Major philosophical traditions  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Philosophy is organized by the chronological periods of each region. Historians of western philosophy usually divide the subject into three or more periods, the most important being ancient philosophy, medieval philosophy, and modern philosophy.


Major traditions

German idealism

Forms of idealism were prevalent in philosophy from the 18th century to the early 20th century. Transcendental idealism, advocated by Immanuel Kant, is the view that there are limits on what can be understood, since there is much that cannot be brought under the conditions of objective judgment. Kant wrote his Critique of Pure Reason (1781–1787) in an attempt to reconcile the conflicting approaches of rationalism and empiricism, and to establish a new groundwork for studying metaphysics. Kant's intention with this work was to look at what we know and then consider what must be true about it, as a logical consequence of the way we know it. One major theme was that there are fundamental features of reality that escape our direct knowledge because of the natural limits of the human faculties. Although Kant held that objective knowledge of the world required the mind to impose a conceptual or categorical framework on the stream of pure sensory data—a framework including space and time themselves—he maintained that things-in-themselves existed independently of our perceptions and judgments; he was therefore not an idealist in any simple sense. Indeed, Kant's account of things-in-themselves is both controversial and highly complex. Continuing his work, Johann Gottlieb Fichte and Friedrich Schelling dispensed with belief in the independent existence of the world, and created a thoroughgoing idealist philosophy.

The most notable work of this German idealism was G. W. F. Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit, of 1807. Hegel admitted his ideas were not new, but that all the previous philosophies had been incomplete. His goal was to correctly finish their job. Hegel asserts that the twin aims of philosophy are to account for the contradictions apparent in human experience (which arise, for instance, out of the supposed contradictions between "being" and "not being"), and also simultaneously to resolve and preserve these contradictions by showing their compatibility at a higher level of examination ("being" and "not being" are resolved with "becoming"). This program of acceptance and reconciliation of contradictions is known as the "Hegelian dialectic". Philosophers influenced by Hegel include Ludwig Andreas Feuerbach, who coined the term projection as pertaining to our inability to recognize anything in the external world without projecting qualities of ourselves upon those things; Karl Marx; Friedrich Engels; and the British idealists.

Few 20th century philosophers have embraced idealism. However, quite a few have embraced Hegelian dialectic. Immanuel Kant's "Copernican Turn" also remains an important philosophical concept today.


Pragmatism was founded in the spirit of finding a scientific concept of truth that does not depend on personal insight (revelation) or reference to some metaphysical realm. The truth of a statement should be judged by the effect it has on our actions, and truth should be seen as what the whole of scientific enquiry ultimately agrees on. This should probably be seen as a guiding principle more than a definition of what it means for something to be true, though the details of how this principle should be interpreted have been subject to discussion since Charles S. Peirce first conceived it. Peirce's maxim of pragmatism is as follows: "Consider what effects, which might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then, our conception of these effects is the whole of our conceptions of the object." Like postmodern neo-pragmatist Richard Rorty, many are convinced that pragmatism asserts that the truth of beliefs does not consist in their correspondence with reality, but in their usefulness and efficacy.

The late 19th-century American philosophers Charles Sanders Peirce and William James were its co-founders, and it was later developed by John Dewey as instrumentalism. Since the usefulness of any belief at any time might be contingent on circumstance, Peirce and James conceptualised final truth as something only established by the future, final settlement of all opinion. Critics have accused pragmatism of falling victim to a simple fallacy: because something that is true proves useful, that usefulness is the basis for its truth. Thinkers in the pragmatist tradition have included John Dewey, George Santayana, W. V. O. Quine and C. I. Lewis. Pragmatism has more recently been taken in new directions by Richard Rorty, John Lachs, Donald Davidson, Susan Haack, and Hilary Putnam.


Edmund Husserl's phenomenology was an ambitious attempt to lay the foundations for an account of the structure of conscious experience in general. An important part of Husserl's phenomenological project was to show that all conscious acts are directed at or about objective content, a feature that Husserl called intentionality.

In the first part of his two-volume work, the Logical Investigations (1901), he launched an extended attack on psychologism. In the second part, he began to develop the technique of descriptive phenomenology, with the aim of showing how objective judgments are indeed grounded in conscious experience—not, however, in the first-person experience of particular individuals, but in the properties essential to any experiences of the kind in question.

He also attempted to identify the essential properties of any act of meaning. He developed the method further in Ideas (1913) as transcendental phenomenology, proposing to ground actual experience, and thus all fields of human knowledge, in the structure of consciousness of an ideal, or transcendental, ego. Later, he attempted to reconcile his transcendental standpoint with an acknowledgement of the intersubjective life-world in which real individual subjects interact. Husserl published only a few works in his lifetime, which treat phenomenology mainly in abstract methodological terms; but he left an enormous quantity of unpublished concrete analyses.

Husserl's work was immediately influential in Germany, with the foundation of phenomenological schools in Munich and Göttingen. Phenomenology later achieved international fame through the work of such philosophers as Martin Heidegger (formerly Husserl's research assistant), Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Jean-Paul Sartre. Indeed, through the work of Heidegger and Sartre, Husserl's focus on subjective experience influenced aspects of existentialism.


Existentialism is a term applied to the work of a number of late 19th- and 20th-century philosophers who, despite profound doctrinal differences, shared the belief that philosophical thinking begins with the human subject—not merely the thinking subject, but the acting, feeling, living human individual. In existentialism, the individual's starting point is characterized by what has been called "the existential attitude", or a sense of disorientation and confusion in the face of an apparently meaningless or absurd world. Many existentialists have also regarded traditional systematic or academic philosophy, in both style and content, as too abstract and remote from concrete human experience.

Although they did not use the term, the 19th-century philosophers Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche are widely regarded as the fathers of existentialism. Their influence, however, has extended beyond existentialist thought.

The main target of Kierkegaard's writings was the idealist philosophical system of Hegel which, he thought, ignored or excluded the inner subjective life of living human beings. Kierkegaard, conversely, held that "truth is subjectivity", arguing that what is most important to an actual human being are questions dealing with an individual's inner relationship to existence. In particular, Kierkegaard, a Christian, believed that the truth of religious faith was a subjective question, and one to be wrestled with passionately.

Although Kierkegaard and Nietzsche were among his influences, the extent to which the German philosopher Martin Heidegger should be considered an existentialist is debatable. In Being and Time he presented a method of rooting philosophical explanations in human existence (Dasein) to be analysed in terms of existential categories (existentiale); and this has led many commentators to treat him as an important figure in the existentialist movement. However, in The Letter on Humanism, Heidegger explicitly rejected the existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre.

Sartre became the best-known proponent of existentialism, exploring it not only in theoretical works such as Being and Nothingness, but also in plays and novels. Sartre, along with Simone de Beauvoir, represented an avowedly atheistic branch of existentialism, which is now more closely associated with their ideas of nausea, contingency, bad faith, and the absurd than with Kierkegaard's spiritual angst. Nevertheless, the focus on the individual human being, responsible before the universe for the authenticity of his or her existence, is common to all these thinkers.

Structuralism and post-structuralism

Inaugurated by the linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, structuralism sought to clarify systems of signs through analyzing the discourses they both limit and make possible. Saussure conceived of the sign as being delimited by all the other signs in the system, and ideas as being incapable of existence prior to linguistic structure, which articulates thought. This led continental thought away from humanism, and toward what was termed the decentering of man: language is no longer spoken by man to express a true inner self, but language speaks man.

Structuralism sought the province of a hard science, but its positivism soon came under fire by poststructuralism, a wide field of thinkers, some of whom were once themselves structuralists, but later came to criticize it. Structuralists believed they could analyze systems from an external, objective standing, for example, but the poststructuralists argued that this is incorrect, that one cannot transcend structures and thus analysis is itself determined by what it examines, while the distinction between the signifier and signified was treated as crystalline by structuralists, poststructuralists asserted that every attempt to grasp the signified results in more signifiers, so meaning is always in a state of being deferred, making an ultimate interpretation impossible.

Structuralism came to dominate continental philosophy throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, encompassing thinkers as diverse as Claude Lévi-Strauss, Roland Barthes and Jacques Lacan. Post-structuralism came to predominate over the 1970s onwards, including thinkers such as Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze and even Roland Barthes; it incorporated a critique of structuralism's limitations.

The analytic tradition

The term analytic philosophy roughly designates a group of philosophical methods that stress detailed argumentation, attention to semantics, use of classical logic and non-classical logics and clarity of meaning above all other criteria. Some have held that philosophical problems arise through misuse of language or because of misunderstandings of the logic of our language, while some maintain that there are genuine philosophical problems and that philosophy is continuous with science. Michael Dummett in his Origins of Analytical Philosophy makes the case for counting Gottlob Frege's The Foundations of Arithmetic as the first analytic work, on the grounds that in that book Frege took the linguistic turn, analyzing philosophical problems through language. Bertrand Russell and G.E. Moore are also often counted as founders of analytic philosophy, beginning with their rejection of British idealism, their defense of realism and the emphasis they laid on the legitimacy of analysis. Russell's classic works The Principles of Mathematics, On Denoting and Principia Mathematica with Alfred North Whitehead, aside from greatly promoting the use of mathematical logic in philosophy, set the ground for much of the research program in the early stages of the analytic tradition, emphasizing such problems as: the reference of proper names, whether 'existence' is a property, the nature of propositions, the analysis of definite descriptions, the discussions on the foundations of mathematics; as well as exploring issues of ontological commitment and even metaphysical problems regarding time, the nature of matter, mind, persistence and change, which Russell tackled often with the aid of mathematical logic. Russell and Moore's philosophy, in the beginning of the 20th century, developed as a critique of Hegel and his British followers in particular, and of grand systems of speculative philosophy in general, though by no means all analytic philosophers reject the philosophy of Hegel (see Charles Taylor) nor speculative philosophy. Some schools in the group include logical positivism, and ordinary language both markedly influenced by Russell and Wittgenstein's development of Logical Atomism the former positively and the latter negatively.

In 1921, Ludwig Wittgenstein, who studied under Russell at Cambridge, published his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, which gave a rigidly "logical" account of linguistic and philosophical issues. At the time, he understood most of the problems of philosophy as mere puzzles of language, which could be solved by investigating and then minding the logical structure of language. Years later, he reversed a number of the positions he set out in the Tractatus, in for example his second major work, Philosophical Investigations (1953). Investigations was influential in the development of "ordinary language philosophy," which was promoted by Gilbert Ryle, J.L. Austin, and a few others. In the United States, meanwhile, the philosophy of W.V.O. Quine was having a major influence, with such classics as Two Dogmas of Empiricism. In that paper Quine criticizes the distinction between analytic and synthetic statements, arguing that a clear conception of analyticity is unattainable. He argued for holism, the thesis that language, including scientific language, is a set of interconnected sentences, none of which can be verified on its own, rather, the sentences in the language depend on each other for their meaning and truth conditions. A consequence of Quine's approach is that language as a whole has only a thin relation to experience. Some sentences that refer directly to experience might be modified by sense impressions, but as the whole of language is theory-laden, for the whole language to be modified, more than this is required. However, most of the linguistic structure can in principle be revised, even logic, in order to better model the world. Notable students of Quine include Donald Davidson and Daniel Dennett. The former devised a program for giving a semantics to natural language and thereby answer the philosophical conundrum "what is meaning?". A crucial part of the program was the use of Alfred Tarski's semantic theory of truth. Dummett, among others, argued that truth conditions should be dispensed within the theory of meaning, and replaced by assertibility conditions. Some propositions, on this view, are neither true nor false, and thus such a theory of meaning entails a rejection of the law of the excluded middle. This, for Dummett, entails antirealism, as Russell himself pointed out in his An Inquiry into Meaning and Truth.

By the 1970s there was a renewed interest in many traditional philosophical problems by the younger generations of analytic philosophers. David Lewis, Saul Kripke, Derek Parfit and others took an interest in traditional metaphysical problems, which they began exploring by the use of logic and philosophy of language. Among those problems some distinguished ones were: free will, essentialism, the nature of personal identity, identity over time, the nature of the mind, the nature of causal laws, space-time, the properties of material beings, modality, etc. In those universities where analytic philosophy has spread, these problems are still being discussed passionately. Analytic philosophers are also interested in the methodology of analytic philosophy itself, with Timothy Williamson, Wykeham Professor of Logic at Oxford, publishing recently a book entitled The Philosophy of Philosophy. Some influential figures in contemporary analytic philosophy are: Timothy Williamson, David Lewis, John Searle, Thomas Nagel, Hilary Putnam, Michael Dummett, Peter van Inwagen and Saul Kripke. Analytic philosophy has sometimes been accused of not contributing to the political debate or to traditional questions in aesthetics. However, with the appearance of A Theory of Justice by John Rawls and Anarchy, State and Utopia by Robert Nozick, analytic political philosophy acquired respectability. Analytic philosophers have also shown depth in their investigations of aesthetics, with Roger Scruton, Nelson Goodman, Arthur Danto and others developing the subject to its current shape.

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