The History of Continental Philosophy
Developments in Anglo-American philosophy during the first half of the 20th Century closely tracked developments that were occurring in continental philosophy during this period. This should not surprise us. Aside from the fertile communication between these ostensibly separate traditions, both were responding to problems associated with the rise of mass society. Rabid nationalism, corporate statism, and totalitarianism (Left and Right) posed a profound challenge to the idealistic rationalism of neo-Kantian and neo-Hegelian philosophies. The decline of the individual – classically conceived by the 18th-century Enlightenment as a self-determining agent – provoked strong reactions. While some philosophical tendencies sought to re-conceive the relationship between individual, society, and nature in more organic ways that radically departed from the subjectivism associated with classical Cartesianism, other tendencies sought to do just the opposite. This is one way of putting the difference between the two major movements within Anglo-American philosophy that I will be discussing in this essay.
American pragmatism, which achieved the pinnacle of its popularity prior to 1940, traces its lineage back to empiricism as well as German Idealism. With the exception of William James, who is best known for his defense of radical empiricism, the other two important 20th century pragmatists, John Dewey (1859–1952) and George Herbert Mead (1863–1931), embraced a post-metaphysical version of Hegelian dialectics that was starkly antithetical to both Cartesian rationalism and atomistic empiricism. By contrast, logical positivism, which maintained a lively hold on Anglo-American thought as late as the sixties, reacted against Hegelian philosophy in all its forms, and accordingly resurrected both the Cartesian method of conceptual (logical) analysis as well as its atomistic ontology.
In this respect, positivism is closer in spirit to Husserlian phenomenology and French structuralism, while pragmatism is closer in spirit to Heideggerian existentialism and its French progeny (the outstanding exception being Sartre’s early Cartesian existentialism). As a general rule, the pragmatists’ embrace of methodological holism served as counterpoint to the positivists’ endorsement of methodological individualism. However, in contrast to their continental counterparts, pragmatists and positivists shared the naturalistic approach to philosophical explanation that had been the hallmark of Anglo-American philosophy since Bacon.
Ingram, David. "Late Pragmatism, Logical Positivism, and their Aftermath." In vol. 5 of The History of Continental Philosophy, ed. David Ingram and Alan D. Schrift (London: Acumen Press, 2010), 281-299.
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© 2010 David Ingram