Ron Yezzi
Philosophy Department
Minnesota State U., Mankato
2001 by Ron Yezzi
(May be downloaded for per-
sonal, non-commercial use)

Philosophy 437 Lecture Notes

Contemporary Philosophy: Course Introduction

I. What Is Contemporary Philosophy?

A. Presumably, contemporary philosophy deals with what philosophers are considering now rather than what they considered in the past. But what does "now" include?

            1. Now, according to the Undergraduate Bulletin: Philosophers and Philosophies of the Twentieth Century

            2. Now, as "cutting edge" philosophy - what is startlingly new and original among this year's philosophy books and journal articles

            3. Now, as whatever the philosophy instructor is interested in doing

            4. Now, as whatever philosophy students are interested in doing

            5. Now, as some issue(s) as dealt with by a number of living philosophers that happens to interest the course instructor

            6. Now, as major philosophical issues and works of the last 20-30 years

B. Strange Irony (Probable Statement): A hundred years from now, about 95-99% of the work of presently living philosophers (contemporary philosophy?) will be wholly ignored while 95-99% of the work in the history of philosophy (past philosophy through the nineteenth century that is covered in history of philosophy courses?) will still be studied.

            1. So there is a sense in which the history of philosophy always is and always will be contemporary, whereas the vast majority of what people "consider" to be contemporary philosophy is destined for the trash bin of history.

            2.. It would seem then that contemporary philosophy is largely a waste of time compared with study of the history of philosophy—except for the fact that it is unclear now precisely what portions of contemporary philosophy will be discarded.

            3. So a student has to take contemporary philosophy with "a grain of salt," maintain a sense of perspective on contemporary philosophy, and not merely presume that consideration of past philosophy is a waste of time.


II. Movements, Systems, Specialization, and Analytic Philosophy

A. Perennial Tasks of Philosophy

            1. Dealing with Long-Standing Central Problems of Philosophy - free will vs. determinism, mind-body, the physical and mental, the nature of knowledge, logic, God, ethics, justice, etc.

            2. Providing Philosophical Interpretation of New Advances in Human Knowledge and Actions

            3. Developing Methods of Philosophical Analysis - usually based on reasoning and accumulated over long periods of time

B. Philosophical Movements

            1. Philosophical movements mark a commitment to a somewhat different approach to philosophical problems that adherents view as significant progress over what was being done before.

                    a. The idea of progress, rather than final answers or a utopia, is necessary for a movement.

            2. Movements tend to start and develop with a heady optimism regarding what they can accomplish; and they may depart somewhat from the perennial tasks of philosophy. Eventually though, this optimism tends to be lost either because unforeseen problems arise or the initially promising channels of investigation reach points of diminishing returns.

            3. When movements lose momentum, there usually is a return to the perennial problems of philosophy—although these problems may well now be enriched through the movement’s efforts.

C. Some Quasi-Philosophical Movements in the Twentieth Century

            1. General Semantics – an attempt to improve human life through a scientific analysis of language that was held to be more accurate and more open than the two-valued logic embedded in our traditional language through the philosophy of Aristotle

                    a. Leading Proponents – Alfred Korzybski (1879-1950) and S.I. Hayakawa (1906-1992)

                    b. Major Works – Korzybski (Science and Sanity), Hayakawa (Language in Thought and Action)

                    c. Result – A brief flurry of interest at one time, but no major followers now

            2. Behaviorism - an attempt to improve human life through a scientific study of human behavior that turned away from explanation of human actions in terms of internal mental states.

                    a. Major Proponents – John B. Watson (1878-1958) and B. F. Skinner (1904-1990)

                    b. Major Works – Watson (Behaviorism), Skinner (Science and Human Behavior, Verbal Behavior, Beyond                      Freedom and Dignity, Walden Two)

                    c. Result – A major movement in 20th century psychology most influential from the 1930s to the 1960s, but still                      influential today—although the more extreme claims about the absence of internal states have lost much of their                      force and interest

            3. Design and Progress - an attempt to improve human life through scientific design, that is, by "reforming the living environment through design on all levels rather than by reforming people through economics and/or politics."

                    a. Major Proponent – R. Buckminster Fuller (1895-1980s)

                    b. Result - Probably a curiosity rather than a major movement

D. Major Philosophical Movements of the Twentieth Century

            1. Pragmatism

            2. Process Philosophy

            3. Logical Positivism

            4. Analytic Philosophy

            5. Existentialism (Phenomenology)

            6. Postmodernism

            7. Feminism

            8. Social Constructivism

E. Philosophical Systems

            1. A philosophical system possesses a relatively well-organized set of solutions to the major perennial problems of philosophy as well as a distinctive method of approach to philosophical problems.

                    a. Classic Examples: Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Descartes, Locke, Spinoza, Hume, Kant, Hegel

            2. A philosophical movement may or may not produce a system.

            3. During most of the twentieth century, philosophical movements have strongly tended to be anti-systemic (pragmatism for the most part, existentialism, postmodernism, feminism, social constructivism) or non-systemic (logical positivism and analytic philosophy.)

                    a. Some of the turning away from systems is attributable to a reaction against Hegelian Absolute Idealism.

            4. Major Perennial Problems of Philosophy

                    a. What exists?—things, events, ideas, percepts, symbols

                    b. What is the status of God?—nature, existence or non-existence, significance

                     c. What is the status of the mental and the physical?

                    d. Are the universe and human actions deterministic?

                    e. What is human nature and what is its significance?

                    f. What are the standards, if any, by which we successfully claim to know anything?

                    g. What method(s) most advances philosophical inquiry?

                    h. What is the nature of value and the good life?

                    i. What is the proper relation of the individual to society?

F. Specialization and Analytic Philosophy

            1. The stress on specialization in twentieth century philosophy encourages a non-systemic approach

            2. Analytic philosophy tends to proceed "piecemeal," with the writing of journal articles and subsequent books that often are mainly collections of journal articles.

            3. The academic requirements for publishing in higher education push philosophers toward specialization and writing of journal articles—articles that often are commentaries upon other articles.

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