A BRIEF HISTORY OF 20TH CENTURY WESTERN PHILOSOPHY
by Garrett Thomson
During the 20th century, our understanding of the world was transformed thanks to the likes of relativity, quantum physics, molecular biology, chaos theory and computer science. Likewise, our comprehension of ourselves developed dramatically courtesy of theories such as behaviourism, structuralism and cognitive science.
The history of Western philosophy in the 20th century broadly reflects all of this change and diversity, but at an abstract level. Part of its story is of the contrast between two conflicting traditions: the analytic and the continental. In the analytic tradition, there are thinkers such as Russell, Quine and Davidson, who, among other things, aim to show how semantic meaning fits into the scientifically conceived physical world. This often goes hand in hand with the idea that social progress must be in part scientific. However, within this analytic branch, there are several counter-narratives, such as the work of the pragmatists and the ordinary language philosophers, who resist the idea that language must conform to an idealized scientific picture, and who often point towards a conception of social progress that is not scientific.
In sharp contrast, much continental thought tries to characterise the human condition through descriptions of experience as such in ways that are pre-scientific. This applies especially to thinkers in the phenomenological and existentialist traditions, such as Husserl, Heidegger and Sartre. Branching out from this, hermeneutics examines the art of interpreting texts, especially with regard to the historical and linguistic assumptions that make interpretation possible. Poststructuralism constitutes largely a rejection of these traditions that emphasizes the shifting relations between signifiers within a whole system and which defies all attempts to seek absolutes beyond those relations.
In this illuminating overview, Professor Garrett Thomson surveys the field, considering the work and influence of 29 major thinkers representing logical atomism and logical positivism (including Russell and Wittgenstein), analytic philosophy (including Quine, Davidson, Rawls), phenomenology and existentialism (including Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre), hermeneutics (including Gadamer and Habermas) and post-structuralism (including Foucault, Derrida and Deleuze). Also examined are some recent thinkers including Richard Rorty and Charles Taylor. The field is clearly presented with a short biography of the major figures followed by their thoughts and views. With over 20 books to his credit, Professor Thomson is an experienced presenter of his subject, conveying his knowledge expertly while injecting his personal enthusiasm for the challenges of 20th century Western philosophy. The text is read with clarity by James Gillies.
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