CONTEMPORARY (19th. century)

The 19th century in philosophy began on Kant´s death in 1804. It was a century of philosophical diversities which fitted themselves into binary oppositions: pragmatism vs idealism, positivism vs. irrationalism and marxism vs. liberalism. The Renaissance saw mathematics and science pitted against scholastic philosophy. The Enlightenment opposed empiricista and rationalists. The 19th. century discovered the irrational.

The philosophical movements which guided the 19th. century were the Romantics, a revolt of feelings and the irrational against industrial rationalism; the maturing of the industrial revolution with its prosperity, misery and social reforms of utilitarianism and marxism; the revolutions of 1848 on continental Europe which introduced the marxist concepts of bourgeoisie and proletariat; finally, the theory of evolution.

Philosophies of the irrational by Søren Kierkegaard, Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche were prevalent throughout the century. However, it can also be divided into three parts: at the beginning it was influenced mainly by absolute idealism, represented by Johann Fichte, Friedrich Schelling and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. The midddle part of the century saw a rise in the interest of scientific methodology in Auguste Comte and John Stuart Mill, and also in liberal (Mill) and economic theory (Marx). 

The end of the century saw the upsurge of American pragmatism by Charles Sanders Peirce and William James. The philosophy of the 19th and 20th centuries in the United States was influenced by three contemporary movements: Romanticism, which in the USA took the name of Transcendentalism. Darwinism, the effect on the thought of the theory of evolution. -Pragmatism, a Hegelian movement focused on the role of experience in knowledge.

Jeremy Bentham published Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation in 1789 where the three bases of his moral philosophy appear: the principle of greatest happiness; universal selfishness; artificial identification of personal interests with those of others. These will form the basic rational principles for legal, social and moral reform.

Bentham calls the principle of greatest happiness the 'principle of utility', a term from Hume. What is morally obligatory is what produces the greatest happiness for the majority (understanding taking happiness as pleasure and absence of pain). That which does not maximize the greatest happiness, such as an act of ascetic sacrifice is, then, morally wrong. However, this is not universal but naturalistic hedonism.

"The greatest good for the greatest number." Bentham

The advantages of a utility-based philosophy of morality are several according to Bentham. First, it is a clear reference, allows disinterested and objective public discussion and helps to make decisions when there is conflict. It is also egalitarian because in seeking the happiness of the majority it presupposes that everyone is valued in the same way.

Johann Gottlieb Fichte called his philosophical system 'Wissenschaftslehre' which translates as 'theory of science'. He was influenced by Reinhold, an Austrian who popularized Kant's work. Reinhold's concept, which Fichte retained, was of philosophy as a rigorous science, which required that the principles of philosophy be systematically derived from a foundational principle known with certainty. Following Kant Fitche looked for the fundamental principle, not in the Kantian 'fact' but in a 'fact / action' that is not known empirically but with evident certainty.

In Foundations (1794-95) he explains the content of 'fact / action' in its most general format as 'the self imposing itself absolutely'. He suggests that the 'I' is not static with fixed properties but a self-producing process, free, because it owes its existence to nothing but itself. In other words, Tathandlung is a rational agent who constantly reinterprets himself in light of standard norms and who decides himself how to act. We construct our 'selves' to explain ourselves to ourselves so that our nature is intelligible to us as finite and rational beings. Fichte is considered as a transitional philosopher between Kant and Hegel.

G.W.F. Hegel published his Encyklopädie der philosophischen Wissenschaften im Grundrisse (1817) for use in his courses at Heidelberg. It explains the universe in a systematic way, everything being  based on faith. In religion the truth is veiled but in philosophy it is revealed so that humans can know the infinite and see all things in God. The Hegelian system depicts the universe as a cycle in which the Absolute Spirit knows himself as a spirit by his own thought, by nature. Through the expressions of finite spirits in religion, art, and philosophy they are united with the Absolute Spirit.

The compendium of Hegel's system in the Encyclopedia is presented in three parts: Logic, Nature and Mind. He believed that human thought proceeded dialectically: thesis, antithesis and synthesis that produces another antithesis and thus continues... The process is circular and thought reaches a synthesis that is identical to its starting point except that everything implicit now is explicit. Thus the process of thinking about oneself has negativity as one of its constituent moments and the finite, as the self-manifestation of God, is an integral part of infinity.

"Philosophy is the world upside down." Hegel


The system begins with an explanation of the thought of God before the creation of nature and the finite spirit, that is, with the categories of the pure forms of thought, the structures of all physical and intellectual life. If we think about the notion of pure Being we find that it is empty, Nothing. But Nothing is. The notions of pure Being and Nothing are opposite, however, in thought each one passes to the other. The way out of the contradiction is to reject the two notions separately and affirm them together, that is to say, to affirm the notion of becoming because what becomes is, and at the same time is not. The dialectical process advances from complexity to complexity and it culminates with the absolute idea: the spirit as its own objective.


It is the opposite of the spirit, the sphere of external relations. Nature understands space and time and is thus finite. It is the work of the philosophy of nature to detect that structure and its dialectics. It is only when humanity appears that actions are considered correct, according to whether or not they tend to produce happiness. They are wrong if they tend to produce the opposite of happiness. Here, too, the two visions of Kant and Mills interpret the same philosophy differently. While Kantians considered self-evident moral principles 'a priori', Mills argued that the ethically correct and incorrect, truth and falsehood, are matters of observation and experience, that is, 'a posteriori'.


Hegel follows the evolution of the human mind through the subconscious, the conscious and the rational will, then through institutions and human history (as the expression of that will), and finally art, religion and philosophy in which humans are recognized as spirits united to God, possessors of absolute truth. Finally, humans have returned to the beginning of the system, but en route they have made explicit what was implicit and have discovered that nothing exists but spirit, and spirit is pure activity.

Arthur Schopenhauer published his main work Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung (The world as will and idea) in 1819, in 4 volumes. It is a reflection on the theory of knowledge, the philosophy of nature, aesthetics and ethics.

The first book begins with Kant. Schopenhauer affirms that the world is a representation: it can only be understood with the help of the constructs of the human intellect that are space, time and causality. But these show the world as appearances, not as the thing-in-itself that Kant considered unknowable.

"Only change is eternal, perpetual, immortal."  Schopenhauer

The second book considers the essences of the concepts presented. As beings we know ourselves externally, as a body or appearance, and internally as a will. The will is the thing-in-itself: unitary, without changes, beyond space and time, without causes or objectives. In the end, however, there is death, the negation of the will's wish to survive.

While the first two books present the will in the affirmative, the last two, speaking of aesthetics and ethics, point to the negation of the will as a possible liberation. It is the arts that will liberate humanity from the will because passion ceases in them, at least for the moment. A genuine liberation, according to Schopenhauer, is the result of breaking the ties of individuality imposed by the ego. For example, those who feel empathy are on the path of self-denial of the will to life that the saints achieved by asceticism.

Schopenhauer's anthropology and sociology do not start with the community, as in Hegel, but focus on individuals and show certain possibilities of living with others.

Auguste Comte had the gift of synthesizing diverse intellectual currents. Writing after the French Revolution, his ideas came from writers of the 18th and early 19th centuries.

From Hume and Kant he adopted his conception of positivism: the theory that metaphysics and theology are imperfect modes of knowledge and that positive knowledge is based on natural phenomena verified by the empirical sciences.

From clerical thinkers he took the notion of hierarchical and disciplined social organization as in the Catholic Church. From the Enlightenment philosophers he incorporated the idea of ​​historical progress, a sociology. Comte believed that social phenomena could be reduced to laws just as Newton had explained heavenly bodies by the law of gravity.

"The heavens proclaim the glory of Kepler and Newton."  Auguste Comte

Comte structured his Cours de philosophie positive (6 volumes between 1830 and 1842) around a 3-level law. He explains that humanity evolves on these levels: the theological, the metaphysical and the positive. The first is the starting point of the human mind; the second is a transitory state; the last one is normal.

At the theological level the mind searches for the primary and final causes of phenomena and explained the apparent anomalies in the universe as interventions by supernatural agents.

In the intermediate state the questions are the same but the supernatural agents are replaced by abstract entities.

The positive level does not seek causes, but merely knows the laws that govern phenomena. The above absolute notions are changed to relative.

From the material point of view the theological state can be called the military; the metaphysical the supremacy of lawyers and jurists; the positive would correspond to the industrial one.

For Comte science is "une connaissance approchée" (an approximate knowledge) because it approaches the truth without reaching it. There is no place in positivism for absolute truth. Science sets the standards for the credible.

Ralph Waldo Emerson speaks of education in his speech The American Scholar (1837) saying that one is educated by nature, books and action. The study of nature is equivalent to 'knowing yourself'. Books for him are reports of how others thought and should be read not as sacred cows but as a creator to reach your own thought. Thirdly, action, the process by which we become aware of ideas, because the student speaks from experience, not from imitating others.

In Experience Emerson describes a vsion of the fluid universe where permanence is a matter of degrees. He believes that there is no final explanation and that knowing is an endless process. This means that there are no eternal virtues or ultimate truth. In Intellect he argues that the truth appears in surprising intuitions, but not repeatable, like God who is only found in the present moment. He criticizes historical Christianity that proceeds as if God were dead.

"... permanence is but a word of degrees ..." Emerson

Morality, according to Emerson, develops historically, but sometimes our morality must be abandoned. Thus he questions the established and opens himself to renewal. Is this a translation of his relativism into moral thought? In any case it proposes a moral system through virtues and heroes and their corresponding vices and villains. These sometimes take the form of old age and youth, other times of a specter preacher who has never really lived. Conformism is Emerson's main vice and the opposite of the virtue of independence. His historical heroes are: Plato, Moses, Jesus, Luther, Copernicus and even Napoleon.

Son of a pastor at Emerson Unitarian Church, he was a pastor himself for 3 years. However, in

Divinity School Address he criticizes Christianity for stifling the spirit instead of making it happy.

Power is another Emerson theme. The type of power that interests him is more intellectual or artistic than political or military.

Henry David Thoreau agreed with Emerson on his 'religiosity in nature that surpasses human religion'. But he did not believe in nature as a symbol, the physical world was the realm of the spirit. He argues that our aesthetic and emotional reactions are part of religion and reality. He understood the universe as an organic unit in which mind and matter are inseparable. We are beings with senses immersed in a sensory world. The philosopher seeks the knowledge that will emerge from natural experiences. If we do not perceive the harmonious interdependence of the natural world it is not because of an error in nature but because of our incomplete knowledge. Thoreau appears as the American heir to Kant's critical philosophy because he investigated the relationship between the knower and the known. Emerson, who saw the senses as illusions, did not understand this link.

"... always be alert to find God in nature." Thoreau

The original point of Thoreau's philosophy lies in the concept of consciousness. In Walden (1854) he writes on the discipline of looking at what there is to see. Knowing is a practical and evaluative activity that is 'embodied', that is, knowing not from a neutral position but through somatic experiences. Thus it touches a central problem in modern philosophy: knowledge depends on the skill of the knower. Since the perception of objects has this subjective aspect, the world appears as a sphere surrounding each conscious individual. It is only through the lens of our own subjectivity that we can access the external world.

In other words, there is no purely objective observation. He considers Science to be a discipline that enriches our knowledge and experience, according to Thoreau. It expresses, however, the fear that weighing and measuring things to collect quantitative data may narrow the vision of what has been studied instead of expanding it. Witnessing the rise of positivism with his idea of ​​complete objectivity Thoreau attempts to place the observer at the center of his own universe.

John Stuart Mill published A System of Logic in 1843. It was part of his fight against the German 'a priori' school. He argues for radical empiricism in logic and mathematics by suggesting that its basic principles are generalizations from experience rather than known 'a priori'. The problem with this doctrine, according to Mills, is that it supports the belief that we can know universal truths about the world through evidence provided only by the mind, rather than by nature. For him the 'a posteriori' evidence, the empirical verification, was inescapable. This was the inductive vision of Mills against the deductive approach of Kant's followers.

"Young Socrates ... maintained the theory of utilitarianism against popular morality." John Stuart Mills

His book Utilitarianism was published in 1863. At the center of his ethical philosophy was the principle of utility: actions are correct according to whether they tend to produce happiness or not. They are wrong if they tend to produce the opposite of happiness. Here too, the two visions of Kant and Mills interpret the same philosophy differently. While Kantians considered self-evident moral principles 'a priori', Mills argued that the ethically correct and incorrect, truth and falsehood, are matters of observation and experience, that is, 'a posteriori'. As Mills stated in his Autobiography (1873) the model of apriorism allows the individual to ratify his own prejudices as moral principles because there is no external reference to judge them.

Charles Sanders Peirce was a physicist and is best known for two articles: The Fixation of Belief and How to Make Our Ideas Clear (1877). In them he makes a defense of the superiority of the scientific method and the pragmatic notion of clear concepts. His thinking is quite close to that of Einstein who held that the entire meaning of a physical concept is determined by an exact method of measurement.

Enlightenment philosophy, influenced by the physical discoveries of the time, advocated determinism. Peirce argued that there were no scientific observations to support determinism. As a practical scientist he knew that the measurements of an object vary according to the refinement of the measuring instruments. He concluded that the universe appears to have variable statistical regularity and does not display a deterministic law, an exact regularity. There are the apparently regular movements of great physical objects like planets, but we also see the processes of imagination and thought that are of pure freedom and spontaneity.

"There are three things that you can never hope to achieve with reasoning: absolute certainty, absolute precision,absolute universality. ” Peirce

Three influences predominate in Peirce: Hegel in the evolution of ideas; Lyell in the evolution of geological structures; Darwin in the evolution of species. Peirce's thinking was evolutionary.

Charles Darwin, although at first destined to become an Anglican clergyman, was interested in biology from an early age. At Edinburgh University he teamed up with a disciple of Lamarck who became his mentor. He accepted the opportunity of a voyage round the world as a paying traveller in the Beagle which set sail in 1831. It was on the Galapagos Islands that he noticed the differences between mockingbirds on each of the four islands. He also observed a number of other birds that he called a mixture of wrens, finches, and “gross-beaks”. It was only much later at the Zoological Society in London that John Gould was able to say that they were all ground finches, differently adapted to their environment. Gould also announced that the mockingbirds were three species unique to different islands. This led Darwin to re-examine his finch collection and discover that each island had its particular finch, too. This raised the question of how they had all diverged.

On reading Thomas Malthus’ Essay on the principle of Population (1838) Darwin realised that when the population increased too much there would be competition for food in which the unfit would die. He named his Malthusian process ‘natural selection’ and applied it to Nature. He argued that when a natural population explosion happened there ensued a struggle to survive and through chance variations the most adapted subsisted and passed on the winning trait to the next generation.

Darwin had begun writing his book on the theory of natural selection in 1858 when he received a letter from Russell Wallace working on specimens in Indonesia and who had come to similar conclusions. This overcame Darwin’s hesitancy about publishing and he agreed to publish The Origin of the Species in 1895. This became the cornerstone of the theory of evolution.

Darwin continued his biological investigations publishing other books such as The Various Contrivances by which British and Foreign Orchids are Fertilised by Insects (1862). This demonstrated that the orchid’s beauty was not of divine design for human pleasure, as was the common view, but to attract bees to its nectar for the purpose of cross-pollination. In 1871 his double volume his two-volume The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex was a response to critics of the male hummingbird’s colourful plumage. Darwin pointed out that it had a specific function: to attract females as mates.

Though Darwin based his theory on biological observation, evolution became a philosophical explanation for more than natural phenomena. Social darwinism, for example, took advantage of the double meaning of “fit” in English. Darwin used it as meaning ‘adapted’ but the Nazis interpreted it as’ healthy’ (as in ‘fitness’) and used that as an excuse for the extermination of the ‘unfit’.

William James published The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy in 1897, a collection of essays. In science, James notes, we can wait for the results of an investigation before coming to a belief, but in other cases we must believe even if all the evidence of the facts is not present. For example, if we are mountaineering and we have to decide whether or not to cross an ice bridge because it will not possibly support our weight. In this case, he says, we have 'the right to believe', especially since it is of vital importance. It is a case in which the fact (crossing the ice bridge) cannot exist if a preliminary faith does not exist.

James applies his analysis to religious belief, particularly the case where salvation depends on belief in God before having proof that God exists. He justifies the belief according to the results of it. In addition, he extends it to other spheres when he affirms that a social organism of any type depends on the belief that each member will fulfill his social duty. Moral questions are also not sustained by what James calls 'sensory tests'. Quoting Pascal, he says that these are not matters of science but of the heart.

In the Reflex Action and Theism essay, James attempts to reconcile science and religion. He affirms that in the most evolved animals a level of thought intervenes between sensations and action and that is where, in human beings, thought about God appears. He maintains that this is a natural human response to the universe and is independent of any proof of the existence of God. He believes in a theism that affirms an opacity in things, a dimension that is beyond our theoretical control.

"As a general rule, we do not believe in facts and theories for that we are not ready.” William James

In The Will to Believe are also his most developed arguments on morality. According to the author, moral obligations are based on sensitivity. They operate by inclusivity and a series of historical experiences: learning to live without polygamy, slavery, judicial torture and arbitrary royal power. However, it recognizes that these conquests are not final and may be changed in the future.

Søren Kierkegaard questions the method of doubt in philosophy. He replaces the Cartesian doubt with the attitude of 'wonder' of the ancient Greeks. The author argues, against Descartes, that doubt cannot be the starting point of philosophy because it is only possible after having begun to philosophise. He asks if it is possible to maintain pure Cartesian doubt with the absolute skepticism that it requires.

Kierkegaard also criticizes the epistemology of Hegel, Spinoza Fichte, and Kant. He argues that objective knowledge is a contradiction because it is the subject that knows and there can be no knowledge outside of subjectivity. He argues not against knowledge, which would be solipsism, but against absolute knowledge.

Kierkegaard's epistemology is very subjectivist because it is based on a double reflection in which reflective knowledge reflects on its belief that something is true.

More information:

Jeremy Bentham (1748 - 1832)

Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762 - 1814)

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770 - 1831)

Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph (von) Schelling (1775 - 1854)

Arthur Schopenhauer (1788 - 1860)

John Stuart Mill (1806 – 1873)

Charles Darwin (1809 - 1882)

Søren Aabye Kierkegaard (1813 - 1855)

Karl Heinrich Marx (1818 - 1883)

Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (1844 - 1900)

Friedrich Ludwig Gottlob Frege (1848 - 1925)

Edmund Gustav Albrecht Husserl (1859 - 1938)

Ortega y Gasset




Émile Durkheim‎ 

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon‎


Eugeni D'Ors


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