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What is Modern Philosophy?

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Philosophy is an ancient discipline that is a big part of what is considered the “Humanities” today in the academy. When most people speak of philosophy, what they have in mind is the ancient Greek tradition that has been handed down and preserved here in the West, given how different Indian and Chinese philosophy are, they are rarely invoked by westerners.

Instead of trying to write out a short history of western philosophy, I’m just going to give a picture of where the discipline is today, a lot of what philosophers dealt with in the past has moved on to become it’s own discipline (basically, all of the Natural and Social Sciences had their start in the philosophical tradition), so it’s not too helpful to examine all of the past for my project here.

There are two broad styles of philosophy today, that are often referred to as “Analytic Philosophy” (a term I reject) and Continental Philosophy:

Anglophone Philosophy:  This is the dominant style of philosophy in the United States and England (along with Ireland, Scotland, New Zealand, and Australia). I don’t use the term “Analytic Philosophy” because it asserts that other styles of philosophy (like Continental or Chinese) are not analytic, when the opposite is true. This style was born out of a group of intellectuals and friends known as the “Vienna Circle”. The Vienna Circle and those whom they corresponded with (Karl Popper, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Bertrand Russell, to name a few) had a heavy emphasis on the natural sciences.  In the late 19th century and  early in the 20th century, the natural sciences really started to take off, which lead the thinkers in the Vienna circle to try and incorporate all this new knowledge into philosophy and synthesize it. Hitler and World War II chased most of the Vienna Circle into the United States and England, which explains how their ideas got to us here in the States (before WW I and II, America wasn’t well known or regarded for Philosophy)

Anglophone style of philosophy is heavy on the analytical side, with a major emphasis on precision and logic chopping. As a result of this emphasis, many philosophical works are ironically dressed up in difficult to parse format and logical forms, making them inaccessible to anyone not fluent in the jargon. Anglophone philosophy takes a very careful look at language, how it is used, and looks closely at what it means to make a certain statement, this attitude is left over from a post WW 2 event called “The Linguistic Turn”, where many thought the traditional problems of philosophy could be reduced to problems in language.  This assumption has fallen out of favor today, but leaves a legacy of nit picking precision that still thrives.

Continental Philosophy: This is the dominant style of philosophy in Europe today that has it’s roots in the intellectual climate of Germany before and after WW 2.  Where Anglophone philosophy attached itself to the natural sciences, Continental philosophy attached itself more towards literature, history, social and cultural criticism. Anglophone philosophy usually tries to deal with one well defined problem (does the Theistic God of Thomas Aquinas exist?), Continental philosophy deals with more broad problems (why does mankind want God to exist?). Continental philosophy hasn’t escaped the same kinds problems with jargon as Anglophone philosophy has, so the uninitiated are often left scratching their heads at what the hell is being said.

A good rule of thumb to tell the two styles apart is to look how a person identifies themselves with a problem or subject.  Anglophone philosophers take specific stances on specific problems, like a person is an Open Theist when it comes to the problem of God, a substance dualist when it comes to the problem of the Mind, and a Pragmatist when it comes to the problem of Truth.  A Continental philosopher would take a more broad stance to more broad problems, where a Anglophone philosopher uses descriptions that are specific to that problem, Continental philosophers tend to use names and movements when it comes to their positions, so a Continental philosopher would be a Feminist when it comes to the problem of Gender, Heideggerian when it comes to the problem of Self,  and a neo-Trotskyite when it comes to the problem of Social Inequality.

There are no hard lines between the two styles, and most departments in Western Universities don’t label themselves as one style or the other, and most philosophers don’t identify themselves with one style unless asked.

In the contemporary study of philosophy, there are four foundational areas of study that are typically mandatory in every undergraduate philosophy program in the West.  Anyone with some type of philosophy degree (from undergrad minor to more advanced study) should be able to give a short lecture on each area, describing the various problems and the most popular solutions to those problems.  Without a solid background in all four of these areas, a person is going to be severely limited in what they can follow or contribute to in more specific philosophical disciplines.  These areas are:

Epistemology: Epistemology comes from the Greek word ‘episteme’(knowledge) and epistemology stands for ‘theory/science of knowledge’. Whenever someone asks a question about knowledge or how we acquire it, they are raising concerns that epistemologists (people who do epistemology) are trying to address. Psychology has it’s beginnings in ancient epistemology but has since stepped away from philosophy and moved into the natural sciences (along with neuroscience), but there are still many important and conceptual questions studied in Epistemology that is not or cannot be studied by the natural sciences.

Ethics:  Pretty self explanatory, also called “Moral Philosophy” and can be broken down into three main areas.  The first is called Meta-ethics, and this typically deals with second order questions. Instead of asking if this action or good or bad, Meta-ethics asks if actions can be even be judged good or bad. If someone asserts that morality is a product of evolution, subjective, objective, or relative, they are talking about Meta-ethics.  Normative ethics deals with how individuals or groups should act, this typically has to do with systems of ethics like Utilitarianism or Virtue ethics. Applied ethics deals specific situations, like medical or business ethics.

Logic: The most difficult of all areas to really grasp, Philosophical Logic deals with how philosophers can make valid deductive inferences (given a set of presupposed premises, a conclusion that must be true), and inductively strong inferences (reasoning from a set of data, like scientific observations).  Philosophical Logic also deals with issues surrounding existence, naming, and truth.

Metaphysics:  This is the most extensive area of Philosophy and many of the topics that fall under Metaphysics are disciplines all their own.  Metaphysics often gets confused with pseudo scientific clap trap, such as soul migrations, ESP, and necromancy, but the kind of Metaphysics that philosophers do is much more productive.  The most basic question Metaphysics asks is, “ What must there be?”  Instead of giving a laundry list of items, philosophers try to give accounts with categories (Ontology, what kinds of things are there), or say that the only thing that exists is some kind of “stuff” (Materialism), the existence of souls, the existence of God, issues concerning free will and determinism, and the nature of time.

From these four areas spring the various philosophical disciplines and sub-disciplines (Philosophy of X, X being just about anything under the sun in the academy).

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This is post 6/24 by SSA@SCSU for the SSA blogathon in support of the Secular Student Alliance! Go donate to them!

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-Patrick Mefford
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