The book surveys 20th century philosophy by presenting the writings of various recognized philosophers from Europe and America. Each selection is introduced by Morton White. White views 20th century philosophy as being divided between those who decompose philosophy into small pieces to put it on to a scientific footing and those who seek one over-arching idea to found all their beliefs. White sees pragmatists as standing in the middle. The book is thus organized into three sections, one for each perspective.
Chapter 1 - The Decline and Fall of the Absolute
White's introduction to the material and description of the layout of the book is couched in a review of Hegel's philosophy and a summary of how various philosophers reacted to his work.
Hegel's grand system envisions the world as spirit, also called the absolute, with purpose and direction. This grand system was seen by his followers as a unification of science and religion, for the absolute could easily be read as God and the system Hegel proposed was seen as a foundation for science beyond the mindlessness of Newtonian mechanics. The absoluteprovided ... a rich, highly complex philosophical system that covered every corner of the universe with a deep, rich velvet, soft to the touch and warming. (p.15)
The main schools of philosophy in the twentieth century arise out of reaction to Hegel. Kierkegaard's rejected Hegel's vision and became the founding father of Existentialism. Communism took Hegel's dialectic idealism and converted it to dialectic materialism. The logical positivist were founded by philosophers, like Russell and Moore, who were Hegelians in their early academic careers.
White arranges his selections of each philosopher's writings into three sections. The first section is devoted to those who like Hegel try to understand philosophy as a effort to grasp one big idea. The next section presents the works of pragmatists, who though influenced by Hegel to varying degrees, see philosophy as a collection of many ideas and methods, and focus on the more immediate questions facing humanity. White views the pragmatists as standing between the "big idea" philosophers, and the logical positivists and analysts. The last section is for those writers who reject Hegel as not false, but meaningless. These writers are committed to setting philosophy on a scientific footing, a process that rejects grand schemes.