Twentieth-century philosophy

DOI: 10.4324/0123456789-DD3596-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 2017
Retrieved January 18, 2018, from

Article Summary

Although it is difficult to generalize, twentieth-century philosophy has a number of broadly characteristic and widely shared concerns. These include the ambition to clarify the nature and foundations of scientific knowledge; a concern with questions of meaning or sense in abeyance of assured theological or metaphysical foundations; questions about the role of mind, meaning, and value in the physical world; questions about the possibility and nature of an absolute or objective description of the world as a whole; questions about the relationship of language to thought and consciousness; and questions about the relationship of individual experience and freedom to broader systems of abstract rationality and collective practice. Much, though by no means all, of twentieth-century philosophy can be understood as taking or following the “linguistic turn.” For philosophers within the linguistic turn, philosophical inquiry depends primarily on the investigation of public and intersubjectively shared language and linguistic meaning or its logical structure rather than the epistemological analysis of the subject-object relationship or the development of speculative, theological, or empirical results. The traditional problems of epistemology, ontology, metaphysics, and ethics can then best be taken up, or alternatively dissolved as pseudo-problems, by means of a systematic consideration of the language with which they are expressed. Despite the popularity of linguistic philosophy during much of the twentieth century, more recently many philosophers have turned away from the idea that philosophical explanation or argumentation should be grounded primarily in the analysis of language. Contemporary philosophy once more witnesses a robust field of discussion and argumentation about the possibility of substantive metaphysics, the ontology and structure of the world as such, and the proper aims and methods of philosophical practice.

In its initial phases, twentieth-century philosophy is characterized programmatically by a number of strongly analytic, constructivist, or formalizing projects that attempt systematically to clarify or illuminate meaning, language, experience, or knowledge by means of a description or elucidation of their overall or underlying structure. It is typical of these initial projects (including those of logical positivism, phenomenology, structuralist linguistics, neo-Kantianism, and psychoanalysis) that they see themselves as, in one sense or another, scientific in motivation or spirit, rather than primarily as speculative or metaphysical, and as proceeding primarily by means of analysis rather than system-building. After World War II, central and organizing theses of these initial projects were subjected to varieties of internally motivated critique, which often challenged the coherence or philosophical utility of the idea of a comprehensive structure of meaning, of an a priori analysis of language or concepts, or the idea of any distinctive and well-defined methods of philosophy itself. Despite this, many of the broader methods and styles characteristic of these earlier projects continued, and they remain exemplary of the varieties of philosophical practice today.

Citing this article:
Livingston, Paul M.. Twentieth-century philosophy, 2017, doi:10.4324/0123456789-DD3596-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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