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Modern European Thinkers

Philosophical figures during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries boldly investigated human nature, the natural world, morality, and religion. René Descartes and Immanuel Kant stand as “modern” giants at the beginning and end of this age. They also stand in agreement that we are more than natural creatures, and that it is our rationality that enables us to be moral persons. 

But many thinkers sought a closer relationship with nature. Benedictus de Spinoza (born, and commonly referred to as Baruch Spinoza) took the radical step of unifying nature with God, but a century would pass before he had many followers. Pierre Gassendi's atomistic materialism had immediate cultural influence, not excepting the arts. For example, Molière's dramatic works could find perfection in whatever follows nature’s excellence. Madame des Houlières lent dignity to philosophical naturalism in her creative writings. Medicine was another field where nature could gain due respect. Herman Boerhaave, the famous physician and founder of the academic hospital, is an example, and so is Dorothea Erxleben, the first German woman awarded the MD degree. 

Questioning the natural order also allowed questioning of the social order. In France, Marie de Gournay's feminist writings justified gender equality. Gabrielle Suchon's moral philosophy similarly interrogated the rightful status of women. In Germany, Johanna Unzer promoted women’s education through her philosophical works.

Anglo-American Women in Modern and Contemporary Philosophy

There is no topical area or subfield of philosophy where women have not made significant contributions.

Although lack of opportunity, recognition, and appreciation has obstructed, and continues to impede, their equal participation in academic philosophy, important movements of thought and social action during modern times have been enriched by female thinkers of the highest caliber. In England, Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) was not just the most powerful justification for women’s equality yet heard around the world, but also a political treatise of the first rank during the Enlightenment. In America, the tenor and potency of America’s abolition movement was indebted to the powerful rhetoric and reasoning of Sojourner Truth. Susan B. Anthony authored an Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (the 19th for women’s suffrage), becoming the most intellectual individual to modify the Constitution since James Madison. The only American philosopher to receive the Nobel Peace Prize was a woman: Jane Addams.

Turning to normative social philosophy and ethical theory, we again find women taking essential and irreplaceable stands, such as Hannah Arendt on totalitarianism, Mary Warnock on human reproduction and euthanasia, Philippa Foot on virtue ethics, Judith Thomson on abortion, and Virginia Held on human rights. The most technical fields have not lacked for first-rank women philosophers; one need only mention Elizabeth Anscombe in the analytic movement, Susanne Langer in philosophy of mind and aesthetics, and Ruth Barcan Marcus in logic and philosophy of language.

Analytic Philosophers

During the early twentieth century the analytic tradition re-shaped philosophy in Britain. Challenging the dominance of idealism, it marked the resurgence of common sense realism.

The argumentative style was distinctive: isolate a particular issue, frame the issue with appropriate concepts, clarify and connect those concepts, and then infer a reasoned conclusion about the issue. Different phases of analytic philosophy draw from distinctive conceptual resources, such as the ordinary meanings of words referring to evident objects of the world, or the scientific meanings for properties of theoretical objects.

For example, G.E. Moore’s A Defense of Common Sense (1925) appealed to the common terms of ordinary language for best referring to what is real, thereby relegating any rival philosophy’s terminology to meaninglessness. Ludwig Wittgenstein similarly expected authentic meanings to adhere to common grammatical language, and prove amenable to propositional clarity and logical truth-determination. This method of linguistic analysis was extended beyond its initial realm of ordinary language, to other areas of discourse such as ethics, legal theory, social theory, and political theory. Refuting a rival philosophical view by exposing how its terms lack sound or coherent meaning was also highly appealing to proponents of scientific empiricism. The logical positivism of the Vienna Circle, championed in Britain by A.J. Ayer in Language, Truth and Logic (1936), led to a verificationist theory of meaning. Although strict verificationism was an unrealistic project, basing the scientific meanings of theoretical entities upon observational reports powered the reductionist paradigm of behaviorism in psychology, and the reductionist program of scientific naturalism in philosophy, as exemplified in W.V.O. Quine’s philosophy. Both of these developments, along with the original model of linguistic analysis, shaped the diverse forms of analytic philosophy during the second half of the twentieth century.


Liberalism takes the social condition of liberty to be natural and normative for individuals, so limitations upon individual liberty require special justification. The older tradition of republicanism expected government to provide essential guarantees of protection and equal justice. Liberalism’s emergence during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries additionally demanded that both the form of government and the officials of government are answerable to the people who know best how to preserve their liberties.

In the hands of John Locke and Thomas Jefferson, legitimate government functions to uphold individual human rights and replaces officials through regular democratic elections. Liberalism has unsteadily and too slowly expanded its concern for more and more individuals – at first men of property, then all white men, then all white men and women, to all adults regardless of ethnic heritage.

What characterizes a liberal philosopher is a commitment to making progress in that expansive direction. However, liberals disagree among each other about the nature of liberty and the prioritization of important liberties. If liberty is fundamentally freedom from coercion, regardless of what an individual wants to do or can practically do, then liberalism advocates minimal government and tends towards libertarianism. F.A. Hayek and Robert Nozick are examples. If liberty also encompasses the freedom of individuals to achieve what they should aspire to and what they collectively propose to do, then liberalism allows for large government and tends towards democratic socialism. John Dewey and Martin Luther King Jr. are examples in that direction.