During the 20th century, diverse intellectual and cultural movements questioned the existence of objective knowledge, the ability of reason to arrive at truth, and the role of religion in determining moral standards.
The major trend of 20th-century European thought and culture moved from an optimistic view that modern science and technology could solve the problems of humankind to the formation of eclectic and sometimes skeptical movements that doubted the possibility of objective knowledge and of progress. Existentialism, postmodernism, and renewed religiosity challenged the perceived dogmatism of positivist science. While European society became increasingly secular, religion continued to play a role in the lives of many Europeans. Religious denominations addressed and in some cases incorporated modern ideas, such as the toleration of other religions, as well as scholarship -- biblical and scientific -- that challenged the veracity of the Bible. The Christian churches made these accommodations as immigration, particularly from Muslim countries, altered the religious landscape, challenging Europe’s traditional Judeo-Christian identity.
After World War I, prewar trends in physics, psychology, and medical science accelerated. In physics, new discoveries and theories challenged the certainties of a Newtonian universe by introducing the ideas of relativity and uncertainty. Psychology, which became an independent field of inquiry at the end of the 19th century, advanced the claim that much human behavior stemmed from irrational sources. By the mid-20th century, dramatic new medical technologies prolonged life but created new social, moral, and economic problems. During World War II, the potential dangers of scientific and technological achievements were demonstrated by the industrialization of death in the Holocaust and by the vast destruction wrought by the atomic bombs dropped on Japanese cities. It became clear that science could create weapons powerful enough to end civilization.
The art world in the 20th century was defined by experimentation and subjectivity, which asserted the independence of visual arts from realism. Futurism glorified the machine age, Dadaism satirized traditional aesthetics, and Expressionism and Surrealism explored the relationship between art and the emotions or the unconscious. In the interwar period, the slogan “form follows function” expressed a desire by architects to render the space in which we live and work more efficient. Throughout the century, American culture exerted an increasing pull on both elite and popular culture in Europe.
4.3.1: The widely held belief in progress characteristic of much of 19th-century thought began to break down before World War I; the experience of war intensified a sense of anxiety that permeated many facets of thought and culture, giving way by the century’s end to a plurality of intellectual frameworks.
4.3.1.A: When World War I began, Europeans were generally confident in the ability of science and technology to address human needs and problems despite the uncertainty created by the new scientific theories and psychology.
4.3.1.B: The effects of world war and economic depression undermined this confidence in science and human reason, giving impetus to existentialism and producing postmodernism in the post-1945 period.
4.3.2: Science and technology yielded impressive material benefits but also caused immense destruction and posed challenges to objective knowledge.
4.3.2.A: The challenge to the certainties of the Newtonian universe in physics opened the door to uncertainty in other fields by undermining faith in objective knowledge, while also providing the knowledge necessary for the development of nuclear weapons and power.
4.2.3.B: Medical theories and technologies extended life but posed social and moral questions that eluded consensus and crossed religious, political, and philosophical perspectives.
4.2.3.C: Military technologies made possible industrialized warfare, genocide, nuclear proliferation, and the risk of global nuclear war.
4.3.3: Organized religion continued to play a role in European social and cultural life despite the challenges of military and ideological conflict, modern secularism, and rapid social changes.
4.3.3.A: The challenges of totalitarianism and communism in Central and Eastern Europe brought mixed responses from the Christian churches.
4.3.3.B: Reform in the Catholic Church found expression in the Second Vatican Council, which redefined the church’s dogma and practices and started to redefine its relations with other religious communities.
4.3.3.C: Increased immigration into Europe altered Europe’s religious makeup, causing debate and conflict over the role of religion in social and political life.
4.3.4: During the 20th century, the arts were defined by experimentation, self-expression, subjectivity, and the increasing influence of the United States in both elite and popular culture.
4.3.4.A: New movements in the visual arts, architecture, and music radically shifted existing aesthetic standards, explored subconscious and subjective states, and satirized Western society and its values.
4.3.4.B: Throughout the century, a number of writers challenged traditional literary conventions, questioned Western values, and addressed controversial social and political issues.
4.3.4.C: Increased imports of United States technology and popular culture after World War II generated both enthusiasm and criticism.