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Although courses in the history of philosophy commonly identify and emphasize the most significant and influential figures of each period, it is difficult to have so clear a focus when looking at our own era. Certainly there have been significant philosophers during the past century-and-a-half, but it may be too soon to discern which among them will turn out to have shaped the course of thought most permanently. Perhaps it is best to consider thinkers of several distinct sorts, trying to appreciate the achievements of each without worrying excessively about the relative value or durability of the particular movements they represent.
It may be worthwhile to trace several threads of thought even if we can't yet figure out how they should be woven together. During this course, we'll examine the origins three major movements in Western philosophy whose influence on twentieth-century thought is important: American pragmatism, Anglo-American analytic philosophy, and Continental existentialism.
Despite their profound differences regarding the goals and methods of the philosophical enterprise, philosophers within each of these three traditions exhibit concern with many similar issues:
In the natural sciences, Enlightenment confidence in the rationality of the universe had culminated in the rigid determinism of Laplace. But Nikolai Lobachevsky and Bernhard Riemann showed that even the age-old geometry of Euclid was open to question. Application of their mathematical methods to the effort to understand electrical phenomena led directly to a new understanding of the physical character of the universe, as expounded by Max Planck, Ernst Mach, and Albert Einstein.
Developments in the life and social sciences were hardly less dramatic. Thomas Malthus drew attention to the effect of natural causes on population, Charles Darwin proposed a new way of understanding the origin of species, and Gregor Mendel began to explore the mechanisms of genetic determination. Philosopher Herbert Spencer tried to apply evolutionary principles to a comprehensive understanding of human life, while Marx and Engels called for a revolutionary solution to social and political ills.
It is little wonder that philosophers of a hundred-and-fifty years ago saw the need for significant changes in their own discipline.
Although the long-standing tradition of empiricist thought in Great Britain was well-represented in the nineteenth century by
John Stuart Mill, most academic philosophers throughout Europe remained devoted to the
absolute idealism propounded early in the century by
In order to understand the intellectual background against which our contemporary schools emerged, we'll do well to begin with a review of the idealistic positions.