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20th Century Philosophy: Man and His Eternal Search for Meaning

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The 20th Century was the timeframe of the latest and most complex turn in Western Philosophy: the Linguistic Turn. Some of the key thinkers of the era acknowledged that language had the ability to make things be, rather than continuing to perceive it as an object itself; others saw it as a means to communicate their understanding of the reality that they were part of. Be that as it may, the whole outlook on the field had to go through the vital reconsideration.

Analytic Philosophy: the importance of language

For this current, language is more than a tool – it is what enables science to achieve utmost clarity. In Austria, in 1922, philosophers, such as Rudolf Carnap and Gustav Bergmann, gathered and formed the Vienna Circle – a group that labored under the principles of logical empiricism. According to them, logic is the method of philosophy, and they sought to eliminate ambivalence and everyday language: sciences should not use imprecise or informal expressions.

Another Austrian exponent, Ludwig Wittgenstein, explained in Philosophical Investigations (1965) that the object of the field is the logical clarification of thoughts. Because of its complexity and trickiness, linguistic analysis is fundamental. He viewed language as a means and not as an end aim in itself. Communication is a collaborative work between builders and assistants (Wittgenstein, 1965), during which information required is provided. The interaction leaves no room for passiveness and reinvents itself in each new context and bond.

According to Wittgenstein, each person’s language competences and background are key factors, which come at play when speaking, and these factors make each context of interaction unique and unrepeatable. It is a very rich and demanding activity, but its basis is mainly primitive and found in children’s communication skills.

Wittgenstein stresses the individuality of each person, an aspect which can be seen in different sides of the post-industrial society. Nowadays, broadcasting and narrowcasting have made way for pointcasting – production, marketing, communication, and consumption have gone from massive audiences to each specific member of the public, adapting its services, products, and strategies to suit multiple interests. Brands, PR departments, marketing specialists, and communicators in general have to phase a multi-level task: how to make goods that are mass produced appealing to individuals, who want their uniqueness respected and catered to.

Phenomenology: a rational basis for philosophy

Nevertheless, not all philosophers agreed with this new-found relevance of language. This current considered intentionality to be the nucleus of human activity and that it manifested itself through language (Husserl, 1901). Husserl (1901) added that it is a way of understanding and expressing reality and that the foundation of language is non-linguistic.

Along with Marxism, Phenomenology led to talk of technology and mass production, and how industrial, serial production was a threat to society as a whole and individuality in particular.

Husserl (1901) himself does not provide solid ground for development, since he expressed that the laws of thought could only be stated as probabilities. In the search for absolute truth, he found more confusion and uncertainty.

Structuralism: the French perspective

Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure paved the way for Claude Lévi-Strauss and Jacques Lacan to apply the concepts of structuralism in the anthropological and psychoanalytical fields. Again, the context of interaction became extremely relevant, and the versatility of factors at play in any given circumstance was not to be taken lightly.

Lévi-Strauss (1958) believed that linguistics is the only field in the Social Sciences that can truly be regarded as such, and suggested all other specializations, such as psychology, sociology, and anthropology, turn to it for their research. In his case, through observation, he found there were common attitudes and beliefs across different cultures, regardless of how each of them should manifest them.

By this time, global markets were established, and common aspects of consumers’ behavior around the world could be detected. Apart from the fact that brands like Coca-Cola had successfully managed to conquer the globe with a product that appealed to most cultures and backgrounds, regardless of their uniqueness, transnationalization of trends and interests was only one of the aspects that showed what the planet was going to become and even more complex scenario (TransEurope Research Network, 2008).

On the other hand, Lacan’s structuralism and psychoanalysis focused on the individual and his unconscious, which, to him, is language itself. Once again, the same concepts can be applied to a world-wide situation and a one-on-one interaction –that which takes place when analyst and patient work in tandem.

Too abstract for most academics in America, the approach was more widely accepted in France. Post-structuralists like Michel Foucault and Roland Barthes followed suit.

Conclusions

During the 20th Century, human kind experienced changes and progress faster than ever before, and cultural and technological discoveries made it encounter a contradictory world. Each science had worked hard at isolating its subject and developing its method. This, which proved to work for the Natural field, was inefficient for Social Sciences: Anthropology, Sociology, History, Politics. Eventually, intellectuals realized that one could (and should) not be analyzed without the other. Culture, Politics, and Communication are a part of a complex and ever-changing unit, and not taking into account the socio-geographic-historic timeframe of a phenomenon and other related affairs jeopardizes de true understanding of it.

The world’s evolution process was accelerated in the last hundred years, although, the observation and conclusions that are reached through ethnographic means can be obsolete at any time. Social Sciences have come a long way and can, through case studies, analyze a setting that combines individuality, massiveness, and industrial production.   

Despite numerous developments in all fields of human capability, our need to understand the world we live in, a quest that gave birth to Philosophy, has not changed. We still have the need to make sense of our existence. Our circumstances have become more complex, and so have our means to try to comprehend it. That shall be true regardless of the ruling paradigm. 

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