20th-century Philosophy

The 20th-century philosophy saw the development of a number of new philosophical schools—including logical positivism, analytic philosophy, phenomenology, existentialism, and poststructuralism. In terms of the eras of philosophy, it is usually labelled as contemporary philosophy (succeeding modern philosophy, which runs roughly from the time of René Descartes until the late 19th to early 20th centuries).

As with other academic disciplines, philosophy increasingly became professionalized in the twentieth century, and a split emerged between philosophers who considered themselves part of either the “analytic” or “Continental” traditions. However, there have been disputes regarding both the terminology and the reasons behind the divide, as well as philosophers who see themselves as bridging the divide, such as process philosophy advocates and neopragmatists. In addition, philosophy in the twentieth century became increasingly technical and harder for lay people to read.

The publication of Edmund Husserl’s Logical Investigations (1900–1) and Bertrand Russell’s The Principles of Mathematics (1903) is considered to mark the beginning of 20th-century philosophy.



Analytic philosophy

Main article: Analytic philosophy

Analytic philosophy is a generic term for a style of philosophy that came to dominate English-speaking countries in the 20th century. In the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Scandinavia, Australia, and New Zealand, the overwhelming majority of university philosophy departments identify themselves as “analytic” departments.


Main article: Epistemology

Epistemology in the Anglo-American tradition was radically shaken up by the publication of Edmund Gettier’s 1963 paper “Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?” This paper provided counter-examples to the traditional formulation of knowledge going back to Plato. A huge number of responses to the Gettier problem were formulated, generally falling into internalist and externalist camps, the latter including work by philosophers like Alvin Goldman, Fred Dretske, David Malet Armstrong, and Alvin Plantinga.

Logical positivism

Logical positivism, later called logical empiricism, and both of which together are also known as neopositivism, was a movement in Western philosophy whose central thesis was the verification principle (also known as the verifiability criterion of meaning). Also called verificationism, this would-be theory of knowledge asserted that only statements verifiable through direct observation or logical proof are meaningful. Starting in the late 1920s, groups of philosophers, scientists, and mathematicians formed the Berlin Circle and the Vienna Circle, which, in these two cities, would propound the ideas of logical positivism.

Flourishing in several European centers through the 1930s, the movement sought to prevent confusion rooted in unclear language and unverifiable claims by converting philosophy into “scientific philosophy”, which, according to the logical positivists, ought to share the bases and structures of empirical sciences’ best examples, such as Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity. Despite its ambition to overhaul philosophy by studying and mimicking the extant conduct of empirical science, logical positivism became erroneously stereotyped as a movement to regulate the scientific process and to place strict standards on it.

After World War II, the movement shifted to a milder variant, logical empiricism, led mainly by Carl Hempel, who, during the rise of Nazism, had emigrated to the United States. In the ensuing years, the movement’s central premises, still unresolved, were heavily criticised by leading philosophers, particularly Willard van Orman Quine and Karl Popper, but even, within the movement itself, by Hempel. By 1960, the movement had run its course. Soon, publication of Thomas Kuhn’s landmark book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, dramatically shifted academic philosophy’s focus. By then, neopositivism was “dead, or as dead as a philosophical movement ever becomes”.


Neopragmatism, sometimes called post-Deweyan pragmatism, linguistic pragmatism, or analytic pragmatism, is the philosophical tradition that infers that the meaning of words is a function of how they are used, rather than the meaning of what people intend for them to describe.

The Blackwell Dictionary of Western Philosophy (2004) defines “neo-pragmatism” as “A postmodern version of pragmatism developed by the American philosopher Richard Rorty and drawing inspiration from authors such as John Dewey, Martin Heidegger, Wilfrid Sellars, W. V. O. Quine, and Jacques Derrida”. It’s a contemporary term for a philosophy which reintroduces many concepts from pragmatism. While traditional pragmatism focuses on experience, Rorty centers on language. The self is regarded as a “centerless web of beliefs and desires”.

It repudiates the notions of universal truth, epistemological foundationalism, representationalism, and epistemic objectivity. It is a nominalist approach that denies that natural kinds and linguistic entities have substantive ontological implications. Rorty denies that the subject-matter of the human sciences can be studied in the same ways as we study the natural sciences.

It has been associated with a variety of other thinkers including Hilary Putnam, W. V. O. Quine, and Donald Davidson, though none of these figures have called themselves “neopragmatists”. The following contemporary philosophers are also often considered to be neopragmatists: Nicholas Rescher (a proponent of methodological pragmatism and pragmatic idealism), Jürgen Habermas, Susan Haack, Robert Brandom, and Cornel West.

Ordinary language philosophy

Ordinary language philosophy is a philosophical school that approaches traditional philosophical problems as rooted in misunderstandings philosophers develop by distorting or forgetting what words actually mean in everyday use. This approach typically involves eschewing philosophical “theories” in favour of close attention to the details of the use of everyday, “ordinary” language. Sometimes called “Oxford philosophy”, it is generally associated with the work of a number of mid-century Oxford professors: mainly J. L. Austin, but also Gilbert Ryle, H. L. A. Hart, and Peter Strawson. The later Ludwig Wittgenstein is ordinary language philosophy’s most celebrated proponent outside the Oxford circle. Second generation figures include Stanley Cavell and John Searle.

  • Ludwig Wittgenstein: Ludwig Wittgenstein was a philosopher of language accredited with a number of works, including Tractus Logico-Philosophicus, Philosophical Investigations, and On Certainty. These texts explored notions of meaning, language, and epistemology. It was in his Philosophical Investigations that Wittgenstein introduced his language-game theory, which was one of Wittgenstein’s most significant philosophical contributions. According to this philosophy, language functions similar to any given game where there are rules that guide the game and teach the players how to play. However, the rules of Language, for Wittgenstein, are much less explicit and most commonly unnamable.
  • Saul Kripke: Saul A. Kripke was a philosopher of language who wrote texts such as Identity and Necessity, as well as others. These two texts introduce Kripke’s possible worlds theory and how he understands that which is necessary to the actual world in terms of identification and naming. He also authored Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language, which introduced a new reading of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations. This reading elaborated on the Skeptic’s Paradox, which asks about the warrant and reason that people interpret the rules of any given language game. Kripke famously identified this problem by asking why one might interpret ’68+57′ as a problem requiring the function ‘plus’ rather than the made-up function of ‘quus’ which says: x⊕y=xty, if x, y<57= 5  otherwise
  • Willard Van Quine: Willard Van Orman Quine was a philosopher of language who contributed significantly to the concepts of naming and the relationships between name, property, and that which is being names. He famously provides the example of “gavagai” in order to illustrate the ambiguity of naming; if one says “gavagai!”, it is not sure that another person who is unfamiliar with a rabbit will know what the first person is naming. Even with the assistance of ostension, the person who is unfamiliar with the rabbit may think that “gavagai!” is pointing out the rabbits paws, ears, etc. He makes this argument to say that there is no unambiguous naming or way to translate accurately from one language to another. Quine also presents us with his concept of a Museum of Ideas, which is to say that each person has access to a collection of concepts that contributes to the process of naming and the truth relations that we have determined about the world. His two dogmas of empiricism, Analytic and Synthetic, are presented by Quine only for his relativism to undercut ideas of empiricism.

Continental philosophy

Main article: Continental philosophy

Continental philosophy, in contemporary usage, refers to a set of traditions of 19th and 20th century philosophy from mainland Europe. This sense of the term originated among English-speaking philosophers in the second half of the 20th century, who used it to refer to a range of thinkers and traditions outside the analytic movement. Continental philosophy includes the following movements: German idealism, phenomenology, existentialism (and its antecedents, such as the thought of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche), hermeneutics, structuralism, post-structuralism, French feminism, the critical theory of the Frankfurt School and related branches of Western Marxism, and psychoanalytic theory.


Main article: Existentialism

Existentialism is generally considered a philosophical and cultural movement that holds that the starting point of philosophical thinking must be the individual and the experiences of the individual. For Existentialists, religious and ethical imperatives may not satisfy the desire for individual identity, and both theistic and atheistic existentialism tend to resist mainstream religious movements. Sometimes coined the Father of existentialism, Soren Kierkegaard introduced the concerns of the existentialist from a theistic perspective as a Christian philosopher concerned with the individual’s understanding of God and the resulting implications for the human condition. The individual’s life gains significance only in relation to the love of God. Common themes are the primacy of experience, Angst, the Absurd, and authenticity.




Main article: Marxism

Western Marxism, in terms of 20th-century philosophy, generally describes the writings of Marxist theoreticians, mainly based in Western and Central Europe; this stands in contrast with the Marxist philosophy in the Soviet Union. While György Lukács’s History and Class Consciousness and Karl Korsch’s Marxism and Philosophy, first published in 1923, are often seen as the works that inaugurated this current. Maurice Merleau-Ponty coined the phrase Western Marxism much later.


Main article: Phenomenology (philosophy)

Phenomenology is the study of the phenomena of experience. It is a broad philosophical movement founded in the early years of the 20th century by Edmund Husserl. Phenomenology, in Husserl’s conception, is primarily concerned with the systematic reflection on, and study of, the structures of consciousness and the phenomena that appear in acts of consciousness. This phenomenological ontology can be clearly differentiated from the Cartesian method of analysis, which sees the world as objects, sets of objects, and objects that act and react upon one another.

  • Martin Heidegger: Martin Heidegger was a continental philosopher who is accredited with Being and Time which explores the concept of being itself (partly in contrast to questions being asked about beings). He introduces his dasein to discuss being as deeply rooted in the world and to deny any claims of metaphysical dualism. He is known for his ideas about particularity and existential claims about human nature in terms of dasein being with other dasien.
  • Hortense Spillers: Hortense Spillers is an academic whose work functions significantly in the intersections of race theory, philosophy, and literature. One of her most significant texts is “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe”, which discusses the philosophy of language in terms of naming and labeling black people, women in particular. The sustained argument that she is making in the paper is about the historicity of any given name. In fact, in order to make any determinations about contemporary names, one must look at the history of this name. Because of this, black women in the contemporary period are suffering under harmful names, inaccurate assumptions, etc., because of the history of race. She argues that race has been turned into a mere negation as people are described within a particular binary that asserts either “white” or “not white.” While harm has been done to the black body, especially the black female body, at the hands of racism, Spillers makes the case that there is power in the reclamation of harmful words to allow them to, instead, describe the righteous anger of the black woman.


Main article: Post-structuralism

Post-structuralism is a label formulated by American academics to denote the heterogeneous works of a series of French intellectuals who came to international prominence in the 1960s and ’70s. The label primarily encompasses the intellectual developments of prominent mid-20th-century French and Continental philosophers and theorists.


Main article: Structuralism

Structuralism is a theoretical paradigm that emphasizes that elements of culture must be understood in terms of their relationship to a larger, overarching system or “structure.” Alternately, as summarized by philosopher Simon Blackburn, Structuralism is “the belief that phenomena of human life are not intelligible except through their interrelations. These relations constitute a structure, and behind local variations in the surface phenomena there are constant laws of abstract culture”.

  • Michel Foucault: Michel Foucault was an academic whose work spanned a number of fields including sociology, psychology, philosopher, and others. Some of his most well-known works are The History of Sexuality and Discipline and Punish. His philosophy concerning power structures is one of his greatest contributions to a number of fields, including philosophy. In his The Subject and Power, Foucault asserts that power is a structure that commonly manifests itself in discourse and happens at the site of the human body. He explains that humans do not wield power but, instead, mediate power. Power is something that happens in action and, while we cannot escape the structure of power, we can choose to deny particular ways that it might manifest itself.

Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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