A philosophy known as existentialism developed from such nineteenth-century sources as Nietzsche and the Danish theologian Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), who assailed the dehumanizing effects of the increasingly materialistic society of his day. In such works as Fear and Trembling (1843) and Either/Or (also 1843), he argued that Christian truth was not to be found in churches but in experiencing extreme human conditions through the act of existence.
The central theme of existentialism emerged after World War II in the work of the French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre (1905-1980), who in 1946 argued that “existence is prior to essence.” Sartre meant that subjectivity was essential to philosophy; that unchanging moral rules by which one may organize one’s life without further thought do not exist; and that Christianity had long departed from its historical tenets to the point of lacking intellectual or metaphysical integrity. One chooses values, they are not given: Everything is done as a result of choice and thus there is absolute freedom. Such freedom is, of course, full of dread—and absolute freedom is virtually intolerable.
Existentialism provided a negative view of the human condition. Sartre and a second major figure in the development of this form of analysis, the German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), showed how humankind escapes responsibility, hides the fact of having real choice, through shifts and evasions (called variously God, the church, the state, duty and so on) which provide order and thus make life tolerable. Heidegger did not see this view of life as unrelievably gloomy, however, since life was possible through the honest and constant confrontation of death: Death was a creative force which lay at the center of Being.
The most original and most typical philosophic movement of the twentieth century is variously called logical analysis, logical positivism, linguistic philosophy, or, in some of its phases, symbolic logic. The movement accepted most of the new psychology and went ahead to insist that, although only a tiny bit of human experience could be defined as rational thought, that tiny bit should be protected and explored carefully.
The movement’s basic position held that when, applying the methods of scientific practice, a problem can be answered by an “operation” and the answer validated by logical and empirical tests or observations, knowledge can be achieved. But when no such “operation” is possible, as in such problems as whether democracy is the best form of government, whether a lie is ever justifiable, or whether a given poem is good or bad then the problem is “meaningless” for the logician. To be without meaning does not signify that the problem should be dismissed, however, as most of humanity must still discover “operable truths” by which to make decisions.
Logical positivists concluded that human beings are at present incapable of thorough, persistent, successful logical thinking. Rather, they are open to manipulation. This conclusion was chilling to those who believed in human progress or in an enlightened and educated electorate making well-informed and carefully calculated decisions at the polls.
The succession of wars in the 1950s to the 1990s led some to abandon hope for democracy. While some followed the path of pessimism, concluding that democratic thought was consistently being degraded through media manipulation, others concluded that it was possible for humankind to learn from the mistakes of the past, to change economic and social patterns to the benefit of the greater number and that, for all their faults, democracy and the free market offered the best hope for an optimistic future.
If formal philosophy seemed increasingly irrelevant to many, since it did not appear to grapple directly with daily concerns in a language that could be understood by the average person, so, too, by the 1980s had literature, especially at the formal and elite level, removed itself from general discussion.
The impact of structuralism, a wide-ranging philosophical position centered in France, was especially great in literary criticism, anthropology, linguistics, and history. Its leading advocates, Roland Barthes (1915-1980) and Claude-Gustave Levi-Strauss (19081994), were widely studied throughout the Western world.
Barthes was a key creator of semiology, which viewed cultural phenomena as a series of signs with meanings that existed apart from their content. Systems, or structures, revealed such meaning as there was.
Structuralism tended to be seen as in alignment with Marxism, since a practical application of its arguments would lead to concerns for systemic change rather than for the process of reform customary to most democracies.