Intellectual currents of the twentieth century

Over the last hundred years intellectual schools have come and gone. A dizzying procession of positivism, pragmatism, psychoanalysis, structuralism, phenomenology, existentialism, and postmodernism has passed. But beneath all of the different ideas there are some trends that stand out.

This was the century that grew to question the claims of the natural sciences of access to objective truth. It was also a century that grew to doubt the centrality of the autonomous subject, becoming increasingly preoccupied with the 'otherness' of other people.

Like the arts, the human disciplines, philosophy, anthropology, sociology, psychiatry and linguistics are all prone to great intergenerational schisms as each new generation is tempted to overthrow the last. Genealogy in the development of ideas seems to be futile. But beneath the Oedipal revolts there are also discernible currents of thought, that are refreshed and develop, as each new generation rediscovers and reworks ideas from the past.

What follows is a sketch of the development of the main schools of thought in the twentieth century, in the West in the humanities. It omits the natural sciences, history, and to a large extent political science. Its partiality reflects and reproduces all the one-sidedness of the age. Conversely, it is drawn with the advantage of hindsight and so omits some of the heated conflicts that in retrospect proved less important than they seemed, or to be about quite different issues than they seemed at the time.

1 Analytic philosophy and the Vienna Circle

2 American pragmatism

3 Analysts and therapists

4 Structuralists and functionalists

5 Phenomenologists

6 Existentialists

7 Post-modernism