continental philosophy tell us about wellbeing?7 min read

The road to emancipation

At first sight, the connection between philosophy and wellbeing might appear tenuous at best.  After all, isn’t philosophy all just arid logic and the cold gaze of reason?  Actually, no – it’s so much more than that [1].  We’ve previously seen how ethics and epistemology – the philosophy of knowledge – can enhance wellbeing.  And in this article, I’ll argue that the centuries-old tradition of continental philosophy offers us all a path towards wellbeing.

A fault line between Britain and Europe

British antipathy towards Europe has been playing out for centuries. It can be seen not only in the countless wars with our European neighbours over the centuries, the hanging of the Hartlepool monkey, and the eurosceptic views that crystallised in the Brexit vote of 2016, but also in the sharp split in philosophy that began in the nineteenth century.  Yet it wasn’t always like this.

A brief historical detour

After the fall of the Roman Empire, Europe was plunged into a nine-hundred year dark age of economic, intellectual and cultural stagnation [2].  The philosophies of ancient Greece and Rome were presumed forever lost and the power of Church and Kings – God’s representatives on Earth – was absolute.  Of course, nothing lasts forever.

The Renaissance, a time of great cultural renewal that began in the  fourteenth century, reinvigorated European culture and set us on the path of enlightenment.  The Italian city-states of Venice, Florence and Rome, centres of wealth, culture and political power, lay at the heart of the Renaissance [3].  The philosophy and cultural works of the ancient world, long presumed lost, were rediscovered.  This led to a resurgence of art, financed by powerful families like the Medici; the rebirth of humanism, which would evolve into political liberalism; the emergence of secularism, which gradually weakened Church power; and the birth of modern European science, which catalysed a huge advancement in western civilisation.

Back when we were friends…

If we just limit ourselves to philosophy, we can see an ongoing conversation between British and European philosophers throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  John Locke, the English political philosopher hailed as the father of liberalism, influenced the writings of the Genevan philosopher Jean-Jaques Rousseau and the French firebrand extraordinaire Voltaire, while the German philosopher Immanuel Kant would later influence Adam Smith’s treatise A Theory of Moral Sentiments, long before Smith turned his attention to economics and wrote his magnus opus The Wealth of Nations.

The Romantics’ Great Refusal

We can also see a shared European ideal in romanticism [4] – a great refusal of the inhumane and barbaric industrial capitalism and the scientific rationalisation of nature that was beginning to emerge in the late eighteenth century. Romanticism was epitomised by the work of Friedrich Schiller and Heinrich Heine (German), Victor Hugo and Eugène Delacroix (French), and Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron (British), while Mary Shelley’s gothic novel Frankensteinalso bears the hallmark of romanticism, standing as a stark warning against the uncritical pursuit of scientific exploration.

The fall

But as the nineteenth century progressed, Britain increasingly disentangled itself from Europe, with philosophy in Europe developing along fundamentally different lines to British philosophy [5].  While British philosophers got entangled in debates about logic and the properties of knowledge (even branding moral philosophy an irrelevance), our friends on the continent have tended towards something quite different, animated by a Great Refusal of oppression, tyranny, and limitations on human freedom [6).

The aim of continental philosophy

Since the time of Immanuel Kant in the seventeenth century, continental philosophers have been broadly concerned with the nature of our existence and how we might transform our circumstances to live an emancipated life, free from arbitrary and contingent restraints [7].  So, continental philosophy’s ultimate end is freedom.

Continental philosophy represents a rich and varied tradition which has evolved across time, with no shortage of disagreement and controversy (8).  As diverse as continental philosophy is, there is a unifying thread that runs through most of it: an impulse towards emancipation.

In short, continental philosophy has three aims:

CRITIQUE  To explore the social, historical and cultural conditions of our existence, so we have a greater understanding of our situation and the context we’re born into.

PRAXIS  The enactment of plans and strategies to overcome the situational restraints that limit our individual and collective freedom.

EMANCIPATION  The life of freedom, free of arbitrary restraints and characterised by self-determination.

As you’d expect, this is a simplification – but it captures the spirit of the endeavour. And it also mirrors what we hope to accomplish in therapy.

Continental philosophy mirrors therapy

In therapy, we explore the nature of our difficulties, how we view ourselves, how we relate to other people, and how we experience our sense of place in the world. That’s critique. We then use this understanding to make changes in how we live. That’s praxis. Ultimately, our aim is live a life that is ours, freed from external restraints, where our agency and self-determination enable us to live lives that are meaningful and aligned with our values. This, of course, is emancipation. And although therapy is typically focused on the individual, this can also be applied to families, communities, and national life too.

So therapy, from start to finish, is a process of Critique > Praxis > Emancipation.

The steps of transformative self-renewal

I call this a process of transformative self-renewal, because we are transformed in the very act of renewing ourselves and how we live our lives. And at the heart of transformative self-renewal, is human agency – because, whether you have help or not, you will be the one to make it happen.

So, what can continental philosophy tell us about wellbeing?  It reminds us to consider the people and the world around us and not just focus on ourselves when making sense of the challenges we face; it encourges us to consider alternative ways of living, in order to break through the restraints that hold us back; and it holds out the promise of emancipation, a life characterised by freedom and self-detemination.  And together, this gives us a useful map from here to enduring wellbeing.


[1]  There’s logic, the study of correct reasoning; metaphysics (also known as ontology), the study of the nature of reality; ethics, the foundation of morality; epistemology, the philosophy of knowledge; aesthetics, the study of beauty; not to mention the philosophy of science, philosophy of mind and the philosophy of wellbeing – which explores what we mean when we talk about wellbeing. And this barely scratches the surface, without even considering the myriad philosophies rooted in living cultures all across the world.

[2]  As with most things, this is a contested idea. Some say the Dark Ages stretched between 500AD to 1500AD, others link it instead to the early medieval period between 500AD and the Norman conquest of Britain in 1066AD, which ushered in the High Medieval era.  Others have commented that the period was ‘dark’ for Europe, but a period of enlightenment in many other parts of the world.

[3]  Although the Renaissance was by no means an exclusively Italian affair.

[4]  This isn’t to say that Romanticism was a uniform movement across Europe.  There were clear national differences, but all shared common concerns.

[5]  This is a no doubt complex phenomenon. One argument is that British philosophers, living at the centre of the scientific and industrial revolutions, came to view the scientific method as the only useful method for analysing philosophical problems (hence British philosophy is often referred to as ’analytic’ philosophy). In contrast, their counterparts in Europe were not so restricted and continued to explore new approaches.
Another plausible factor is that Europe was plagued by war, social conflict and political upheavals throughout the nineteenth century, something that was contained to a great extent in Britain. For a start, Britain had endured it’s own century of revolutionary upheaval two centuries earlier and had a relatively settled (albeit limited) parliamentary democracy; fearful of contagion in the immediate aftermath of the French revolution, British governments sought to inoculate Britain against dangerous and radical ideas by implementing strict anti-sedition laws; meanwhile, a strong liberal reform agenda was ameliorating some of the worst effects of industrial capitalism. Thus, our European counterparts had a far greater incentive to understand the world around them than British philosophers of that time.

(6) To be clear, the continental conception of freedom is rather different from the child’s idea of freedom popular in certain contemporary circles.

[7]  Simon Critchley’s Continental Philosophy – A Very Short Introduction offers a detailed analysis of the divergence between British and continental philosophy, and the sub-tending commitments of continental philosophy.

[8] Continental philosophy encompasses a complex set of positions and concerns, expressed by figures as diverse as Immanuel Kant, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Friedrich Nietzsche, Søren Kierkegaard, Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, Hannah Arendt, Herbert Marcuse, Simone de Beauvoir, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Jean-Paul Sartre, Michel Foucault, Jaques Derrida and Gilles Deleuze, among many others.

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