Eminent Philosophers Name the 43 Most Important Philosophy Books Written Between 1950-2000: Wittgenstein, Foucault, Rawls & More

Image by Austrian National Library, via Wikimedia Commons

Faced with the question, “who are the most important philosophers of the 20th century?,” I might find myself compelled to ask in turn, “in respect to what?” Ethics? Political philosophy? Philosophy of language, mind, science, religion, race, gender, sexuality? Phenomenology, Feminism, Critical theory? The domains of philosophy have so multiplied (and some might say siloed), that a number of prominent authors, including eminent philosophy professor Robert Solomon, have written vehement critiques against its entrenchment in academia, with all of the attendant pressures and rewards. Should every philosopher of the past have had to run the gauntlet of doctoral study, teaching, tenure, academic politics and continuous publication, we might never have heard from some of history’s most luminous and original thinkers.

Solomon maintains that “nothing has been more harmful to philosophy than its ‘professionalization,’ which on the one hand has increased the abilities and techniques of its practitioners immensely, but on the other has rendered it an increasingly impersonal and technical discipline, cut off from and forbidding to everyone else.” He championed “the passionate life” (say, of Nietzsche or Camus), over “the dispassionate life of pure reason…. Let me be outrageous and insist that philosophy matters. It is not a self-contained system of problems and puzzles, a self-generating profession of conjectures and refutations.” I am sympathetic to his arguments even as I might object to his wholesale rejection of all academic thought as “sophisticated irrelevancy.” (Solomon himself enjoyed a long career at UCLA and the University of Texas, Austin.)




But if forced to choose the most important philosophers of the late 20th century, I might gravitate toward some of the most passionate thinkers, both inside and outside academia, who grappled with problems of everyday personal, social, and political life and did not shy away from involving themselves in the struggles of ordinary people. This need not entail a lack of rigor. One of the most passionate of 20th century thinkers, Ludwig Wittgenstein, who worked well outside the university system, also happens to be one of the most difficult and seemingly abstruse. Nonetheless, his thought has radical implications for ordinary life and practice. Perhaps non-specialists will tend, in general, to accept arguments for philosophy’s everyday relevance, accessibility, and “passion.” But what say the specialists?

One philosophy professor, Chen Bo of Peking University, conducted a survey along with Susan Haack of the University of Miami, at the behest of a Chinese publisher seeking important philosophical works for translation. As Leiter Reports reader Tracy Ho notes, the two professors emailed sixteen philosophers in the U.S., England, Australia, Germany, Finland, and Brazil, asking specifically for "ten of the most important and influential philosophical books after 1950." "They received recommendations,” writes Ho, "from twelve philosophers, including: Susan Haack, Donald M. Borchert (Ohio U.), Donald Davidson, Jurgen Habermas, Ruth Barcan Marcus, Thomas Nagel, John Searle, Peter F. Strawson, Hilary Putnam, and G.H. von Wright." (Ho was unable to identify two other names, typed in Chinese.)

The results, ranked in order of votes, are as follows:

1. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations

2. W. V. Quine, Word and Object

3. Peter F. Strawson, Individuals: An Essay in Descriptive Metaphysics

4. John Rawls, A Theory of Justice

5. Nelson Goodman, Fact, Fiction and Forecast

6. Saul Kripke, Naming and Necessity

7. G.E.M. Anscombe, Intention

8. J. L. Austin, How to do Things with Words

9. Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

10. M. Dummett, The Logical Basis of Metaphysics

11. Hilary Putnam, The Many Faces of Realism

12. Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences

13. Thomas Nagel, The View From Nowhere

14. Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State and Utopia

15. R. M. Hare, The Language of Morals and Freedom and Reason

16. John R. Searle, Intentionality and The Rediscovery of the Mind

17. Bernard Williams, Ethics and the Limits of PhilosophyDescartes: The Project of Pure Enquiry and Moral Luck: Philosophical Papers 1973-1980

18. Karl Popper, Conjecture and Refutations

19. Gilbert Ryle, The Concept of Mind

20. Donald Davidson, Essays on Action and Event and Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation

21. John McDowell, Mind and World

22. Daniel C. Dennett, Consciousness Explained and The Intentional Stance

23. Jurgen Habermas, Theory of Communicative Action and Between Facts and Norm

24. Jacques Derrida, Voice and Phenomenon and Of Grammatology

25. Paul Ricoeur, Le Metaphore Vive and Freedom and Nature

26. Noam Chomsky, Syntactic Structures and Cartesian Linguistics

27. Derek Parfitt, Reasons and Persons

28. Susan Haack, Evidence and Inquiry

29. D. M. Armstrong, Materialist Theory of the Mind and A Combinatorial Theory of Possibility

30. Herbert Hart, The Concept of Law and Punishment and Responsibility

31. Ronald Dworkin, Taking Rights Seriously and Law’s Empire

As an addendum, Ho adds that “most of the works on the list are analytic philosophy,” therefore Prof. Chen asked Habermas to recommend some additional European thinkers, and received the following: “Axel Honneth, Kampf um Anerkennung (1992), Rainer Forst, Kontexte der Cerechtigkeit (1994) and Herbert Schnadelbach, Kommentor zu Hegels Rechtephilosophie (2001).”

The list is also overwhelmingly male and pretty exclusively white, pointing to another problem with institutionalization that Solomon does not acknowledge: it not only excludes non-specialists but can also exclude those who don't belong to the dominant group (and so, perhaps, excludes the everyday concerns of most of the world's population). But there you have it, a list of the most important, post-1950 works in philosophy according to some of the most eminent living philosophers. What titles, readers, might get your vote, or what might you add to such a list, whether you are a specialist or an ordinary, “passionate” lover of philosophical thought?

via Leiter Reports

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The Political Thought of Confucius, Plato, John Locke & Adam Smith Introduced in Animations Narrated by Aidan Turner

Here in the 21st century, now that we've determined the ideal form of human society and implemented it stably all across the world — and of course, you're already laughing. Well over 5,000 years into the history of civilization, we somehow find ourselves less sure of the answers to some of the most basic questions about how to organize ourselves. It couldn't hurt, then, to take six or so minutes to reflect on some of history's most enduring ideas about how we should live together, the subject of this quartet of animated videos from BBC Radio 4 and The Open University's History of Ideas series.

The first two segments illustrate the ideas of two ancient thinkers whose names still come up often today: Confucius from China and Plato from Greece. "The heart of Confucian philosophy is that you understand your place in the universe," says narrator Aidan Turner, best known as Kíli the dwarf in The Hobbit films.




"Ideally, it is within the family that individuals learn how to live well and become good members of the wider community." A series of respect-intensive, obligation-driven, family-like hierarchical relationships structure everything in the Confucian conception of society, quite unlike the one proposed by Plato and explained just above. The author of the Republic, who like Confucius didn't endorse democracy as we think of it today, thought that voters "don't realize that ruling is a skill, just like navigation.

Plato envisioned at the helm of the ship of state "specially trained philosophers: philosopher-kings or philosopher-queens chosen because they were incorruptible and had a deeper knowledge of reality than other people, an idea that only a philosopher could have come up with." But what would a different kind of philosopher — an Enlightenment philosopher such as John Locke, for instance — come up with? Locke, who lived in 17th-century England, proposed a concept called toleration, especially in the religious sense: "He pointed out that those who forced others to recant their beliefs by threatening them with red pokers and thumbscrews could hardly be said to be acting out of Christian charity." And even if the majority succeeds in forcing a member of the minority to change their beliefs, how would they know that individual's beliefs have actually changed?

To the invisible deities of any and all faiths, the Scottish economist-philosopher Adam Smith much preferred what he metaphorically termed the "invisible hand," the mechanism by which "individuals making self-interested decisions can collectively and unwittingly engineer an effective economic system that is in the public interest." Though his and all these previous ideas for the organization of society work perfectly in theory, they work rather less perfectly in practice. Real societies throughout history have muddled through using these and other conceptions of the ideal state in varying combinations, just as our real societies continue to do today. But that doesn't mean we all can't muddle a little better together into the future by attaining a clearer understanding of the political philosophers of the past.

For a deeper look at these questions, we'd recommend watching the 24 lectures in Yale's free course, Introduction to Political Philosophy. It's part of our larger list, 1,300 Free Online Courses from Top Universities.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Hear 48 Hours of Lectures by Joseph Campbell on Comparative Mythology and the Hero’s Journey

What does it mean to “grow up”? Every culture has its way of defining adulthood, whether it’s surviving an initiation ritual or filing your first tax return. I’m only being a little facetious—people in the U.S. have long felt dissatisfaction with the ways we are ushered into adulthood, from learning how to fill out IRS forms to learning how to fill out student loan and credit card applications, our culture wants us to understand our place in the great machine. All other pressing life concerns are secondary.

It’s little wonder, then, that gurus and cultural father figures of all types have found ready audiences among America’s youth. Such figures have left lasting legacies for decades, and not all of them positive. But one public intellectual from the recent past is still seen as a wise old master whose far-reaching influence remains with us and will for the foreseeable future. Joseph Campbell’s obsessive, erudite books and lectures on world mythologies and traditions have made certain that ancient adulthood rituals have entered our narrative DNA.




When Campbell was awarded the National Arts Club Gold Medal in Literature in 1985, psychologist James Hillman stated that “no one in our century—not Freud, not Thomas Mann, not Levi-Strauss—has so brought the mythical sense of the world and its eternal figures back into our everyday consciousness.” Whatever examples Hillman may have had in mind, we might rest our case on the fact that without Campbell there would likely be no Star Wars. For all its success as a megamarketing phenomenon, the sci-fi franchise has also produced enduringly relatable role models, examples of achieving independence and standing up to imperialists, even if they be your own family members in masks.

In the video interviews above from 1987, Campbell professes himself no more than an “underliner” who learned everything he knows from books. Like the contemporary comparative mythologist Mircea Eliade, Campbell did not conduct his own anthropological research—he acquired a vast amount of knowledge by studying the sacred texts, artifacts, and rituals of world cultures. This study gave him insight into stories and images that continue to shape our world and feature centrally in huge pop cultural productions like The Last Jedi and Black Panther.

Campbell describes ritual entries into adulthood that viewers of these films will instantly recognize: Defeating idols in masks and taking on their power; burial enactments that kill the “infantile ego” (academics, he says with a straight face, sometimes never leave this stage). These kinds of edge experiences are at the very heart of the classic hero’s journey, an archetype Campbell wrote about in his bestselling The Hero with a Thousand Faces and popularized on PBS in The Power of Myth, a series of conversations with Bill Moyers.

In the many lectures just above—48 hours of audio in which Campbell expounds his theories of the mythological—the engaging, accessible writer and teacher lays out the patterns and symbols of mythologies worldwide, with special focus on the hero’s journey, as important to his project as dying and rising god myths to James Frazer's The Golden Bough, the inspiration for so many modernist writers. Campbell himself is more apt to reference James Joyce, Carl Jung, Pablo Picasso, or Richard Wagner than science fiction, fantasy, or comic books (though he did break down Star Wars in his Moyers interviews). Nonetheless, we have him to thank for inspiring the likes of George Lucas and becoming a “patron saint of superheroes” and space operas.

We will find some of Campbell’s methods flawed and terminology outdated (no one uses “Orient” and “Occident” anymore)—and modern heroes can just as well be women as men, passing through the same kinds of symbolic trials in their origin stories. But Campbell’s ideas are as resonant as ever, offering to the wider culture a coherent means of understanding the archetypal stages of coming of age. As Hollywood executive Christopher Vogler said in 1985, after recommending The Hero with a Thousand Faces as a guide for screenwriters, Campbell’s work “can be used to tell the simplest comic story or the most sophisticated drama”—a sweeping vision of human cultural history and its meaning for our individual journeys.

You can access the 48 hours of Joseph Campbell lectures above, or directly on Spotify.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Philosophy for Beginners: A Free Introductory Course from Oxford University

Philosophy doesn't have to be daunting. Thanks to the Continuing Education program at Oxford University, you can now ease into philosophical thinking by listening to five lectures collectively called Philosophy for Beginners. (The video above is admittedly grainy, so you could always explore the audio options available on iTunes or this Oxford website.) Taught by Marianne Talbot, Lecture 1 starts with a "Romp Through the History of Philosophy" and moves in a brief hour from Ancient Greece to the present. Subsequent lectures (usually running about 90 minutes) cover the following topics: logic, ethics, politics, metaphysics, epistemology, and language.

Lecture One: A Romp Through the History of Philosophy from the Pre-Socratics to the present day

Lecture Two: The Philosophical Method: Logic and Argument

Lecture Three: Ethics and Politics

Lecture Four: Metaphysics and Epistemology

Lecture Five: Philosophy of Language and Mind

You can find more courses by Talbot in our collection of Free Online Philosophy Courses, a subset of our meta collection, 1,300 Free Online Courses from Top Universities.

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Bertrand Russell’s Advice to People Living 1,000 Years in the Future: “Love is Wise, Hatred is Foolish”

In these times of high anxiety, battles over “free speech”—on college campuses, in corporate offices, on airwaves and the internet—can seem extremely myopic from a certain perspective. The perspective I mean is one in which a disturbing number of messages broadcast perpetually to millions of people bear little relationship to scientific, historical, or social facts, so that it becomes increasingly difficult for many people to tell fact from fiction. Debating whether or not such speech is “free” outside of any consideration for what purpose it serves, who it harms, and why it should drown out other speech because it appeals to widespread prejudices or powerful, monied interests seems grossly irresponsible at best.

Most philosophers who have considered these matters have stressed the important relationship between reason and ethics. In the classical formula, persuasive speech was considered to have three dimensions: logos—the use of facts and logical arguments; ethos—the appeal to common standards of value; and pathos—a consideration for the emotional resonance of language. While the forceful dialectical reasoning of Plato and his contemporaries valued parrhesia—which Michel Foucault translates as “free speech,” but which can also means “bold” or “candid” speech—classical thinkers also valued social harmony and did not intend that philosophical debate be a scorched-earth war with the intention to win at all costs.




Bertrand Russell, the brilliant mathematician, philosopher, and anti-war activist, invoked this tradition often (as in his letter declining a debate with British fascist Oswald Mosley). In the video above he answers the question, “what would you think it’s worth telling future generations about the life you’ve lived and the lessons you’ve learned from it.” His answer may not validate the prejudices of certain partisans, but neither does it evince any kind of special partisanship itself. Russell breaks his advice into two, interdependent categories, “intellectual and moral.”

When you are studying any matter or considering any philosophy, ask yourself only what are the facts and what is the truth that the facts bear out. Never let yourself be diverted either by what you wish to believe, or by what you think would have beneficent social effects if it were believed. But look only, and solely, at what are the facts.

The moral thing I should wish to say to them is very simple. I should say love is wise, hatred is foolish. In this world, which is getting more and more interconnected, we have to learn to tolerate each other, we have to learn to put up with the fact that some people say things that we don’t like. We can only live together in that way. And if we are to live together and not die together, we should learn the kind of tolerance which is absolutely vital to the continuation of human life on this planet.

The gist: our speech should conform to the facts of the matter; rather than wishful thinking, we should accept that people will say things we don’t like, but if we cannot love but only hate each other, we’ll probably end up destroying ourselves.

The video above, from the BBC program Face-to-Face, was recorded in 1959.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The Entire Archives of Radical Philosophy Go Online: Read Essays by Michel Foucault, Alain Badiou, Judith Butler & More (1972-2018)

On a seemingly daily basis, we see attacks against the intellectual culture of the academic humanities, which, since the 1960s, have opened up spaces for leftists to develop critical theories of all kinds. Attacks from supposedly liberal professors and centrist op-ed columnists, from well-funded conservative think tanks and white supremacists on college campus tours. All rail against the evils of feminism, post-modernism, and something called “neo-Marxism” with outsized agitation.

For students and professors, the onslaughts are exhausting, and not only because they have very real, often dangerous, consequences, but because they all attack the same straw men (or “straw people”) and refuse to engage with academic thought on its own terms. Rarely, in the exasperating proliferation of cranky, cherry-picked anti-academia op-eds do we encounter people actually reading and grappling with the ideas of their supposed ideological nemeses.




Were non-academic critics to take academic work seriously, they might notice that debates over “political correctness,” "thought policing," "identity politics," etc. have been going on for thirty years now, and among left intellectuals themselves. Contrary to what many seem to think, criticism of liberal ideology has not been banned in the academy. It is absolutely the case that the humanities have become increasingly hostile to irresponsible opinions that dehumanize people, like emergency room doctors become hostile to drunk driving. But it does not follow therefore that one cannot disagree with the establishment, as though the University system were still beholden to the Vatican.

Understanding this requires work many people are unwilling to do, either because they’re busy and distracted or, perhaps more often, because they have other, bad faith agendas. Should one decide to survey the philosophical debates on the left, however, an excellent place to start would be Radical Philosophy, which describes itself as a “UK-based journal of socialist and feminist philosophy.” Founded in 1972, in response to “the widely-felt discontent with the sterility of academic philosophy at the time,” the journal was itself an act of protest against the culture of academia.

Radical Philosophy has published essays and interviews with nearly all of the big names in academic philosophy on the left—from Marxists, to post-structuralists, to post-colonialists, to phenomenologists, to critical theorists, to Lacanians, to queer theorists, to radical theologians, to the pragmatist Richard Rorty, who made arguments for national pride and made several critiques of critical theory as an illiberal enterprise. The full range of radical critical theory over the past 45 years appears here, as well as contrarian responses from philosophers on the left.

Rorty was hardly the only one in the journal’s pages to critique certain prominent trends. Sociologists Pierre Bourdieu and Loic Wacquant launched a 2001 protest against what they called “a strange Newspeak,” or “NewLiberalSpeak” that included words like “globalization,” “governance,” “employability,” “underclass,” “communitarianism,” “multiculturalism” and “their so-called postmodern cousins.” Bourdieu and Wacquant argued that this discourse obscures “the terms ‘capitalism,’ ‘class,’ ‘exploitation,’ ‘domination,’ and ‘inequality,’” as part of a “neoliberal revolution,” that intends to “remake the world by sweeping away the social and economic conquests of a century of social struggles.”

One can also find in the pages of Radical Philosophy philosopher Alain Badiou’s 2005 critique of “democratic materialism,” which he identifies as a “postmodernism” that “recognizes the objective existence of bodies alone. Who would ever speak today, other than to conform to a certain rhetoric? Of the separability of our immortal soul?” Badiou identifies the ideal of maximum tolerance as one that also, paradoxically, “guides us, irresistibly” to war. But he refuses to counter democratic materialism’s maxim that “there are only bodies and languages” with what he calls “its formal opposite… ‘aristocratic idealism.’” Instead, he adds the supplementary phrase, “except that there are truths.”

Badiou’s polemic includes an oblique swipe at Stalinism, a critique Michel Foucault makes in more depth in a 1975 interview, in which he approvingly cites phenomenologist Merleau-Ponty’s “argument against the Communism of the time… that it has destroyed the dialectic of individual and history—and hence the possibility of a humanistic society and individual freedom.” Foucault made a case for this “dialectical relationship” as that “in which the free and open human project consists.” In an interview two years later, he talks of prisons as institutions “no less perfect than school or barracks or hospital” for repressing and transforming individuals.

Foucault’s political philosophy inspired feminist and queer theorist Judith Butler, whose arguments inspired many of today’s gender theorists, and who is deeply concerned with questions of ethics, morality, and social responsibility. Her Adorno Prize Lecture, published in a 2012 issue, took up Theodor Adorno’s challenge of how it is possible to live a good life in bad circumstances (under fascism, for example)—a classical political question that she engages through the work of Orlando Patterson, Hannah Arendt, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Hegel. Her lecture ends with a discussion of the ethical duty to actively resist and protest an intolerable status quo.

You can now read for free all of these essays and hundreds more at the Radical Philosophy archive, either on the site itself or in downloadable PDFs. The journal, run by an ‘Editorial Collective,” still appears three times a year. The most recent issue features an essay by Lars T. Lih on the Russian Revolution through the lens of Thomas Hobbes, a detailed historical account by Nathan Brown of the term “postmodern,” and its inapplicability to the present moment, and an essay by Jamila M.H. Mascat on the problem of Hegelian abstraction.

If nothing else, these essays and many others should upend facile notions of leftist academic philosophy as dominated by “postmodern” denials of truth, morality, freedom, and Enlightenment thought, as doctrinaire Stalinism, or little more than thought policing through dogmatic political correctness. For every argument in the pages of Radical Philosophy that might confirm certain readers' biases, there are dozens more that will challenge their assumptions, bearing out Foucault’s observation that “philosophy cannot be an endless scrutiny of its own propositions.”

Enter the Radical Philosophy archive here.

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An Impressive Audio Archive of John Cage Lectures & Interviews: Hear Recordings from 1963-1991

History has remembered John Cage as a composer, but to do justice to his legacy one has to allow that title the widest possible interpretation. He did, of course, compose music: music that strikes the ears of many listeners as quite unconventional even today, more than a quarter-century after his death, but recognizable as music nonetheless. He also composed with silence, an artistic choice that still intrigues people enough to get them taking the plunge into his wider body of work, which also includes compositions of words, many thousands of them written and many hours of them recorded.

Ubuweb offers an impressive audio archive of Cage's spoken word, beginning with material from the 1960s and ending with a talk (embedded at the top of the post) he gave at the San Francisco Art Institute in the penultimate year of his life. There he read a 30-minute piece called "One 7" consisting of "brief vocalizations interspersed with long periods of silence" before taking audience questions which "range from inquiries about the process by which Cage composes, his lack of interest in pleasing an audience, his love of mushrooms, Buddhism, chance operations, and whether Cage can stand on his head."

Turn the Cage clock back 28 years from there and we can hear a spirited 1963 conversation between him and Jonathan Cott, the young music journalist later known for conducting John Lennon's last interview. "At every turn Cott antagonizes Cage with challenging questions," says Ubuweb, adding that he marshals "quotes from numerous sources (including Norman Mailer, Michael Steinberg, Igor Stravinsky and others) criticizing Cage and his music."




Cage, in characteristic response, "parries Cott's thrusts with a veritable tai chi practice of music theory." This contrasts with the mood of Cage's 1972 interview alongside pianist David Tudor embedded just above, presented in both English and French and featuring references to the work of Henry David Thoreau and Marcel Duchamp.

Cage has more to say about Duchamp, and other artists like Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, in the undated lecture clip from the archives of Pacifica Radio just above. Have a listen through the rest of Ubuweb's collection and you'll hear the master of silence speak voluminously, if sometimes cryptically, on such subjects as Zen Buddhism, anarchism, utopia, the work of Buckminster Fuller, and "the role of art and technology in modern society." The contexts vary, both in the sense of time and place as well as in the sense of the performative expectations placed on Cage himself. But even a sampling of the recordings here suggests that being John Cage, in whatever setting, constituted a productive artistic project all its own.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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