Modern Philosophy

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edit index Modern Philosophy

Modern philosophy is Philosophy done during the "modern" era of Europe and North America. It is not a specific doctrine or school, (and so should not be confused with Modernism or Modernity) although there are certain assumptions common to much of it distinguishing it from Renaissance Philosophy and Contemporary Philosophy periods.

Is Modern Philosophy Modern?

The modern period runs roughly from the beginning of the 17th century until the present. How much of Renaissance Philosophy, some of which was called "modern" at the time, is to be included in Modern Philosophy is still a matter of dispute; Nineteenth-century Philosophy is often treated as its own period, as it was dominated by Post-Kantian German and idealist philosophers like Hegel, Marx, and Bradley, as well as many other important thinkers such as John Stuart Mill, Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche.

Likewise, Modernity may or may not have ended in the 20th century and been replaced by Post-Modernity. How one decides these questions will determine the scope of one's use of "Modern Philosophy", and this illustrates the futility of classifying Philosophy into neat historical groupings. We will see this again as what is called "Contemporary Philosophy" is no longer contemporary, but dominated by the Philosophy of the 1950's, 60's and 70's, and in many ways Philosophy has already changed into something new.

History of Modern Philosophy

The major figures in Philosophy of Mind, Epistemology, and Metaphysics during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries are roughly divided into two main groups. The "Rationalists," mostly in France and Germany, assumed that all knowledge must begin from certain "innate ideas" in the mind. Major Rationalists were Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, and Nicolas Malebranche. The "Empiricists," by contrast, held that knowledge must begin with sensory experience. Major figures in this line of thought are Locke, George_Berkeley, and Hume. Ethics and Political Philosophy are usually not subsumed under these categories, though all these philosophers worked on ethics in their own distinctive styles. Other important figures here are Hobbes and Rousseau.

In the late eigteenth century Immanuel Kant set forth a groudbreaking philosophical system which claimed to bring unify rationalism and empiricism. WHether or not he was right, he did not precisely succeed in ending philosophical dispute. Kant sparked a storm of philosophical work in Germany in the early nineteenth century. This was German Idealism; its characteristic theme was that the world and the mind equally must be understood according to the same categories; it culminated in the work of Hegel, who among many other things said that "The real is rational; the rational is real."

Hegel's work was carried in many directions by his students; most notably, Karl Marx appropriated both Hegel's philosophy of history and the empirical ethics dominant in Britain, transforming Hegel's ideas into a strictly materialist form, to be used as a tool for revolution. At the opposite end of the spectrum, Kierkegaard turned philosophy into an internal and religious endeavour. Schopenhauer took Idealism to the conclusion that the world was nothing but the futile endless interplay of images and desires, and advocated atheism and pessimism. Kierkegaard's and Schopenhauer's ideas were taken up and transformed by Nietzsche, who seized upon their various dismissals of the world to proclaim "God is dead" and to reject all systematic philosophy and all striving for a fixed truth transcending the individual. Nietzsche, though, found in this not a grounds for pessimism, but the possibility of a new kind of freedom.

Continental Rationalism is sometimes extended to include Rousseau, Kant and post-Kantian Idealism, and Empiricism is sometimes extended back to cover Francis Bacon and Hobbes and forward to cover John Stuart Mill and the Utilitarians, and is sometimes even treated as contiuous with twentieth-century Analytic Philosophy.

During the nineteenth century British philosophy came increasigly to be dominated by strands of neo-Hegelisn thought; it was exasperation with these that led Russell and Moore in the direction that became analytic philosophy. American philosophers began to influence ideas from their Universities, and later, the first World War changed everything, leading to contemporary trends in philosophy still reverberating.

Influences of Modern Philosophy

Despite the rather arbitrary and haphazard way Modern Philosophy is defined, there is no dispute about the strong influences from such philosophers as David Hume, Immanuel Kant, GWF Hegel, Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche, to name but a few. Modern thinkers truly defined the playing field on which philosophers still operate.

Hume's style of Philosophy continues in many ways through the development of Science, later the Philosophy of Science. Sorting out Kant' questions became an industry all to itself, becoming Post-Kantian, and Neo-Kantian in spirit. Hegel, Marx, and Nietzsche continued to steer Contemporary Philosophy through more recent adherents and modifiers, such as Jacques Derrida, Louis Althusser or Georges Bataille.

In this light, Philosophy is still modern, when it is still "Contemporary" in tone, and one can think of the whole of Philosophy done from Giordano Bruno to Jean Baudrillard as "modern". This modern way, it could be called, is that of questioning all tradition and assumptions, contrasted with the general characteristic of Ancient Philosophy, dominated by the first questions, and later Medieval Philosophy, dominated by rationality and faith. Yet, even these constructs have exceptions...

Some content adapted from the Wikinfo article "Modern_philosophy" under the GNU Free Documentation License.
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[ last updated: 1:02am EDT - Wed, Apr 04 2007 ]
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M.R.M. Parrott