History of Literature, Fhilosophy and Religions


Part III

A Brief History of Western Philosophy

Introduction Phylosophy

The nature of Western philosophy

Ancient Greek and Roman philosophy

Medieval philosophy

Renaissance philosophy

Modern philosophy

Contemporary philosophy


Western Philosophy







Western philosophy

Encyclopaedia Britannica


Western philosophy

History of Western philosophy from its development among the ancient Greeks to the present.


Contemporary philosophy

Contemporary philosophy » Continental philosophy

Analytic philosophy had comparatively little influence on the European continent, where the speculative and historical tradition remained strong. Dominated by phenomenology and existentialism during the first half of the 20th century, after World War II Continental philosophy came to embrace increasingly far-reaching structuralist and post-structuralist critiques of metaphysics and philosophical rationality.

Contemporary philosophy » Continental philosophy » The phenomenology of Husserl and Heidegger

Considered the father of phenomenology, Edmund Husserl (1859–1938), a German mathematician-turned-philosopher, was an extremely complicated and technical thinker whose views changed considerably over the years. His chief contributions were the phenomenological method, which he developed early in his career, and the concept of the “life-world,” which appeared only in his later writings. As a technique of phenomenological analysis, the phenomenological method was to make possible “a descriptive account of the essential structures of the directly given.” It was to isolate and lay bare the intrinsic structure of conscious experience by focusing the philosopher’s attention on the pure data of consciousness, uncontaminated by metaphysical theories or scientific or empirical assumptions of any kind. Husserl’s concept of the life-world is similarly concerned with immediate experience. It is the individual’s personal world as he directly experiences it, with the ego at the centre and with all of its vital and emotional colourings.

With the appearance of the Jahrbuch für Philosophie und phänomenologische Forschung (1913–30; “Annual for Philosophical and Phenomenological Research”) under Husserl’s chief editorship, his philosophy flowered into an international movement. Its most notable adherent was Martin Heidegger (1889–1976), whose masterpiece, Being and Time, appeared in the Jahrbuch in 1927. The influence of the phenomenological method is clear in Heidegger’s work; throughout his startlingly original investigations of human existence—with their unique dimensions of “being-in-the-world,” dread, care, and “being-toward-death”—Heidegger adheres to the phenomenological principle that philosophy is not empirical but is the strictly self-evident insight into the structure of experience. Later, the French philosophical psychologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908–61), building on the concept of the life-world, used the notions of the lived body and its “facticity” to create a hierarchy of human-lived experience.


Edmund Husserl
German philosopher

born April 8, 1859, Prossnitz, Moravia, Austrian Empire [now Prostějov, Czech Republic]
died April 27, 1938, Freiburg im Breisgau, Ger.

German philosopher, the founder of Phenomenology, a method for the description and analysis of consciousness through which philosophy attempts to gain the character of a strict science. The method reflects an effort to resolve the opposition between Empiricism, which stresses observation, and Rationalism, which stresses reason and theory, by indicating the origin of all philosophical and scientific systems and developments of theory in the interests and structures of the experiential life. (See phenomenology.)

Education and early life.
Husserl was born into a Jewish family and completed his qualifying examinations in 1876 at the German public gymnasium in the neighbouring city of Olmütz (Olomouc). He then studied physics, mathematics, astronomy, and philosophy at the universities of Leipzig, Berlin, and Vienna. In Vienna he received his doctor of philosophy degree in 1882 with a dissertation entitled Beiträge zur Theorie der Variationsrechnung (“Contributions to the Theory of the Calculus of Variations”). In the autumn of 1883, Husserl moved to Vienna to study with the philosopher and psychologist Franz Brentano. Brentano’s critique of any psychology oriented purely along scientific and psychophysical lines and his claim that he had grounded philosophy on his new descriptive psychology had a widespread influence.

Husserl received a decisive impetus from Brentano and from his circle of students. The spirit of the Enlightenment, with its religious tolerance and its quest for a rational philosophy, was very much alive in this circle. Husserl’s striving for a more strictly rational foundation found its corroboration here. From the outset, such a foundation meant for him not only a theoretical act but the moral meaning of responsibility in the sense of ethical autonomy. In Vienna Husserl converted to the Evangelical Lutheran faith, and one year later, in 1887, he married Malvine Steinschneider, the daughter of a secondary-school professor from Prossnitz. As his energetic and skilled wife, she was his indispensable support, until his death, in all the things of their daily life.

Lecturer at Halle.
In 1886 Husserl went—with a recommendation from Brentano—to Carl Stumpf, the oldest of Brentano’s students, who had further developed his psychology and who was professor of philosophy and psychology at the University of Halle. In 1887 Husserl qualified as a lecturer in the university (Habilitation). He had become a close friend of Stumpf, and he was indebted to Stumpf for many suggestions in the formation of his own descriptive concepts. The theme of Husserl’s Habilitation thesis, Über den Begriff der Zahl: Psychologische Analysen (“On the Concept of Number: Psychological Analyses”), already showed Husserl in the transition from his mathematical research to a reflection upon the psychological source of the basic concepts of mathematics. These investigations were an earlier draft of his Philosophie der Arithmetik: Psychologische und logische Untersuchungen, the first volume of which appeared in 1891.

The title of his inaugural lecture in Halle was “Über die Ziele und Aufgaben der Metaphysik” (“On the Goals and Problems of Metaphysics”). In the traditional sense metaphysics is the study of Being. Though the text is lost, it is clear that Husserl already understood his method of the analysis of consciousness to be the way to a new universal philosophy and metaphysics, which he hoped would lay all previous schemes of metaphysics to rest.

The years of his teaching in Halle (1887–1901) were later seen by Husserl to have been his most difficult. He often doubted his ability as a philosopher and believed he would have to give up his occupation. The problem of uniting a psychological analysis of consciousness with a philosophical grounding of formal mathematics and logic seemed insoluble. But from this crisis there emerged the insight that the philosophical grounding of logic and mathematics must commence with an analysis of the experience that lies before all formal thinking. It demanded an intensive study of the British Empiricists (such as John Locke, George Berkeley, David Hume, and John Stuart Mill) and a coming to terms with the logic and semantics stemming from this tradition—especially the logic of Mill—and with the attempts at a “psycho-logic” grounding of logic then being made in Germany.

The fruits of this interaction were presented in the Logische Untersuchungen (1900–01; “Logical Investigations”), which employed a method of analysis that Husserl now designated as “phenomenological.” The revolutionary significance of this work was only gradually recognized, for its method could not be subsumed under any of the philosophical orientations well known at that time. Bertrand Russell, in a retrospective glance at the Logische Untersuchungen, spoke of them as constituting one of the monumental works of the present philosophical epoch.

Influence as a teacher.
After the publication of the Logische Untersuchungen, Husserl was called, at the instigation of David Hilbert, a Formalist mathematician, to the position of ausserordentlicher Professor (university lecturer) by the University of Göttingen. Husserl’s time of teaching in Göttingen, from 1901 to 1916, was important as the source of the Phenomenological movement and marked the formation of a school reaching out to many lands and branching out in numerous directions.

The phenomenological analysis of experienced reality—i.e., of reality as it immediately presents itself to consciousness—drew not only the German students who were unsatisfied with the Neo-Kantianism that then prevailed in Germany but also many young foreign philosophers who came from the traditions of Empiricism and Pragmatism. From about 1905, Husserl’s students formed themselves into a group with a common style of life and work. Standing in close personal contact with their teacher, they always spoke of him as the “master” and often accompanied him, philosophizing, on his walks. They understood Phenomenology as the way to the reform of the spiritual life.

This group was not a school, however, in any sense of swearing by every word of the master; Husserl gave each of his students the freedom to pursue suggestions in an independent way. He wanted his teaching to be not a transmission of finished results but rather the preparation for a responsible setting of the problem. Thus, he understood Phenomenology as a field to be worked over by the coming generations of philosophers and claimed for himself only the role of the “beginner.” In view of this freedom of his teaching, the fact that Phenomenology soon branched off in many directions is understandable, and it explains its rapid international expansion.

Husserl himself had developed an individual style of working: all of his thoughts were conceived in writing—the minutes, so to speak, of the movement of his thought. During his life he produced more than 40,000 pages written in Gabelberger stenographic script.

Husserl was still at Göttingen when Max Scheler, who was at that time a Privatdozent (unsalaried university lecturer) in Jena and who later became an important Phenomenologist, came in contact with Husserl (1910–11). Husserl’s friendship with Wilhelm Dilthey, a pioneering theoretician of the human sciences, also falls within the Göttingen period. Dilthey saw the publication of the Logische Untersuchungen as a new encouragement to the further development of his own philosophical theory of the human sciences; and Husserl himself later acknowledged that his encounter with Dilthey had turned his attention to the historical life out of which all of the sciences originated and that, in so doing, it had opened for him the dimension of history as the foundation of every theory of knowledge.

Phenomenology as the universal science.
In the Göttingen years, Husserl drafted the outline of Phenomenology as a universal philosophical science. Its fundamental methodological principle was what Husserl called the phenomenological reduction. It focuses the philosopher’s attention on uninterpreted basic experience and the quest, thereby, for the essences of things. In this sense, it is “eidetic” reduction. On the other hand, it is also the reflection on the functions by which essences become conscious. As such, the reduction reveals the ego for which everything has meaning. Hence, Phenomenology took on the character of a new style of transcendental philosophy, which repeats and improves Kant’s mediation between Empiricism and Rationalism in a modern way. Husserl presented its program and its systematic outline in the Ideen zu einer reinen Phänomenologie und phänomenologischen Philosophie (1913; Ideas; General Introduction to Pure Phenomenology), of which, however, only the first part was completed. (Completion of the second part was hindered by the outbreak of World War I.) With this work, Husserl wanted to give his students a manual. The result, however, was just the opposite: most of his students took Husserl’s turn to transcendental philosophy as a lapse back into the old system of thought and therefore rejected it. Because of this turn, as well as the war, the phenomenological school fell apart.

In contrast to the esteem that Husserl enjoyed from his students, his position among his colleagues in Göttingen was always difficult. His appointment to Persönlichen Ordinarius (full professor) in 1906 had resulted from the decision of the minister of education against the will of the faculty. The representatives of the humanities faculty had predominantly philological and historical interests and had little appreciation for philosophy, whereas the natural scientists were disappointed that, with the division of the philosophical faculty, Husserl did not go over to the new faculty of natural sciences.

Phenomenology and the renewal of spiritual life.
Thus his call in 1916 to the position of ordentlicher Professor (university professor) at the University of Freiburg meant a new beginning for Husserl in every respect. His inaugural lecture on “Die reine Phänomenologie, ihr Forschungsgebiet und ihre Methode” (“Pure Phenomenology, Its Area of Research and Its Method”) circumscribed his program of work. He had understood World War I as the collapse of the old European world, in which spiritual culture, science, and philosophy had held an incontestable position. In this situation, the epistemological grounding that he had previously provided for Phenomenology no longer satisfied him; after this, his reflections were directed with special emphasis upon philosophy’s task in the renewal of life.

In this sense he had set forth in his lectures on Erste Philosophie (1923–24; “First Philosophy”) the thesis that Phenomenology, with its method of reduction, is the way to the absolute vindication of life—i.e., to the realization of the ethical autonomy of man. Upon this basis, he continued his clarification of the relation between a psychological and a phenomenological analysis of consciousness and his research into the grounding of logic, which he published as the Formale und transzendentale Logik: Versuch einer Kritik der logischen Vernunft (1929; Formal and Transcendental Logic, 1969).

Husserl’s teaching, in this last period of his life, assumed a different style from that at Göttingen. It did not lead to the founding of a new school. Husserl was so intent upon completing his work that his thinking and teaching assumed more the character of a monologue. At the same time, however, his influence upon his listeners and the members of his seminar was not diminished, and he placed his intellectual stamp upon many of them. Numerous foreign guests usually took part in his seminar. For a period, Rudolf Carnap, a leading figure in the Vienna Circle, where Logical Positivism was born, also studied under Husserl.

Recognition from without was not wanting. In 1919 the law faculty of the University of Bonn bestowed upon Husserl the title of Dr. jur. honoris causa. He was the first German scholar after the war to be invited to lecture at the University of London (1922). He turned down a prestigious call to the University of Berlin as the successor to Ernst Troeltsch in order to devote his energies to Phenomenology without interruption. An invitation followed to give some lectures at the University of Amsterdam and later, in 1930, at the Sorbonne—lectures that furnished the occasion for preparing a new systematic presentation of Phenomenology, which then appeared in a French translation under the title of Méditations cartésiennes (1931).

When he retired in 1928, Martin Heidegger, who was destined to become a leading Existentialist and one of Germany’s foremost philosophers, became his successor. Husserl had looked upon him as his legitimate heir. Only later did he see that Heidegger’s chief work, Sein und Zeit (1927; Being and Time, 1962), had given Phenomenology a turn that would lead down an entirely different path. Husserl’s disappointment led to a cooling of their relationship after 1930.

Later years.
Adolf Hitler’s seizure of power in 1933 did not break Husserl’s ability to work. Rather, the experience of this upheaval was, for him, the occasion for concentrating more than ever upon Phenomenology’s task of preserving the freedom of the mind. He was excluded from the university; but the loneliness of his study was broken through his daily philosophical walks with his research assistant, Eugen Fink, through his friendships with a few colleagues who belonged to the circles of the resistance and the “Denominational Church,” and through numerous visits by foreign philosophers and scholars. Condemned to silence in Germany, he received, in the spring of 1935, an invitation to address the Cultural Society in Vienna. There he spoke freely for two and one-half hours on “Die Philosophie in der Krisis der europäischen Menschheit” (“Philosophy in the Crisis of European Mankind”) and repeated the lecture two days later.

During this time, the Cercle Philosophique de Prague made it possible through a Rockefeller grant for Ludwig Landgrebe, a Dozent (lecturer) at the German University in Prague and Husserl’s former assistant, to begin the classification and transcription of Husserl’s unpublished manuscripts. Through the Cercle, Husserl received an invitation to address the German and Czechoslovakian University in Prague in the fall of 1935, after which many discussions took place in the smaller circles. Thus, in a place which already stood under the threat of Hitler, the voice of free philosophy was once again audible through Husserl. The impression of his absolute sovereignty over all of the confusions of this time was overpowering for his listeners.

Out of these lectures came Husserl’s last work, Die Krisis der europäischen Wissenschaften und die transzendentale Phänomenologie: Eine Einleitung in die phänomenologische Philosophie (1936; The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology, 1970), of which only the first part could appear, in a periodical for emigrants. The following period until the summer of 1937 was entirely devoted to the continuation of this work, in which Husserl developed for the first time his concept of the Lebenswelt (“life-world”).

In the summer of 1937, the illness that made it impossible for him to continue his work set in. From the beginning of 1938 he saw only one remaining task: to be able to die in a way worthy of a philosopher. Not committed to a particular church creed, he had respect for all authentic religious belief, just as his philosophy demanded the recognition of each authentic experience as such. His concept of absolute philosophical self-responsibility stood close to the Protestant concept of the freedom of man in his immediate relationship with God. In fact, it is evident that Husserl characterized the maintenance of the phenomenological reduction not only as a method of but also as a kind of religious conversion. Thus, on the one hand, he could refuse spiritual help at his death—“I have lived as a philosopher,” he said, “and I want to die as a philosopher”—yet, on the other hand, he could explain a few days before his death: “God has in grace received me and allowed me to die.” He died in April 1938, and his ashes were buried in the cemetery in Günterstal near Freiburg.

Ludwig M. Landgrebe




Martin Heidegger
German philosopher

born September 26, 1889, Messkirch, Schwarzwald, Germany
died May 26, 1976, Messkirch, West Germany

German philosopher, counted among the main exponents of existentialism. His groundbreaking work in ontology and metaphysics determined the course of 20th-century philosophy on the European continent and exerted an enormous influence in virtually every other humanistic discipline, including literary criticism, hermeneutics, psychology, and theology.

Background and youth
The son of a Roman Catholic sexton, Heidegger showed an early interest in religion. Intending to become a priest, he began theological studies at the University of Freiburg in 1909 but switched to philosophy and mathematics in 1911. His interest in philosophy dated from at least 1907, however, when he undertook an intensive study of Von der mannigfachen Bedeutung des Seienden nach Aristoteles (1862; “On the Manifold Meaning of Being According to Aristotle”) by the 19th-century German philosopher Franz Brentano.

Brentano’s work in ontology helped to inspire Heidegger’s lifelong conviction that there is a single, basic sense of the verb “to be” that lies behind all its varied usages. From Brentano Heidegger also developed his enthusiasm for the ancient Greeks—especially the pre-Socratics. In addition to these philosophers, Heidegger’s work is obviously influenced by Plato, Aristotle, the Gnostic philosophers of the 2nd century ad, and several 19th- and early 20th-century thinkers, including the early figures of existentialism, Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche; Wilhelm Dilthey, who was noted for directing the attention of philosophers to the human and historical sciences; and Edmund Husserl, the founder of the phenomenological movement in philosophy.

While still in his 20s, Heidegger studied at Freiburg with Heinrich Rickert, the leading figure of the axiological school of neo-Kantianism, and with Husserl, who was then already famous. Husserl’s phenomenology, and especially his struggle against the intrusion of psychologism into traditionally philosophical studies of man, determined the background of the young Heidegger’s doctoral dissertation, Die Lehre vom Urteil im Psychologismus: Ein kritisch-positiver Beitrag zur Logik (“The Doctrine of Judgment in Psychologism: A Critical-Positive Contribution to Logic”; 1914). Consequently, what Heidegger later said and wrote about anxiety, thinking, forgetfulness, curiosity, distress, care, and awe was not meant as psychology; and what he said about man, publicness, and other-directedness was not intended to be sociology, anthropology, or political science. His utterances were meant to disclose ways of Being.

Heidegger began teaching at the University of Freiburg during the winter semester of 1915 and wrote his habilitation thesis on the 13th-century English Franciscan philosopher Duns Scotus. As a colleague of Husserl, Heidegger was expected to carry the phenomenological movement forward in the spirit of his former master. As a religiously inclined young man, however, he went his own way instead. While serving as a professor ordinarius at Marburg University (1923–28), he astonished the German philosophical world with Being and Time (1927). Although almost unreadable, it was immediately felt to be of prime importance, whatever its relation to Husserl might be. In spite of—and perhaps partly because of—its intriguingly difficult style, Being and Time was acclaimed as a masterpiece not only in German-speaking countries but also in Latin ones, where phenomenology was well established. It strongly influenced Jean-Paul Sartre and other existentialists in France, and on the basis of this work Heidegger came to be regarded as the leading atheistic existentialist, though he always rejected that label. The reception of Being and Time in the English-speaking world was chilly, however, and its influence there was negligible for several decades.

Heidegger’s declared purpose in Being and Time is to show what it means for a person to be—or, more accurately, how it is for a person to be. This task leads to a more fundamental question: what does it mean to ask, “What is the meaning of Being?” These questions lie behind the obviousness of everyday life and, therefore, also behind the empirical questions of natural science. They are usually overlooked, because they are too near to everyday life to be grasped. One might say that Heidegger’s entire prophetic mission amounts to making each person ask this question with maximum involvement. Whether one arrives at a definite answer is, in the present crisis of mankind, of secondary importance.

This crisis, according to Heidegger, stems from the deep “fall” (Verfall) of Western thought since the time of Plato, a condition brought about by the one-sided development of technological thinking and the neglect of other kinds, resulting in alienation (Entfremdung)—or, as expressed in terms more central to Heidegger’s thought, in a “highly inauthentic way of being.” Although fallenness, or inauthenticity, is an inescapable feature of human existence—i.e., it is an existential, and an essential, potentiality (Möglichkeit)—epochs and individuals may be coloured by it in different degrees. This somewhat stern outlook was mitigated in Heidegger’s later writings, in which he suggested that it is possible to find a kind of “redemption” through “thinking of Being”—a process that would be led, he believed, by the continental European countries rather than the eastern or other western ones.

As an aid in the effort to get back to “thinking of Being” and its redemptive effects, Heidegger employs linguistic, or hermeneutical, techniques. He develops his own German, his own Greek, and his own etymologies—for example, he coins about 100 new complex words ending with “-being.” In reading his works one must, therefore, translate many key terms back into Greek and then consider his free, often special (but never uninteresting) interpretations and etymologies.

The wealth of ideas in Being and Time is best discussed in conjunction with those developed in another, shorter work, What Is Metaphysics? (1929), which was originally delivered as an inaugural lecture when Heidegger succeeded Husserl at Freiburg in 1928. As Heidegger learned from Husserl, it is the phenomenological and not the scientific method that unveils man’s ways of Being. Thus, in pursuing this method, Heidegger comes into conflict with the dichotomy of the subject-object relation, which has traditionally implied that man, as knower, is something (some-thing) within an environment that is against him. This relation, however, must be transcended. The deepest knowing, on the contrary, is a matter of phainesthai (Greek: “to show itself” or “to be in the light”), the word from which phenomenology, as a method, is derived. Something is just “there” in the light. Thus, the distinction between subject and object is not immediate but comes only later through conceptualization, as in the sciences.

Man stands out from things (ex-sists, not merely ex-ists), says Heidegger in Being and Time, never being completely absorbed by them but nevertheless being nothing (no-thing) apart from them. Man dwells in a world that he has been, and continues to be, “thrown into” until death. Being thrown into things, being-there (Da-sein), he falls away (Verfall) and is on the point of being submerged into things. He is continually a pro-ject (Ent-wurf); but periodically, or even normally, he may be submerged in things to such a degree that he is temporarily absorbed (Aufgehen in). He is then nobody in particular; and a structure that Heidegger calls das Man (“the they”) is revealed, recalling certain Anglo-American sociological criticisms of modern industrial society that stress man’s “other-directedness”—i.e., his tendency to measure himself in terms of his peers. But Heidegger’s phenomenological metaphors avoid the concepts of social science as much as possible in favour of the concepts of ontology. Characteristic of das Man are idle talk (Gerede) and curiosity (Neugier). In Gerede, talker and listener do not stand in any genuine personal relation or in any intimate relation to what is talked about; hence, it leads to shallowness. Curiosity is a form of distraction, a need for the “new,” a need for something “different,” without real interest or capability of wonder.

But there is a mood, anxiety or dread (Angst), that functions to disclose (dis-close) authentic being, freedom (Frei-sein), as a potentiality. It manifests the freedom of man to choose himself and take hold of himself. The relevance of time, of the finiteness of human existence, is then experienced as a freedom to meet one’s own death (das Freisein für den Tod), as a preparedness for and a continuous relatedness to death (Sein zum Tode). In anxiety, all entities (Seiendes) sink away into a “nothing and nowhere,” and man hovers in himself as ex-sisting, being nowhere at home (Un-heimlichkeit, Un-zu-hause). He faces no-thing-ness (das Nichts); and all average, obvious everydayness disappears—and this is good, since he now faces the potentiality of authentic being.

Thus, for Heidegger the “sober” (nüchtern) anxiety and the implied confrontation with death are primarily of methodological importance, because through them fundamental structures are revealed. Among them are potentialities for being joyfully active (“. . . knowing joy [die wissende Heiterkeit] is a door to the eternal”). Anxiety opens man up to Being. This does not imply that Being partakes in the dark aspect of dread, however; Being is associated with “light” and with “the joyful” (das Heitere). Being “calls the tune”; “to think Being” is to arrive at one’s (true) home. Although Heideggerian students are often baffled by just what Being and Thinking stand for, it is clear that Heidegger opposes a cult of mankind and wishes to call attention to something greater.

In the early 1930s Heidegger’s thought underwent a change that scholars call his Kehre (“turning around”). Although some specialists regard the Kehre as a turning away from the central problem of Being and Time, Heidegger himself denied this, insisting that he had been asking the same basic question since his youth. Nevertheless, in his later years he clearly became more reluctant to offer an answer, or even to indicate a way in which an answer might be found.

Heidegger and Nazism
In the months after the appointment of Adolf Hitler as chancellor of Germany in January 1933, German universities came under increasing pressure to support the “national revolution” and to eliminate Jewish scholars and the teaching of “Jewish” doctrines, such as the theory of relativity. After the rector of Freiburg resigned to protest these policies, the university’s teaching staff elected Heidegger as his successor in April 1933. One month later, Heidegger became a member of the Nazi Party, and until he resigned as rector in April 1934 he helped to institute Nazi educational and cultural programs at Freiburg and vigorously promoted the domestic and foreign policies of the Nazi regime. Already during the late 1920s he had criticized the dissolute nature of the German university system, where “specialization” and the ideology of “academic freedom” precluded the attainment of a higher unity. In a letter of 1929, he bemoaned the progressive “Jewification” (Verjudung) of the German spirit. In his inaugural address, Die Selbstbehauptung der deutschen Universität (“The Self-Assertion of the German University”), he called for reorganizing the university along the lines of the Nazi Führerprinzip, or leadership principle, and celebrated the fact that university life would henceforward be merged with the state and the needs of the German Volk. During the first month of his rectorship, he sent a telegram to Hitler urging him to postpone an upcoming meeting of university rectors until Gleichschaltung—the Nazi euphemism for the elimination of political opponents—had been completed. In the fall of 1933, Heidegger began a speaking tour on behalf of Hitler’s national referendum to withdraw Germany from the League of Nations. As he proclaimed in one speech: “Let not doctrines and ideas be your guide. The Führer is Germany’s only reality and law.” Heidegger continued to support Hitler in the years after his rectorship, though with somewhat less enthusiasm than he had shown in 1933–34.

At the end of the war in 1945, a favourably disposed university de-Nazification commission found Heidegger guilty of having “consciously placed the great prestige of his scholarly reputation … in the service of the National Socialist Revolution,” and he was banned from further teaching. (The ban was lifted in 1950.) In later years, despite pleas from friends and associates to disavow publicly his Nazi past, Heidegger declined to do so. Instead, in his own defense, he preferred to cite a maxim from the French poet Paul Valéry: “He who thinks greatly must err greatly.” In his book Introduction to Metaphysics, published in 1953, Heidegger retrospectively praised “the inner truth and greatness of National Socialism.”

Beginning in the 1980s, there was considerable controversy among Heidegger scholars regarding the alleged connection between Heidegger’s philosophy and his political views in the 1930s and ’40s. Were there affinities between Heidegger’s philosophical thought, or his style of philosophizing, and the totalitarian ideals of the Nazis? Supporters of Heidegger, repeating a view prominent in the first decades after the war, argued that there was nothing inherently fascistic in his philosophy and that claims to the contrary grossly distorted his work. Opponents, on the other hand, cited parallels between the critical treatment in Being and Time of notions such as “publicness,” “everydayness,” “idle talk,” and “curiosity” and fascist-oriented critiques of the vapidity and dissoluteness of bourgeois liberalism. They also pointed to more specific similarities evident in Division II of Being and Time, in which Heidegger emphasizes the centrality of the Volk as a historical actor and the importance of “choosing a hero,” an idea widely promoted among the German right as the Führerprinzip. For these scholars, Heidegger’s philosophical critique of the condition of man in modern technological society allowed him to regard the Nazi revolution as a deliverance that would make the world “safe for Being.” Among those who shared this view were the German existentialist philosopher Karl Jaspers, who wrote in a letter to the head of the de-Nazification commission that “Heidegger’s manner of thinking, which to me seems in its essence unfree, dictatorial, and incapable of communication, would today be disastrous in its pedagogical effects.”

Heidegger’s thought has been faulted on other grounds as well. Some have suggested that his phenomenological method rests on a grandiose illusion, and that the search for “thinking Being” is merely a disguised quest for a kind of belief in God. In the same vein, others have charged that Heidegger’s abstruse terminology is only a mask disguising and mystifying a more traditional approach to philosophy. Such negative evaluations, if joined with a sincere attempt to follow Heidegger’s own path through his writings, would not be incompatible with his thought. After all, he asks—or rather, provokes—his readers to question, not to listen to answers. It is, therefore, misleading to present Heidegger’s philosophy as a set of clearly understandable results. His metaphors must remain, rather than be translated into the usual philosophical terminology that he rejected.

Arne D. Naess
Richard Wolin


Contemporary philosophy » Continental philosophy » The existentialism of Jaspers and Sartre

Existentialism, true to its roots in Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, was oriented toward two major themes: the analysis of human existence, or Being, and the centrality of human choice. Thus its chief theoretical energies were devoted to ontology and decision.

Existentialism as a philosophy of human existence was best expressed in the work of the German philosopher Karl Jaspers (1883–1969), who came to philosophy from medicine and psychology. For Jaspers as for Dewey, the aim of philosophy is practical. But whereas for Dewey philosophy is to guide human action, for Jaspers its purpose is the revelation of Being, “the illumination of existence,” the answering of the questions of what human beings are and what they can become. This illumination is achieved, and Being is revealed most profoundly, through the experience of “extreme” situations that define the human condition—conflict, guilt, suffering, and death. It is through a confrontation with these extremes that the individual realizes his existential humanity.

The chief representative of existentialism as a philosophy of human decision was the French philosopher and man of letters Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–80). Sartre too was concerned with Being and with the dread experienced before the threat of Nothingness. But he found the essence of this Being in liberty—in freedom of choice and the duty of self-determination. He therefore devoted much effort to describing the human tendency toward “bad faith,” reflected in perverse attempts to deny one’s own responsibility and to flee from the truth of one’s inescapable freedom. Sartre did not overlook the legitimate obstacles to freedom presented by the facts of place, past, environment, society, and death. However, he demanded that one surmount these limitations through acts of conscious decision, for only in acts of freedom does human existence achieve authenticity. In The Second Sex (1949), Simone de Beauvoir (1908–86), Sartre’s fellow philosopher and lifelong companion, attempted to mobilize the existentialist concept of freedom for the ends of modern feminism.

After World War II Sartre came to believe that his philosophy of freedom had wrongly ignored problems of social justice, and in his later work, especially the Critique of Dialectical Reason (1960), he sought to reconcile existentialism with Marxism.


Karl Jaspers
German philosopher
in full Karl Theodor Jaspers

born Feb. 23, 1883, Oldenburg, Ger.
died Feb. 26, 1969, Basel, Switz.

German philosopher, one of the most important Existentialists in Germany, who approached the subject from man’s direct concern with his own existence. In his later work, as a reaction to the disruptions of Nazi rule in Germany and World War II, he searched for a new unity of thinking that he called world philosophy.

Early life and education
Jaspers was the oldest of the three children of Karl Wilhelm Jaspers and Henriette Tantzen. His ancestors on both sides were peasants, merchants, and pastors who had lived in northern Germany for generations. His father, a lawyer, was a high constable of the district and eventually a director of a bank.

Jaspers was delicate and sickly in his childhood. As a consequence of his numerous childhood diseases, he developed bronchiectasis (a chronic dilation of the bronchial tubes) during his adolescent years, and this condition led to cardiac decompensation (the inability of the heart to maintain adequate circulation). These ailments were a severe handicap throughout his adult life.

Jaspers entered the University of Heidelberg in 1901, enrolling in the faculty of law; in the following year he moved to Munich, where he continued his studies of law, but without much enthusiasm. He spent the next six years studying medicine at the Universities of Berlin, Göttingen, and Heidelberg. After he completed his state examination to practice medicine in 1908, he wrote his dissertation Heimweh und Verbrechen (“Nostalgia and Crime”). In February 1909 he was registered as a doctor. He had already become acquainted with his future wife, Gertrud Mayer, during his student years, and he married her in 1910.

Research in clinical psychiatry
In 1909 Jaspers became a volunteer research assistant at the University of Heidelberg psychiatric clinic, a position he held until 1915. The clinic was headed by the renowned neuropathologist Franz Nissl, who had assembled under him an excellent team of assistants. Because of his desire to learn psychiatry in his own way without being regimented into any particular pattern of thought by his teachers, Jaspers elected to work in his own time, at his own pace, and with patients in whom he was particularly interested. This was granted to him only because he agreed to work without a salary.

When Jaspers started his research work, clinical psychiatry was considered to be empirically based but lacking any underlying systematic framework of knowledge. It dealt with different aspects of the human organism as they might affect the behaviour of human beings suffering from mental illness. These aspects ranged from anatomical, physiological, and genetic to neurological, psychological, and sociological influences. A study of these aspects opened the way to an understanding and explanation of human behaviour. Diagnosis was of paramount importance; therapy was largely neglected. Aware of this situation, Jaspers realized the conditions that were required in order to establish psychopathology as a science: a language had to be found that, on the basis of previously conducted research, was capable of describing the symptoms of disease well enough to facilitate positive recognition in other cases; and various methods appropriate to the different spheres of psychiatry had to be worked out.

Jaspers tried to bring the methods of Phenomenology—the direct investigation and description of phenomena as consciously experienced, without theories about their causal explanation—into the field of clinical psychiatry. These efforts soon bore fruit, and his reputation as a researcher in the forefront of new developments in psychiatry was established. In 1911, when he was only 28 years old, he was requested by Ferdinand Springer, a well-known publisher, to write a textbook on psychopathology; he completed the Allgemeine Psychopathologie (General Psychopathology, 1965) two years later. The work was distinguished by its critical approach to the various methods available for the study of psychiatry and by its attempt to synthesize these methods into a cohesive whole.

Transition to philosophy
In 1913 Jaspers, by virtue of his status in the field of psychology, entered the philosophical faculty—which included a department of psychology—of the University of Heidelberg. His academic advance in the university was rapid. In 1916 he was appointed assistant professor in psychology; in 1920 assistant professor in philosophy; in 1921 professor in philosophy; and in 1922 he took over the second chair in that field. The transition from medicine to philosophy was due in part to the fact that, while the medical faculty was fully staffed, the philosophical faculty needed an empirical psychologist. But the transition also corresponded to Jaspers’ intellectual development.

In 1919 Jaspers published some of his lectures, entitled Psychologie der Weltanschauungen (“Psychology of World Views”). He did not intend to present a philosophical work but rather one aimed at demarcating the limits of a psychological understanding of man. Nevertheless, this work touched on the border of philosophy. In it were foreshadowed all of the basic themes that were fully developed later in Jaspers’ major philosophical works. By investigating the legitimate boundaries of philosophical knowledge, Jaspers tried to clarify the relationship of philosophy to science. Science appeared to him as knowledge of facts that are obtained by means of scholarly methodological principles and that are apodictically certain and universally valid. Following Max Weber, a sociologist and historian, he asserted that scientific principles also applied to both the social and humanistic sciences. In contrast to science, Jaspers considered philosophy to be a subjective interpretation of Being, which—although prophetically inspired—attempted to postulate norms of value and principles of life as universally valid. As Jaspers’ understanding of philosophy deepened, he gradually discarded his belief in the role of a prophetic vision in philosophy. He bent all his energies toward the development of a philosophy that would be independent of science but that would not become a substitute for religious beliefs. Though the resulting system presupposed science, it passed beyond the boundaries of science in an effort to illuminate the totality of man’s existence. For Jaspers man’s existence meant not mere being-in-the-world but rather man’s freedom of being. The idea of being oneself signified for Jaspers the potentiality to realize one’s freedom of being in the world. Thus, the task of philosophy was to appeal to the freedom of the individual as the subject who thinks and exists and to focus on man’s existence as the centre of all reality.

The elaboration of these germinal ideas occupied Jasper’s thought from 1920 to 1930. During this decade his brother-in-law, Ernst Mayer, himself a philosopher of repute, worked with him. During these years he also enjoyed the friendship of Martin Heidegger. Somewhat later, this friendship broke up because of Heidegger’s entry into the National Socialist Party.

In the early years of the 1930s the fruits of his intellectual labour became evident: in 1931 Die geistige Situation der Zeit (Man in the Modern Age, 1933) was published; in 1932 the three volumes of Philosophie (Philosophy, 1969) appeared—perhaps the most systematic presentation of Existential philosophy in the German language. A book on Max Weber also appeared in 1932.

Conflict with the Nazi authorities
When Hitler came into power in 1933, Jaspers was taken by surprise, as he had not taken National Socialism seriously. He thought that this movement would destroy itself from within, thus leading to a reorganization and liberation by the other political forces active at the time. These expectations, however, did not materialize. Because his wife was Jewish, Jaspers qualified as an enemy of the state. From 1933 he was excluded from the higher councils of the university but was allowed to teach and publish. In 1935 the first part of his future work on logic, entitled Vernunft und Existenz (Reason and Existenz, 1955), appeared; in 1936 a book on Nietzsche; in 1937 an essay on Descartes; in 1938 a further work preliminary to his logic, entitled Existenzphilosophie (Philosophy of Existence, 1971). Unlike many other famous intellectuals of that time, he was not prepared to make any concessions to the doctrines of National Socialism. Consequently, a series of decrees were promulgated against him, including removal from his professorship and a total ban on any further publication. These measures effectively barred him from carrying on his work in Germany.

Friends tried to assist him to emigrate to another country. Permission was finally granted to him in 1942 to go to Switzerland, but a condition was imposed by the Nazis that required his wife to remain behind in Germany. He refused to accept this condition and decided to stay with his wife, notwithstanding the dangers. It became necessary for his friends to hide his wife. Both of them had decided, in case of an arrest, to commit suicide. In 1945 he was told by a reliable source that his deportation was scheduled to take place on April 14. On March 30, however, Heidelberg was occupied by the Americans.

Disillusioned by the events of these years, Jaspers withdrew more and more into himself. He revised the General Psychopathology in an effort to make it represent the high point of a free but responsible search for knowledge of man, as distinct from science, which had betrayed man. He also completed his work on logic, Von der Wahrheit (“Of Truth”), the first part of which was intended to throw the light of reason on the irrational teachings of the times. These works appeared in print in 1946 and 1947.

Postwar development of thought
After the capitulation of Germany, Jaspers saw himself confronted with the tasks of rebuilding the university and helping to bring about a moral and political rebirth of the people. He dedicated all of his energies in the postwar years toward the accomplishment of these two tasks. He also represented the interests of the university to the military powers. He gathered his thoughts on how the universities could best be rebuilt in his work Die Idee der Universität (1946; The Idea of the University, 1959). He called for a complete de-Nazification of the teaching staff, but this proved to be impossible because the number of professors who had never compromised with the Nazis was too small. It was only gradually that the autonomous university of the pre-Nazi years could once again assert itself in Germany. Jaspers felt that an acknowledgment of national guilt was a necessary condition for the moral and political rebirth of Germany. In one of his best political works, Die Schuldfrage (1946; The Question of German Guilt, 1947), he stated that whoever had participated actively in the preparation or execution of war crimes and crimes against humanity was morally guilty. Those, however, who passively tolerated these happenings because they did not want to become victims of Nazism were only politically responsible. In this respect, all survivors of this era bore the same responsibility and shared a collective guilt. He felt that the fact that no one could escape this collective guilt and responsibility might enable the German people to transform their society from its state of collapse into a more highly developed and morally responsible democracy. The fact that these ideas attracted hardly any attention was a further disappointment to Jaspers. In the spring of 1948 he accepted a professorship in philosophy in Basel, Switz. In spite of the apparent neglect of Jaspers’ ideas of a moral regeneration of the German people, his departure for Basel was regarded as a betrayal by many of the German people. Jaspers himself hoped to find there a peace of mind that might enable him to work through and revise once again his whole approach to the entire field of philosophy.

This revision was guided mainly by the conviction that modern technology in the sphere of communication and warfare had made it imperative for mankind to strive for world unity. This new development in his thinking was defined by him as world philosophy, and its primary task was the creation of a mode of thinking that could contribute to the possibility of a free world order. The transition from existence philosophy to world philosophy was based on his belief that a different kind of logic would make it possible for free communication to exist among all mankind. His thought was expressed in Der philosophische Glaube (1948; The Perennial Scope of Philosophy, 1949) and Der philosophische Glaube angesichts der Offenbarung (1962; Philosophical Faith and Revelation, 1967). Since all thought in its essence rests on beliefs, he reasoned, the task confronting man is to free philosophical thinking from all attachments to the transient objects of this world. To replace previous objectifications of all metaphysical and religious systems, Jaspers introduced the concept of the cipher. This was a philosophical abstraction that could represent all systems, provided that they entered into communication with one another by means of the cipher. In other words, the concept of the cipher enabled a common ground to be shared by all of the various systems of thought, thus leading to a far greater tolerance than had ever before been possible. A world history of philosophy, entitled Die grossen Philosophen (1957; The Great Philosophers, 2 vol., 1962, 1966), had as its aim to investigate to what extent all past thought could become communicable.

Jaspers also undertook to write a universal history of the world, called Vom Ursprung und Ziel der Geschichte (1949; The Origin and Goal of History, 1953). At the centre of history is the axial period (from 800 to 200 bc), during which time all the fundamental creations that underlie man’s current civilization came into being. Following from the insights that came to him in preparing this work, he was led to realize the possibility of a political unity of the world in a 1958 work called Die Atombombe und die Zukunft des Menschen (The Future of Mankind, 1961). The aim of this political world union would not be absolute sovereignty but rather world confederation, in which the various entities could live and communicate in freedom and peace.

Under the influence of these ideas, Jaspers closely observed, during the latter years of his life, both world politics and the politics of Germany. When the efforts toward democracy in Germany appeared to him to turn more and more into a national oligarchy of parties, he wrote a bitter attack on these tendencies in Wohin treibt die Bundesrepublik? (1966; The Future of Germany, 1967). This book caused much annoyance among West German politicians of all shades. Jaspers, in turn, reacted to their unfair reception by returning his German passport in 1967 and taking out Swiss citizenship.

At the time of his death in 1969, Jaspers had published 30 books. In addition, he had left 30,000 handwritten pages, as well as a large and important correspondence.

Hans Saner




Jean-Paul Sartre
French philosopher and author

born June 21, 1905, Paris, France
died April 15, 1980, Paris

French novelist, playwright, and exponent of Existentialism—a philosophy acclaiming the freedom of the individual human being. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1964, but he declined it.

Early life and writings
Sartre lost his father at an early age and grew up in the home of his maternal grandfather, Carl Schweitzer, uncle of the medical missionary Albert Schweitzer and himself professor of German at the Sorbonne. The boy, who wandered in the Luxembourg Gardens of Paris in search of playmates, was small in stature and cross-eyed. His brilliant autobiography, Les Mots (1963; Words, 1964), narrates the adventures of the mother and child in the park as they went from group to group—in the vain hope of being accepted—then finally retreated to the sixth floor of their apartment “on the heights where (the) dreams dwell.” “The words” saved the child, and his interminable pages of writing were the escape from a world that had rejected him but that he would proceed to rebuild in his own fancy.

Sartre went to the Lycée Henri IV in Paris and, later on, after the remarriage of his mother, to the lycée in La Rochelle. From there he went to the prestigious École Normale Supérieure, from which he was graduated in 1929. Sartre resisted what he called “bourgeois marriage,” but while still a student he formed with Simone de Beauvoir a union that remained a settled partnership in life. Simone de Beauvoir’s memoirs, Mémoires d’une jeune fille rangée (1958; Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, 1959) and La Force de l’âge (1960; The Prime of Life, 1962), provide an intimate account of Sartre’s life from student years until his middle 50s. It was also at the École Normale Supérieure and at the Sorbonne that he met several persons who were destined to be writers of great fame; among these were Raymond Aron, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Simone Weil, Emmanuel Mounier, Jean Hippolyte, and Claude Lévi-Strauss. From 1931 until 1945 Sartre taught in the lycées of Le Havre, Laon, and, finally, Paris. Twice this career was interrupted, once by a year of study in Berlin and the second time when Sartre was drafted in 1939 to serve in World War II. He was made prisoner in 1940 and released a year later.

During his years of teaching in Le Havre, Sartre published La Nausée (1938; Nausea, 1949), his first claim to fame. This novel, written in the form of a diary, narrates the feeling of revulsion that a certain Roquentin undergoes when confronted with the world of matter—not merely the world of other people but the very awareness of his own body. According to some critics, La Nausée must be viewed as a pathological case, a form of neurotic escape. Most probably it must be appreciated also as a most original, fiercely individualistic, antisocial piece of work, containing in its pages many of the philosophical themes that Sartre later developed.

Sartre took over the phenomenological method, which proposes careful, unprejudiced description rather than deduction, from the German philosopher Edmund Husserl and used it with great skill in three successive publications: L’Imagination (1936; Imagination: A Psychological Critique, 1962), Esquisse d’une théorie des émotions (1939; Sketch for a Theory of the Emotions, 1962), and L’Imaginaire: Psychologie phénoménologique de l’imagination (1940; The Psychology of Imagination, 1950). But it was above all in L’Être et le néant (1943; Being and Nothingness, 1956) that Sartre revealed himself as a master of outstanding talent. Sartre places human consciousness, or no-thingness (néant), in opposition to being, or thingness (être). Consciousness is not-matter and by the same token escapes all determinism. The message, with all the implications it contains, is a hopeful one; yet the incessant reminder that human endeavour is and remains useless makes the book tragic as well.

Post-World War II work
Having written his defense of individual freedom and human dignity, Sartre turned his attention to the concept of social responsibility. For many years he had shown great concern for the poor and the disinherited of all kinds. While a teacher, he had refused to wear a tie, as if he could shed his social class with his tie and thus come closer to the worker. Freedom itself, which at times in his previous writings appeared to be a gratuitous activity that needed no particular aim or purpose to be of value, became a tool for human struggle in his brochure L’Existentialisme est un humanisme (1946; Existentialism and Humanism, 1948). Freedom now implied social responsibility. In his novels and plays Sartre began to bring his ethical message to the world at large. He started a four-volume novel in 1945 under the title Les Chemins de la liberté, of which three were eventually written: L’Âge de raison (1945; The Age of Reason, 1947), Le Sursis (1945; The Reprieve, 1947), and La Mort dans l’âme (1949; Iron in the Soul, 1950; U.S. title, Troubled Sleep, 1950). After the publication of the third volume, Sartre changed his mind concerning the usefulness of the novel as a medium of communication and turned back to plays.

What a writer must attempt, said Sartre, is to show man as he is. Nowhere is man more man than when he is in action, and this is exactly what drama portrays. He had already written in this medium during the war, and now one play followed another: Les Mouches (produced 1943; The Flies, 1946), Huis-clos (1944; In Camera, 1946; U.S. title, No Exit, 1946), Les Mains sales (1948; Crime passionel, 1949; U.S. title, Dirty Hands, 1949; acting version, Red Gloves), Le Diable et le bon dieu (1951; Lucifer and the Lord, 1953), Nekrassov (1955), and Les Séquestrés d’Altona (1959; Loser Wins, 1959; U.S. title, The Condemned of Altona, 1960). All the plays, in their emphasis upon the raw hostility of man toward man, seem to be predominantly pessimistic; yet, according to Sartre’s own confession, their content does not exclude the possibility of a morality of salvation. Other publications of the same period include a book, Baudelaire (1947), a vaguely ethical study on the French writer and poet Jean Genet entitled Saint Genet, comédien et martyr (1952; Saint Genet, Actor and Martyr, 1963), and innumerable articles that were published in Les Temps Modernes, the monthly review that Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir founded and edited. These articles were later collected in several volumes under the title Situations.

Political activities
After World War II, Sartre took an active interest in French political movements, and his leanings to the left became more pronounced. He became an outspoken admirer of the Soviet Union, although he did not become a member of the Communist Party. In 1954 he visited the Soviet Union, Scandinavia, Africa, the United States, and Cuba. Upon the entry of Soviet tanks into Budapest in 1956, however, Sartre’s hopes for communism were sadly crushed. He wrote in Les Temps Modernes a long article, “Le Fantôme de Staline,” that condemned both the Soviet intervention and the submission of the French Communist Party to the dictates of Moscow. Over the years this critical attitude opened the way to a form of “Sartrian Socialism” that would find its expression in a new major work, Critique de la raison dialectique (1960; Eng. trans., of the introduction only, under the title The Problem of Method, 1963; U.S. title, Search for a Method). Sartre set out to examine critically the Marxist dialectic and discovered that it was not livable in the Soviet form. Although he still believed that Marxism was the only philosophy for the current times, he conceded that it had become ossified and that, instead of adapting itself to particular situations, it compelled the particular to fit a predetermined universal. Whatever its fundamental, general principles, Marxism must learn to recognize the existential concrete circumstances that differ from one collectivity to another and to respect the individual freedom of man. The Critique, somewhat marred by poor construction, is in fact an impressive and beautiful book, deserving of more attention than it has gained so far. A projected second volume was abandoned. Instead, Sartre prepared for publication Les Mots, for which he was awarded the 1964 Nobel Prize for Literature, an offer that was refused.

Last years
From 1960 until 1971 most of Sartre’s attention went into the writing of a four-volume study called Flaubert. Two volumes with a total of some 2,130 pages appeared in the spring of 1971. This huge enterprise aimed at presenting the reader with a “total biography” of Gustave Flaubert, the famous French novelist, through the use of a double tool: on the one hand, Karl Marx’s concept of history and class and, on the other, Sigmund Freud’s illuminations of the dark recesses of the human soul through explorations into his childhood and family relations. Although at times Sartre’s genius comes through and his fecundity is truly unbelievable, the sheer volume of the work and the minutely detailed analysis of even the slightest Flaubertian dictum hamper full enjoyment. As if he himself were saturated by the prodigal abundance of his writings, Sartre moved away from his desk during 1971 and did very little writing. Under the motto that “commitment is an act, not a word,” Sartre often went into the streets to participate in rioting, in the sale of left-wing literature, and in other activities that in his opinion were the way to promote “the revolution.” Paradoxically enough, this same radical Socialist published in 1972 the third volume of the work on Flaubert, L’Idiot de la famille, another book of such density that only the bourgeois intellectual can read it.

The enormous productivity of Sartre came herewith to a close. His mind, still alert and active, came through in interviews and in the writing of scripts for motion pictures. He also worked on a book of ethics. However, his was no longer the power of a genius in full productivity. Sartre became blind and his health deteriorated. In April 1980 he died of a lung tumour. His very impressive funeral, attended by some 25,000 people, was reminiscent of the burial of Victor Hugo, but without the official recognition that his illustrious predecessor had received. Those who were there were ordinary people, those whose rights his pen had always defended.

Wilfrid Desan


Contemporary philosophy » Continental philosophy » Recent trends

The main theme of postwar Continental philosophy was the enthusiastic reception in France of Nietzsche and Heidegger and the consequent rejection of metaphysics and the Cartesian rationalism inherited by Sartre and his fellow existentialists. For millennia the goal of metaphysics, or “first philosophy,” had been to discern the ultimate nature of reality. Postwar Continental philosophy, recoiling from omnipresent images of mass annihilation, increasingly held metaphysical holism itself responsible for the catastrophes of 20th-century history. The critics of metaphysics argued that only a relentless castigation of such excesses could produce a philosophy that was genuinely open toward Being, “thinghood,” and world.

In the 1950s, French philosophy faced a series of major challenges arising from structuralism, the new movement in anthropology that analyzed cultures as systems of structurally related elements and attempted to discern universal patterns underlying all such systems. In his A World on the Wane (1955), for example, the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss (born 1908) issued a pointed indictment of philosophical method, claiming that it lacked empirical grounding and was so arbitrary as to be capable of proving or disproving anything. Sartre’s political missteps during the early 1950s, when he had been an enthusiastic fellow traveler of the French Communist Party, did little to enhance the credibility of his philosophical rationalism.

In his influential book The Order of Things (1966), the French philosopher and intellectual historian Michel Foucault (1926–84) paradoxically employed structuralist methods to criticize the scientific pretensions of natural history, linguistics, and political economy, the disciplines known in France as the “human sciences.” But the main target of his critique was the anthropocentric orientation of the humanities, notably including philosophy. Foucault argued provocatively that “man” was an artificial notion, an invention of the 19th century, and that its obsolescence had become apparent in the postwar era.

In later books such as Discipline and Punish (1975) and The History of Sexuality (1976), Foucault’s gaze shifted to systems of power. In a Nietzschean spirit, he coined the term power-knowledge to indicate the involvement of knowledge in the maintenance of power relations. As he argued in the essay Nietzsche, Genealogy, History (1977), an examination of the notion of truth reveals that all knowledge rests upon injustice, that there is no right, not even in the act of knowing, to truth or a foundation for truth, and that the instinct for knowledge is malicious (something murderous, opposed to the happiness of mankind).

The movement known as deconstruction, derived mainly from work begun in the 1960s by the French philosopher Jacques Derrida (1930–2004), displayed a similar hostility to metaphysics and its quest for totality and absolute truth. Under the sway of Heidegger’s call for “a destruction of the history of ontology,” Derrida endorsed the deconstruction of Western philosophy—i.e., the uncovering and undoing of the false dichotomies, or “oppositions,” inherent in philosophical thinking since the time of the ancient Greeks. In Derrida’s view, these oppositions result from the misguided assumption, which he called “logocentrism,” that there is a realm of truth that exists prior to and independently of its representation by linguistic and other signs. Logocentrism in turn derives from the “metaphysics of presence,” or the tendency to conceive of fundamental philosophical concepts such as truth, reality, and being in terms of ideas such as identity, presence, and essence and to limit or ignore the equally valid notions of otherness, absence, and difference. Because of this tendency, Derrida concluded, there is a necessary relationship between the metaphysical quest for “totality” and political “totalitarianism.” As he wrote in an early essay, Violence and Metaphysics (1967):

Incapable of respecting the Being and meaning of the other, phenomenology and ontology would be philosophies of violence. Through them, the entire philosophical tradition…would make common cause with oppression and technico-political possession.

The French philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas (1905–95) attributed the misguided quest for totality to a defect in reason itself. In his major work, Totality and Infinity (1961), he contended that, as it is used in Western philosophy, reason enforces “domination” and “sameness” and destroys plurality and otherness. He called for the transcendence of reason in a first philosophy based on ethics—and in particular on the biblical commandment “You shall not kill” (Exodus 20:13)—rather than on logic. It is no small irony, then, that Continental philosophy, whose roots lay in the attempt by Kant, Hegel, and their successors to defend reason against the twin excesses of dogmatism and epistemological skepticism, should come to equate reason with domination and to insist that reason’s hegemony be overthrown.

A powerful alternative to this view appeared in work from the 1970s by the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas (born 1929). Although agreeing with the French Nietzscheans that traditional metaphysics was obsolete and, in particular, that it did not provide a path to absolute truth, Habermas did not reject the notion of truth entirely, nor did he accept the Nietzscheans’ call for a “farewell to reason.” While acknowledging that the notion of truth is often used to mask unjust power relations and partisan class interests, he insisted that the very possibility of such an insight presupposes that one can conceive of social relations that are just and interests that are held in common by all members of society.

Habermas’s Theory of Communicative Action (2 vol., 1985–87) was devoted in part to developing an account of truth in terms that did not imply that there exists an “absolute” truth of the kind traditionally posited by metaphysics. Following the doctrines of pragmatism and reinterpreting Austin’s earlier work on speech acts, Habermas contended that ordinary communication differs from other forms of human action in that it is oriented toward mutual agreement rather than “success”; that is, it aims at reaching “intersubjective” understanding rather than at mastering the world through instrumental action. The process of constructing such an understanding, however, requires that each individual assume that the utterances of the other are for the most part “true” and that the other can provide reasons to support the truth or validity of his utterance if called upon to do so. Specifically, individuals must interpret each other’s utterances as true assertions about objects and events in an “external world,” as descriptions of morally “right” actions in a social world of shared norms, or as “sincere” expressions of thoughts and feelings in the speaker’s “inner world.” In this “discourse theory of truth,” the notion of truth, far from being a misguided fiction of metaphysics, is a regulative ideal without which communication itself would be impossible.

Avrum Stroll
Albert William Levi
Richard Wolin

Michel Foucault
French philosopher and historian
in full Paul-Michel Foucault

born October 15, 1926, Poitiers, France
died June 25, 1984, Paris

French philosopher and historian, one of the most influential and controversial scholars of the post-World War II period.

Education and career
The son and grandson of a physician, Michel Foucault was born to a solidly bourgeois family. He resisted what he regarded as the provincialism of his upbringing and his native country, and his career was marked by frequent sojourns abroad. A distinguished but sometimes erratic student, Foucault gained entry at the age of 20 to the École Normale Supérieure (ENS) in Paris in 1946. There he studied psychology and philosophy, embraced and then abandoned communism, and established a reputation as a sedulous, brilliant, and eccentric student.

After graduating in 1952, Foucault began a career marked by constant movement, both professional and intellectual. He first taught at the University of Lille, then spent five years (1955–60) as a cultural attaché in Uppsala, Sweden; Warsaw, Poland; and Hamburg, West Germany (now Germany). Foucault defended his doctoral dissertation at the ENS in 1961. Circulated under the title Folie et déraison: histoire de la folie à l’âge classique (“Madness and Unreason: A History of Madness in the Classical Age”), it won critical praise but a limited audience. (An abridged version was translated into English and published in 1965 as Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason.) His other early monographs, written while he taught at the University of Clermont-Ferrand in France (1960–66), had much the same fate. Not until the appearance of Les Mots et les choses (“Words and Things”; Eng. trans. The Order of Things) in 1966 did Foucault begin to attract wide notice as one of the most original and controversial thinkers of his day. He chose to watch his reputation grow from a distance—at the University of Tunis in Tunisia (1966–68)—and was still in Tunis when student riots erupted in Paris in the spring of 1968. In 1969 he published L’Archéologie du savoir (The Archaeology of Knowledge). In 1970, after a brief tenure as director of the philosophy department at the University of Paris, Vincennes, he was awarded a chair in the history of systems of thought at the Collège de France, France’s most prestigious postsecondary institution. The appointment gave Foucault the opportunity to conduct intensive research.

Between 1971 and 1984 Foucault wrote several works, including Surveiller et punir: naissance de la prison (1975; Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison), a monograph on the emergence of the modern prison; three volumes of a history of Western sexuality; and numerous essays. Foucault continued to travel widely, and as his reputation grew he spent extended periods in Brazil, Japan, Italy, Canada, and the United States. He became particularly attached to Berkeley, California, and the San Francisco Bay area and was a visiting lecturer at the University of California at Berkeley for several years. Foucault died of a septicemia typical of AIDS in 1984, the fourth volume of his history of sexuality still incomplete.

Foucault’s ideas
What types of human beings are there? What is their essence? What is the essence of human history? Of humankind? Contrary to so many of his intellectual predecessors, Foucault sought not to answer these traditional and seemingly straightforward questions but to critically examine them and the responses they had inspired. He directed his most sustained skepticism toward those responses—among them, race, the unity of reason or the psyche, progress, and liberation—that had become commonplaces in Europe and the United States in the 19th century. He argued that such commonplaces informed both Hegelian phenomenology and Marxist materialism. He argued that they also informed the evolutionary biology, physical anthropology, clinical medicine, psychology, sociology, and criminology of the same period. The latter three disciplines are part of what came to be called in French les sciences humaines, or “the human sciences.”

Several of the philosophers of the Anglo-American positivist tradition, among them Carl Hempel, had faulted the human sciences for failing to achieve the conceptual and methodological rigour of mathematics or physics. Foucault found fault with them as well, but he decisively rejected the positivist tenet that the methods of the pure or natural sciences provided an exclusive standard for arriving at genuine or legitimate knowledge. His critique concentrated instead upon the fundamental point of reference that had grounded and guided inquiry in the human sciences: the concept of “man.” The man of this inquiry was a creature purported, like many preceding conceptions, to have a constant essence—indeed, a double essence. On one hand, man was an object, like any other object in the natural world, obedient to the indiscriminate dictates of physical laws. On the other hand, man was a subject, an agent uniquely capable of comprehending and altering his worldly condition in order to become more fully, more essentially, himself. Foucault reviewed the historical record for evidence that such a creature actually had ever existed, but to no avail. Looking for objects, he found only a plurality of subjects whose features varied dramatically with shifts of place and time. The historical record aside, would the dual “man” of the human sciences perhaps make its appearance at some point in the future? In The Order of Things and elsewhere, Foucault suggested that, to the contrary, a creature somehow fully determined and fully free was little short of a paradox, a contradiction in terms. Not only had it never existed in fact, it could not exist, even in principle.

Foucault understood the very possibility of his own critique to be evidence that the concept of man was beginning to loosen its grip on Western thought. Yet a further puzzle remained: How could such an erroneous, such an impossible, figure have been so completely taken for granted for so long? Foucault’s solution emphasized that in the emerging nation-states of 17th- and 18th-century Europe, “man” was a conceptual prerequisite for the creation of social institutions and practices that were then necessary to maintain an optimally productive citizenry. With the advent of “man,” the notion that human character and experience were immutable gradually gave way to the notion that both body and soul could be manipulated and reformed. The latter notion lent the technologies of modern policing their enduring rationale. For Foucault, the epitome of the institutions of “discipline”—a mode of domination that sought to render each instance of “deviance” utterly visible, whether in the name of prevention or rehabilitation—was the Panopticon, a circular prison designed in 1787 by the philosopher and social reformer Jeremy Bentham, which laid each inmate open to the scrutiny of the dark eye of a central watchtower. Among contemporary instruments of discipline, the surveillance camera must be counted one of the most representative.

Although this discipline operated on individuals, it was paired with a current of reformism that took not individuals but various human populations as its basic object. The prevailing sensibility of its greatest champions was markedly medical. They scrutinized everything from sexual behaviour to social organization for relative pathology or health. They also sought out the “deviant,” but less in order to eradicate it than to keep it in acceptable check. This “biopolitics” of the reformers, according to Foucault, contained the basic principles of the modern welfare state. A thinker more inclined to strict materialism might have added that in both discipline and biopolitics the human sciences served an ideological function, cloaking the apparatuses of arbitrary domination with the sober aura of objectivity. Foucault, however, opposed the materialist tendency to construe science—even the most dubious science—as the simple handmaiden of power. He opposed any identification of knowledge—even the most mistaken knowledge—with power. Rather, he called for an appreciation of the ways in which knowledge and power are always entangled with each other in historically specific circumstances, forming complex dynamics of what he termed pouvoir-savoir, or “power-knowledge.”

For Foucault, domination was not the only outcome of these dynamics. Another was “subjectivation,” the historically specific classification and shaping of individual human beings into “subjects” of various kinds—including heroic and ordinary, “normal” and “deviant.” The distinction between the two came somewhat late to Foucault, but once he made and refined it he was able to clarify the status of some of his earliest observations and to identify a theme that had been present in all his writings. His understanding of subjectivation, however, changed significantly over the course of two decades, as did the methods he applied to its analysis. Intent on devising a properly specific history of subjects, he initially pressed the analogy between the corpus of statements about subjects produced and presumed true at any given historical moment and the artifacts of some archaeological site or complex. He was thus able to flesh out the sense of his frequent allusions not simply to “discourses” but also to their more inclusive cousins, épistémès. He was able to reveal the inherently local qualities of past conceptions of being human and able further to reveal the frequent abruptness of their coming into being and passing away. This “archaeology of knowledge” nevertheless had its shortcomings. Among other things, its consideration of both power and power-knowledge was at best partial, if not oblique.

By 1971 Foucault had already demoted “archaeology” in favour of “genealogy,” a method that traced the ensemble of historical contingencies, accidents, and illicit relations that made up the ancestry of one or another currently accepted theory or concept in the human sciences. With genealogy, Foucault set out to unearth the artificiality of the dividing line between the putatively illegitimate and its putatively normal and natural opposite. Discipline and Punish was his genealogical exposé of the artifices of power-knowledge that had resulted in the naturalization of the “criminal character,” and the first volume of Histoire de la sexualité (1976; The History of Sexuality) was his exposé of the Frankensteinian machinations that had resulted in the naturalization of the dividing line between the “homosexual” and the “heterosexual.” Yet even in these luminous “histories of the present” something still remained out of view: human freedom. In order to bring it into focus, Foucault turned his attention to “governmentality,” the array of political arrangements, past and present, within which individuals have not simply been dominated subjects but have been able in some measure to govern, to be, and to create themselves. He expanded the scope (and lessened the bite) of genealogy. No longer focused exclusively on the dynamics of power-knowledge, it came to encompass the broader dynamics of human reflection, of the posing of questions and the seeking of answers, of “problematization.” It could thus chart the possibilities, past and present, of ethics—the “reflective practice of freedom”—a domain in which human beings could exercise their power to conceive and test the modes of domination and subjectivation under which they happened to live.

Foucault’s increasing concern with ethics led him to a far-reaching revision of the design of the subsequent volumes of The History of Sexuality. Originally conceived as a study of the social construction of the “female hysteric” in the 19th century, the second volume was released after much delay as a study of carnal pleasure in ancient Greece; the third volume dealt with the “care of the self” in later antiquity. In later work, a concern with ethics led Foucault to study how people care for one another in social relations such as friendship. It led him finally to an elegant meditation, unpublished at his death, on the conduct of modern philosophy, the title of which is that decidedly open-ended question to which Immanuel Kant and Moses Mendelssohn had been asked to respond some 200 years before: “What Is Enlightenment?”

Foucault appropriately placed himself in the critical tradition of philosophical inquiry stemming from Kant, but his thought matured through the multiplicity of its engagements. He rejected both Hegelianism and Marxism but took both quite seriously. The work of the French modernist writers Raymond Roussel, Georges Bataille, and Maurice Blanchot galvanized his conviction that neither a proper epistemology nor a proper metaphysics could be founded on a general and ahistorical conception of the “subject.” The writings of Friedrich Nietzsche directed him to the history of the body and of the collusion between power and knowledge. It also offered him the prototypes for both archaeology and genealogy. In the work of the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze he discerned elements of a general epistemology of problem formation. His conversations with the American scholars Hubert Dreyfus and Paul Rabinow stimulated his turn toward ethics and the genealogy of problematization. Special mention must finally be made of his teacher and mentor, Georges Canguilhem. In Canguilhem, a historian of the life sciences, Foucault found an intellectual example independent of the phenomenological and materialist camps that dominated French universities after World War II, a sponsor for his dissertation, and a supporter of his larger investigative project. Owing less to Nietzsche than to Canguilhem, Foucault came to regard human life as an often discontinuous, often disruptive and clumsy, and sometimes despotic quest to come to terms with an ever-recalcitrant environment. A history of systems of human thought would thus have to be a persistently local history. It would have to recognize that all ideas are normative, no matter what their content. It could be a history of truth, but it also would have to be a long—and in its own way tragic—history of error.

Foucault’s influence
Foucault has been widely read and discussed in his own right. He has galvanized an army of detractors, the less attentive of whom have misread his critique of “man” as radically antihumanist, his critique of power-knowledge as radically relativist, and his ethics as radically aestheticist. They have not, however, prevented him from inspiring increasingly important alternatives to established practices of cultural and intellectual history. In France and the Americas, Foucault’s unraveling of Marxist universalism has continued both to vex and to inspire activists of the left. The antipsychiatry movement of the 1970s and ’80s owed much to Foucault, though he did not consider himself one of its members. His critique of the human sciences provoked much soul-searching within anthropology and its allied fields, even as it helped a new generation of scholars to embark upon a cross-cultural dialogue on the themes and variations of domination and subjectivation. Foucault’s elucidation of the dense and minute dimensions of discipline and biopolitics likewise has had a noticeable impact on recent studies of colonialism, law, technology, gender, and race. The first volume of The History of Sexuality has become canonical for both gay and lesbian studies and “queer” theory, a multidisciplinary study aimed at critical examinations of traditional conceptions of sexual and gender identity. The terms discourse, genealogy, and power-knowledge have become deeply entrenched in the lexicon of virtually all contemporary social and cultural research.

Foucault has attracted several biographers, some of whom have been happy to flout his opposition to the practice of seeking the key to an oeuvre in the psychology or personality of its author. Yet, in their favour, it must be admitted that Foucault’s personal life is a worthy subject of attention. He regularly made the issues that most troubled him personally—emotional suffering, exclusion, sexuality—the topics of his research. His critiques were often both theoretical and practical; he did not merely write about prisons, for example, but also organized protests against them. In 1975, while in Spain to protest the impending executions of two members of ETA, the Basque separatist movement, by the government of Francisco Franco, Foucault confronted police officers who had come to seize the protest leaflets he had prepared. He also publicly attacked Jean-Paul Sartre at a time when Sartre was still the demigod of Parisian intellectuals.

Although he despised the label “homosexual,” he was openly gay and occasionally praised the pleasures of sadomasochism and the bathhouse. He was something of a dandy, preferring to shave his head and dress in black and white. He declared that he had experimented with drugs. Even more scandalously (at least to the French), he declared that his favourite meal was “a good club sandwich with a Coke.” Foucault cultivated his celebrity as “an all-purpose subversive,” but neither his thought nor his life contain the substantive principles of an activist program. Foucault was skeptical of conventional wisdom and conventional moralism—but not without exception. He was an ironist—but not without restraint. He could be subversive and could admire subversion—but he was not a revolutionary. He dismissed even the possibility of providing an answer to Vladimir Ilich Lenin’s great, abstract question “What is to be done?” Rather, he insisted upon asking, more concretely and more locally, “What, in a given situation, might be done to increase human capacities without simultaneously increasing oppression?” He was not confident that an answer would always be forthcoming. But whether the situation at hand was common or simply his own, he sought in all his endeavours to remove himself to a vista distant enough that the question might at least be intelligently posed.

James Faubion




Jacques Derrida
French philosopher

born July 15, 1930, El Biar, Algeria
died October 8, 2004, Paris, France

French philosopher whose critique of Western philosophy and analyses of the nature of language, writing, and meaning were highly controversial yet immensely influential in much of the intellectual world in the late 20th century.

Life and work
Derrida was born to Sephardic Jewish parents in French-governed Algeria. Educated in the French tradition, he went to France in 1949, studied at the elite École Normale Supérieure (ENS), and taught philosophy at the Sorbonne (1960–64), the ENS (1964–84), and the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (1984–99), all in Paris. From the 1960s he published numerous books and essays on an immense range of topics and taught and lectured throughout the world, including at Yale University and the University of California, Irvine, attaining an international celebrity comparable only to that of Jean-Paul Sartre a generation earlier.

Derrida is most celebrated as the principal exponent of deconstruction, a term he coined for the critical examination of the fundamental conceptual distinctions, or “oppositions,” inherent in Western philosophy since the time of the ancient Greeks. These oppositions are characteristically “binary” and “hierarchical,” involving a pair of terms in which one member of the pair is assumed to be primary or fundamental, the other secondary or derivative. Examples include nature and culture, speech and writing, mind and body, presence and absence, inside and outside, literal and metaphorical, intelligible and sensible, and form and meaning, among many others. To “deconstruct” an opposition is to explore the tensions and contradictions between the hierarchical ordering assumed or asserted in the text and other aspects of the text’s meaning, especially those that are indirect or implicit. Such an analysis shows that the opposition is not natural or necessary but a product, or “construction,” of the text itself.

The speech/writing opposition, for example, is manifested in texts that treat speech as a more authentic form of language than writing. These texts assume that the speaker’s ideas and intentions are directly expressed and immediately “present” in speech, whereas in writing they are comparatively remote or “absent” and thus more easily misunderstood. As Derrida points out, however, speech functions as language only to the extent that it shares characteristics traditionally assigned to writing, such as absence, “difference,” and the possibility of misunderstanding. This fact is indicated by philosophical texts themselves, which invariably describe speech in terms of examples and metaphors drawn from writing, even in cases where writing is explicitly claimed to be secondary to speech. Significantly, Derrida does not wish simply to invert the speech/writing opposition—i.e., to show that writing is really prior to speech. As with any deconstructive analysis, the point is to restructure, or “displace,” the opposition so as to show that neither term is primary.

The speech/writing opposition derives from a pervasive picture of meaning that equates linguistic meaning with the ideas and intentions in the mind of the speaker or author. Building on theories of the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, Derrida coined the term différance, meaning both a difference and an act of deferring, to characterize the way in which linguistic meaning is created rather than given. For Derrida as for Saussure, the meaning of a word is a function of the distinctive contrasts it displays with other, related meanings. Because each word depends for its meaning on the meanings of other words, it follows that the meaning of a word is never fully “present” to us, as it would be if meanings were the same as ideas or intentions; instead it is endlessly “deferred” in an infinitely long chain of meanings. Derrida expresses this idea by saying that meaning is created by the “play” of differences between words—a play that is “limitless,” “infinite,” and “indefinite.”

In the 1960s Derrida’s work was welcomed in France and elsewhere by thinkers interested in the broad interdisciplinary movement known as structuralism. The structuralists analyzed various cultural phenomena—such as myths, religious rituals, literary narratives, and fashions in dress and adornment—as general systems of signs analogous to natural languages, with their own vocabularies and their own underlying rules and structures, and attempted to develop a metalanguage of terms and concepts in which the various sign systems could be described. Some of Derrida’s early work was a critique of major structuralist thinkers such as Saussure, the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, and the intellectual historian and philosopher Michel Foucault. Derrida was thus seen, especially in the United States, as leading a movement beyond structuralism to “poststructuralism,” which was skeptical about the possibility of a general science of meaning.

In other work, particularly three books published in 1967— L’Écriture et la différence (Writing and Difference), De la grammatologie (Of Grammatology), and La Voix et le phénomène (Speech and Phenomena)—Derrida explored the treatment of writing by several seminal figures in the history of Western thought, including the philosophers Edmund Husserl and Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. Other books, published in 1972, include analyses of writing and representation in the work of philosophers such as Plato (La Dissémination [Dissemination]) and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Husserl, and Martin Heidegger (Marges de la philosophie [Margins of Philosophy]). Glas (1974) is an experimental book printed in two columns—one containing an analysis of key concepts in the philosophy of Hegel, the other a suggestive discussion of the thief, novelist, and playwright Jean Genet. Although Derrida’s writing had always been marked by a keen interest in what words can do, here he produced a work that plays with juxtaposition to explore how language can incite thought.

One might distinguish in Derrida’s work a period of philosophical deconstruction from a later period focusing on literature and emphasizing the singularity of the literary work and the play of meaning in avant-garde writers such as Genet, Stéphane Mallarmé, Francis Ponge, and James Joyce. His later work also took up a host of other issues, notably the legacy of Marxism (Spectres de Marx: l’état de la dette, le travail du deuil et la nouvelle Internationale [1993; Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International]) and psychoanalysis (La Carte postale: de Socrate à Freud et au-delà [1980; The Post Card: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond]). Other essays considered political, legal, and ethical issues, as well as topics in aesthetics and literature. He also addressed the question of Jewishness and the Jewish tradition in Shibboleth and the autobiographical Circumfession (1991).

Although critical examination of fundamental concepts is a standard part of philosophical practice in the Western tradition, it has seldom been carried out as rigorously as in the work of Derrida. His writing is known for its extreme subtlety, its meticulous attention to detail, and its tenacious pursuit of the logical implications of supposedly “marginal” features of texts. Nevertheless, his work has met with considerable opposition among some philosophers, especially those in the Anglo-American tradition. In 1992 the proposal by the University of Cambridge to award Derrida an honorary doctorate generated so much controversy that the university took the unusual step of putting the issue to a vote of the dons (Derrida won); meanwhile, 19 philosophers from around the globe published a letter of protest in which they claimed that Derrida’s writing was incomprehensible and his major claims either trivial or false. In the same vein, other critics have portrayed Derrida as an antirational and nihilistic opponent of “serious” philosophical thinking. Despite such criticism, Derrida’s ideas remain a powerful force in philosophy and myriad other fields.

Major Works
Most accessible to a general reader are the early interviews in Positions (1972; Positions, trans. by Alan Bass, 1981), and a later selection, including a letter and discussion concerning the Cambridge honorary degree, in Points de suspension, ed. by Elisabeth Weber (1992; Points …: Interviews, 1974–1994,1995). “Circonfession,” in Geoffrey Bennington and Jacques Derrida, Jacques Derrida (1991; Jacques Derrida, trans. by Geoffrey Bennington, 1993), combines theoretical discussion by Bennington with playfully disruptive autobiographical remarks by Derrida. Representative selections with introductory commentary can be found in A Derrida Reader: Between the Blinds, ed. by Peggy Kamuf (1991). Derrida’s classic critique of the treatment of speech and writing in Western philosophy appears in the more difficult essays of L’Écriture et la différence (1967; Writing and Difference, trans. by Alan Bass, 1978), and Marges de la philosophie (1972; Margins of Philosophy, 1982), as well as in the celebrated De la grammatologie (1967; Of Grammatology, 1976), which focuses on the work of Saussure and Rousseau. La Dissémination (1972; Dissemination, 1981) contains a crucial essay on Plato. Limited Inc (1988) is a polemical exchange with the American philosopher John Searle about the theory of speech acts; the volume includes an afterword, “Toward an Ethic of Discussion,” that clearly articulates Derrida’s positions on many contemporary theoretical issues.

Discussions of literature can be found in Acts of Literature, ed. by Derek Attridge (1992), which includes an important interview as well as key essays on Joyce, Franz Kafka, Ponge, Paul Celan, and William Shakespeare. Donner le temps (1991; Given Time, 1992) is an exemplary analysis of a prose poem by Charles Baudelaire. Psychoanalysis is covered in essays on Freud and Jacques Lacan in La Carte postale: de Socrate à Freud et au-delà (1980; The Post Card: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond, 1987). Spectres de Marx: l’état de la dette, le travail du deuil et la nouvelle Internationale (1993; Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International, 1994) treats the legacy of Marxism. La Vérité en peinture (1978; The Truth in Painting, 1987) is an advanced discussion of aesthetic theory and avant-garde artistic practice. L’Autre cap: suivi de la democratie ajournée (1991; The Other Heading: Reflections on Today’s Europe, 1992) is a more straightforward reflection on issues confronting the new Europe. Politiques de l’amitié (1994; Politics of Friendship, 1997) explores philosophical reflections on friendship and the importance of friendship for a politics of the future.




Emmanuel Lévinas
French philosopher

born December 30, 1905 [January 12, 1906, Old Style], Kaunas, Lithuania
died December 25, 1995, Paris, France

French philosopher renowned for his powerful critique of the preeminence of ontology (the philosophical study of being) in the history of Western philosophy, particularly in the work of the German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889–1976).

Lévinas began his studies in philosophy in 1923 at the University of Strasbourg. He spent the academic year 1928–29 at the University of Freiburg, where he attended seminars by Edmund Husserl (1859–1938) and Heidegger. After completing a doctoral dissertation at the Institut de France in 1928, Lévinas taught at the École Normale Israelite Orientale (ENIO), a school for Jewish students, and the Alliance Israelite Universelle, both in Paris. Serving as an officer in the French army at the outbreak of World War II, he was captured by German troops in 1940 and spent the next five years in a prisoner of war camp. After the war he was director of the ENIO until 1961, when he received his first academic appointment at the University of Poitiers. He subsequently taught at the University of Paris X (Nanterre; 1967–73) and the Sorbonne (1973–78).

The principal theme of Lévinas’s work after World War II is the traditional place of ontology as “first philosophy”—the most fundamental philosophical discipline. According to Lévinas, ontology by its very nature attempts to create a totality in which what is different and “other” is necessarily reduced to sameness and identity. This desire for totality, according to Lévinas, is a basic manifestation of “instrumental” reason—the use of reason as an instrument for determining the best or most efficient means to achieve a given end. Through its embrace of instrumental reason, Western philosophy displays a destructive and objectifying “will to domination.” Moreover, because instrumental reason does not determine the ends to which it is applied, it can be—and has been—used in the pursuit of goals that are destructive or evil; in this sense, it is responsible for the major crises of European history in the 20th century, in particular the advent of totalitarianism. Viewed from this perspective, Heidegger’s attempt to develop a new “fundamental ontology,” one that would answer the question of the “meaning of Being,” is misguided, because it continues to reflect the dominating and destructive orientation characteristic of Western philosophy in general.

Lévinas claims that ontology also displays a bias toward cognition and theoretical reason—the use of reason in the formation of judgments or beliefs. In this respect ontology is philosophically inferior to ethics, a field that Lévinas construes as encompassing all the practical dealings of human beings with each other. Lévinas holds that the primacy of ethics over ontology is justified by the “face of the Other.” The “alterity,” or otherness, of the Other, as signified by the “face,” is something that one acknowledges before using reason to form judgments or beliefs about him. Insofar as the moral debt one owes to the Other can never be satisfied—Lévinas claims that the Other is “infinitely transcendent, infinitely foreign”—one’s relation to him is that of infinity. In contrast, since ontology treats the Other as an object of judgments made by theoretical reason, it deals with him as a finite being; its relationship to the Other is therefore one of totality.

Lévinas claims that ethics can be given a theological foundation in the biblical commandment “Thou shalt not kill” (Ex. 20:13). He explores the ethical implications of this mandate in religious studies such as Difficult Freedom: Essays on Judaism (1963) and Nine Talmudic Readings (1990). Among Lévinas’s other major philosophical works are Existence and Existents (1947), Discovering Existence with Husserl and Heidegger (1949), Difficult Freedom (1963), and Otherwise than Being, or Beyond Essence (1974).

Richard Wolin




Jurgen Habermas

(IPA: [ˈjʏʁgən ˈhaːbɐmaːs]; born June 18, 1929) is a German philosopher and sociologist in the tradition of critical theory and American pragmatism. He is perhaps best known for his work on the concept of the public sphere, the topic (and title) of his first book. His work focused on the foundations of social theory and epistemology, the analysis of advanced capitalistic societies and democracy, the rule of law in a critical social-evolutionary context, and contemporary politics—particularly German politics. Habermas's theoretical system is devoted to revealing the possibility of reason, emancipation, and rational-critical communication latent in modern institutions and in the human capacity to deliberate and pursue rational interests.

Habermas was born in Düsseldorf, North Rhine-Westphalia.

Until his graduation from gymnasium, Habermas lived in Gummersbach, near Cologne. His father, Ernst Habermas, was executive director of the Cologne Chamber of Industry and Commerce, and was described by Habermas as a Nazi sympathizer. He was brought up in a staunchly Protestant milieu, his grandfather being the director of the seminary in Gummersbach. He studied at the universities of Göttingen (1949/50), Zürich (1950/51), and Bonn (1951–54) and earned a doctorate in philosophy[1] from Bonn in 1954 with a dissertation entitled, Das Absolute und die Geschichte. Von der Zwiespältigkeit in Schellings Denken ("The absolute and history: on the contradiction in Schelling's thought"). His dissertation committee included Erich Rothacker and Oskar Becker.

From 1956 on, he studied philosophy and sociology under the critical theorists Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno at the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University Frankfurt am Main Institute for Social Research, but because of a rift between the two over his dissertation—Horkheimer had made unacceptable demands for revision—as well as his own belief that the Frankfurt School had become paralyzed with political skepticism and disdain for modern culture—he finished his habilitation in political science at the University of Marburg under the Marxist Wolfgang Abendroth. His habilitation work was entitled, Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit; Untersuchungen zu einer Kategorie der Bürgerlichen Gesellschaft (published in English translation in 1989 as The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: an Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society). In 1961, he became a privatdozent in Marburg, and—in a move that was highly unusual for the German academic scene of that time—he was offered the position of "extraordinary professor" (professor without chair) of philosophy at the University of Heidelberg (at the instigation of Hans-Georg Gadamer and Karl Löwith) in 1962, which he accepted. In 1964, strongly supported by Adorno, Habermas returned to Frankfurt to take over Horkheimer's chair in philosophy and sociology.

He accepted the position of Director of the Max Planck Institute in Starnberg (near Munich) in 1971, and worked there until 1983, two years after the publication of his magnum opus, The Theory of Communicative Action. Habermas then returned to his chair at Frankfurt and the directorship of the Institute for Social Research. Since retiring from Frankfurt in 1993, Habermas has continued to publish extensively. In 1986, he received the Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Prize of the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, which is the highest honour awarded in German research. He also holds the uncharacteristically postmodern position of "Permanent Visiting" Professor at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, and "Theodor Heuss Professor" at The New School, New York.

Habermas was awarded The Prince of Asturias Award in Social Sciences of 2003. Habermas was also the 2004 Kyoto Laureate in the Arts and Philosophy section. He traveled to San Diego and on March 5, 2005, as part of the University of San Diego's Kyoto Symposium, gave a speech entitled The Public Role of Religion in Secular Context, regarding the evolution of separation of Church and State from neutrality to intense secularism. He received the 2005 Holberg International Memorial Prize (about ˆ 520,000).

Habermas was famous as a teacher and mentor. Among his most prominent students were the pragmatic philosopher Herbert Schnädelbach (theorist of discourse distinction and rationality), the political sociologist Claus Offe (professor at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin) , the social philosopher Johann Arnason (professor at La Trobe University and chief editor of the journal Thesis Eleven), the sociological theorist Hans Joas (professor at the University of Erfurt and at the University of Chicago), the theorist of societal evolution Klaus Eder, the social philosopher Axel Honneth (the current director of the Institute for Social Research), the American philosopher Thomas McCarthy, the co-creator of mindful inquiry in social research Jeremy J. Shapiro, and the assassinated Serbian prime minister Zoran Đinđić.


Habermas constructed a comprehensive framework of social theory and philosophy drawing on a number of intellectual traditions:

the German philosophical thought of Immanuel Kant, Friedrich Schelling, G. W. F. Hegel, Wilhelm Dilthey, Edmund Husserl, and Hans-Georg Gadamer
the Marxian tradition — both the theory of Karl Marx himself as well as the critical neo-Marxian theory of the Frankfurt School, i.e. Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, and Herbert Marcuse
the sociological theories of Max Weber, Émile Durkheim, and George Herbert Mead
the linguistic philosophy and speech act theories of Ludwig Wittgenstein, J.L. Austin, P. F. Strawson, Stephen Toulmin and John Searle
the developmental psychology of Jean Piaget and Lawrence Kohlberg
the American pragmatist tradition of Charles Sanders Peirce and John Dewey
the sociological social systems theory of Talcott Parsons and Niklas Luhmann
Neo-Kantian thought
Jürgen Habermas considered his major achievement to be the development of the concept and theory of communicative reason or communicative rationality, which distinguishes itself from the rationalist tradition by locating rationality in structures of interpersonal linguistic communication rather than in the structure of either the cosmos or the knowing subject. This social theory advances the goals of human emancipation, while maintaining an inclusive universalist moral framework. This framework rests on the argument called universal pragmatics - that all speech acts have an inherent telos (the Greek word for "end") — the goal of mutual understanding, and that human beings possess the communicative competence to bring about such understanding. Habermas built the framework out of the speech-act philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein, J. L. Austin, and John Searle, the sociological theory of the interactional constitution of mind and self of George Herbert Mead, the theories of moral development of Jean Piaget and Lawrence Kohlberg, and the discourse ethics of his Heidelberg colleague Karl-Otto Apel.

He carried forward the traditions of Kant and the Enlightenment and of democratic socialism through his emphasis on the potential for transforming the world and arriving at a more humane, just, and egalitarian society through the realization of the human potential for reason, in part through discourse ethics. While Habermas conceded that the Enlightenment is an "unfinished project," he argued it should be corrected and complemented, not discarded. In this he distanced himself from the Frankfurt School, criticizing it, as well as much of postmodernist thought, for excessive pessimism, misdirected radicalism and exaggerations.

Within sociology, Habermas's major contribution was the development of a comprehensive theory of societal evolution and modernization focusing on the difference between communicative rationality and rationalization on the one hand and strategic/instrumental rationality and rationalization on the other. This included a critique from a communicative standpoint of the differentiation-based theory of social systems developed by Niklas Luhmann, a student of Talcott Parsons.

His defence of modernity and civil society has been a source of inspiration to others, and is considered a major philosophical alternative to the varieties of poststructuralism. He has also offered an influential analysis of late capitalism.

Habermas saw the rationalization, humanization, and democratization of society in terms of the institutionalization of the potential for rationality that is inherent in the communicative competence that is unique to the human species. Habermas believed communicative competence has developed through the course of evolution, but in contemporary society it is often suppressed or weakened by the way in which major domains of social life, such as the market, the state, and organizations, have been given over to or taken over by strategic/instrumental rationality, so that the logic of the system supplants that of the lifeworld.


Habermas introduces the concept of “reconstructive science” with a double purpose: to place the “general theory of society” between philosophy and social science and re-establish the rift between the “great theorization” and the “empirical research”. The model of “rational reconstructions” represents the main thread of the surveys about the “structures” of the world of life (“culture”, “society” and “personality”) and their respective “functions” (cultural reproductions, social integrations and socialization). For this purpose, the dialectics between “symbolic representation” of “the structures subordinated to all worlds of life” (“internal relationships”) and the “material reproduction” of the social systems in their complex (“external relationships” between social systems and environment) has to be considered. This model finds an application, above all, in the “theory of the social evolution”, starting from the reconstruction of the necessary conditions for a phylogeny of the socio-cultural life forms (the “hominization”) until an analysis of the development of “social formations”, which Habermas subdivides into primitive, traditional, modern and contemporary formations. This paper is an attempt, primarily, to formalize the model of “reconstruction of the logic of development” of “social formations” summed up by Habermas through the differentiation between vital world and social systems (and, within them, through the “rationalization of the world of life” and the “growth in complexity of the social systems”). Secondly, it tries to offer some methodological clarifications about the “explanation of the dynamics” of “historical processes” and, in particular, about the “theoretical meaning” of the evolutional theory’s propositions. Even if the German sociologist considers that the “ex-post rational reconstructions” and “the models system/environment” cannot have a complete “historiographical application”, these certainly act as a general premise in the argumentative structure of the “historical explanation”.

(Abstract of Luca Corchia, Explicative models of complexity. The reconstructions of social evolution for Jürgen Habermas, in S. Balbi - G. Scepi - G. Russolillo - A. Stawinoga (eds.), Book of Short Abstracts, 7th International Conference on Social Science Methodology - RC33 - Logic and Methodology in Sociology, Napoli, Italia, 9.2008, Jovene Editore, 2008.



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