What are the Major Historical Periods in Western Modern Philosophy?


What are the Major Historical Periods in Western Modern Philosophy?

Welcome to this lecture on Western philosophical tradition in the recent modern and early contemporary periods. In this topic, you would be introduced to continental philosophy where we will discuss such philosophical traditions like Existentialism, German Idealism, Phenomenology, Structuralism and Post-structuralism. 

Western philosophy after the middle ages can be divided into four periods: the Renaissance, the Enlightenment or modern philosophy, 19th Century philosophy, and 20th Century/ the contemporary period.

By the end of this article, you should be able to describe Western philosophical tradition in the recent modern and early contemporary periods, discuss the views of some major existentialist philosophers and identify essential characteristics of Western philosophy during this period.


Continental Philosophy

Continental philosophy is a set of 19th- and 20th-century philosophical traditions from mainland Europe. Major 20th-century continental philosophical movements include German idealism, phenomenology, existentialism, hermeneutics, critical theory, structuralism, and post-structuralism.

While identifying any non-trivial common factor in all these schools of thought is bound to be controversial, Michael E. Rosen has hypothesized a few common continental themes identifiable with all these movements.

These include that the natural sciences cannot replace the human sciences; that the thinker is affected by the conditions of experience (one’s place and time in history); that 218 philosophy is both theoretical and practical; that meta-philosophy or reflection upon the methods and nature of philosophy itself is an important part of philosophy proper.

The founder of phenomenology, Edmund Husserl, sought to study consciousness as experienced from a first-person perspective, while Martin Heidegger drew on the ideas of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Husserl to propose an unconventional existential approach to ontology.

In the works Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, Maurice Merleau Ponty, and Albert Camus, developed a metaphysics undergirded by phenomenological analysis.

Post-structuralism was developed by writers such as Gilles Deleuze, JeanFrancois Lyotard, who is best known for his articulation of postmodernism, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, who are best known for developing a form of semiotic analysis known as deconstruction.

Furthermore, the psychoanalytic work of Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Jacques Lacan, Julia Kristeva, and others has also been influential in contemporary continental thought. Conversely, some philosophers have attempted to define and rehabilitate older traditions of philosophy.

Most notably, Hans-Georg Gadamer and Alasdair McIntyre have both, albeit in different ways, revived the tradition of Aristotelianism.

Let us now briefly examine some of these philosophical schools and movements of this era.



Existentialism is a term applied to the work of a number of late 19th- and 20th-century philosophers who, despite profound doctrinal differences, shared the belief that philosophical thinking begins with the human subject not merely the thinking subject, but the acting, feeling, living human individual.

In existentialism, the individual’s starting point is characterized by what has been called “the existential attitude” or a sense of disorientation and confusion in the face of an apparently meaningless or absurd world.

Many existentialists have also regarded traditional systematic or academic philosophy, in both style and content, as too abstract and remote from concrete human experience.

Although they did not use the term, the 19th-century philosophers Soren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche are widely regarded as the fathers of existentialism.  Their influence, however, extended beyond existentialist thought.

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German Idealism

Transcendental idealism, advocated by Immanuel Kant, is the view that there are limits on what can be understood, since there is much that cannot be brought under the conditions of objective judgment. Kant wrote his Critique of Pure Reason (1781–1787) in an attempt to reconcile the conflicting approaches of rationalism and empiricism, and to establish a new groundwork for studying metaphysics. 

Although Kant held that objective knowledge of the world required the mind to impose a conceptual or categorical framework on the stream of pure sensory data a framework including space and time themselves he maintained that things-in-themselves existed independently of human perceptions and judgments; he was therefore not an idealist in any simple sense.

Kant’s account of things-in-themselves is both controversial and highly complex. Continuing his work, Johann Gottlieb Fichte and Friedrich Schelling dispensed with belief in the independent existence of the world, and created a thoroughgoing idealist philosophy.

The most notable work of German idealism was G.W.F. Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, of 1807. Hegel admitted his ideas were not new, but that all the previous philosophies had been incomplete. His goal was to correctly finish their job.

Hegel asserts that the twin aims of philosophy are to account for the contradictions apparent in human experience (which arise, for instance, out of the supposed contradictions between “being” and “not being”), and also simultaneously to resolve and preserve these contradictions by showing their compatibility at a higher level of examination (“being” and “not being” are resolved with “becoming”). 

This program of acceptance and reconciliation of contradictions is known as the “Hegelian dialectics”. Philosophers influenced by Hegel include Ludwig Andreas Feuerbach, who coined the term “projection” as pertaining to humans’ inability to recognize anything in the external world without projecting qualities of ourselves upon those things; Karl Marx; Friedrich Engels; and the British idealists, notably T.H. Green, J.M.E. McTaggart and F.H. Bradley.

Few 20th-century philosophers have embraced idealism. However, quite a few have embraced Hegelian dialectic. Immanuel Kant's “Copernican Turn” also remains an important philosophical concept today.



Edmund Husserl’s phenomenology was an ambitious attempt to lay the foundations for an account of the structure of conscious experience in general. 

An important part of Husserl’s phenomenological project was to show that all conscious acts are directed at or about objective content, a feature that Husserl called intentionality.

Husserl published only a few works in his lifetime, which treat phenomenology mainly in abstract methodological terms; but he left an enormous quantity of unpublished concrete analyses. Husserl's work was immediately influential in Germany, with the foundation of phenomenological schools in Munich and Göttingen.

Phenomenology later achieved international fame through the work of such philosophers as Martin Heidegger (formerly Husserl’s research assistant), Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Jean-Paul Sartre. Through the work of Heidegger and Sartre, Husserl’s focus on subjective experience influenced aspects of existentialism.


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Structuralism and Post-structuralism

Inaugurated by the linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, structuralism sought to clarify systems of signs through analyzing the discourses they both limit and make possible.

Saussure conceived of the sign as being delimited by all the other signs in the system, and ideas as being incapable of existence prior to linguistic structure, which articulates thought. This led continental thought away from humanism, and toward what was termed the decentering of man: language is no longer spoken by man to express a true inner self, but language speaks man.

Structuralism sought the province of a hard science, but its positivism soon came under fire by post-structuralism, a wide field of thinkers, some of whom were once themselves structuralists, but later came to criticize it.

Structuralists believed they could analyze systems from an external, objective standing, for example, but the poststructuralists argued that this is incorrect, that one cannot transcend structures and thus analysis is itself determined by what it examines.

While the distinction between the signifier and signified was treated as crystalline by structuralists, post-structuralists asserted that every attempt to grasp the signified results in more signifiers, so meaning is always in a state of being deferred, making an ultimate interpretation impossible.

Structuralism came to dominate continental philosophy throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, encompassing thinkers that are as diverse as Claude Levi-Strauss, Roland Barthes and Jacques Lacan. 

Post-structuralism came to dominate from the 1970s onwards, and included thinkers such as Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze and even Roland Barthes; it incorporated a critique of structuralism’s limitations.

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Conclusion on what are the Major Historical Periods in Western Modern Philosophy?

The unit has focused on providing a historical analysis of the philosophical traditions that dominated the recent modern and early contemporary periods in the west.

It should be noted here that these traditions were conceived to explicate the world or aspects of the world and their discussion in this unit was to show the way the discipline of philosophy has developed through history, particularly in the West.

The article was meant to further introduce the student to the historical traditions of philosophy in the West, especially during the latter part of the modern period and the early part of the contemporary period.

The student was taken through the various schools or movements of continental philosophy such as Existentialism, German Idealism, Phenomenology, Structuralism and Post-structuralism.

This period however showed a difference both in the subject of philosophical engagement as well as the approach employed by philosophers of this era.

As we saw, modern philosophers of his era were more interested in providing piece-meal analyses that focus on aspects of the world; an approach that has continued till the present.

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