Contemporary philosophy: main characteristics and philosophers

Contemporary philosophy is defined as philosophical thought built from the 19th century to the present day, as a consequence of the historic landmarks of the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution.

Contemporary philosophical thought is mainly characterized by the phenomenology and hermeneutics (or studies of meaning).

Among the most important philosophical currents are also positivism, historical-dialectical materialism, analytic philosophy, Nietzsche's nihilism, existentialism, the Frankfurt school's critique and the poststructuralism.

There is no consensus among scholars on who were the main philosophers of this period.

This lack of consensus is mainly due to the diversity of thoughts developed contemporaneity, with different schools and philosophical currents coexisting and still expanding.

Many contemporary thinkers are considered essential for understanding philosophy and the other sciences today.

Auguste Comte, Karl Marx, Edmund Husserl, Bertrand Russell, Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean-Paul Sartre, Max Horkheimer and Michel Foucault are some of them.

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Characteristics of the main philosophical schools

Mind map on contemporary philosophical currents
The philosophical schools that make up contemporary philosophy, although diverse, end up relating.


Contemporary philosophy begins with Comte's positivism and Marx's dialectical-historical materialism in the 19th century. These two concepts kick-start what would come later in the construction of current philosophical thought.

In positivism, the scientific thought is the only one considered valid. Comte completely abandoned earlier notions of philosophy, which still embraced thoughts about metaphysics and transcendentalism. Inspired by the Enlightenment.

In this way, the rationalism it's the scientism are important characteristics of positivism, and that have significantly influenced the way of thinking and doing science.

Comte also saw society as a system with natural progression. Keeping order, evolution and progress would naturally be achieved. Later historical events, in the 20th century, called into question this aspect of positivism.

Historical-dialectical materialism

The industrialization of societies led Marx and Egels to reflect on what would be dialectical-historical materialism. As historical-materialism, philosophers opposed Enlightenment beliefs, seeing society as a result of its level of production and its economy.

For Marx and Egels, it was not ideals (as the Enlightenment believed) that set a society on a path of progress, but its material and economic transformations. In this way, economic changes and transformations in production models would define the historical path that a society would take.

History is no longer thought of as mere events, to be seen as an order of facts that happened due to changes in the economic and productive model.

As an example, it can be said that the historical changes brought about by the Industrial Revolution are directly related to the economic changes that caused them. Therefore, the economic transformation was what influenced the social transformation, such as the migration from the countryside to the city, the struggle for labor rights, among others. Building the story.

In historical materialism, social evolution comes from confrontation. from the call class struggle.

O dialectical materialism is contrary to idealism. Through this theory, Marx and Egels claim that when studying an object, it is necessary to observe it in its entirety, as something inserted in a larger context.

Therefore, the study of a given issue cannot be done without considering everything that surrounds the issue, including what is seen as contradictory.


Also averse to positivist ideas, Husserl's phenomenology proposed that it was necessary to rethink the philosophical construction, moving away from scientificist convictions.

For Husserl, knowledge would be produced from the form how human consciousness interprets phenomena. As a phenomenon, one can understand any event or manifestation, anything that is placed before an individual.

Therefore, in phenomenology, knowledge about a given subject or objective is constructed through interpretation, that is, a reading made by human consciousness. With this statement, Husserl takes the role of philosophical thought from the object and passes it to the person/subject, who holds the consciousness capable of interpreting it.

Phenomenology ends up being seen by many scholars as a kind of method for philosophical thought.

Hermeneutics and Theory of Meaning

Still in the context of interpretation, hermeneutics is an important feature of contemporary philosophy. Well it's the philosophy of interpreting and understanding the meaning, the production of meaning or semantics.

It can be said that the key disciplines for understanding current philosophy are phenomenology and hermeneutics.

Contemporary philosophy has a great concern with linguistic studies, with theories of meaning.

THE analytic philosophy it is also based on theories of meaning. One of his most important names was Russell.

With analytical philosophy, it is assumed that people are linguistic beings, and that knowledge is transmitted and constructed through language. Therefore, this current of thought proposes a logical analysis of language.

Philosophy stops thinking about objects or knowledge itself, and starts studying the language with which knowledge is shared.

Contemporary philosophy also has a strong nihilistic character. Based mainly on Nietzsche's thoughts. Nietzsche's nihilism influenced the construction of existentialism and poststructuralism.

Nietzsche's Nihilism

Nihilism is a philosophy that claims that there is no kind of certainty on which knowledge can be based. From Nietzsche's nihilism, one has the conceptions of death of god and gives subject's release.

In these concepts, the human being is no longer governed by morality, culture or religion. After all, in nihilism, none of these beliefs can be considered a certainty on which to follow or build knowledge on.

In this way, the human being becomes free, because life would not have any kind of meaning or essence. This is the basis of existentialist thinking.


Existentialism has as important names Satre, Beauvoir and Camus. This philosophical thought declares the meaninglessness to human life. Thus, life would not have any greater meaning, the individual simply exists and it is solely up to him to build and guide his existence. Building your human condition.

Critical Theory

On a Marxist basis, the Frankfurt School suggested a new reading of Marx's concepts. The thinkers of Frankfurt were opposed to positivism and the Enlightenment, as they considered that with the rise of the fascist and Nazi movements in Europe there had been a severe social regression.

The Frankfurt School emerged in Germany in the 20th century and during World War II it moved to the United States. Philosophers, among them Horkheimer and Adorno, developed Critical Theory.

Critical Theory aimed at social transformation. It was not presented as a neutral concept, which was common in previous concepts, but proposed a critical thinking that provoked change.

The cultural industry is a Critical Theory concept, which arises from the analysis of the media. THE cultural industry refers to a system of "manufacturing" of cultural goods that would serve as a mechanism for profit generation and social control, keeping people alienated.

Belonging to the cultural industry would be films, soap operas, radio and television programs, books and all artistic-cultural goods resulting from the so-called mass culture.

Mass culture would be a mixture of high culture and popular culture. These goods would be produced with the aim of maintaining the prevailing social and economic order.

Another concept present in Critical Theory is that of instrumental reason. THE instrumental reason it would be when reason or knowledge become instruments of domination and social control.

With instrumental reason, science would cease to be a model for knowledge and freedom, and would become a means to achieve power, becoming exploratory and dominating.


One of the main names in the post-structuralist current is the philosopher Michel Foucault. Poststructuralism is a stream of philosophical thought that criticizes the foundations of structuralism, for considering them deterministic and not taking into account the historical contexts.

understand more about structuralism.

Poststructuralist philosophers consider reality a social construction and character subjective. Poststructuralism also tends to deny binary positions, such as the concepts of "good or evil" or "male or female".

Poststructuralist thinking is present in semantic and meaning studies, in gender studies, in literary analysis, and in many others. Poststructuralism is based on Nietzsche's concepts and anti-positivism.

Some scholars consider poststructuralism as a philosophical current characteristic of postmodernity.

understand what is postmodernity.

Summary of main features

  • Positivism.
  • Rationalism.
  • scientism.
  • Historical materialism.
  • Dialectical materialism.
  • Phenomenology.
  • hermeneutics.
  • Linguistic Studies - Analytical Philosophy.
  • Nihilism.
  • Existentialism.
  • Freedom.
  • Social Criticism - Frankfurt School.
  • Post-structuralism.
  • Subjectivity.
  • Deconstruction.

Major contemporary philosophers

Auguste Comte

positivist philosopher Auguste Comte
Comte, an important name in positivism

Comte is the founder of positivism. This philosophical current was based on Enlightenment ideals and believed that science was the only valid form of knowledge. Being responsible for explaining both nature and social realities.

Therefore, positivism is influenced by scientism. Although later philosophical concepts strongly questioned positivism, the importance of of this philosophical current is for having been the first to elaborate a social study in a systematic.

That is, defining an object of study, adopting a research method and composing concepts.

Furthermore, positivism saw society as a mechanism that would evolve naturally. Keeping order, organically the path would be progress.

Comte was of great importance in the construction of national identity in the period of the establishment of the Republic of Brazil. Most of the military involved in governmental regime change were positivists.

Auguste Comte was French, born in 1798 and died in 1857. He is considered the father of sociology.

Know more about positivism and its influence in Brazil.

Karl Marx

philosopher Karl Marx responsible for the work Capital
Karl Marx, author of the work The capital.

Marx is considered one of the most important contemporary philosophers. Together with Friedrich Engels was responsible for relevant philosophical concepts such as class struggle, historical-dialectical materialism and scientific socialism.

Marx was a great critic of industrial capitalism. In this way, he divided society into two large classes: the proletariat, composed of workers, mostly belonging to the working-class world of factories, and the bourgeoisie, which would be an elite class, owner of industries, that is, owner of the means of production.

Marx claimed that these two antagonistic classes would always be in dispute, the class struggle. While the bourgeoisie intended to maintain its status through economic and political power, the proletariat would be in search of social change through better living conditions.

Still within the industrial context, the philosopher approached the concept of added value, in which the final product built would always be worth more than the value given as remuneration to the worker.

The bourgeoisie would be the exploiting class, while the proletariat would be the exploited class. In this scenario, the philosopher also addresses the concepts of alienation and ideology. In them, the real condition of the individual would be camouflaged. People belonging to the proletariat would not have access to the knowledge of what they really lived, losing in a way their identity.

One of the camouflage methods, which would make the individual lose his identity, would be the fact that the workers of factories did not know the final product of what they manufactured, as they were involved only in part of the process factory

For Marx, only with the class struggle (when the proletariat understood its power and its rights) would it be possible to achieve a true social transformation.

At the historical materialism, the thinker sees the historical transformations of a society being driven by its level of production and its economy. For Marx it would be the class struggle, determined from the current production and economic model, that would make history.

already in dialectical materialism, the philosopher brings the notion that to study an object it is necessary to think about it as a whole, therefore the study of a object or theme cannot be thought of in isolation, but rather taking into account the contexts that are around it his.

Learn more about historical materialism it's the dialectical materialism.

The concepts of class struggle, surplus value, division of labor, among others, are included in what is called scientific socialism or Marxist socialism.

The main work of scientific socialism was The capital, of 1867, which criticized capitalism. O Communist Manifesto, from 1848, also addressed these concepts and proposed change objectives.

Karl Marx was a German philosopher of Jewish descent. Born in 1818 and died in 1883.

Edmund Husserl

Founding philosopher of phenomenology, Husserl
Edmund Husserl, founder of phenomenology.

Husserl was the main name of the phenomenology. For the philosopher, reality would be a phenomenon that would need to be interpreted and revealed.

Human consciousness would be responsible for carrying out this interpretation. Husserl also claimed that consciousness is always a awareness of something. Therefore, consciousness would not be empty, it would always be related to something, be it a person, an object or a situation.

This consciousness would also be considered plastic, that is, it would have the capacity for change, being open to transformations and adapting.

However, consciousness would also have the particularity of temporality. Thus, the way human consciousness interprets phenomena could vary according to the historical time in which the individual lives.

For the philosopher, knowledge would also have characteristics of intentionality. When an individual turns his attention to an existing phenomenon, there is always an intention to do so.

Edmundo Husserl was German, born in 1859 and died in 1938. Another important name within phenomenology was Friederich Hegel.

Bertrand Russell

philosopher Russell, founder of analytic philosophy
Russell was a thinker of analytic philosophy.

Russell was a philosopher belonging to the current of thought of analytic philosophy. THE analytic philosophy was dedicated to the study of linguistic utterances, that is, it was a branch of philosophy that thought the human being as a linguistic being, and that language was the means by which knowledge would be constructed and transmitted.

Being also a mathematician, Russell brings to philosophy a logical way of analyzing language. THE logical analysis of language it would be the way to understand and think about philosophy.

For analytic philosophers, the logical analysis of language was the way to overcome the problems of metaphysical philosophy.

Russell was born in the UK in 1872. He belonged to the British aristocracy, assuming the title of earl.

He was a man considered progressive for his time, taking a political stand against both World Wars and proving in favor of women's suffrage. In 1950, he won the Nobel Prize for Literature. He died in 1970.

Friedrich Nietzsche

German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche
Nietzsche influenced existentialism.

Nietzsche was one of the most important contemporary philosophers. With his thoughts, he influenced many later philosophical currents, such as existentialism and poststructuralism.

At the beginning of his philosophical studies, Nietzsche was influenced by the important German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. Friedrich Nietzsche was a critic of Socratic philosophy, he claimed that Socrates' metaphysical thoughts had taken from individuals what he called Apollonian forces and Dionysian forces.

The Apollonian forces would be characteristics such as rationality, beauty and order. The Dionysians, on the other hand, would be passion, intensity, fear, among others. For the philosopher, to deny these forces would be to deny life itself.

Nietzsche builds the concept of slave morals and sir morals. Slave morality would be one in which the individual submits to beliefs and values ​​that would subjugate him, such as religion. Master morality would be when the individual does not follow any imposed value, being the master of his own morality.

Nietzsche claims that God is dead, therefore the human being should be the master of his own morals. The individual who managed to free himself from the values ​​imposed by religion and culture would be the Superman (from German: "Übermensch").

Nietzsche's superman would be a model that should be sought by humanity, in order to obtain freedom.

THE will to power it would be what would drive individuals free from slave morality to build a trajectory for their existence.

Nietzsche can be considered a nihilistic philosopher precisely because he denies the existence of a certainty or an essence that serves as a basis for the creation of knowledge or morality. However, the concept of will to power shows a active nihilism, where superman is free to build a life without strings.

Friedrich Nietzsche was born in Prussia, now Germany, in 1844. In addition to being a philosopher, he was also a philologist, poet, composer and cultural critic. He died in 1900.

Jean-Paul Sartre

philosophers Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Paul Sartre in black and white.
Philosophers Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre.

Sartre is the greatest representative of existentialism. The philosopher had as main inspirations the phenomenology of Husserl, the nihilism of Nietzsche and the historical materialism of Marx.

From these concepts, Sartre thought the existentialism atheist, once again abandoned a metaphysical philosophy. According to the philosopher, the human being was condemned to freedom, for there would be no higher force or greater meaning for human life.

In this way, individuals would always be completely free to choose how to construct their existence. That choice would be what would create the human condition. That is, from the choices made during his life, an individual would build his essence as a human being.

Unlike the classical philosophers, who thought of human beings as having a special essence or nature, Sartre says that the essence of the individual will be formed during life from the choices made in the face of freedom. For Sartre, existence comes before essence.

With the influence of Marx's historical and dialectical materialism, the philosopher also thought of an existentialism in a social context. Sartre had Marxist foundations, but carried out a reinterpretation of the concepts of the German thinker.

For Sartre, as individuals make choices for their lives, they also end up making choices for humanity in general, projecting their choices for the entire community.

The human being, when making choices looking at himself, would also be choosing what would be for the other. Thus, existentialism is also associated with political and social agendas.

Simone de Beauvoir, Sartre's wife, was a great existentialist philosopher and a reference in feminist theories.

Jean-Paul Sartre was born in France in 1905 and died in 1980.

understand more about feminism.

Max Horkheimer

Frankfurt's Choice philosophers Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno
Horkheimer and Adorno, 1964.
Credits: Jeremy J. Shapiro.

Horkheimer was one of the most prestigious members of theFrankfurt school. One of the greatest philosophical currents of the 20th century, influencing philosophy and sociology. Also comprising the Frankfurt school, thinkers such as Walter Beijamin, Theodor Adorno and Jürgen Habermas.

The Frankfurt school began its studies at the University of Frankfurt, in 1924, and built philosophical thoughts on various topics, such as aesthetics, communication, linguistics, among others.

Having Jewish origins, the Frankfurt School began to exist in hiding around the 1930s, having later to change its location to the United States, during the Nazi regime.

proposing a reinterpretation of marxism, the Frankfurt school also had a profile antipositivist, and inspiration in the existentialism and psychoanalysis of Sigmund Freud.

Horkheimer was one of the foundational thinkers for Critical Theory. THE Critical Theory is an umbrella concept for several important thinking developments within the Frankfurt School, among them the cultural industry and instrumental reason.

THE cultural industry would be the producer of mass culture. Therefore, the cultural industry would produce, as in a factory, cultural goods or products.

These cultural goods, which could be films, soap operas, plays, TV series, etc., as in an industry they are made in series and with the objective of generating profit and promoting control Social.

The philosophers of the Frankfurt school pointed out that the cultural industry was a source of information and a guide to people's lives. This "educational" aspect of the culture industry could influence patterns and behavior.

The "Frankfutians" also elaborated on the concept of instrumental reason, which would be when science and/or reason are used as an instrument of economic and social domination and exploitation.

Max Horkheimer was born in Germany in 1895 and died in 1973.

Michel Foucault

poststructuralist philosopher Michel Foucault in black and white
Foucault, the main name of post-structuralism.
Credits: Marc Garanger/Gallimard.

Foucault is one of the fundamental philosophers to understand current philosophical thought. Often seen as a thinker who revolutionized the humanities.

The philosopher is the great name of the poststructuralism, in which he took up Nietzsche's thoughts and was inspired by Sartre's existentialism. Also supporting anti-positivist ideas.

Foucault elaborated concepts about power, discourse, the domestication of bodies, the history of sexuality, the history of the construction of western knowledge and also of madness, approaching the psychiatry.

As a great critic of the contemporary world, Foucault became known as the philosopher of distrust. The expression refers to the thinker's practice of analyzing social institutions and defending an attitude of deconstruction reality, typical of the so-called poststructuralists.

Among the various conceptualizations, the thoughts on the power and domestication of bodies stand out. Foucault moved away from the classical Marxist thought that thought of power as a position mostly linked to the economic factor.

Foucault did not see the power as a position, but as something that could be exercised. Power would be something that could be executed. And it would always be exercised in an unbalanced way, that is, however subtle they may be, power relations are always unequal.

No individual could be outside of these relationships. As small as the execution of power may be, it will always be present in everyone's daily life.

As an example, these power relationships can be evident in family relationships, between parents and children, or even between siblings. At school, between teachers and students; between worker and employee; between police and civilian citizens; between friends or in larger situations, such as between legal institutions and the common population.

Power is not necessarily exercised in a duality relationship, power ramifies throughout society and has as one of its main characteristics that it is asymmetrical.

Power is also not something that is exercised eternally, the dynamics of power relations are changeable. Changing over time, but never ceasing to exist.

Another characteristic of power would be the ability to act on the bodies of individuals. In this conceptualization, Foucault elaborates the thought on the domestication of bodies. Which would cause the bodies of individuals to be transformed so that they could deliver as much as possible.

That is, bodies should be domesticated to the point of maximum yield. The philosopher claimed that this domestication could be seen in spaces, as in militarism or in schools. Domestication would create a kind of subject, which form rules and behaviors in order to make the most of time and the body.

Michel Foucault is French, born in 1926 and died in 1984.

Historical moment of contemporary philosophy

The historical context that permeated the construction of contemporary philosophy began with the French Revolution and also from Industrial Revolution.

These two historic events changed the economic and social structure around the world. Initially in Europe and then, gradually, in the rest of the globe.

The French Revolution, inspired by the ideals of the enlightenment, led to the fall of the monarchy in France and consequently the devaluation of the political regime throughout the world. After the revolution, the republic, as a political system, gained strength and the bourgeoisie came to have, in addition to economic power, political power as well.

From the end of the 17th century onwards, technological advances made possible major changes in social dynamics, especially at work. Technology has changed the production process, which was practically artisanal, to be made with machines.

Steam engines, the use of coal to generate energy, the discovery of new chemicals, among other advances, increased the productivity of factories. Producing more and in less time. The profit of the owners of the enterprises, belonging to the bourgeoisie, soared.

The Industrial Revolution began in England, around 1760, and quickly gained Europe and the United States. The replacement of human power by machinery changed the lifestyle of the population. Consolidating the capitalism as an economic-social model.

The exaltation of rationality and science, initiated with the Enlightenment, and the technological advances from the end of the 18th century made us think of society as a historical structure that progressed naturally. A conception that provided the basis for Comte's positivism.

In contrast to the technological advances of the Industrial Revolution, problematic social transformations occurred, such as the strong migration of populations from rural areas to cities, in search of work in factories (the exodus rural). There was also an accentuation of social inequalities, which were notorious due to poor working conditions in factories, precarious housing and lack of labor rights.

The need of populations to conquer labor rights and better living conditions paved the way for concepts such as class struggle of Karl Marx and the feminism, with the suffragette movement. The movement fought for women's right to vote.

Faced with the social inequalities resulting from the establishment of capitalism, other social and economic models began to be thought of, such as the socialism, O communism and the anarchy.

Understand more about the concepts of socialism, communism and anarchy.

In addition to negative social changes, the ideal of natural progress established by positivism was challenged with the seizure of power by totalitarian governments in the 20th century. Both on the right, like Nazism and fascism, and on the left, Stalinism.

Hannah Arendt was an important German philosopher, persecuted by the Nazi regime. Arendt was Jewish and was responsible for a renowned study on totalitarian regimes, and developed concepts such as the banality of evil.

Learn more about the features of totalitarianism.

From these phenomena, especially the rise of Nazism in Germany, critical thinking began to be valued even more. The so-called Frankfurt school, which during the war had to move to the United States, had a Marxist basis, but sought to go beyond the notions of Karl Marx.

They were against positivism and were influenced by existentialism and psychoanalysis. His philosophical thinking was based on theories critical to capitalism and social emancipation.

It is also in the Frankfurt school that the concept of cultural industry arises. The culture industry would be a capitalist mechanism to transform culture into a commodity and a means of social control.

At the end of the 20th century, a movement based on Nietzsche's conceptions began in France. Although the poststructuralist movement did not call itself that way, it remained that way. known for thinking society as a construction and denying the binarism present in studies structuralists.

In addition to Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze and Judith Blutter are important names in contemporary philosophy.

Although it is possible to draw a timeline on the historical events that influenced and were influenced by contemporary philosophy, it is also well known that the philosophy practiced in the last two centuries is diverse.

Currents of thought are perceived that are related (either as a re-reading or as a denial of the previous school) or that practically do not talk, being only in the same thematic field.

For some scholars to condense contemporary philosophy into a historical/temporal mold would not be ideal. Firstly, due to the diversity of philosophical currents, which means that there is no uniformity of concepts during the defined time frame.

And there is also the inherent difficulty of interpreting and categorizing knowledge that is recent, and still being produced. However, one might think that the main concern of current philosophy is meaning.

Bibliographical sources:

  • CHAUI, M. Invitation to philosophy. Ed. Attica, Sao Paulo. 2000
  • FOUCAULT, M. Archeology of knowledge. Forensic University Publisher, Rio de Janeiro, 2008.
  • FOUCAULT, M. The order of speech. Loyola Editions, São Paulo, 1996.
  • PORTO, M. Philosophy from its problems. Loyola Editions. 3d. Sao Paulo, 2007
  • RUSSELL, B. History of Western Philosophy. Ed. New Frontier, Rio de Janeiro, 2015.

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