Philosophy of the 20th century, some movements highlighted

The 20th century, from 1900 to 2000, was a fascinating period. There were major developments in the fields of art, science and philosophy. Inventions were made such as radio and television and household appliances. For the first time, a man stood on the moon. Neurological examination was carried out, as well as research at the cellular level and DNA. Abstract art is emerging, think of art forms such as cubism and expressionism. Psychology became better known to the general public. The industrialization and Marxism of the 19th century still played a major role in the 20th century. There were two world wars in the 20th century. Various groups emancipated themselves. The way of life and thinking changed completely during the 20th century. These changes coincided with new philosophical developments. This is how, for example, phenomenology, existentialism, pragmatism and the term postmodernism emerged. What is striking about 20th century philosophy compared to philosophy before it?

From that which is fixed to that which changes

Traditional philosophy often sought general, objective truths. General statements were made about the world, how the cosmos works and how to live as a human being. Consider, for example, Plato and his search for the eternal ideas of the good, the true and the beautiful. Or Kant and his universal, always valid, moral rules of life. In ancient times, philosophy, religion and science were one. Later these matters were separated. Philosophy is about thinking, not about knowing for sure or believing. In ancient times, philosophical systems were often devised to explain reality.

Later, philosophers began to focus more often on human experience, people and the world around them. How does man interpret himself, society, life and the universe? How can we deal with this? The interaction between man and the world around him is flexible. Instead of drawing up general laws, the specific situation is often taken into account. To this person in this context.


Phenomenology emerged at the beginning of the 20th century. Edmund Husserl and Merleau-Ponty are well-known phenomenologists. Phenomena are all kinds of things that we observe in life. Both within us and outside us. It can be a flower or stone, a meal but also an illness, a feeling or an emotion. In phenomenology one investigates the phenomena and therefore also the consciousness that perceives these phenomena. Consciousness always focuses on something. This is called intentionality. The goal is to gain knowledge of the phenomenon as well as consciousness through the experience. Personal experience is therefore seen as a source of knowledge. Theories, concepts or knowledge about the phenomenon are temporarily released so that one can explore the pure experience. Writing down the experiences of a phenomenon can be a way of phenomenological research.

A number of phenomenologists have been influenced by Henri Bergson. He lived between 1859 and 1941. Bergson investigated the phenomenon of time. He was talking about duree, which you could translate as expensive. We experience a duration. That length of time is characteristic of life. Some call Bergson a vitalist, someone who wants to connect philosophy with life.


Existentialism arose from phenomenology. This movement was especially popular in the 1940s. Existentialism is about who humans are. Existence, or that we exist, precedes essence, or what we are. The intentionality, which the phenomenologists talked about, is the basis of our existence and who we are. Husserl and Heidegger, founders of phenomenology, were an inspiration for Sartre, who became one of the best-known existentialists. Sartre was politically active. His political statements are linked to his philosophy. According to him, we are fundamentally free. We are what our consciousness focuses on. We exist and from there we decide what we will be. This means that we must make our choices consciously; according to Sartre, we cannot hide behind circumstances. He spoke out against the French government several times, for example when it sided with the Germans in the Second World War for practical reasons. Sartre’s

partner, Simone de Beauvoir, was also a well-known existentialist philosopher. She has meant a lot to feminism. Her social statements also arise from her philosophy. In her book ‘The Second Sex’ she makes the statement ,You are not born as a woman but you are made into a woman,. On the one hand, this statement is social, it says something about the social position into which women are forced. On the other hand, it is in line with existential philosophy. That you exist is a given. But what you are next, for example a traditional woman, is a choice. It just depends on where you focus your consciousness. And that consciousness in itself has no content according to the existentialists. By the way, Sartre and de Beauvoir do recognize that we are born under certain circumstances.

Albert Camus was friends with both Sartre and the beauvoir. He emphasized the absurd aspect of the world.

Emmanuel Levinas is sometimes counted among the phenomenologists and sometimes among the existentialists. He emphasizes the importance of the Other. This is deliberately capitalized. We must never use the Other for our own ends. The Other appeals to our responsibility. Ethics arises from becoming aware of the face of the Other.


Pragmatism is a practical philosophy. This philosophy originated in 1870 in the United States. In the 20th century, several books by pragmatic philosophers were published. What works? What are the consequences of this action or this line of thought? These are the most important questions that pragmatism asks. The human experience plays an important role in pragmatism. Which action or thought brings the most happiness to the most people? John Dewey describes experience as the interaction between an organism and its environment or biotope. According to Wiliam James you can only philosophize about experience. There is a saying; Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a type of fruit, wisdom is not putting a tomato in a fruit salad. This is a pragmatic interpretation of wisdom.


Postmodernism was discussed for the first time in 1979. This means that we are beyond the big stories such as communism. People are less inclined to search for or believe in the great truth. Relativism arises. Multiple truths may coexist, or perhaps there is no truth. Sometimes this brings disillusionment or uncertainty. An advantage of postmodernism or relativism is that different perspectives are given space. But there is also a lot of criticism of this way of thinking. If everything can be true and the truth does not exist, then people do not look for the truth and unfounded statements are given just as much platform as well-founded statements.


Nihilism goes further. The term nihilism was already used during the French Revolution, between 1789 and 1799. This philosophy holds that there is no purpose, meaning, eternal morality, objective truth or God. Nihilists also do not believe in progress in history. They do not pursue ideals. The German philosopher Nietsche was a source of inspiration for nihilists, although Nietsche did not call himself a nihilist. Nietzsche lived at the end of the 19th century. His philosophy has had a great influence on the 20th century. The term has had both positive and negative connotations over the years.


There are more philosophical movements such as analytical philosophy and structuralism. Language also played an important role in 20th-century philosophy. There were many more philosophers at that time who played a role in dynamic philosophy in a dynamic era.

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