Who are Modern Philosophers?

The Modern period of philosophy generally corresponds to the 19th and 20th Century. More recent developments in the late 20th Century are sometimes referred to as the Contemporary period.

It includes the following major philosophers:

Bentham, Jeremy (1749 – 1832) English
Fichte, Johann Gottlieb (1762 – 1814) German
Hegel, G.W.F. (1770 – 1831) German
Friedrich Schelling (1775 – 1854) German
Schopenhauer, Arthur (1788 – 1860) German
Comte, Auguste (1798 – 1857) French
Emerson, Ralph Waldo (1803 – 1882) American
Mill, John Stuart (1806 – 1873) English
Kierkegaard, Søren (1813 – 1855) Danish
Thoreau, Henry David (1817 – 1862) American
Marx, Karl (1818 – 1883) German
Peirce, Charles Sanders (1839 – 1914) American
James, William (1842 – 1910) American
Nietzsche, Friedrich (1844 – 1900) German
Frege, Gottlob (1848 – 1925) German
Dewey, John (1859 – 1952) American
Husserl, Edmund (1859 – 1938) German
Whitehead, Alfred North (1861 – 1947) English
Russell, Bertrand (1872 – 1970) English
Moore, George Edward (1873 – 1958) English
Wittgenstein, Ludwig (1889 – 1951) Austrian
Heidegger, Martin (1889 – 1976) German
Ryle, Gilbert (1900 – 1976) English
Sartre, Jean-Paul (1905 – 1980) French
Quine, Willard Van Orman (1908 – 2000) American
Ayer, Alfred (1910 – 1989) English
Foucault, Michel (1926 – 1984) French
Derrida, Jacques (1930 – 2004) French

Along with significant scientific and political revolutions, the Modern period exploded in a flurry of new philosophical movements. In addition to further developments in Age of Enlightenment movements such as German Idealism, Kantianism and Romanticism, the Modern period saw the rise of Continental Philosophy, Hegelianism, Transcendentalism, Existentialism, Marxism, Modernism, Positivism, Utilitarianism, Pragmatism, Analytic Philosophy, Logical Positivism, Ordinary Language Philosophy, Logicism, Phenomenology, and the more contemporary Structuralism, Post-Structuralism, Post-Modernism and Deconstructionism, among others.


Jacques Derrida (1930 – 2004)


Jacques DerridaJacques Derrida (1930 – 2004) was a 20th Century Algerian-born French philosopher, best known as the founder of the Deconstructionism movement in the 1960s, and for his profound impact on Continental Philosophy and literary theory in general. He deliberately distanced himself from the other philosophical movements on the French intellectual scene (e.g. Phenomenology, Existentialism, Structuralism), and denied that Deconstructionism was a method or school or doctrine of philosophy of any sort.

He was a prolific author and became one of the most well known philosophers of contemporary times. His work was always highly cerebral and “difficult”, and he has often been accused of pseudo-philosophy, sophistry and deliberate obscurantism.


Jacques Derrida (pronounced de-ri-DAH) was born on 15 July 1930 in the small town of El-Biar (now a suburb of Algiers) in Algeria, into a Sephardic Jewish family, the third of five children. He spent his early years in El-Biar, but at the age of 12 he was dismissed from his lycée by French administrators implementing anti-Semitic quotas set by the Vichy government, and he chose to skip school rather than attend the Jewish lycée which arose.

For a while, he dreamed of becoming a professional soccer player, and took part in numerous competitions, but in his later teens he also started to read philosophers and writers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Friedrich Nietzsche, Albert Camus(1913 – 1960) and André Gide (1869 – 1951) and began to think seriously about philosophy.

He became a boarding student at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand in Paris and, after failing his entrance examination twice, he was admitted to the prestigious École Normale Supérieure (where Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and many other French intellectuals and academics began their careers) in 1952. There, he became friends with the Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser (1918 – 1990) and with the philosopher and critic Michel Foucault, whose lectures he attended. He also studied Hegel under Jean Hyppolite (1907 – 1968).

He completed his philosophy dissertation on Edmund Husserl and was offered a place at Harvard University and moved to the United States. In June 1957, he married Marguerite Aucouturier in Boston, and they were to have two sons, Pierre (1963) and Jean (1967). He was called up for military service during the Algerian War of Independence in 1957, but elected to teach soldiers’ children for two years in lieu.

In the early 1960s, Derrida began a long association with “Tel Quel”, a Paris-based leftist avant-garde journal for literature and philosophy, strongly influenced by Nietzsche. He taught philosophy at the Sorbonne from 1960 to 1964, and at the École Normale Superieure from 1964 to 1984. In 1967, Derrida published his first three books, which would make his name: “Writing and Difference”“Speech and Phenomena” and “Of Grammatology” (the latter remains his most famous work). Starting in 1972, Derrida produced on average more than a book per year, sometimes experimenting with non-traditional styles of writing. He carried on a sequence of encounters with proponents of Analytic Philosophy such as J. L. Austin (1911 – 1960) and John Searle (1932 – ).

He travelled widely and held a series of visiting and permanent positions, including as director of studies at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales in Paris (he had a third son, Daniel, in 1984 by Sylviane Agacinski, a professor at the EHESS) and as the first president of the Collège international de philosophie, which he co-founded in 1983 with François Châtelet (1925 – 1985) and others. He became Professor of the Humanities at the University of California, Irvine in 1986, and was a regular visiting professor at several other major American universities, including Johns Hopkins University, Yale University, New York University and the New School for Social Research. He was awarded honorary doctorates by various American, British and European universities, and appeared in a self-title biographical documentary in 2002.

Derrida had always been involved in various (generally leftist) political causes, including support for the Parisian student protesters in 1968, denouncement of the Vietnam War, cultural activities against the apartheid government of South Africa and on behalf of Nelson Mandela in the 1980s, support for Palestinian liberation, protests against the death penalty and opposition to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

In 2003, Derrida was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and he reduced his workload significantly. He died in a Parisian hospital on 8 October 2004.


Derrida’s initial work in philosophy was largely phenomenological, and his early training as a philosopher was done largely through the lens of Edmund Husserl. Other important inspirations on his early thought include Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857 – 1913), the Lithuanian-French philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas (1906 – 1995) and the Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud (1856 – 1939).

He soon started to express a dissatisfaction with both Phenomenology and Structuralism (the other main movement of the period), finding them limiting and overly simplistic. After his 1966 lecture, “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Science”, Derrida found himself identified as a key figure in the early Post-Structuralist movement, and was one of the first to propose some theoretical limitations to Structuralism, He pointed to an apparent de-stabilizing or de-centring in intellectual life (referring to the displacement of the author of a text as having greatest effect on a text itself, in favour of the various readers of the text), which came to be known as Post-Structuralism.

A preoccupation with language is apparent in much of Derrida’s early work, especially in his ground-breaking “Of Grammatology” of 1967, and he especially asked the questions “What is ‘meaning’?” and “Where does ‘meaning’ come from?” He argued that the whole philosophical tradition rests on arbitrary dichotomous categories (e.g. sacred/profane, sign/signifier, mind/body, etc), and he referred to his procedure for uncovering and unsettling these dichotomies as “deconstruction”.

In very simplistic terms, Deconstructionism (or sometimes just Deconstruction) is a theory of literary criticism that questions traditional assumptions about certainty, identity, and truth. It asserts that words can only refer to other words, and attempts to demonstrate how statements about any text subvert their own meanings. Derrida’s particular methods of textual criticism involved discovering, recognizing and understanding the underlying assumptions (unspoken and implicit), ideas and frameworks that form the basis for thought and belief. Derrida himself denied that it was a method or school or doctrine of philosophy (or indeed anything outside of reading the text itself).

In the mid-1980s, Derrida began teaching on the relationship between philosophy and Nationalism, and published “Of Spirit: Heidegger and the Question” on Heidegger’s Nationalism in 1987. His work took an even more “political turn”around 1994, heralded by the publication of “Spectres of Marx” (professing his faith in a deconstructed Marxism), and arguably an “ethical turn” with works such as “The Gift of Death” of 1995.

Derrida’s work was always highly cerebral and “difficult”. Proponents of Analytic philosophy, such as W. V. O. Quine, J. L. Austin (1911 – 1960) and John Searle(1932 – ), repeatedly accused Derrida of pseudophilosophy and sophistry, and even his French contemporary Michel Foucault accused him of “obscurantisme terroriste” (“terrorist obscurantism”). No less an intellectual and linguist than Noam Chomsky (1928 – ) admitted to not understanding Derrida’s work, and denounced his “pretentious rhetoric” and “intentional obfuscation”. Other accusations are of an extreme Skepticism and Solipsism, verging on Nihilism, that effectively denies the possibility of knowledge and meaning.

Michel Foucault (1926 – 1984)


Michel FoucaltMichel Foucault (1926 – 1984) was a French philosopher, historian, critic and sociologist, often associated with the 20th Century Structuralism, Post-Structuralism and Post-Modernism movements (although he himself always rejected such labels).

He was no stranger to controversy, and he was notorious for his radical leftist politics. Although not without his critics, he has however had a profound influence on a diverse range of disciplines.


Michel Foucault (pronounced foo-CO) was born on 15 October 1926 to a notable provincial family in Poitiers in west central France. His father, Paul Foucault, was an eminent surgeon and hoped his son would follow him into the profession. His early education was a mix of success and mediocrity until he attended the Jesuit Collège Saint-Stanislas, where he excelled. After World War II, he gained entry to the prestigious École Normale Supérieure in Paris, the traditional gateway to an academic career in the humanities in France.

At the École Normale, he suffered from acute depression, and became fascinated with psychology. He joined the French Communist Party from 1950 to 1953, inducted into the party by the prominent Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser (1918 – 1990), although he left the party due to concerns about what was happening in the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin (1878 – 1973) and was never a particularly active member. A particularly influential lecturer was the Existentialist and Phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908 – 1961). In 1952, he earned a degree in psychology(then a relatively new qualification in France) as well as in philosophy.

After a brief period lecturing at the École Normale, he took up a position teaching psychology at the University of Lille from 1953 to 1954, but it soon became clear to him that teaching was not his real vocation. From 1954 to 1958, his friend and mentor Georges Dumézil (1898 – 1986) arranged a position for him as French cultural delegate to the University of Uppsala in Sweden, and then he briefly held positions at Warsaw University and at the University of Hamburg before returning to France in 1960.

He took up a post in philosophy at the University of Clermont-Ferrand, where he completed his doctorate. His doctorate thesis was later published in an abridged edition as “Folie et déraison” (“Madness and Insanity”, also re-published as “Madness and Civilization” and “History of Madness”), and was extremely well-received. He also met Daniel Defert (b. 1937), with whom he lived in a non-monogamous partnership for the rest of his life. When Defert was posted to Tunisia for his military service in 1965, Foucault moved to a position at the University of Tunis. In 1966 he published “Les Mots et les choses” (“The Order of Things”), which was enormously popular despite its length and difficulty, and was responsible for bringing Foucault to prominence as an intellectual figure in France.

The mid-1960s saw the height of interest in Structuralism, (which was set to topple the Existentialism popularized by Jean-Paul Sartre), and Foucault was quickly grouped with scholars such as Jacques Lacan (1901 – 1981), Claude Lévi-Strauss(1908 – ) and Roland Barthes (1915 – 1980) as one of the newest wave of thinkers, although he always rejected the label of Structuralism.

He was greatly affected by the student riots of May 1968 (both in France and locally in Tunis), and returned to Paris in the fall of 1968. In the aftermath of the student riots (which contributed to the fall of the De Gaulle government in France), a new experimental university, Paris VIII, was established in the Vincennes suburb of Paris, and the newly radicalized Foucault was appointed as the first head of its philosophy department in December 1968. He appointed mostly young leftist academics, such as Judith Miller (1941 – ), whose radicalism provoked the Ministry of Education to withdraw the department’s accreditation. Foucault notoriously also joined students in occupying administration buildings and fighting with police.

In 1970, he was elected to France’s most prestigious academic body, the Collège de France, as Professor of the History of Systems of Thought, a position he retained until his death. His partner Defert joined a French ultra-Maoist group, and Foucault’s own political involvement increased still further, including his founding of the Groupe d’Information sur les Prisons (“Prison Information Group”), an organization established to voice the concerns of prisoners, and many protests on behalf of homosexuals and other marginalized groups.

In the late 1970s, political activism in France tailed off with the disillusionment of many left wing militants, a number of whom broke with Marxism to form the so-called New Philosophers, often citing Foucault as their major influence (a status about which Foucault had mixed feelings). He continued to write, including the early volumes of a six-volume project “Histoire de la sexualité” (“The History of Sexuality”), which he was never to complete. Foucault began to spend more time in the United States, at the University at Buffalo and especially at the University of California at Berkeley. In 1979, he made two tours of Iran, undertaking extensive (and controversial) interviews with political protagonists in support of the new interim government established there after the Iranian Revolution.

Foucault died in Paris of an AIDS-related illness on 25 June 1984, at a time when little was known about the disease (the event was consequently mired in controversy). His partner, Defert became a prominent AIDS activist and the founding president of the first AIDS awareness organization in France. Prior to his death, Foucault had destroyed most of his unpublished manuscripts and prohibitedin his will the publication of anything he might have overlooked.


Foucault’s first major book was “Folie et déraison: Histoire de la folie à l’âge classique” in 1961 (later published in English as “Madness and Insanity”, as “Madness and Civilization” and as “History of Madness”), which examined ideas, practices, institutions, art and literature relating to madness in Western history.

His “Les Mots et les choses: Une archéologie des sciences humaines” (“The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences”), first published in 1966, posited that all periods of history have possessed certain underlying conditions of truth that constituted what was acceptable. This was the book that brought Foucault to prominence as an intellectual figure in France.

1969’s “Archéologie du Savoir” (“The Archaeology of Knowledge”) was his main excursion into methodology and his analysis of the statement as the basic unit of discourse. It was the book which mainly led to his identification with Structuralism. In 1975, Foucault’s “Surveiller et punir: Naissance de la prison”(“Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison”) marked his continuing politicization during the 1970s, and his particular focus on the rights of prisoners.

Three volumes of his ambitious “Histoire de la sexualité” (“The History of Sexuality”) were published before Foucault’s death in 1984. The first (and most referenced) volume, “La volonté de savoir” (“The Will to Knowledge”), published in 1976, focused primarily on the last two centuries and the emergence of a science of sexuality and of “biopower” in the West as a way of managing groups of people. The second two volumes, “L’usage des plaisirs” (“The Use of Pleasure”) and “Le souci de soi” (“The Care of the Self”) were first published in French in 1984, and deal with the role of sex in Greek and Roman antiquity. Foucault’s idea that the body and sexuality are cultural constructs rather than natural phenomena made a significant contribution to the feminist critique of Essentialism.

There has been much criticism of Foucault’s lax standards of scholarship, his historical inaccuracies and misrepresentation of facts, and his rejection of the values and philosophy associated with the Enlightenment while simultaneously secretly relying on them. However, the sheer volume of citations in standard academic journals (in disciplines as diverse as philosophy, art, history, anthropology, geography, archaeology, communication studies, public relations, rhetoric, cultural studies, linguistics, sociology, education, psychology, literary theory, feminism, queer theory, management studies, the philosophy of science, political science, urban design, museum studies, and many others) suggest that his influence has been profound indeed.

Alfred Ayer (1910 – 1989)


Alfred AyerSir Alfred Jules (“Freddie”) Ayer (better known as Alfred Ayer or A. J. Ayer) (1910 – 1989) was a 20th Century British philosopher in the Analytic Philosophy tradition, mainly known for his promotion of Logical Positivism and for popularizing the movement’s ideas in Britain.

He saw himself as continuing in the British Empiricist tradition of Locke and Hume and more contemporary philosophers like Bertrand Russell, and is often considered second only to Russell among British philosophers of the 20th Century in the depth of his philosophical knowledge.


Alfred Ayer was born on 29 October 1910 in London, England, into a wealthy family of continental origin. His mother, Reine, was from a Dutch-Jewish family; his father, Jules Louis Cyprien Ayer, was a Swiss Calvinist. He grew up in the well-to-do St. John’s Wood area of London, and was educated at the exclusive Ascham St. Vincent preparatory school for boys at Eastbourne, and then at even more prestigious Eton College.

A precocious but mischievous child, Ayer always felt himself to be something of an outsider. From an early age, he tried to convert his fellow students to Atheism, and at the age of 16 he started to show a serious interest in philosophy, duly impressed by his reading of Bertrand Russell’s “Sceptical Essays” and G. E. Moore’s “Principia Ethica”.

In 1929, he won a classics scholarship to Christ Church College at the University of Oxford, where one of his philosophy tutors, Gilbert Ryle (1900 – 1976), introduced him to Wittgenstein’s “Tractatus”. Ryle, who became a major figure in the Ordinary Language Philosophy movement, also enabled the young Alfred to study for a time with Moritz Schlick (1882 – 1936), then leader of the influential Vienna Circle, out of which the Logical Positivism movement grew. From 1933 to 1944, he was a lecturer and research fellow at Christ Church, Oxford.

During World War II, Ayer served in the British military, working for the Special Operations Executive (a secret intelligence and espionage unit) and helping to organize the French resistance movement in London. He was popularly known after the War as a participant on the BBC discussion program “The Brains Trust”. He was a noted social mixer and womanizer (he was married four times), and enjoyed dancing and attending the London clubs, as well as being a well known face in the crowd at his beloved Tottenham Hotspur Football Club, where he was known as “The Prof”. Despite his reputation for aloofness and vanity, his circle of friendsincluded many famous names in the fields of politics, literature and philosophy.

Ayer was the Grote Professor of the Philosophy of Mind and Logic at the University College London from 1946 until 1959, when he became Wykeham Professor of Logic at the University of Oxford, a position he retained until 1978. He was an Honorary Associate of the Rationalist Press Association from 1947 until his death, president of the Aristotelian Society from 1951 to 1952, and president of the British Humanist Association from 1965 to 1970.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Ayer kept up a hectic schedue of lecture tours throughout Europe and South America, and then later in China, Russia, India and Pakistan. He taught and lectured several times in the United States, including serving as a visiting professor at Bard College in New York State. In 1963, he had a son, Nicholas, by his second wife, Dee Wells, an experience which apparently had a profound effect on him. Throughout this period, he continued to be active in the British Labour Party, which he had first joined before the War. Among other honours, he was knighted in 1970.

He is generally considered to have been an outspoken atheist, although “igtheist” (a person who believes that “God” denotes no verifiable hypothesis) may be a better description. However, in 1988, shortly before his death, he received much publicity after an unusual near-death experience, which weakened his inflexible attitude that there is no life after death, and prompted him to write an article called “What I saw when I was dead”. He died of a collapsed lung in London on 27 June 1989.


A. J. Ayer had a crisp, clear and informative writing style, in which he could lay bare the bones of a philosophical difficulty in a few paragraphs of strikingly simple prose. He is often considered second only to Berrand Russell among British philosophers of the 20th Century in the depth of his philosophical knowledge.

In addition to two autobiographies, he wrote books on Bertrand Russell, G. E. Moore, David Hume and Voltaire, all of whom had a lasting influence on his own work. He saw himself as continuing in the line of British Empiricism established by Locke and Hume and more contemporary philosophers like Russell.

Ayer began the book that made his philosophical name, “Language, Truth, and Logic”, at the tender age of 23 as a young lecturer at Oxford, and it was published three years later in 1936. The book is regarded as a classic of 20th Century Analytic Philosophy and Logical Positivism, and is still widely read in philosophy courses around the world. In it, he popularized the verification principle (an issue at the heart of the debates of the Vienna Circle at the time), that a sentence is meaningless unless it has verifiable empirical import (see the section on Verificationism).

He also claimed in the book that the distinction between a conscious human and an unconscious machine merely resolves itself into a distinction between “different types of perceptible behaviour” (a contentious argument which anticipates the 1950 Turing test of a machine’s intelligence or consciousness). He also put forward an emotivist theory of Ethics (a kind of Moral Anti-Realism or Non-Cognitivism, which holds that that ethical judgments are primarily just expressions of one’s own attitude and imperatives designed to change the attitudes and actions of others), which he never abandoned.

His later works include “Foundations of Empirical Knowledge” (1940), “The Problem of Knowledge” (1956) and “Logical Positivism” (1966). In 1973, his “Central Questions of Philosophy” was published. The book was a comprehensive confirmation of his Logical Positivist outlook that large parts of what was traditionally called “philosophy” (including the whole of Metaphysics, Theology and Aesthetics) were not matters that could be judged as being true or false and that it was thus meaningless to even discuss them.

These claims, and his complete rejection of the possibility of synthetic a priori knowledge, made him rather unpopular among other British philosophers. For many years he kept up a highly public ongoing battle against the Ordinary Language Philosophy of J. L. Austin (1911 – 1960) and Peter Strawson (1919 – 2006) in particular.

Willard Van Orman Quine


Willard Van Orman QuineWillard Van Orman Quine (AKA W. V. O. Quine, or “Van” to his friends) (1908 – 2000) was an American philosopher and mathematical logician, widely considered one of the most important philosophers of the second half of the 20th Century.

His criticisms and modifications of Logical Positivism and Pragmatism were instrumental in moving 20th Century Analytic Philosophy along, and he revolutionized developments in Epistemology, Metaphysics, Logic, Philosophy of Language and Philosophy of Mathematics. His consistent application of analytic methods led him to a kind of extreme Empiricism, Naturalism and Physicalism.

He published over twenty books and numerous articles, all written in a distinctive crisp and witty style. For the last 70 years of his long life, he was affiliated in some way with Harvard University, first as a student, then as a teacher and professor, and finally as an emeritus elder statesman.


Quine was born on 25 June 1908 in a modest frame house in Akron, Ohio, USA. His father, Cloyd Robert Quine, was an engineer and manufacturing entrepreneur and continued to work at the Akron Equipment Company until his death in 1967. His mother, Harriet Van Orman, was a college-educated local schoolteacher. He had an elder brother called Robert Cloyd Quine.

His interest in philosophy began early and, aged nine, he fretted over the absurdity of heaven and hell. He chose scientific courses at his local high school, and was an ardent stamp collector and list-maker, fascinated by etymology and obsessed with maps and faraway places. Later in high school, his brother gave him William James’ “Pragmatism”, which he read compulsively (although he always claimed that it was reading Edgar Allen Poe’s short story “Eureka” that first filled him with a desire to understand the universe).

He earned his B.A. in mathematics and philosophy in 1930 from Oberlin College (a private, highly selective liberal arts college in Oberlin, Ohio), where his appetite for “cosmic understanding” was sharpened by reading Bertrand Russell. He was awarded a scholarship to Harvard University, which marked the start of a remarkable 70-year association with the institution. He completed his Ph.D. in just two years in 1932, under the supervision of Alfred North Whitehead, and was then appointed a Harvard Junior Fellow, which excused him from having to teach for the next four years.

In 1932, he married his first wife, Naomi Clayton. Thanks to a fellowship, he travelled in Europe during 1932 and 1933, meeting Alfred Tarski (1901 – 1983) (who was later to accept Quine’s invitation to attend a congress in Cambridge, thereby avoiding the Nazi crackdown in Poland) and other Polish logicians, as well as Kurt Gödel (who had just produced his renowned Incompleteness Theorem) and the Logical Positivists Rudolf Carnap (1891 – 1970), Moritz Schlick and other members of the Vienna Circle, and their British disciple, Alfred Ayer. He became Carnap’s “ardent disciple” and, although they were to become increasingly combative philosophically, they remained firm friends.

During the 1930s, he developed his ideas in many articles, mainly on Logic and set theory, as well as his first book, “A System Of Logistics” in 1933. In 1940, he produced the popular textbook, “Mathematical Logic”. He became an Instructor of Philosophy at Harvard in 1936, and then Associate Professor in 1941.

Quine was a talented linguist and preferred to learn his audience’s French, German, Spanish, Portuguese or whatever, and lecture in that rather than English. For example, during World War II, he lectured on Logic in Brazil in Portuguese. He also served in the United States Navy in a military intelligence role, reaching the rank of Lieutenant Commander. In 1945, Quine and his wife, having had two daughters, Elizabeth (born 1935) and Norma (born 1937), separated and they were divorced two years later.

He was promoted to full professor at Harvard in 1948. In the same year, he married again, his second wife being Marjorie Boynton (who he had met while serving in the Navy), and they were to bear a son and a daughter, Douglas (born 1950) and Margaret (born 1954). Quine loved Dixieland jazz and played the banjoin jazz groups during this period, as well as the piano.

Quine held the Edgar Pierce Chair of Philosophy at Harvard University from 1956 until his retirement from Harvard in 1978, and then as Professor Emeritus until his death in 2000. His prolific output and his obsession with travelling continued up to and beyond his retirement (throughout his life he visited 118 countries) and he commuted daily to his Harvard office well after his retirement.

He first established his wider reputation with his seminal 1951 book, “Two Dogmas Of Empiricism”, but he continued publishing and revising at a frantic pace for most of the rest of his life, including “Word And Object” (1960), “Philosophy of Logic” (1969), “Set Theory and Its Logic” (1963), “Methods of Logic” (1972), “The Roots of Reference” (1973), “Theories and Things”(1981), “Pursuit of Truth” (1989), “Quiddities” (1990) and “From Stimulus to Science” (1995).

Among the eighteen universities which awarded him an honorary degree were The University of Lille, Oxford University, Cambridge University, Uppsala University, the University of Bern and (of course) Harvard University. He was elected to fellowships of many learned societies including the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1949), the British Academy (1959), the Instituto Brasileiro de Filosophia (1963), the National Academy of Sciences (1977), the Institut de France (1978) and the Norwegian Academy of Sciences (1979).

Quine died on 25 December 2000. His ashes rest between his parents in the Glendale Cemetary, Akron, Ohio, with portions also scattered in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard, Massachusetts, and Meriden, Connecticut.


Quine’s philosophy at first seems utterly fragmentary, with fundamental shifts in doctrine. However, over time, his philosophy assumed a growing systematic coherence.

In Epistemology, he was known for rejecting epistemological Foundationalism in favour of what he called “naturalized epistemology”, whose task was to give a psychological account of how scientific knowledge is obtained. This was in effect a kind of Fallibilism (the doctrine that all claims to knowledge could, in principle, be mistaken, and that we need not have logically conclusive justifications for what we know).

Quine’s seminal 1951 essay, “Two Dogmas Of Empiricism”, and its follow-up “From a Logical Point of View” of 1953, were the works which first established his reputation. In these works, he denied the importance (and even the existence) of the “analytic-synthetic distinction”, a claim that was seen almost as heresy in most Analytic Philosophy camps of the day. The distinction between “analytic” statements (those true simply by the meanings of their words, such as “All bachelors are unmarried”) and “synthetic” statements (those true or false by virtue of facts about the world, such as “There is a cat on the mat”) had first been established by Immanuel Kant in the 18th Century, and was one of the cardinal doctrines of Logical Positivism. Quine argued that ultimately the definition of “analytic” was circular and that the whole notion of truth by definition was unsatisfactory. He further argued that there is in fact no distinction between universally known collateral information and conceptual or analytic truths.

By denying it, Quine effectively made even the “truths” of Logic and mathematics totally empirical, and opened the door for logical and mathematical statements to be (in principle at least) modified or even abandoned in the light of experience, in much the same way as factual statements are. This led to the development of a naturalistic and revitalized Epistemology, and his work heralded a major shift away from the views of language descended from Logical Positivism, and a new appreciation of the difficulty of providing a sound empirical basis for theses concerning convention, meaning and synonymy.

The other main tenet of Logical Positivism attacked by Quine in these works was that of Reductionism (the theory that any meaningful statement gets its meaning from some logical construction of terms which refers exclusively to immediate experience). Although Quine’s criticisms played a major role in the decline of Logical Positivism, he remained a Verificationist. Thus, he believed that, while it may be possible to verify or falsify whole theories, it is not possible to verify or falsify individual statements. He also subscribed to a kind of Relativism, believing that for any collection of empirical evidence, there would always be many theories able to account for it.

In his Metaphysics and ontology (or “ontic theory” as Quine referred to it), two articles stand out, “Steps toward a Constructive Nominalism” (1947) and “On What There Is” (1948). In general, his ontology was originally nominalistic, maintaining that only particular individuals exist, and that universals or abstract entities do not exist (except perhaps as linguistic symbols). He made clear, however, that accepted scientific theories allow for more than one ontic theory of existence, and that it is incorrect to seek to determine that just one such ontic theory is true. The primacy of mathematical logic in Quine’s ontology is evident in his celebrated definition of being: “To be is to be the value of a variable”.

“Word And Object” (1960), along with his later “Pursuit of Truth” (1990), attacked prevailing theories in Philosophy of Language which see meanings as objects in a kind of museum of ideas, with verbal expressions as their arbitrary, interchangeable labels. By this time, he had abandoned his earlier Nominalism by acknowledging the existence of abstract entities, and he also developed a behaviourist account of language learning. It was in “Word And Object” that he first proposed his thesis of the indeterminacy of translation, particularly regarding radical translation (the attempt to translate a hitherto unknown language). He noted that there are always different ways one might break a sentence into words, and different ways to distribute functions among words, so that a single sentence must always be taken to have more than one different meaning. He effectively broadened the principle of Semantic or Confirmation Holism still further to arrive at the position that a sentence (and therefore a word) has meaning only in the context of a whole language.

Quine’s early work was mainly on mathematical Logic, including significant contributions to the development of the important mathematical area of set theory, particularly in his papers “A System of Logic” (1934), “New Foundations of Mathematical Logic” (1937), “Mathematical Logic” (1940), “Methods of Logic” (1950) and “Set Theory and Its Logic” (1963).

He also developed an interesting paradox, which has come to be known as Quine’s Paradox: “yields falsehood when preceded by its quotation” yields falsehood when preceded by its quotation.

Jean-Paul Sartre (1905 – 1980)


SartreJean-Paul Charles Aymard Sartre (1905 – 1980) was a French philosopher, writer and political activist, and one of the central figures in 20th Century French philosophy.

He is best known as the main figurehead of the Existentialism movement. Along with his French contemporaries Albert Camus (1913 – 1960) and Simone de Beauvoir (1908 – 1986), he helped popularize the movement through his novels and plays as well as through his more academic works. As a young man, he also made significant contributions to Phenomenology.

He was a confirmed Atheist and a committed Communist and Marxist, and took a prominent role in many leftist political causes throughout his adult life.


Sartre was born in Paris, France on 21 June 1905. His father was Jean-Baptiste Sartre, an officer of the French Navy, who died of a fever when Sartre was only 15 months old; his mother was Anne-Marie Schweitzer, of Alsatian origin and cousin to the German Nobel Peace Prize winner Albert Schweitzer (1875 – 1965). His mother raised him with help from her father, Charles Schweitzer, a high school professor of German, who taught Sartre mathematics and introduced him to classical literature at a very early age. As a boy, he was small and cross-eyed and socially awkward. When his mother remarried in 1917, the family moved to La Rochelle.

He first became attracted to philosophy on reading the “Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness” by Henri Bergson(1859 – 1941) as a teenager in the 1920s. He attended high school at the Lycée Henri IV in Paris, and then went on to study at the elite École Normale Supérieure (the alma mater for several prominent French thinkers and intellectuals) from 1924 until 1929, where he absorbed the ideas of Immanuel Kant, Georg Hegel, Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger among others.

While at the École Normale, he came into contact with such notables as Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908 – 1961), Raymond Aron (1905 – 1983), Simone Weil (1909 – 1943), Jean Hippolyte (1907 – 1968) and Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908 – ). Most importantly, he also met Simone de Beauvoir (1908 – 1986), who was studying at the Sorbonne at that time, and the two became inseparable and remained lifelong companions (although not monogamously), deliberately challenging the cultural and social assumptions and expectations of their upbringings. De Beauvoir went on to become a noted thinker in her own right, as well as a popular writer and prominent feminist.

Sartre graduated from the École Normale Supérieure in 1929 with a doctorate in philosophy, and then served for a period as a conscript in the French Army from 1929 to 1931. He obtained a position teaching philosophy at the lycée in Le Havre, and then obtained a grant to study at the French Institute in Berlin in 1933 where he studied the Phenomenology of Husserl and Heidegger in more detail, and began to develop his own profoundly original Existentialism. He published two important early works, “La Transcendance de l’égo” (“Transcendence of the Ego”) and “Esquisse d’une théorie des émotions” (“Sketch for a Theory of the Emotions”) in 1936 and 1938 respectively, and his groundbreaking existentialist novel “La Nausée” (“Nausea”) came out in 1938.

In 1939, at the start of World War II, Sartre was drafted into the French army, where he served as a meteorologist. He was captured by German troops in 1940 in Padoux, and he spent nine months as a prisoner of war in Nancy and then in Stalag 12D at Trier, Germany. He was released in April 1941 due to poor health and given civilian status. He recovered his position as a teacher at the Lycée Pasteurnear Paris, and then soon after took up a new position at the Lycée Condorcet.

He settled near Montparnasse in Paris, where a group of intellectuals gathered around him in the cafés of the Left Bank, especially the Café de Flore. He participated in the founding of the underground group Socialisme et Liberté with other writers including de Beauvoir and Merleau-Ponty. After the high-profile writers André Gide (1869 – 1951) and André Malraux (1901 – 1976) were approached but did not join, Sartre became discouraged and the group soon dissolved and he turned to writing in earnest. He wrote the plays “Les Mouches” (“The Flies”) in 1943 and “Huis-clos” (“No Exit”) in 1944, managing to avoid German censorship, and his most important scholarly work on Existentialism, “L’Être et le néant”(“Being and Nothingness”), was written in 1943.

Although some commentators criticized Sartre’s lack of political commitmentduring the German occupation, he was an active contributor to “Les Lettres Française” and to “Combat”, clandestine newspapers of the French Resistance, through which he met Albert Camus, a like-minded philosopher and author. Sartre and de Beauvoir remained close friends with Camus until he turned away from Communism in 1951. After the War, Sartre and de Beauvoir established “Les Temps Modernes” (“Modern Times”), a monthly literary and political review, and he started writing full-time as well as continuing his political activism. He drew on his war experiences for his great trilogy of novels, “Les Chemins de la Liberté”(“The Roads to Freedom”) (1945 – 1949). In 1948, the Roman Catholic Church placed his complete works on its Index of Prohibited Books.

During this post-War period, Sartre was a very public intellectual and could always be found openly chatting, discussing and writing in the cafés of St. Germain des Près and the trendy Left Bank of Paris. Despite his rather unprepossessing appearance, he attracted the attentions of many glamorous women, and had many mistresses in addition to his on-going relationship with Simone de Beauvoir (whom he affectionately called “the Beaver”) and with Michelle Vian. He also attracted a lot of press coverage, much of it negative, and he was publicly accused of moral corruption and of spreading hopelessness among the young. Eventually, he was hounded out by the attentions of the press and forced to retreat from his public café lifestyle. He moved back to his mother’s house in the rue Bonaparte where he could work in peace

Although he never officially joined the Communist Party, Sartre embraced Communism for many years, while continuing to defended Existentialism. Indeed, he spent much of the 1950s trying to reconcile the individualist philosophy of Existentialism with the collective vision of Marxism and Communism. His continued support for Russian Communism officially ended, however, on the entry of Soviet tanks into Budapest in 1956, and he roundly condemned both the Soviet intervention and the submission of the French Communist Party to the interests of Moscow.

His ongoing critiques of Communism led to his formulation of “Sartrian Socialism”, a model which demanded that Marxism recognize differences between one society and another and respect human freedom. His “Critique de la raison dialectique” (“Critique of Dialectical Reason”) of 1960 was intended to give Marxism a more vigorous intellectual defence than it had received up until then, and also to reconcile it with his existentialist ideas about free will. In the 1960s, he travelled to Cuba to meet Fidel Castro (1926 – ) and spent a great deal of time philosophizing with Ernesto “Che” Guevara (1928 – 1967), whom he idolized.

He became increasingly politically active during the late 1950s and 1960s. He took a prominent role in the struggle against French rule in Algeria, and he was an eminent supporter of the Front de Libération nationale (FLN) (National Liberation Front, the Algerian socialist party) in the Algerian War of 1954 – 1962 and one of the signatories of the Manifeste des 121. He also had an Algerian mistress, Arlette Elkaïm, who became his adopted daughter in 1965. Along with Bertrand Russell and others, he vociferously opposed the Vietnam War in the 1960s. He was actively involved in the student strikes in Paris during the summer of 1968, during which he was arrested several times for civil disobedience.

In the aftermath of the 1968 Paris unrest, Sartre lost faith in the French Communist Party and in Communism is general, and returned to a more individualist, but still radical, outlook, closer to Anarchism. He remained outspoken in his radical views, though, and caused something of a scandal by trying to justify the Munich massacre in which eleven Israeli Olympians were killed by the a Palestinian terrorist organization in 1972.

With his witty and sardonic autobiography, “Les mots” (“Words”) of 1964, Sartre renounced literature, calling it a bourgeois substitute for real commitment in the world. In the same year, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, but he declined it in protest against the values of bourgeois society (just as he had earlier refused the Légion d’honneur in 1945).

During the 1970s, Sartre’s physical condition deteriorated, partially due to his merciless pace of work (and his use of amphetamines). The last project of his life, a massive analytical biography of the French author Gustave Flaubert, as well as a proposed second volume of the “Critique of Dialectical Reason”, both remained unfinished. He died on 15 April 1980 in Paris from an oedema of the lung, and was buried in the Cimetière de Montparnasse in Paris. His funeral was attended by 50,000 mourners.


Adopting and adapting the methods of Phenomenology and, particularly, the work of Martin Heidegger, Sartre set out to develop an ontological account of what it is to be human. The basis of his Existentialism is found in his early book “La Transcendance de l’égo” (“Transcendence of the Ego”) of 1936, was developed in “L’Être et le néant” (“Being and Nothingness”) of 1943, and refined and summarized in “L’existentialisme est un humanisme”(“Existentialism is a Humanism”) of 1946.

But he also believed that our ideas are the product of experiences of real-life situations, and that novels and plays describing such fundamental experiences have as much value for the elaboration of philosophical theories as do discursive essays. Thus, his novels such as “La Nausée” (“Nausea”) of 1928 and the “Les Chemins de la Liberté” (“The Roads to Freedom”) trilogy of 1945 to 1949, were also important vehicles of his thought, as were his plays like “Les Mouches” (“The Flies”) of 1943, “Huis-clos” (“No Exit”) of 1944 (with its famous line, “L’enfer, c’est les autres” or “Hell is other people”), and “Les Mains Sales” (“Dirty Hands”) of 1948, and his volume of short stories, “Le Mur” (“The Wall”). A whole school of absurd literature subsequently developed.

In Sartre’s Existentialism, “existence is prior to essence” (or, put a different way, the existence of humans precedes consciousness), in the sense that the meaning of man’s life is not established before his existence, and man is “thrown into” into a concrete, inveterate universe that cannot be “thought away”. Thus, it is what we do and how we act in our life that determines our apparent “qualities”. As Sartre put it: “At first [Man] is nothing. Only afterward will he be something, and he himself will have made what he will be”.

Sartre firmly believed that everyone, always and everywhere, has choices and therefore freedom. Even in the most apparently cut-and-dried situations, even in the face of what appears to be inevitablity, a person always has a choice of actions, whether it be to do nothing, whether it be to run away, or whether it be to risk one’s very life. This freedom is empowering, but it also comes with responsibility.

Sartre famously declared that “man is condemned to be free” (meaning, free from all authority) and, although he may seek to evadedistort or deny that freedom (what Sartre called “mauvaise foi” or bad faith”), he will nevertheless have to face up to it if he is to become a moral being. Individuals are responsible for the choices they make, and for their emotional lives, but because they are always conscious of the limits of knowledge and of mortality, they constantly live with existential dread or “angst”.

In his 1946 essay, “L’existentialisme est un humanisme” (“Existentialism is a Humanism”), seen by many as one of the defining texts of the Existentialist movement, Sartre described the human condition in a succinct summary form: “Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself. That is the first principle of existentialism.” Thus, freedom entails total responsibility, in the face of which we experience anguishforlornness and despair, and genuine human dignity can be achieved only in our active acceptance of these emotions.

Sartre concluded from his arguments that if God exists, then man is not free; by the same token, if man is free, then God does not exist. Atheism, then, is taken for granted in Sartre’s philosophy, but he maintained that the “loss of God” is not to be mourned. On the contrary, in a godless universe, life has no meaning or purpose beyond the goals that each man sets for himself, and individuals must therefore detach themselves from things in order to give them meaning.

Although Sartre is considered by many to be an important and innovative philosopher, others are much less impressed by his contributions. Heidegger himself thought that Sartre had merely taken his own work and regressed it back to the subject-object orientated philosophy of Descartes and Husserl, which is exactly what Heidegger had been trying to free philosophy from. Some see Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908 – 1961) as a better Existentialist philosopher, particular for his incorporation of the body as our way of being in the world, and for his more complete analysis of perception (two areas in which Heidegger’s work is often seen as deficient).

Gilbert Ryle (1900 – 1976)


Gilbert RyleGilbert Ryle (1900 – 1976) was a 20th Century British philosopher, mainly associated with the Ordinary Language Philosophy movement.

He had an enormous influence on the development of 20th Century Analytic Philosophy, particularly in the areas of Philosophy of Mind and Philosophy of Language.

He was especially well-known for his definitive critique of the Dualism of Descartes (for which he coined the phrase “the ghost in the machine”) and other traditional mind-body theories. His form of Philosophical Behaviourism (the belief that all mental phenomena can be explained by reference to publicly observable behaviour) became a standard view for several decades.


Ryle was born on 19 August 1900 in Brighton, England, one of ten children in a prosperous family. His father was a doctor but also a generalist who had interests in philosophy and astronomy, and passed on to his children an impressive library, and the young Ryle grew up in an environment of learning.

He was educated at Brighton College and, in 1919, he went to Queen’s College, Oxford, initially to study Classics, although he was soon drawn to Philosophy. He graduated with first class honours in 1924 and was appointed to a lectureship in Philosophy at Christ Church, Oxford. He became a tutor a year later, and remained at Christ Church until World War II (and remained at Oxford for his entire academic career until his retirement in 1968).

A capable linguist, Ryle was recruited to intelligence work with the Welsh Guards during World War II, and rose to the rank of Major by the end of the War. He returned to Oxford in 1945 where he was elected Waynflete Professor of Metaphysical Philosophy and Fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford. He was generally regarded as easy-going and sociable and an entertaining conversationalist, but a fierce and forbidable debater, unforgiving of pomposity and pretentiousness.

He was president of the Aristotelian Society from 1945 to 1946, and editor of the philosophical journal “Mind” for nearly twenty-five years from 1947 to 1971. He published his principal work, “The Concept of Mind”, in 1949.

A confirmed bachelor, he lived after his retirement in 1968 with his twin sister, Mary, in the village of Islip, Oxfordshire. Gardening and walking gave him immense pleasure, as did his pipe (without which he was rarely seen). Ryle died on 6 October 1976 at Whitby in North Yorkshire, after a day’s walking on the moors.


In his writing, Ryle had a literary and instantly recognizable style. He is mainly known for his book, “The Concept of Mind” (1949), but he also wrote a collection of shorter pieces called “Dilemmas” (1954), as well as “Plato’s Progress” (1966) and “On Thinking” (1979). “The Concept of Mind” in particular was recognized on its appearance as an important contribution to philosophical psychology and Philosophy of Mind, and an important work in the Ordinary Language Philosophymovement.

In his “The Concept of Mind” of 1949, Ryle attacked the body-mind Dualism (the claim that the Mind is an independent entity, inhabiting and governing the body) which has largely permeated Western Philosophy since René Descartes in the 17th Century, rejecting it as a redundant piece of literalism carried over from the era before the biological sciences became established. He dismissed the idea that nature is a complex machine, and that human nature is a smaller machine with a “ghost” in it to account for intelligence, spontaneity and other such human qualities (he referred to Descartes’ model as “the dogma of the ghost in the machine”).

Ryle believed that the classical theories (whether Cartesian, Idealist or Materialist) made a basic “category-mistake” by attempting to analyze the relation between “mind” and “body” as if they were terms of the same logical category. He argued that philosophers do not need a “hidden” principle to explain the supra-mechanical capacities of humans, because the workings of the mind are not distinct from the actions of the body, but are one and the same. Looked at another way, he characterized the mind as a set of capacities and abilities belonging to the body.

He claimed that mental vocabulary is merely a different way of describing action, and that a person’s motives are defined by that person’s dispositions to act in certain situations. He concluded that adequate descriptions of human behaviourneed never refer to anything but the operations of human bodies, which can be seen as a form of Philosophical Behaviourism (also known as Analytical or Logical Behaviourism) which became a standard view among Ordinary Language philosophers for several decades (although more recently it has morphed into a kind of Functionalism).

Ryle also formulated a cartography analogy for his conception of philosophy. He suggested that competent speakers of a language are to a philosopher what simple villagers are to a mapmaker. The villager knows his way around his village well enough for personal and practical purposes, but may not be able to use a mapto pinpoint or describe routes to an outsider. In the same way, philosophers should be able to explain and make apparent the meaning of sentences by “mapping” the words and phrases of a particular statement, generating what Ryle called “implication threads”, such that each word or phrase of a statement contributes to the statement in such a way that, if the words or phrases were changed, the statement would have a different implication. Philosophy, then, should search for the meaning of these implication threads in the statements in which they are used.


Martin Heidegger (1889 – 1976)


Martin HeideggerMartin Heidegger (1889 – 1976) was a 20th Century German philosopher. He was one of the most original and important philosophers of the 20th Century, but also one of the most controversial. His best known book, “Being and Time”, although notoriously difficult, is generally considered to be one of the most important philosophical works of the 20th Century.

His outspoken early support for the Fascist Nazi regime in Germany has to some extent obscured and tainted his significance, but his work has exercised a deep influence on philosophy, theology and the humanities, and was key to the development of Phenomenology, Existentialism, Deconstructionism, Post-Modernism, and Continental Philosophy in general.


Heidegger (pronounced HIE-de-ger) was born on 26 September 1889 in Messkirchin rural southern Germany, to a poor Catholic family. He was the son of the sextonof the village church, and was raised a Roman Catholic. Even as a child, he was clearly a strong and charismatic personality, despite his physical frailty. In 1903, he went to the high school in Konstanz, where the church supported him by a scholarship, and then moved to the Jesuit seminary at Freiburg in 1906. His early introduction to philosophy came with his reading of “On the Manifold Meaning of Being according to Aristotle” by the philosopher and psychologist Franz Brentano (1838 – 1917).

In 1909, after completing high school, he became a Jesuit novice, but was discharged within a month for reasons of health. From 1909 to 1911, he started to study theology at the University of Freiburg, but then broke off his training for the priesthood and switched to studying philosophy, mathematics, and natural sciences. He completed his doctoral thesis on psychologism in 1914, before joining the German army briefly at the start of World War I, (he was released after two months, again due to health reasons). While working as an unsalaried associate professor at the University of Freiburg, teaching mostly courses in Aristotelianism and Scholastic philosophy, he earned his habilitation with a thesis on the medieval philosopher John Duns Scotus in 1916.

In 1916, he came to know personally the Phenomenologist Edmund Husserl who had joined the Freiburg faculty, and who took the promising young Heidegger under his wing. In 1917, he married Elfriede Petri, an attractive economics student and Protestant with known anti-Semitic views, who would remain at his side for the rest of his life, despite the very “open” nature of the marriage. In 1918, though, he was again called up for military duty, and, although he managed to avoid front-line service for as long as possible, he did serve as an army meteorologist near the western front during the last three months of the war. Elfriede bore their first son Jörg in 1919; another son, Hermann, was probably extramarital.

After the end of the War, in 1918, he broke definitively with Catholicism, and returned to Freiburg as a (salaried) senior assistant to Husserl until 1923. He did not approve of Husserl’s later developments, however, and soon began to radically reinterpret his Phenomenology. In 1923, he was elected to an extraordinary professorship in Philosophy at the University of Marburg, although whenever he could he made his way back to his “spiritual home” deep in the Black Forest, and he maintained a simple rustic cabin there for the rest of his life. During his time at Marburg, he had extramarital affairs with at least two of his students, Hannah Arendt (1906 – 1975) and Elisabeth Blochmann (1892 – 1972), both philosophers in their own right, and both Jewish (Arendt was later to achieve world fame through her commentaries on the evils of Nazism).

In 1927, he published “Sein und Zeit” (“Being and Time”), his first publication since 1916, which soon became recognized as a truly epoch-making work of 20th Century philosophy. The book made Heidegger famous almost overnight and was widely read by educated men and women throughout Germany. It earned him a full professorship at Marburg and, soon after, on Husserl’s retirement from teaching in 1928, the chair of philosophy at Freiburg University (which he accepted, in spite of a counter-offer by Marburg). He remained at Freiburg for most of the rest of his life, declining offers from other universities, including one from the prestigious University of Berlin. Among his students at Freiburg were Herbert Marcuse(1898 – 1979), Ernst Nolte (1923 – ) and Emmanuel Levinas (1906 – 1995).

With Adolph Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, Heidegger (who had previously shown little interest in politics) joined the Nazi party, and was elected Rector of the University of Freiburg (his inaugural address, the “Rektoratsrede”, has become notorious). During this period, he not only cooperated with the educational policies of the National Socialist government, but also offered it his enthusiastic public support, helping to legitimize the Nazi regime with his own worldwide prestige and influence. One of the most prominent victims of his malicious, and often unfounded, denunciations was the Nobel Prize-winning chemist Hermann Staudinger. Heidegger technically resigned his position at Freiburg in 1934, and took a much less overtly political position thereafter, although he remained a member of the academic faculty and he retained his Nazi party membership until it was disbanded the end of World War II (despite some covert criticism of Nazi ideology and even a period of time under the surveillance of the Gestapo).

During the later 1930s and 1940s (sometimes referred to as “the turn”), his writings became less systematic and often more obscure, and he developed a preoccupation with the question of language, a fascination with poetry, a concern with modern technology, as well as a new-found respect for the early Pre-Socratic Greek philosophers. He himself always denied any “turn”, arguing that it was simply a matter of going yet more deeply into the same matters.

At the end of the War, Heidegger returned to Freiburg to face the accusations of the French occupying force and the University’s own denazification commission. He was summarily dismissed from his philosophy chair because of alleged Nazi sympathies, and forbidden from teaching in Germany from 1945 to 1951 by the French Occupation Authority. Despite his apparent lack of remorse, the ban hit Heidegger hard, and he spent some time in a sanatorium after a suicide attempt. When the ban was lifted in 1951, he became Professor emeritus at Freiburg and taught regularly until 1958, and then by invitation until 1967. With the support of some unlikely allies, such as the Marxist Jean-Paul Sartre and other existentialists, and, perhaps most puzzling of all, his Jewish ex-lover Hannah Arendt, he was almost completely rehabilitated as a major philosophical figure during Germany’s Era of Reconstruction after the War, although he never spoke out or publicly apologized for his war-time activities.

During the last three decades of his life, he continued to write and publish, although there was little significant change in his underlying philosophy. He divided his time between his home in Freiburg, his second study in Messkirch, and his isolated mountain hut at Todtnauberg on the edge of the Black Forest, which he considered the best environment in which to engage in philosophical thought.

Heidegger died on 26 May 1976, and was buried in the Messkirch cemetery.


Heidegger’s writings are notoriously difficult and idiosyncratic, indulging in extended word play, employing his own spelling, vocabulary and syntax, and inventing new words for complex concepts. This was partly because he was discussing very specifically defined concepts (which he used in a very rigorousand consistent way) but it does make reading and understanding his work very difficult.

“Sein und Zeit” (“Being and Time”), published in 1927, was his first significant academic work, and is considered by most to be his most important and influential work. It is a tour de force of philosophical reasoning, and all but hammered home the last nail in the coffin of the popular Phenomenology movement of his one-time teacher and mentor, Edmund Husserl. Husserl was entirely convinced that he had discovered the undisputable truth of how to approach philosophy, and it was this (essentially Husserl’s – and Descartes’s before him – view of man as a subject confronted by objects) that Heidegger reacted against.

Heidegger completely rejected the approach of most philosophers since Descartes, who had been trying to prove the existence of the external world. More specifically, his rejection of Phenomenology came when he considered specific concrete examples in which the phenomenological subject-object relation appears to break down. One such example was that of an expert carpenter hammering nails, where, when everything is going well, the carpenter does not have to concentrate on the hammer or even the nail, and the objects become essentially transparent (what Heidegger called “ready to hand”). Similarly, when we enter a room, we turn the door knob, but this is such a basic and habitual action that it does not even enter our consciousness.

Thus, it is only really when something goes wrong (e.g. the hammer is too heavy, the door knob sticks) that we need to become rational, problem-solving beings. The existence of hammers and door knobs only has any significance and only makes any sense at all in the whole social context of wood, houses, construction, etc (what Heidegger called “being in the world”).

Heidegger’s main concern was always ontology or the study of being and, in “Being and Time”, he asked the deceptively simple question “what is ‘being’?”, what is actually meant by the verb ‘to be’. His answer was to distinguish what it is for beings to be beings (“Sein”) from the existence of entities in general (“Seindes”), and concentrating on the being for whom a description of experience might actually matter, the being for whom “being” is a question, the being engaged in the world (“Dasein”). He further argued that time and human existence were inextricably linked, and that we as humans are always looking ahead to the future. Thus, he argued, being is really just a process of becoming, leading him to totally reject the Aristotelian idea of a fixed human essence.

Although Heidegger’s initial analysis of humans as Dasein makes them sound rather like zombie-like beings moulded by society and culture and merely reacting to events, he then introduced the concept of authenticity. He made a sharp distinction between farmers and rural workers, whom he considered to have an instinctive grasp of their own humanity, and city dwellers, who he described as leading inauthentic lives, out of touch with their own individuality, which in turn causes anxiety. This anxiety is our response to the apparently arbitrary cultural rules under which we, as Dasein, become accustomed to living out our lives, and Heidegger says that there are two responses we can choose: we can flee the anxiety by conforming even more closely to the rules (inauthenticity); or face up to it, carrying on with daily life, but, crucially, without any expectation of any deep final meaning (authenticity). The latter approach allows us to respond to unique situations in an individual way (although still within the confines of social norms), and this was Heidegger’s idea of how one should live. For Heidegger, this acceptance of how things are in the real world, however limiting it may be, is itself liberating.

Although often considered a founder of Existentialism, (mainly because his discussion of ontology is rooted in an analysis of the mode of existence of individual human beings), Heidegger vehemently rejected the association, just as he had rejected Husserl’s Phenomenology. However, his works such as “Being and Time” and “What is Metaphysics?” were certainly a big influence on Jean-Paul Sartre (and especially on his “Being and Nothingness”, the title of which is a direct allusion to Heidegger’s “Being and Time”).

For Heidegger, genuine philosophy can not avoid confronting questions of languageand meaning, and he maintained that the description of Dasein could only be carried out in terminology inherited from the history and tradition of Western philosophy itself. Thus, he saw “Being and Time” as just a first step in his grand overall project, which was to be followed by what he called the “destruction” of the history of philosophy (a retracing of philosophy’s footsteps, and a transformation of its language and meaning). However, he never completed this second step, as he began to radially re-think his own views.

While his earlier work (essentially “Being and Time”) was conceived as a very definite analysis of being which applied to all humans anywhere at any time, he later realized that the time or period in which people live fundamentally affects the way they live their lives. For instance, the ancient Greeks were much more rooted than moderns, and they had a much more naturalistic worldview; the medieval Christians believed that they were created creatures and that God’s plan for the world could be discerned; modern society, on the other hand, sees itself as comprised of active subjects with desires to satisfy, and other objects were to be made use of. These different worldviews, therefore, create quite different understandings of just what it is to be.

After the World War II, and Heidegger’s so-called “turn”, then, Heidegger began to write of the commencement of the history of Western philosophy, the Pre-Socratic period of Parmenides, Heraclitus, and Anaximander, as a brief period of authentic openness to being. This was followed, according to Heidegger, by a long period, beginning with Plato, increasingly dominated by the forgetting or abandonment of this initial openness, occurring in different ways throughout Western history.

Although he had, at first, considered anxiety to be a universal experience, he realized that the Greeks did not experience it, and, for different reasons, neither did the medieval Christians. Modern society, however, with its technological, nihilistic understanding of being, leads to the kind of rootlessness and distress which causes anxiety. So, Heidegger believed that anxiety is very much a modern disease. Furthermore, he believed that modernity is a unique epoch of history in that we have an awareness of history itself, and we have essentially come to the end of philosophy, having tried out and discarded all the possible permutations of philosophical thought (what Heidegger described as Nihilism).

Heidegger’s important later works include “Vom Wesen der Wahrheit” (“On the Essence of Truth”, 1930), “Der Ursprung des Kunstwerkes” (“The Origin of the Work of Art”, 1935), “Bauen Wohnen Denken” (“Building Dwelling Thinking”, 1951), “Einführung in die Metaphysik” (“An Introduction to Metaphysics”, 1953), “Die Frage nach der Technik” (“The Question Concerning Technology”, 1954), “Was heisst Denken?” (“What Is Called Thinking?”, 1954), “Was ist das – die Philosophie?” (“What Is Philosophy?”, 1956), “Unterwegs zur Sprache” (“On the Way to Language”, 1959) and “The End of Philosophy” (1964).

Language, always a major concern of Heidegger, became almost an obsession in his later work. In his view, language was not an arbitrary construct; nor was was it invented merely to correspond to, or describe, the outside world. For Heidegger, vocabulary (a sell as metaphors, idioms and the whole construction of language), actively names things into being, and can have a powerful and proactive effect on the world. For him, then, it was the poets, not the philosophers, priests or scientists, who were the vanguard of humanity and its hope for future development.

Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889 – 1951)


Ludwig WittgensteinLudwig Josef Johann Wittgenstein (1889 – 1951) was an Austrian philosopher and logician, and has come to be considered one of the 20th Century’s most important philosophers, if not the most important.

Both his early and later work (which are entirely different and incompatible, even though both focus mainly on the valid and invalid uses of language) have been major influences in the development of Analytic Philosophy and Philosophy of Language. The Logical Positivists of the Vienna Circle in particular were greatly influenced by his “Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus” (although Wittgenstein alleged that they had fundamentally misunderstood much of it). The ideas in his later “Philosophical Investigations” ushered in the era of Ordinary Language Philosophy and brought language to the forefront of modern philosophy.

His significance has been primarily in the areas of Logic, Metaphysics, Epistemology, the Philosophy of Mind, the Philosophy of Language and the Philosophy of Mathematics. However, his influence has extended beyond what is normally considered philosophy, and may be found in various areas of the social sciences (including social therapy, psychology, psychotherapy and anthropology) and the arts.


Wittgenstein (pronounced VIT-gun-shtine) was born on 26 April 1889 in Vienna, Austria, into one of the most prominent and wealthy families in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His father was Karl Wittgenstein, an industrialist from a Protestant family converted from Judaism, who went on to make a fortune in iron and steel; his mother was Leopoldine Kalmus, from a mixed Jewish-Catholic family. He was the youngest of eight children, all of whom were baptized as Roman Catholicdespite the religious views of their parents’ families.

His father was a leading patron of the arts, especially music, and the Wittgenstein house often hosted important musicians such as Johannes Brahms and Gustav Mahler. Both his parents were very musical, and all their children were artistically and intellectually educated. Ludwig’s older brother, Paul Wittgenstein, went on to become a world-famous concert pianist (even after losing his right arm in World War I), and Ludwig himself had perfect pitch and played the clarinet throughout his life. His family members were also intensely self-critical to the point of depression and suicidal tendencies (three of his four brothers committed suicide).

Wittgenstein was educated at home until 1903, after which he began three years of schooling at the Realschule in Linz (Adolf Hitler was also a student there at the same time, although it is not known whether the two knew each other). Wittgenstein apparently spoke an unusually pure high German, albeit with a slight stutter, and insisted on using the formal form of address even with his classmates. He wore very elegant clothes, and was highly sensitive and extremely unsociable.

In 1906, he began studying mechanical engineering in Berlin, and in 1908 he went to Victoria University, Manchester to study for his post-graduate degree in engineering and aeronautics. It was during his research in Manchester that he became interested in the foundations of mathematics, particularly after reading the “Principia Mathematica” of Alfred North Whitehead and Bertrand Russell and the “Grundgesetze der Arithmetik” of Gottlob Frege. In 1911, he visited and corresponded with Frege, who advised him to study under Russell in Cambridge. Later in 1911, Wittgenstein arrived unannounced at Russell’s rooms in Trinity College, Cambridge and was soon attending his lectures and discussing mathematics and philosophy with him at great length.

He made a great impression on both Russell and G. E. Moore and, as he started to work on the foundations of Logic and mathematical Logic, Russell began to see Wittgenstein as a possible successor who would carry on his work. During his time at Cambridge, Wittgenstein’s other major interests were music, the cinema and travelling, often in the company of his great friend, David Pinsent. He was invited to join the Cambridge Apostles (the elite Cambridge secret society to which Russell and Moore had both belonged as students). In 1913, he inherited a large fortune when his father died, donating some of it, initially anonymously, to Austrian artists and writers.

Although he was invigorated by his study at Cambridge, Wittgenstein came to feel that he could not get to the heart of his most fundamental questions while surrounded by other academics, and in 1913 he retreated to the relative solitude of the remote village of Skjolden, Norway. This isolation allowed him to devote himself entirely to his work, and he later saw this period as one of the most passionate and productive times of his life. He wrote an unpublished book entitled “Logik”, a ground-breaking work in the foundations of Logic, which was the immediate predecessor and source of much of the later “Logisch-Philosophische Abhandlung” (“Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus”).

The outbreak of World War I in 1914 took him rather by surprise (living in seclusion as he was), but he volunteered for the Austro-Hungarian army, serving on the Russian front and in northern Italy. He won several medals for bravery and, towards the end of 1918, he was captured and held as a prisoner of war by the Italian army at Cassino in central Italy. It was in this Italian prison that he completed his magnum opus, the “Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus”.

When he heard the news that his friend, David Pinsent, had been killed in action, Wittgenstein became inconsolable and almost suicidal. However, with the help of his Cambridge friends, Bertrand Russell and John Maynard Keynes (1883 – 1946), Wittgenstein managed to get access to books and to prepare the manuscript of the “Tractatus”, and send it back to England for translation and publication. Russell had recognized it as a work of supreme philosophical importance and wrote an introduction for it (lending the book his reputation as one of the foremost philosophers in the world), but Wittgenstein argued with Russell over it, and eventually it was not published until 1821 in German and 1922 in translation.

After the War, Wittgenstein was a profoundly changed man. Although a militant atheist during his stint at Cambridge, he became something of a born-again evangelist of sorts after reading “The Gospel in Brief” by Leo Tolstoy (1828 – 1910), which he happened to pick up during the War. In 1919, he gave away his portion of the inherited family fortune to his sisters Helene and Hermine and his brother Paul (he felt that giving money to the poor could only corrupt them further, whereas the rich would not be harmed by it) and began to follow a new ascetic life.

Convinced that his “Tractatus” had solved all the problems of philosophy and that he had precipitated the end of philosophy, he left philosophy entirely and returned to Austria to train as a primary school teacher. He had somewhat unrealistic expectations of the rural children he taught, and little patience with those who had no aptitude for mathematics. His severe disciplinary methods (often involving corporal punishment, not unusual at the time) and intense and exacting teaching methods eventually culminated in 1926 in the collapse of an eleven year old boy whom Wittgenstein had struck on the head. Although he was cleared of misconduct, he resigned his position and returned to Vienna, feeling that he had failed as a school teacher.

He worked for a time as a gardener’s assistant in a monastery near Vienna, but was advised that he would not find what he sought in monastic life. His spirits were restored to some extent by his work on the architectural designs of a modernist house for his sister Margaret. Towards the end of that project, he was contacted by Moritz Schlick (1882 – 1936), a leading figure in the newly-formed Vienna Circle and the Logical Positivism movement, who was tremendously interested in Wittgenstein’s “Tractatus”. Although he found the meetings he attended extremely frustrating, (believing that Schlick and his colleagues had fundamentally misunderstood his work), the intellectual stimulus did have the effect of drawing him back into philosophy, and over the course of his conversations with the Vienna Circle, and especially with the young Frank P. Ramsey (1903 – 1930), Wittgenstein began to think that there might be some “grave mistakes” in his work.

In 1929, urged by Ramsey and others, he decided to return to Cambridge (using the “Tractatus” as his doctoral thesis), and was rather disconcerted to find that he was now considered a philosophical genius and one of the most famed philosophers in the world. He was duly appointed as a lecturer and was made a Fellow of Trinity College. In 1931, he broke off his engagement with Marguerite Respinger (a young Swiss woman he had met as a friend of the family), and most of his romantic attachments were to young men. In 1934, he conceived the idea of emigrating to the Soviet Union with his long-time friend Francis Skinner (1912 – 1941). Although they were offered teaching positions there in 1935, they preferred to take up manual work, but returned disillusioned after only three weeks.

From 1936 to 1937, Wittgenstein lived again in Norway, where he worked on his on-going “Philosophische Untersuchungen” (“Philosophical Investigations”), in which he developed a completely new philosophy, quite different from his earlier work, even though nothing was actually published until after his death in 1951. In 1938, he travelled to Ireland to visit his friend Maurice Drury who was training as a doctor, and also at the invitation of the Irish Prime Minister Eamon de Valera, who was himself an amateur mathematician. While he was in Ireland, however, Germany annexed Austria in the Anschluss, and Wittgenstein became technically a citizen of the enlarged Germany and a Jew under its racial laws. The family tried to have themselves reclassified as Aryan/Jewish crossbreeds, using their considerable fortune as a bargaining tool, which they eventually achieved in 1939. By that time, however, Wittgenstein had been appointed to the chair in Philosophy at Cambridge (after G. E. Moore’s resignation in 1939), and had acquired British citizenship soon afterwards.

During World War II, he left Cambridge and volunteered as a hospital porter in Guy’s Hospital in London, and as a laboratory assistant in the Royal Victoria Infirmary in Newcastle (arranged by his friend John Ryle, brother of the philosopher Gilbert Ryle). After the War, he returned to teach at Cambridge, although he had never really liked the intellectual atmosphere there (he often encouraged his students to find work outside of academic philosophy, and found teaching an increasing burden).

Wittgenstein resigned his position at Cambridge in 1947 to concentrate on his writing, spending two years living at a guesthouse in East Wicklow, Ireland, and then in the rural isolation of the west coast of Ireland. In 1949, he was diagnosed as having prostate cancer, by which time he had written most of the material that would be published after his death as “Philosophische Untersuchungen”(“Philosophical Investigations”), arguably his most important work (the “Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus” notwithstanding) and perhaps the most influential of all post-War works of philosophy.

He spent the last two years of his life working in Vienna, the United States, Oxfordand Cambridge and, up until two days before his death, he was working on new material in collaboration with his former student Norman Malcolm (1911 – 1990), which was published posthumously as “On Certainty”.

Wittgenstein died from prostate cancer at the home of his Cambridge doctor, Edward Vaughan Bevan, on 29 April 1951. His last words were: “Tell them I’ve had a wonderful life”. Some thirty thousand pages of incomplete manuscripts were found after his death.


Perhaps more than any other major philosopher, Wittgenstein’s work falls into two very distinct peiods: an early period, culminating in the publication of his ground-breaking “Logisch-Philosophische Abhandlung” (“Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus”) in 1921; and a later period of largely unrelated (and indeed incompatible) work, which was written over many years but not published until two years after his death as “Philosophische Untersuchungen” (“Philosophical Investigations”).

His early work on the foundations of Logic and his philosophy in general were deeply influenced by Arthur Schopenhauer and Immanuel Kant, as well as by the new systems of Logic put forward by Bertrand Russell and Gottlob Frege. When his work began to take on an ethical and religious significance during World War I, his “Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus” gradually took shape, although it was still very much in line with the general Logicist approach of the time as exemplified by Russell and Whitehead’s “Principia Mathematica”. Due to various personal difficultiesand arguments, the “Tractatus” was not published until 1921, and it remained the only philosophical book Wittgenstein published during his lifetime. For a time, he believed that the work offered a definitive solution to all the problems of philosophy.

The “Tractatus” attempted to define the limits of Logic in understanding the world. It claimed that the world consists of independent atomic facts (existing states of affairs) out of which larger facts are built, an idea that later became known as Logical Atomism and was further developed by Bertrand Russell. Language too consists of atomic (and then larger-scale) propositions that correspond to the facts of the world by sharing the same “logical form”.

The key to understanding the “Tractatus” is Wittgenstein’s picture theory of meaning. He drew an analogy between the way that pictures represent the world and the way that language (and sentences it is made up of) represent reality and states of affairs, and he asserted that thoughts, as expressed in language, “picture”the facts of the world. Furthermore, the structure of language is determined by the structure of reality, and we are able to talk about reality not just because we have words that stand for things, but because the words within a sentence have a relationship to each other that corresponds to the relationship things have to each other in the world. Indeed, Wittgenstein claimed that, unless language mirroredreality in this way, it would be impossible for sentences to have any meaning.

It should be stressed here that Wittgenstein was not referring to ordinary everyday conversational language, but to the “elementary sentences” which undelie ordinary language, and which can be distilled out of everyday language by analysis. He made clear that the so-called logical constants (“not”, “and”, “or” and “if”) were not part of the picturing relationship, but were merely ways of stringing multiple pictures together or operating on them. Thus, Wittgenstein claimed that we can analyze our thoughts and sentences to “express” (in the sense of “show”, not “say”) their true logical form, but those we cannot so analyze cannot be meaningfully discussed, and so should not even be spoken of. He believed that the whole of philosophy essentially consists of no more than this form of analysis, and that non-factual concepts such as those in the fields of Ethics, Religion and Aesthetics were effectively unsayable and meaningless.

Some commentators have pointed out that the sentences of the “Tractatus” would not qualify as meaningful according to its own rigid criteria, and that Wittgenstein’s method in the book does not follow its own demands regarding the only strictly correct philosophical method. Some have gone so far as to argue that the book is actually deeply ironic in that it demonstrates the ultimate nonsensicality of any sentence attempting to say something metaphysical. Either way, having originally propounded this stance in the “Tractatus”, Wittgenstein was to reject it in his later “Philosophical Investigations”. The logical positivists of the Vienna Circle, it should be noted, immediately seized on Proposition 7 of the book, “what we cannot speak of, we must pass over in silence”, even though Wittgenstein himself gave it a rather different, and much more mystical, interpretation.

By the time of World War II, Wittgenstein’s views on the foundations of Logic and of mathematics had changed considerably, and he now denied that there were any mathematical facts to be discovered, and denied that mathematical statements could be “true” in any real sense. He argued that mathematical statements simply expressed the conventional established meanings of certain symbols. He further denied that a contradiction should count as a fatal flaw of a mathematical system. His series of lectures on this and other topics were later documented in the book, “Wittgenstein’s Lectures on the Foundations of Mathematics”.

He renounced or revised much of his earlier work, and developed a completely new philosophical method and a new understanding of language, culminating in his second magnum opus, the “Philosophische Untersuchungen”(“Philosophical Investigations”). His earlier search for a perfect language had ended in stalemate, and his claim that “the limits of my language mean the limits of my world” began to appear too restrictive. He started working on a new line of thinking during his time in Norway in 1936, and continued throughout his stay in rural Ireland towards the end of life. The book was published posthumously in 1953, although in reality it is not a systematic treatise like his “Tractatus” but rather a series of more or less independent thoughts and lectures. Although brilliantly aphoristic in style, it is nevertheless difficult reading, appearing at times almost as a more or less random jumble of thoughts, and individal paragraphs may have little or no connection to those preceding or succeeding. It too, however, came to be regarded as just as influential as the “Tractatus”, and its very different focus from his earlier work (largely on language and psychology rather than than on logic and objective truth) is usually referred to as “the late Wittgenstein”.

In the “Philosophical Investigations”, Wittgenstein moved away from the picture analogy and towards a “tool” or “use” analogy. He claimed that words should be thought of as tools and that, in most cases at least, the meaning of a word is just its use in the language. Thus, competely contrary to the picture theory of meaning, the structure of language determines what we think of as reality. Also, although a picture can only give one representation of reality, a tool can have many different uses (and so, therefore, can words, particularly when used in different circumstances or in different types of conversation). He likened the various different meanings a word could have to family resemblances, which can have common features, criss-crossing simularities or overlapping relationships but nevertheless remain distinctand unique.

Although apparently banal and common-sensical, this idea was quite a radical one as it militated against several long-held assumptions in philosophy: that words get their meanings by standing for objects, that words get their meaning by being associated with ideas in the mind, and that words represent some underlying trait or essence.

He also introduced another analogy, that of language as a kind of game, an activity governed by pre-set rules over which we have no control, but which allow a certain limited amount of latitude and interpretation. He suggested that language (and its uses) was essentially a multiplicity of “language-games” within which the parts of language function and have meaning. Many conventional philosophical problems (e.g. “What is truth?”) therefore become simply meaningless wordplayor “bewitchments” arising from philosophers’ misuse of language. Although language works relatively well as part of the fabric of life, once it is “forced” into a metaphysical environment (where all the familiar and necessary landmarks and contextual clues are absent), then problems arise.

Wittgenstein saw the role of philosophy as merely to describe (not to justify or provide a foundation for) these language-games. He pointed out that philosophical problems can be solved using logically perfect language, without the confusing and muddying effects of everyday contexts, but cautioned that such language is sterile and can do no actual useful work. Neither was it possible to step back and appraise a language-game from a non-linguistic point of view, as we are always operating within a language-game. Much of the “Philosophical Investigations”consists of examples of how philosophical confusion is generated and how, by a close examination of the actual workings of everyday language, the first false steps towards philosophical puzzlement can be avoided. He urged philosophers to “bring words back from their metaphysical to their everyday use”, ushering in the era of Ordinary Language Philosophy.

Along with later philosophers such as W. V. O. Quine and Donald Davidson in the 1950’s and 1960’s, Wittgenstein broadened the principle of semantic Holism even further to arrive at the position that a sentence (and therefore a word) has meaning only in the context of a whole language (not just a larger segment of language).

Much controversy has been generated by the implications of Wittgenstein’s language-games theory for the possible existence of a “private language” (a language invented by an individual to describe his own feelings and sensations in tems that no-one else could understand). The controversy arises because many philosophers have assumed that this must be the basic fundamental use of language, because our knowledge of, and interactions with, the outside world must start with our inner experiences. Wittgenstein, however, believed that this is not how language works, and that we use words in conjunction with public criteria, behaviours and situations, so that we can never in fact speak a private, or entirely personal, language. He points out that the rules which govern any language must have a social aspect and that the meanings of words depend on the social context within which they are used (what he called “forms of life”).

Although the early Wittgenstein had completely dismissed out of hand all talk of religion as meaningless nonsense, the later Wittgenstein was concerned to “get inside” the religious language-game, to look at how words were used in a religious context and to show that the religious language-game was completely different from the scientific language-game. He formulated his own version of Fideism which argued that religion is a self-contained, and primarily expressive, enterprise, governed by its own internal logic or “grammar”. He pointed out that religion is logically cut off from other aspects of life; that religious discourse is essentially self-referential and does not allow us to talk about reality; that religious beliefs can be understood only by religious believers; and that religion therefore cannot be criticized.

Wittgenstein has in recent years, become influential in areas quite outside of philosophy, including literary criticism, the arts and aethsetics in general, the social sciences (particuarly anthroplogy), political theory, etc.

George Edward Moore (1873 – 1958)


George Edward MooreGeorge Edward Moore (usually known as G. E. Moore) (1873 – 1958) was a 20th Century English philosopher. He was, along with Gottlob Frege, Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein, one of the founders of Analytic Philosophy (one of the two main traditions in 20th Century philosophy, the other being Continental Philosophy).

He is perhaps best known today for his defence of the ethical doctrine of Ethical Non-Naturalism, his emphasis on common sense in Metaphysics (as opposed to the Absolute Idealism that dominated British philosophical method at the time), and Moore’s Paradox.

For a time in the 1920s and 1930s, he was the pre-eminent British philospher, working in the most important centre of philosophy in the world at that time, Cambridge University. Although largely unknown today outside of academic philosophy, he was nevertheless an influential thinker, known for his clear, circumspect writing style, and for his methodical and patient approach to philosophical problems.


Moore was born on 4 November 1873, one of seven children of Daniel and Henrietta Moore, and grew up in the Upper Norwood district of South London. His early education came at the hands of his parents, his father teaching him reading, writing, and music (he was a more-than-competent pianist and composer), and his mother teaching him French. At the age of eight he was enrolled at Dulwich College, where he studied mainly Greek and Latin, but also French, German and mathematics.

In 1892, he went to Trintity College Cambridge where he initially studied Classics. Early in his time at Cambridge he became close friends with some of the writers and intellectuals who would go on to form the Bloomsbury Group, including Lytton Strachey, Leonard Woolf and Maynard Keynes. He soon made the acquaintance of Bertrand Russell, who was two years ahead of him, and J. M. E. McTaggart (1866 – 1925), who was then a charismatic young Philosophy Fellow. He followed them into the study of Philosophy, and he graduated in Classics and Philosophy in 1896. In 1898, he earned a “Prize” Fellowship which enabled him to continue to study philosophy at Trinity along with Russell and McTaggart.

Beginning around 1897, Moore began to participate in various philosophical societies (such as the Aristotelian Society and the Moral Sciences Club) and to publish his early work (many of his best known and most influential works date from this early period). It was also during this time that Moore instigated the momentous break from the then dominant philosophy of Absolute Idealism that would prove to be the first step toward the rise of Analytic Philosophy.

Moore’s Fellowship ended in 1904, and he spent a few years away from Cambridge, living in Edinburgh and Richmond, Surrey, and working independently on various philosophical projects. However, he returned to Cambridge in 1911 to take up a lectureship position in Moral Science, and he lived there (other than an extended visit to the United States from 1940 to 1944 as a visiting professor) for the rest of his life.

In 1916, at the age of 43, he married Dorothy Ely, who had been his student, and the couple had two sons, Nicholas (born in 1918) and Timothy (born in 1922). He earned a Litt.D. in 1913, and was elected a fellow of the British Academy in 1918.

In 1921, he became the editor of “Mind”, the leading British philosophy journal, and in 1925, he became Professor of Mental Philosophy and Logic at Cambridge (which soon became the most important centre of philosophy in the world), confirming his position as one of the most highly-respected British philosophers of the time. He retired as Professor in 1939 (to be succeeded by Wittgenstein) and he retired as editor of “Mind” in 1947, marking the end of his pre-eminence (and the end of the golden age of Cambridge philosophy). In 1951, he was awarded the British Order of Merit.

Moore died in Cambridge on 24 October 1958, and he was buried in St. Giles’ churchyard.


Moore’s “Principia Ethica”, first published in 1903, has become one of the standard texts of modern Ethics. It was one of the main inspirations for the movement against Ethical Naturalism (and in favour of Ethical Non-Naturalism) and is partly responsible for the 20th Century concern with Meta-Ethics (the attempt to define the essential meaning and nature of ethical problems).

In the “Principia Ethica”, Moore argued that most other philosophers working in Ethics made a mistake he called the “Naturalistic Fallacy” when they tried to prove an ethical claim by appealing to a definition of the term “good” in terms of one or more natural properties (e.g. “pleasant”, “more evolved”, “desired”, etc). According to Moore, the term “good” (in the sense of intrinsic value) is in fact indefinable, because it names a simple, non-natural property, and cannot be analyzed in terms of any other property. His argument (often called the Open Question Argument) is that the question “What is good?” is an open one, because “good” cannot be called “blue” or “rough” or “smooth” or “smelly”: it lacks natural properties. Thus, when a Hedonist, for example, claims “Anything that is pleasant is also good”, it is always possible to counter with “That thing is pleasant, but is it good?”.

Moore further argued that, once arguments based on the naturalistic fallacy had been discarded, questions of intrinsic goodness could only be settled by appeal to what he called “moral intuitions” (self-evident propositions which recommend themselves to moral reflection, but which are not susceptible to either direct proof or disproof), a view often described as Ethical Intuitionism. However, as a Consequentialist, Moore distinguished his view from those of Deontological Intuitionists, who held that “intuitions” could determine questions about what actions are right or required by duty. He argued that “duties” and moral rules could be determined by investigating the effects of particular actions or kinds of actions, and so were matters for empirical investigation rather than direct objects of intuition.

In the “Principia Ethica”, and to a greater extent in his later book, the “Ethics” of 1912, Moore promoted a view that has come to be called Ideal Utilitarianism. He argued that there is no important difference in meaning between concepts like “duty” “right” and “virtue” on the one hand, and “expedient” or “useful” on the other. However, whereas classic Utilitarianism is hedonistic (in that it defines “good” in terms of “pleasure”), Moore’s Utilitarianism is pluralistic, allowing that many different kinds of objects can have intrinsic value (e.g. the pleasures of personal relationships, aesthetic enjoyment, etc). Thus, actions should be ordered not to the greatest happiness or pleasure, but to those states of affairs possessing the highest degree of good, and directed in this way toward some ideal state.

One of the most important parts of Moore’s philosophical development was his break from Idealism, particularly the Absolute Idealism that dominated British Metaphysics at the time (and which he himself had inherited from earliest philosophical mentor, J. M. E. McTaggart), and his defence of what he regarded as a “common sense”form of Realism or Pluralism. In his 1925 essay “A Defence of Common Sense”, he argued against Idealism and Skepticism toward the external world on the grounds that they could not give reasons to accept their metaphysical premises that were more plausible than the reasons we have to accept the common sense claims about our knowledge of the world. His 1939 essay “Proof of an External World”gave an example of this, claiming that, by pointing out first one hand and then another, he could conclude that there are at least two external objects in the world, and that therefore an external world exists (an argument which deeply influenced Ludwig Wittgenstein).

Moore is also remembered for what is now commonly called “Moore’s Paradox”, a puzzle which also inspired a great deal of work by Wittgenstein. He drew attention to the peculiar inconsistency involved in a sentence such as: “It will rain, but I don’t believe that it will”, which seems impossible for anyone to consistently assert, but which does not seem to contain any actual logical contradiction.