Postmodern Philosophy: A Beginner's Guide (55+)

In the early 1900s, Einstein’s relativity theories, along with quantum mechanics, overturned Newton’s model of the physical universe, which had dominated thinking for three centuries. What’s more, the First World War suggested that Europe’s socially advanced countries had reverted to barbarism. Three centuries of Enlightenment rationality seemed to have reached a dead end, and philosophy changed radically in response.

Our course will begin by introducing three 20th-century philosophical schools: continental, analytic and pragmatic. We will examine philosophical themes that arose from these schools, including existentialism, structuralism and deconstruction. We’ll also introduce major contributors, including Husserl, Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Sartre and Foucault.

Note: Back by popular demand, from fall 2017.

Please note that enrollment in this course is reserved for adults 55+.

Currently not available for registration.

Learning outcomes

By the end of the course, you should be able to:

  • Explain why post-First World War thinking became more pessimistic
  • Describe the three different post-First World War schools of philosophy: analytic, continental, and pragmatic
  • Name at least one major philosopher from each of the three schools

Learning methods

You will learn through a combination of lecture and in-class discussion. For Liberal Arts Certificate for 55+ students: you will write a reflective essay.


Week 1: Fragmentation

Our first class reviews the cultural fragmentation of the early 20th century, and shows how philosophical thinking also fragmented into three different schools of thought: analytic, continental and pragmatic.

Week 2: Analytic Philosophy

Analytic philosophers applied the scientific method to philosophy by using formal logic to clarify philosophical concepts. This class introduces the work of Frege, Russell, Whitehead and Wittgenstein.

Week 3: Continental Philosophy

Continental philosophy rejected the analytic focus solely on scientific method, focusing instead on the freedom of the individual. In this class, we focus on Husserl, Heidegger and the French existentialists Sartre, de Beauvoir and Camus.

Week 4: Structuralism and Post-Structuralism

Existentialism emphasized the absolute freedom of the individual. Structuralism argued just the opposite; that is, all human activity is limited by social and cultural structures, especially language. We focus on Levi-Strauss, Foucault and Derrida.

Week 5: Post-Modernism

Postmodernism is "post" because it denies the existence of any ultimate principles, and lacks any modern optimism for a scientific, philosophical or religious truth that will explain everything for everybody. We will examine the thought of Lyotard, Baudrillard and Rorty.

Week 6: The End of Philosophy?

By the end of the 20th century, many thinkers considered philosophy’s role to be reduced, or even unnecessary. In this last class, we examine the thinking of philosophers who disagree, including Arendt, McIntyre, Habermas and Taylor.

Books, materials and resources

Reading material (if applicable) will be available in class. Some course materials may be available online.

Academic integrity and student conduct

You are expected to comply with Simon Fraser University’s Academic Integrity and Student Conduct Policies. Please click here for more details. Simon Fraser University is committed to creating a scholarly community characterized by honesty, civility, diversity, free inquiry, mutual respect, individual safety, and freedom from harassment and discrimination.

If you're 55+, you may take this course as part of

Look at other courses in