European Thought and Culture in the 20th Century

Course No. 4427
Professor Lloyd Kramer, Ph.D.
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
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Course No. 4427
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Course Overview

Who were the great thinkers of the 20th Century? They were poets and painters, novelists and scientists, philosophers and playwrights. Their ideas and debates decisively shaped 20th-century European culture and still define our world today. Now with this sequel to his series on European Thought and Culture in the 19th Century, Professor Lloyd Kramer introduces an amazing array of thinkers and writers, the key historical circumstances and challenges they faced, and the fascinating and subtle ways their works relate to one another and to the larger story of modern European culture.

Who Were the Key Thinkers of the 20th Century?

Professor Kramer's gift for exposition is used to maximum effect as he guides you through a clear and comprehensive series of lectures discussing dozens of influential figures in European thought and letters. They include:

  • Poets, playwrights, novelists, and memoirists including Stéphane Mallarmé, Arthur Rimbaud, Émile Zola, Joseph Conrad, Henrik Ibsen, James Joyce, Marcel Proust, W. B. Yeats, Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, T. S. Eliot, Franz Kafka, Thomas Mann, Virginia Woolf, George Orwell, Günther Grass, Primo Levi, and Václav Havel
  • Painters such as Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and Wassily Kandinsky
  • Philosophers and theorists including Henri Bergson, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Albert Einstein, Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean-Paul Sartre, Karl Jaspers, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Jürgen Habermas
  • Social scientists such as Émile Durkheim, Max Weber, Marcel Mauss, John Maynard Keynes, Hannah Arendt, Jacques Lacan, Marc Bloch, Fernand Braudel, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Carl Jung, and Sigmund Freud.

Which Intellectual Movements Are Discussed?

By learning about their lives, their works, and the connections among their ideas, you'll gain a keener insight into a host of movements and trends in modern intellectual life:

  • Positivism
  • Literary realism and naturalism, symbolism, and modernism
  • Impressionism, Fauvism, Cubism, and Abstract Expressionism, Dadaism, Surrealism
  • Existentialism
  • Analytic philosophy
  • Feminism
  • Depth psychology, including Freudian psychoanalysis and Jungian psychology
  • Revisionist Marxism
  • Keynesian and Hayekian neoliberalism
  • Structuralism and poststructuralism
  • Postmodernism.

Ideas in Context

Professor Kramer constantly casts an inquiring eye on the evolving contexts in which leading writers and theorists developed their ideas.

He takes ideas seriously on their own terms. Important texts or artistic creations do not simply reflect the contexts in which they appear; creative thinkers are always interpreting, redefining, criticizing, and influencing the historical world in which they live. But Professor Kramer believes that your efforts to achieve historical understanding require knowledge of more than what these thinkers said.

You learn who they were, how they saw the problems of their age, and which historical realities affected the birth and spread of their thoughts.

The many intellectual achievements discussed in this course took place, after all, against a background of tumultuous, intensely challenging events and trends, including:

  • Global war
  • Economic depression
  • The rise and fall of empires
  • Massive social and technological changes.

You find that Professor Kramer skillfully presents this essential context in ways that illuminate your understanding of each thinker's works.

The Ongoing Dialogue

You might think of this course as a chapter from a larger story. That larger story is the old-but-always-renewed debate at the heart of Western civilization between Athens (standing in for "reason" or "science," broadly construed) and Jerusalem (standing in for "revelation" or "the numinous," equally broadly construed).

Twentieth-century intellectual and cultural history, Professor Kramer suggests, is an installment in this ancient and creative process of give-and-take between the dynamic poles of European civilization.

The century began with scientific positivism riding high and casting a long shadow. But just as the 18th-century Enlightenment had aroused a response in the form of Romanticism and the historical school, so too did fin-de-siècle positivism draw its share of critics.

Writers dissatisfied with the depictions of life they found in the realistic novels of, say, Zola, turned to symbolism and the world of inner visions and hidden meanings.

Philosophers and scientists like Bergson and Einstein pointed to the limits of the Newtonian model of science. Likewise, critical intellectuals such as Nietzsche, Weber, and Conrad raised sharp questions about the confident popular belief in almost-automatic progress even before the cataclysmic horrors of World War I. In the wake of World War II, Existentialist writers such as Sartre and Camus affirmed human freedom.

A New Generation of Scholars and Their Questions

It was not long before a new generation of scholars such as Claude Lévi-Strauss and the Annales historians began to ask questions.

They wondered whether profound "structures"—of language, society, history, and consciousness itself—may constrain liberty in ways far deeper than were dreamed of in Existentialist essays on the need for commitment.

In lecture after lecture, you find that Professor Kramer is superb at explaining the debates and thematic disagreements, implicit and explicit, that have resurfaced in European intellectual life.

Whether discussing the dispute between Jung and Freud, the reasons Matisse rejected representational painting, or Michel Foucault's critique of the Enlightenment, Professor Kramer's eye for patterns and lines of conflict or influence are razor sharp. He lends coherence and liveliness to what might otherwise seem a bewildering gathering of intellectuals.

A Century's Three Eras

Chronologically, the lectures fall into three parts of eight lectures each:

  • Cultural innovations during the three decades before 1914
  • Responses to World War I and the cultural themes of what historians call the "interwar" era
  • Responses to World War II and the forms of thought that emerged in the decades after 1945.

Professor Kramer is very clear about what he believes you can get out of these lectures. "Our objective throughout this course is to understand the ideas of influential 20th-century European thinkers, to reflect on the interactions between ideas and historical contexts, and to think critically about how the ideas of creative 20th-century writers continue to raise questions for our own time.

"Intellectual history analyzes the evolving dialogues among the people of other places and times, but it also emphasizes the importance of sustaining a critical dialogue between the present and the past.

"This course seeks to expand our dialogue with the intellectual world of 20th-century Europe and to show how the challenging ideas of that historical era are still vital components of the world's contemporary cultural life."

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24 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    The Origins of 20th-Century European Thought
    As radically new as much of 20th-century culture seems, it may also be seen as part of a long-running dialogue between the themes of ancient Greek and Hebrew thought—a debate about the true foundations for human understanding that goes to the very heart of European civilization, and that reappears in modern views of science. x
  • 2
    Universities, Cities, and the Modern “Culture Industry”
    More than ever before, universities emerged as the dominant intellectual and cultural institutions of Europe. Why then did so many—though not all—of the creative minds discussed in this course do their work outside the university setting? x
  • 3
    Naturalism in Fin-de-Siècle Literature
    Émile Zola, Henrik Ibsen, and Joseph Conrad were unsentimental writers whose naturalistic fiction probed the dilemmas of modern life and rejected any easy confidence in the inevitability of progress. x
  • 4
    The New Avant-Garde Literary Culture
    At the other pole from the naturalists were litterateurs who preferred inner visions and symbolic meanings to the realistic depiction of gritty modern urbanity. The French symbolists Charles Baudelaire, Stéphane Mallarmé, Arthur Rimbaud, and Villiers de L'Isle-Adam were creative figures in this new literary movement. x
  • 5
    Rethinking the Scientific Tradition
    Working not in literature but in philosophy and theoretical physics, respectively, Henri Bergson and Albert Einstein questioned Newtonian descriptions of universal laws and stressed the observer's role in the construction of all knowledge about the world. x
  • 6
    The Emergence of Modern Art
    The rise of modern art overlapped with anti-realist, anti-positivist trends in other spheres. Artists such as Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, and Wassily Kandinsky favored personal vision over the depiction of concrete realities. x
  • 7
    Émile Durkheim and French Social Thought
    Sociology and cultural anthropology both arose out of doubts that positivism could explain human affairs. They were the most dynamic of the early 20th-century human sciences, as can be seen in the careers of Émile Durkheim and his nephew, Marcel Mauss. x
  • 8
    Max Weber and the New German Sociology
    Weber and other pioneering German scholars such as Georg Simmel focused on the problems of human history and consciousness that emerged in highly rationalized, impersonal, and "disenchanted" modern mass societies. x
  • 9
    The Great War and Cultural Pessimism
    Already on the defensive in 1914, the belief in Progress suffered a body blow in the trenches. The First World War produced a pervasive sense of crisis and disorientation that would persist long after the Armistice of 1918. x
  • 10
    Sigmund Freud and Psychoanalytic Theory
    Accounts of human thought and action that probe below the surface of conscious mental life may be the 20th century's most influential contribution to modern culture. Understanding this psychology of the unconscious mind means coming to grips with Freud. x
  • 11
    Freud, Jung, and the Constraints of Civilized Life
    Freud was not only a clinician treating patients but a social theorist and leader of a psychoanalytic organization. His controversial ideas eventually led to a split with his own leading disciple, the Swiss therapist and author Carl Gustav Jung. x
  • 12
    Poetry and Surrealism After the Great War
    British poets such as Wilfred Owen, W. B. Yeats, and T. S. Eliot wrote movingly of sadness, loss, and confusion during and after the war. On the Continent, movements such as Dada and André Breton's surrealism radicalized the literary critique of reason. x
  • 13
    The Modern Novel: Joyce and Woolf
    How do modernist works of fiction differ from naturalistic narratives? Are the former closer to our lived experience of time and to the way our consciousness "streams" through the routine moments and thoughts of our daily lives? x
  • 14
    The Continental Novel: Proust, Kafka, Mann
    Writing in French (Proust) and German (Kafka and Mann), these modernist masters told stories that portrayed the emotions and memories of isolated individuals, and yet in doing so commented on the problems and anxieties of modern European civilization. x
  • 15
    Language and Reality in Modern Philosophy
    This talk compares and contrasts two of the most influential movements in modern philosophy—phenomenology and logical positivism. The former was associated with Edmund Husserl, while the latter grew out of the early work of Ludwig Wittgenstein. x
  • 16
    Revisiting Marxism and Liberalism
    Spurred by the crises of the 1930s, Marxian revisionists such as Theodor Adorno and Antonio Gramsci no less than revisionist liberals such as J. M. Keynes and Friedrich Hayek critically marshaled the resources of their respective traditions to seek solutions for Europe's problems. x
  • 17
    Responses to Nazism and the Holocaust
    The intellectual and life journeys of the philosopher Martin Heidegger, his student Hannah Arendt, and the Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer provide dramatically different examples of how thinkers responded to the challenges of Nazism. x
  • 18
    Existential Philosophy
    Writing novels and plays as well as philosophical works, and taking stands on current issues, existentialists such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus stressed the need for personal decision and commitment in a world torn by strife and haunted by absurdity. x
  • 19
    Literature and Memory in Postwar Culture
    The Italian Primo Levi, the Englishman George Orwell, and the German Günther Grass each struggled to honor the dead and help posterity understand modern human brutality by writing of his own and his culture's experiences of war, dictatorship, and genocide. x
  • 20
    Redefining Modern Feminism
    What are the "three waves" of 20th-century feminist thought? Why do Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own and Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex mean so much to the second wave? How has de Beauvoir in particular drawn criticism from the third wave of feminists? x
  • 21
    History, Anthropology, and Structuralism
    Are the grand events that fill the pages of most history books just trivial surface ripples on a much deeper and more powerful stream? What made the pathbreaking researchers of the French "Annales school" of social history and the structural anthropologists think that this might be the case? x
  • 22
    Poststructuralist Thought: Foucault and Derrida
    Reacting to both existentialism and structuralism, French thinkers such as Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida began in the 1960s to lay out new critical ideas about knowledge and power, language and truth. x
  • 23
    European Postmodernism
    What exactly is "postmodernism"? To answer this question and to gain a sense of how this influential but often puzzling "ism" fits into the larger themes of European thought, you turn to the ideas of the French theorists Jacques Lacan, Jean Baudrillard, and Julia Kristeva. x
  • 24
    Changes and Traditions at Century’s End
    Chastened by a century of wars hot and cold, intellectuals such as the German Jürgen Habermas and the Czech Václav Havel offered thoughtful defenses of the role of reason in public life and the Enlightenment heritage of tolerance, human rights, and democratic deliberation. x

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  • Download 24 audio lectures to your computer or mobile app
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
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What Does The Course Guidebook Include?

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Course Guidebook Details:
  • 216-page printed course guidebook
  • Suggested readings
  • Questions to consider
  • Timeline

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Your professor

Lloyd Kramer

About Your Professor

Lloyd Kramer, Ph.D.
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
Dr. Lloyd Kramer is the Dean E. Smith Distinguished Term Professor of History at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he has taught since 1986. He earned his B.A. from Maryville College and his M.A. in History from Boston College. He earned his Ph.D. in European Intellectual History from Cornell University. Prior to taking his position at UNC, Professor Kramer held teaching positions at Northwestern...
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European Thought and Culture in the 20th Century is rated 4.5 out of 5 by 34.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Thinking About the Thinkers As Professor Kramer explains, the twentieth century was a very different beast than the nineteenth. Even before World War I European thinkers and culture-makers were losing their predecessors’ easy confidence in progress, order and reason, and the war itself finished the job. Nationalism, which seemed so liberating in the nineteenth century, devoured tens of millions of European lives in both world wars. Optimism turned to pessimism, as many intellectuals increasingly saw people and institutions as irrational or even absurd. By the end of the twentieth century, the postmodernists were attacking the assumption that it is possible to discover and organize empirical knowledge of reality. Others, especially in the wake of Hitler and Stalin, reasserted the value of reason, liberty and equality. This course is a worthy sequel to Kramer’s European Thought and Culture in the 19th Century, which is also available only as an audio download. Like its predecessor it is heavy on the humanities and light on natural science. In literature there are the Symbolist poets Charles Baudelaire, Stéphane Mallarmé, Arthur Rimbaud and Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, British poets Wilifred Owen and T.S. Eliot, novelists Émile Zola, Joseph Conrad, Marcel Proust, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Franz Kafka, Thomas Mann, George Orwell, Albert Camus, and Günther Grass, memoirists Robert Graves and Primo Levi, dramatists Henrik Ibsen and Václav Havel, and surrealist André Breton. This course is certainly a good way to build up your summer reading list! History has Oswald Spengler, the French Annales school (Lucien Lefebvre, Marc Bloch--executed by the Germans in World War II—and Fernand Braudel), and the postmodernist Michel Foucault. Philosophers include Henri Bergson, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Edmund Husserl, the Nazi Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre and his lifetime companion Simone de Beauvoir, Jacques Derrida, Jean Baudrillard, Jacques Lacan, and Julia Kristeva. There are just three modern artists: Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, and Wassily Kandinsky; we wouldn’t want more, anyways, in a course that’s now only on audio. There are only two psychologists, but they are Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, still household names. Social science also has a significant footprint. There are the famous sociologists Émile Durkheim and Max Weber, the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, and economist John Maynard Keynes. Political theorists include Theodor Adorno, Antonio Gramsci, Hannah Arendt and Jürgen Habermas. There is just one scientist, and you’ve already heard of him: Albert Einstein. The course has an obvious bias toward the French. Out of about fifty featured persons, twenty-one are French, compared to fourteen Germans and Austrians, seven British, four Slavs, and four from Italy, Spain and Scandinavia. It would seem the French were smarter than I have ever given them credit for. Kramer’s selections are also overwhelmingly men; only four of are women. Although he doesn’t remark on the fact, a relatively high number of persons had Jewish heritage, ten or eleven (depending on whether you count Marcel Proust, who had a Jewish mother) out of the fifty. Of course, the period’s two most famous men, Freud and Einstein, were among them. I’m somewhat disgruntled that the course leans far too heavily toward the late nineteenth and early twentieth century (before 1950). Kramer doesn’t reach World War II until Lecture 17, more than 2/3 of the way through. Yet there may be two good reasons for this. First, the relative importance of Europe in Western intellectual life declined as the USA—by comparison a cultural pipsqueak in the nineteenth century—came to the fore after World War I and certainly after World War II. Second, in 2002 it would still have been difficult to pick out Europeans of the 1980s and 1990s likely to have a great influence during the coming century. I therefore recommend this course highly. As with all the audio downloads, it is an excellent bargain.
Date published: 2019-06-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from On the Road to Post Modernism (and Beyond) I really could not wait any longer to follow up on Professor Kramer’s excellent 2001 TC course on nineteenth century thought and culture. As with that course, this 2002 companion course is brimming with fascinating details, excellent biographical sketches, thought-provoking comments, and illuminating comparisons and contrasts. Professor Kramer’s delivery is excellent and the lectures easy to follow. Though some familiarity with the period is useful, it is not required. Much more so than the nineteenth century intellectual landscape, twentieth century thought and culture presents considerable challenges in navigating myriad developments. As Professor Kramer notes, the main intellectual efforts for much of the twentieth century challenged traditional arrangements and understandings, a prime example being modern novelists, who “…sought to challenge realistic modes of representation and to defamiliarize the familiar external world” to get at a deeper truth (Course Guidebook, Page 88). I especially appreciated Professor Kramer providing a wider historical context, including identifying two critical “traditions” in Western thought claiming truth that played out over the centuries: Greek reason and Hebrew divine revelation. They were combined in Medieval Christianity, but broke apart with the Protestant Reformation, Scientific Revolution, and the Enlightenment. The two traditions “took new forms as society, science, and culture evolved in the late nineteenth century” (Page 6). By the end of the century, science (i.e. reason) had a clear ascendency, most notably in Positivism. But just as the Enlightenment (Greek) prompted the early nineteenth century Romantic (Hebrew) reaction, late nineteenth century Europe exhibited a similar reaction. First limited to an avant-garde both within and outside the universities, those ideas became mainstream intellectual fare following on the horrors of both world wars, challenging unquestioning allegiance to science and progress. They also opened up the twentieth century’s Pandora’s Box of such intellectual bogies as relativism, subconscious motivations, and fragmented social and political life. It is this story of the twentieth century that is truly fascinating. But it would not be nearly so without Professor Kramer’s historical context. Having lived through more than half of that century, I came away from this course with a much better appreciation of the time and ideas than I had back then! After this course, I still do not think approvingly of late twentieth century post-modernism and post structuralism, but I have a better sense of why and how they developed. Despite their undermining of our traditional understanding of the world and people/society around us, Professor Kramer ends the course in describing yet another revolt, this time against these prevailing orthodoxies expressed in “…a renewed interest in Enlightenment conceptions of reason and the critically engaged intellectual, and [that] elements of classical liberalism reappeared in new intellectual support for ‘neo-liberal’ ideas” (Page 164). The struggle continues! Professor Kramer covers a great number of scientists, philosophers, sociologists, psychologists, poets, playwrights, novelists and artists in this course: from the more well-known, such as Baudelaire, Manet, Ibsen, Durkheim, Proust, Einstein, Conrad, Wolff, Freud, Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Sartre, Beauvoir, Foucault, and Habermas, to a great number of lesser-known but still significant individuals associated with the wealth of twentieth century intellectual developments. They are all placed in their historical/social contexts, which further humanizes them for us in way not done often enough in courses such as this. (It should be noted here, however, that Professor Kramer does not treat such twentieth century works as movies and television programming.) I am sure to return to this course as I study more on the period. This course comes with an excellent 206-page course guidebook that includes fine lecture summaries, timeline, glossary, and an extensive well-annotated bibliography. All of these should make following the twists and turns in twentieth century thought much easier. Highly recommended!
Date published: 2019-03-16
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Good information Silly clapping before and after each lecture. Somewhat dull presentation but lots of good information and ideas.
Date published: 2018-04-01
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Dreadful: Dull and uninspired Do you remember those boring high school and introductory lecture courses for college freshman that killed your interest in what you thought was a rich subject that you wanted to explore? You can repeat that experience if you buy this course. It is a view from not 20,000 feet but from 100,000 feet. If you are older than 40 and are reasonably well-educated and well-read, this professor's string of cliches about great writers, poets, philosophers, sociologists, and the like as well as his highly disputable views on cultural causality will surely annoy you. Easily the worst of the Great Courses I have purchased.
Date published: 2018-02-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent course. Mastery of the subject matter. One of the better series that I have purchased since the loss of my favorite lecturer, Rufus Fears. I'm impressed with the depth of knowledge and delivery of the message. fun to listen.
Date published: 2017-05-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from May be the most influential lectures I really appreciated this study of history correlated with intellectual history. The professor did an excellent job of organizing the lectures and presenting the history of the individual philosophers. I hung on every word like he was creating the back drop of a great story. Which, I guess in reality, history is. I loved learning how history has effected thought through the century leading to our current lives. I look forward to a deeper study into the individuals who shaped these ideas and who were covered in these lectures. As always, after listening to the great course, I am left with an appetite for learning more!
Date published: 2016-11-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Spectacular Overview I took this course as further review of Western intellectual history before starting a theory-heavy graduate program. Prof. Kramer offered exactly what I was looking for: a clear, cogent presentation of major thinkers and ideas with just a touch of subjective analysis. He was fair in his presentation of often controversial ideas, and explained some very complex topics with great aplomb and intellectual dexterity. Also, be sure to check out the preceding course: European Thought and Culture in the 19th Century. It is equally outstanding.
Date published: 2016-07-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Important introductory course Having had my formal training in Physics, intellectual history was not part of the required hearing – so this course served for me as a first-time introduction to many of the topics discussed. Prime examples are Existentialism and the deep and important connection between the traumas of WWI and many intellectual trends such as Dadaism, Freudian Psychological theory and Surrealism. The course, in my opinion, served well the purpose of giving a summary overview of the important and fascinating intellectual trends of the 20th century – covering most of the important new trends. Naturally, since the course is quite broad in its survey - it is not very deep, but does serve well the purpose as an introductory course to the topic. As in his other course, covering intellectual history of the 19th century, I found Professor Kramer’s presentation to be easy to follow, well structured, and fair and balanced. It was not, however, particularly entertaining in any way. It was easily worth the time and effort to hear it.
Date published: 2016-05-19
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