For much of the latter twentieth century philosophy in the Western countries was divided into two camps, usually called Analytic and Continental. The division is not a happy one for many reasons, not least because the idea of dividing philosophy this way is an invention of the positivists, foisted upon an otherwise heterogeneous selection of mostly French and German thinkers who often had little in common. Continental research did not pursue the theory of knowledge with anything like the industry of the Analysts. Many agreed with Hegel's assessment that the whole idea of a theory of knowledge (which would presumably itself be knowledge) is naive and superfluous.
Three European thinkers are exceptions to the tendency to dismiss the theory of knowledge. One is German social philosopher Jürgen Habermas (b. 1929) and his work Knowledge and Human Interests (1968). By "human interests" Habermas means orientations of thought and action rooted in the fundamental evolutionary conditions of our species, which he reduces to the interests of work, social interaction, and emancipation. He describes three categories of possible knowledge corresponding to these interests: (1) instrumental, technical knowledge, expanding our power of control; (2) knowledge of language or, more broadly, of language games and cultural traditions, which orient people in common action; and (3) critical-social knowledge about political legitimacy and subordination. The conditions of objectivity differ in each case. When we are interested in a device that works, objectivity has one meaning; when interested in a social interaction, for instance a negotiation, objectivity requires different criteria. And when our interest is in emancipation, we require knowledge of the real conditions of social power in a given society. Social-scientific methods should take their objectivity from this emancipatory interest and not imitate the differently funded objectivity of the natural and technological sciences.
Lyotard and Foucault.
Jean-François Lyotard's widely read The Postmodern Condition (1979) was subtitled A Report on Knowledge. Under the conditions of what he calls post-modernity, knowledge has become discontinuous, catastrophic, nonrectifiable, and paradoxical. Getting used to knowledge in such a condition should refine our sensitivity to differences and reinforce our ability to tolerate incommensurables. Another French thinker contributing influential ideas about knowledge is Michel Foucault (1926–1984). The point of his neologism "power/knowledge" is to indicate a reciprocity linking the production and circulation of knowledge with the political economy of government. Power and knowledge flourish together, confirming each other, reproducing each other's authority. Power so entrained with knowledge need not falsify or repress any truth that may be discovered, nor must research sacrifice scientific credibility merely because it owes a debt to coercive social power. To reach these conclusions, however, Foucault had to reduce knowledge to socially prestigious discourse, the arbitrary output of an institutional "discursive apparatus," generating statements its authorities take seriously. There is in this account no more to "knowing" than who gets to say what and say it impressively enough to leave a trace, to have an effect, to make a legible difference in the archive.