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Philosophy - Historical Overview and Recent Developments - Contemporary Philosophy

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Pebi- to History of Philosophy - IndifferentismPhilosophy - Historical Overview and Recent Developments - Dialectic In Philosophy, Philosophy West And East, Contemporary Philosophy, Conclusion, Bibliography

Contemporary Philosophy

Philosophy from its inception has always been all-embracing and thus lends itself to both a learned eclecticism as well as dilettantism. Ironically, then, philosophy has also always tended to encourage a certain sense of superiority as well as schoolishness, even cultishness. The schools of the ancient world—Skeptics, Stoics, Cynics, and Academics—and the schools of medieval Scholasticism were paralleled (unknowingly) by the many competing schools of Confucianism, Daoism, Legalism, Buddhism, Zen, and neo-Confucianism in Asia. In the "professional" philosophy of the twentieth century, especially in American universities, the tendency to overspecialization can be partly explained by philosophers' efforts to distinguish philosophy from all of those other disciplines that it originally spawned from its womb. But it is also the very nature of philosophy itself, which while striving for the all-embracing universal has always tended to be laughably parochial. Thus contemporary philosophy has predictably become Balkanized, not quite to say cult-like. In particular, there is the well-known opposition between "analytic" and "continental" philosophy, although it should be said from the first that the distinction itself is problematic as well as destructive. To begin with, the contrast is a false one. "Analysis" refers to a method that, superficially at least, concentrates on the use of language and is mainly concerned with logic and conceptual analysis. "Continental" refers to a place, namely, Continental Europe. Apart from the fact that "the Continent" so referred to usually includes only Germany and France and the fact that "analytic philosophy" includes a fair number of contrasting and competing methodologies, there are many twisted and interwoven schools, methods, and styles of philosophy that are not distinguished by such a narrow body of water as the English Channel.

Analytic philosophy is often defined in terms of its interest in logic and language, but that interest emerges first in Germany (with Gottlob Frege [1848–1925], in particular) and is fully shared by the progenitor of this century's "Continental" movements, Edmund Husserl. The most influential philosopher of the century, Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889–1951), who was twice the definitive philosopher of the "analytic" tradition, came to England from Austria, never leaving his "Continental" roots behind him. He was particularly interested in the limits of language, but so are such contemporary poststructuralists as Jacques Derrida (1930–), the nemesis of most analytic philosophers. There are analytic philosophers who, like their peers on the Continent, talk and write about sex, gender, death, and the meaning of life. And despite the more polemical pronouncements of some of its practitioners, analytic philosophy is not just logic, devoid of concern for content. Though it still prides itself on being "scientific," analytic philosophy is not wholly devoid of interest in history, context, empirical content, and etymology. If Bertrand Russell (1872–1970) misrepresented the analysts' case against the Hegelians at Cambridge in his day, he was, nevertheless, the very model of an engaged and popular philosopher, with a great deal to say to ordinary people about immensely important issues. At the start of the twenty-first century, too, there are philosophers at the barricades, which means on television, talking about the vital issues of the day. One of the areas of contemporary interest in philosophy is "cognitive science," which brings together the empirical research of neurologists, evolutionary biologists, computer specialists, psychologists, and linguists with the conceptual demands and arguments of the philosophers. At its best, contemporary philosophy breaks through its traditional provincialism—as it always has in those golden epochs of the past—and synthesizes as well as analyzes the knowledge of the world. In this endeavor, analytic and continental philosophers work best when they work together, when they try to overcome their respective mind-numbing technical devices and jargon and grapple with what Husserl kept referring to as "the things themselves," the distinctive content of human experience and the Big Questions of philosophy that get us all started down the philosophical road to begin with.

The ancient quest for the good life has all too often tended to get lost, or at any rate eclipsed, by the contemporary squabbling over the name "philosophy." (Is philosophy, indeed, nothing but logic and conceptual analysis? Or is it worry about matters of "ultimate concern"? Or is it a bottomless spiral of self-reference that ultimately leads to nothing at all?) The perennial quest for the good life, shared by philosophers and non-philosophers alike, ensures that everyone is a philosopher, not just a few thousand university-trained specialists. (French philosopher Maurice Riseling has commented, "sooner or later, life makes philosophers of us all.") This explains, in the face of increasingly specialized and inaccessible academic philosophy, why there continues to be widespread fascination with Eastern philosophy, often repackaged as "New Age" philosophy. If philosophy abandons what has always been its noble aim, to teach us how to live well, other alternatives will always be attractive. But this particular fascination with the East only began in the nineteenth century (Arthur Schopenhauer's flirtation with Buddhism was particularly significant), when the first wave of professionalized academic philosophy swept over Germany in the wake of Immanuel Kant. (Before that, most of the great philosophers were "independent scholars," except perhaps for Plato and Aristotle, who owned their own academies.) The importance of the East and cosmopolitan philosophy has only become more intense as the distortions of the Cold War on geopolitics came to an abrupt end, as global markets open up, and now that Islam has made a new forceful entrance into the world of ideas. But despite its disdained "popular" appeal and the intricacies of ideology and ideas, the fascination with non-Western and comparative philosophies is one of the most exciting late developments of the twentieth and now the twenty-first century.

To contrast "Eastern" with "Western" philosophy is not to suggest that false stereotype too long accepted among Western philosophers, namely, that Eastern philosophy is all religion and mysticism devoid of concern about knowledge and science. Buddhist philosophy, in particular, has a long rich history of logic and brilliant logicians. But the theme of living a good life is pervasive, and it is this, perhaps, that explains the appeal of the generic "East" in the West. There is also the obvious concern with spirituality that pervades so much of Eastern philosophy. Spirituality should not be confused with mysticism, nor should it be conflated with mindlessness. (It is instructive than one of the favorite terms in New Age philosophy today is "mindfulness.") Spirituality is, as the present author has written, "the thoughtful love of life." But in the pursuit of a rigorously "scientific" philosophy, Western philosophy since the Enlightenment has tended to dump all mention of spirituality as just so much "superstition" and sentimentality. Thus it is often said that there is a widespread "spiritual hunger" that is not satisfied by either philosophy or traditional organized religion. But if scientific philosophy has thrown out the baby with the bath water, traditional organized religion has violated philosophy's new insistence on pluralism (relativism), even if orthodox (absolutist) pretensions still remain. Much of Eastern philosophy, not burdened with the antagonism between philosophy and religion, has less trouble capturing both spirituality and truth in the same intellectual package, even where the main conclusion is that neither spirituality nor truth can be captured intellectually.

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