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What Is Modern Philosophy?

By Angela Farrer
Updated Jan 25, 2024
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Modern philosophy is a discipline that focuses on the study and application of a certain method of thought that is notably different from earlier types of philosophy. This branch of philosophy was first developed during the 17th century and continued to be popular until the early 20th when postmodernism began to overtake it. The most prominent theme of modern philosophy is how people can gather and confirm knowledge through their own direct experiences and logic instead of automatically accepting established doctrines. Several well-known scholars have published extensive writings on the tenets of this philosophy as they apply to different areas of life.

Some newcomers to the study of modern philosophy sometimes believe it is the same as modernism, although the two realms of thought are actually separate from one another. Reason and inner thought processes form much of the purpose behind this kind of contemporary philosophy. Modernism, on the other hand, is typically viewed as a cultural opposite to the more conservative ideas of realism and is often more closely associated with certain art styles and other aesthetic principles.

Due to its emphasis on the individual and his or her development of the capacity to reason, early modern philosophy often appears to be a distinctly western philosophy. Only later tenets bring in ideas of how the individual fits into a larger society and how human nature influences that society's structure. To better understand the evolution of this kind of moral philosophy, students studying its history in earnest often split it into different major idea movements such as rationalism, empiricism, Marxism, and analytic philosophy.

Rationalism is a specific section of early modern philosophy that emphasizes the importance of linear and mathematical thinking; its scholars attempt to pick up where certain principles of modern science leave off. The established practices of deductive reasoning also have their roots in rationalism. Empiricism was mostly developed as a rationalist counter-argument that outlines the need for experimentation and observation in order to arrive at established truths.

Later branches of modern philosophy, such as Marxism, typically work to draw connections between innate human tendencies and the need for groups of people to work in order to build a stable society. Analytic philosophy adds analysis of language to the ideas of logic that began with rationalism and empiricism; its underlying principle states that the linguistic elements of reasoning are just as important as the conclusions that result from the reasoning process.

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Discussion Comments

By hamje32 — On Jan 18, 2012

@everetra - I don’t embrace modernism personally. I came head to head with it as a teacher implementing the International Baccalaureate program at a school I taught at.

The IB program encouraged students to question their beliefs and only form them through rationale analysis. This is not a problem in itself, but it was not very friendly to convictions borne of religious faith.

This is kind of where these modern educational philosophies cross the line. If kids have religious convictions then they should be asked to clarify and defend them, not feel ashamed of them or question them, in my opinion. I really don’t think that you can implement the IB program in a parochial school.

By everetra — On Jan 17, 2012

@allenJo - Actually it would appear that rationalism and empiricism go hand in hand, if you’re looking for the basis for modern science, in my opinion.

Rationalism finds its roots in mathematics. Both philosophies are aiming at truth, but rationalism derives it from mathematics whereas empiricism says you have to derive it through test and observation.

Both are true in my opinion. Math provides us with certain incontrovertible rules and rationalism helps us to flesh out those rules and ideas through experimentation.

By allenJo — On Jan 16, 2012

@nony - The history of philosophy is certainly interesting. I would agree with you about Marxism. I think it only lives on in the halls of academia.

If I had to expound on what political philosophy I might align with, it would have to be empiricism. I think things should be tested out. Really, this is the basis of all science, wouldn’t you say?

Make a hypothesis and then test it out. So to your point about philosophies being somewhat abstract, I would venture that empiricism is more practical than the others.

By nony — On Jan 15, 2012

Any study of philosophy tends to be largely academic and abstract in my opinion. However there is one philosophy that has been pretty much discredited by political history, and that is Marxism.

Marxism, the idea of a socialist government where the government owns the means of production and metes out to the masses only what they need, has been discredited. There is not a single society where it has worked.

It is one reason that even some of the once more communist societies like China and Russia have succumbed to implementing capitalist reforms. They may hold to some of the tenets of Marxism only so loosely but they realize that as a modern political philosophy it simply doesn’t work.

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