Twentieth-century philosophy

DOI: 10.4324/0123456789-DD3596-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 2017
Retrieved June 12, 2024, from

7. Developments since 1970 and contemporary philosophy

Within analytic philosophy, the last several decades have witnessed developments in many areas of inquiry. During this time, new work in modal logic and the semantics of modality led many analytic philosophers to countenance a return of “metaphysical” questions and concerns, now in a more scientific and formally motivated spirit. Beginning in the 1970s, new suggestions about the reference of proper names and natural-kind terms, developing from the work of Saul Kripke, Hilary Putnam, and Tyler Burge, led many philosophers to reject earlier descriptivist analyses and suggest “externalist” views on which mental content is determined partly by mind-external factors. Methodologically, an orientation toward naturalism in a sense that denies the possibility of a “first philosophy” prior to scientific inquiry became prominent, and naturalistic analyses in the philosophy of mind and epistemology appeared to some to confirm the failure of purely a priori or conceptual approaches to mind and knowledge. Analyses in the philosophy of mind were influenced by rapid developments in cognitive science, neuroscience, and computer science, while at the same time philosophers such as Hubert Dreyfus and John Searle offered deep-seated critiques of functionalism and of the claims of the possibility of a symbolic-representational realization of artificial intelligence (see Artificial intelligence; Chinese room argument).

With the publication in 1971 of John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice, political philosophy in a recognizably analytic mode was established, leading to a complex and flourishing discussion among liberal, libertarian, and communitarian positions, and analytic ethics gained a new impetus from the growing discussion of meta-ethics, or the background assumptions of different types of ethical views, and the renewed possibility of varieties of moral realism, outside the confines of positivist and verificationist strictures (see Justice). In the 1990s, new discussions of the phenomenon of consciousness challenged the varieties of reductive physicalism that had characterized earlier analytic positions. Since about 2000, the new approach of “experimental philosophy” – using empirical methodologies to determine basic philosophical intuitions and the cultural variability and cognitive bases for philosophical views – has enjoyed some popularity. Today, there are also robust debates about the proper role and possibility of metaphysical ontology and the right methods for establishing its results (see, e.g., Chalmers, Manley, and Wasserman 2009).

During this time, continental philosophers of various stripes have focused more centrally on questions of political and social structure, including centrally (especially since 1989) the analysis and critique of the contradictions of global capitalism and the uncertain foundations of state sovereignty in the contemporary geopolitical order. Drawing on Michel Foucault’s influential analyses of the contemporary organization of life by means of what he termed “biopower” along with the later Heidegger’s influential critique of technology, philosophers such as Giorgio Agamben have analyzed prevalent forms of social power in close connection with a critical interrogation of the Western metaphysical tradition itself. Following the analysis of Jean-Francois Lyotard, some have seen contemporary philosophy as entering a distinctive “postmodern” condition, one marked by emphasis on contingency rather than necessity and by distrust of strong or global organizing narratives of progress, development, and universality. Others, however, such as Alain Badiou and Slavoj Žižek, have argued strenuously against the relativism and culturalism that they see as dominant in contemporary discourses and practices, calling instead for a return of classical Platonic or Hegelian conceptions of the universal and its significance for politics. In recent years, following in part Badiou’s own appeal to the mathematical formalism of set theory and Deleuze’s frequent use of mathematical and scientifically realist analyses, some have similarly called for a return of scientific realism to continental philosophy, over and against what they see as the legacy of twentieth-century philosophy as dominated by forms of subjective or linguistic idealism.

Contemporary philosophy is further characterized by the rapid development of what might be called “global philosophy,” or philosophy drawing substantively on non-European traditions in dialog with contemporary analytic and continental approaches. Here, the aim of the project is not only to point out parallels between European and non-European historical traditions (such as those of Indian and Chinese philosophy, among others), but also, just as importantly, to consider the possible application of ideas and conceptions deriving from non-European traditions for contemporary problems of political organization and the foundations of global ethics (Brooks 2013; see also Global justice, recent work on). As with other areas of contemporary philosophy, future development in this area is likely to require both robust research into the recent and broader history of philosophy throughout the world, and a willingness to move fluidly between as well as beyond more narrowly conceived sub-disciplinary boundaries.

Citing this article:
Livingston, Paul M.. Developments since 1970 and contemporary philosophy. Twentieth-century philosophy, 2017, doi:10.4324/0123456789-DD3596-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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