Good modern philosophy - where is it?
September 10, 2008 8:43 AM   Subscribe

Good modern philosophy - where is it?

When I say modern, I mean written anytime from the year 2000 onwards. I don't need anything 19th century, there's PLENTY of that. I guess my question is: What the heck is being written NOW that's new, radical and interesting? Like the modern equivalent to the greats of the previous centuries? What journals are being published that are good for this, and which are accessible to the public? I don't want to read about semiotics, period, or anything equally as turgid... and I don't like Alain de Botton at all!

Help appreciated!
posted by heylight to Religion & Philosophy (33 answers total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
When I say modern, I mean written anytime from the year 2000 onwards. I don't need anything 19th century

Just to clarify: are you including or excluding anything written during the 20th century?
posted by googly at 9:07 AM on September 10, 2008

Two names that immediately come to my mind are Margaret Urban Walker and Lewis Gordon. Walker's book Moral Understandings (revised version 2007, I think the original edition was published in 2000) is a work in feminist ethics and epistemology that really provides a huge challenge to the whole field of ethics; her thesis is that ethics needs to ask questions about whose moral understandings are represented by the theorist, community, and theory in question in order to do proper moral reasoning. While my description makes it sound like a relatively limited project, the consequences of her thesis are pretty stunning.

Lewis Gordon's work is on Fanon, philosophy of race, post-colonialism, existentialism, and phenomenology. To say that he publishes prolifically is an understatement, so I'm not sure if there is a single, seminal work of his that I could recommend. I find him a fascinating and insightful thinker across the board, and he has done a lot of great work on theorizing oppression, liberation, and the role of philosophy in culture. His latest book, Disciplinary Decadence, actually goes into why philosophy now has, in large part, stagnated and thus why they are few, if any, contemporary greats akin to a Kant, Descartes, Aquinas, or Aristotle.
posted by philosophygeek at 9:17 AM on September 10, 2008 [4 favorites]

Well, you need to clarify what you mean better. What kind of philosophy? Continental or analytic? Does "turgid" mean Continental? Do you include writers who were active in the last century as well?

You could read Jurgen Habermas, for instance, who is undoubtedly one of the top five or so living philosophers, whether you agree with him or not. There's Alasdair MacIntyre, if you like Continental philosophy but don't like Nietzschean/Foucauldian approaches (and if you have a vague attachment to Catholicism...). Hans-Georg Gadamer (died in 2002) represented an older Continental tradition. There's Richard Rorty, Jean Baudrillard, and Jacques Derrida (all died in the oughties), the great "postmodernists." There's Giorgio Agamben, who is very much in the Continental tradition but whose themes and approach are very different. There are the great analytics like Saul Kripke and John Searle. John Rawls (died in 2002) is one of the greatest contemporary political philosophers/ethicists in the Anglo-American style. There are feminist philosophers like Judith Butler, and Continental-Lacanian philosophers like Slavoj Zizek and Julia Kristeva. There are Marxist philosophers (and literary critics) like Frederic Jameson.

Almost all of these people, though, with the exception of Agamben, were already huge back in the '80s.

For a variety of reasons, the contemporary philosophical scene is just a lot less accommodating of "greats" than it used to be. In part, it's because a lot more people are doing philosophy and the field is a lot more specialized and differentiated than it used to be. One man's great is another man's pretentious know-nothing.
posted by nasreddin at 9:23 AM on September 10, 2008

It would help if you were more specific as to what kind of philosophy you're interested in. There's a ton of fields and lots of work being done.

That being said, I really enjoyed both Sider's Four Dimensionalism and Merricks' Truth and Ontology, and I think they're fairly accessible to the public (at least to the public who has some familiarity with philosophy), though I'm a philosophy grad student, so you know my view is skewed.
posted by chndrcks at 9:26 AM on September 10, 2008

Yeah, forgot to mention Badiou. He's awful and annoying, but unfortunately he is popularly considered to be a Great Philosopher.
posted by nasreddin at 9:37 AM on September 10, 2008

While he was most prolific in the 70s and 80s, Peter Singer has published quite a few books/papers since 2000.
posted by Nelsormensch at 9:38 AM on September 10, 2008

I would also add Martha Nussbaum.
posted by inoculatedcities at 9:38 AM on September 10, 2008

ruth garrett millikan. 1 2
posted by dorian at 9:39 AM on September 10, 2008

Seconding Baudrillard. The Spirit of Terrorism is as good a start as any, being relatively recent and relatively short.

And I'd highly recommend Paul Virilio. The Original Accident might be a good place to start, though you could really just jump in anywhere.

Hardt and Negri's Multitude might qualify as well? I agree that your question should probably be more specific.
posted by regicide is good for you at 9:43 AM on September 10, 2008

Ken Wilber--science and spirituality in a post(!)-post-modern world.

It's difficult to recommend a single book. This is a bit dated, but I think it's a good place to start:
posted by zeek321 at 9:54 AM on September 10, 2008

This is essentially a blog about epistemology:
posted by zeek321 at 9:55 AM on September 10, 2008 [2 favorites]

heylight: When I say modern, I mean written anytime from the year 2000 onwards.

The 20th century produced one great philosopher: Martin Heidegger. Most philosophers of almost any stripe will agree that he was important, and the bulk of the philosophers referenced on in this thread so far were heavily influenced by him. His students spread into the international diaspora in the late '30s and into the '40s and carried his influence to the United States and to France; in France, these students spawned the new generation of 'existential' philosophers like Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida. A large mass of the German philosophers you'll hear about now are student or students of students of his. Everyone has had to deal with his challenge, which (I believe following Nietzsche) attempted to recapitulate the metaphysical problems of the ancients on modern philosophy without doing so in a nostalgic or reactionary way. That challenge has repercussions for morality, for politics, for spirituality and for life which many of us have been trying to unpack for the last sixty years.

So: he's the big one. I don't think it'd be an exaggeration to say that you can understand most of modern philosophy in terms of the reaction to Martin Heidegger. The little red book of his, the Basic Writings, which I notice they've changed so it's not a little red Nazi-looking book anymore, is a great place to start - a lot of those essays are tremendous and go a long way to sketching out his contribution.

Beyond that, well, it's always tough to trace the last fifty or so years precisely in any field. I can give a personal recommendation, I guess, since that seems to be what you ask for. Partly because political philosophy is my branch, and partly because I don't particularly dig the modern philosophical vernacular (yeah, I don't like reading turgid journal articles or semiotics either, nor "metaethics" either) most of the newer authors whom I read are really just commentators on ancient and medieval texts. One exception is Leo Strauss, who managed to get misunderstood far more than he ever imagined he'd be because of silly and extraneous political nonsense. Among his books, Natural Right and History is his most direct and thoroughgoing reading of the course of modern philosophy, and is, I think, the greatest recent attempt to understand the direction philosophy has gone and is going in, though I am, again, probably the wrong person to judge this. Aside from that work, two of his essays most communicate the heart of his thought, I think: his autobiographical preface to his Spinoza's Critique of Religion and an essay entitled Progress or Return?

But, again, I'm not the one to give recommendations about modern philosophy. Heck, in a book I'm reading right now, the guy I'm talking about says:

Our age boasts of being more open to everything human than any earlier age; it is surely blind to the greatness of Xenophon. Without intending it, one might make some discoveries about our age by reading and rereading Xenophon.

... and I actually find myself agreeing with him.

Why do you want something new and radical, as you put it? What are you looking for?
posted by koeselitz at 10:51 AM on September 10, 2008

Aside from that work, two of his essays most communicate the heart of his thought, I think: his autobiographical preface to his Spinoza's Critique of Religion and an essay entitled Progress or Return?

Don't forget the "Restatement on Xenophon's Hiero," in On Tyranny. One of the most lucid and brilliant texts I have ever read.
posted by nasreddin at 11:13 AM on September 10, 2008

The 20th century produced one great philosopher: Martin Heidegger. ...

So: he's the big one. I don't think it'd be an exaggeration to say that you can understand most of modern philosophy in terms of the reaction to Martin Heidegger.
Only if you exclude much of Anglo-American philosophy... I think you'd need to add Frege to your list. You might match Frege with Husserl, both of whom lived long into the 20th century.

Wittgenstein would also make my list.

Also interesting to consider as a 20th century philosopher with widespread influence is Kierkegaard, who died in 1855, but whose work was not "received" in much of the world until it was made more widely available in German in the 1910's and in English in the 1930's.
posted by Jahaza at 11:27 AM on September 10, 2008

What the heck is being written NOW that's new, radical and interesting?
I believe the question is somewhat malformed. It's hard to tell what's radical now. Lots of folks profess to go "to the root", but it will take some time to see whether a trunk and branches will come forth...

It would help us to know what philosophers, or subjects, or approaches you do find interesting. Then we could suggest the people doing good work mining that particular vein.
posted by Jahaza at 11:31 AM on September 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

The replies you've had so far are heavily skewed towards the what is derogatively called 'continental' philosophy. I don't have any particular axe to grind about that, but if you aren't interested in semiotics, then you should probably avoid it. However, people like Foucault seem to be very popular with layman readers.

On the anglo-american side of things, it is very rare to find a philosopher who is truly systematic in having an overall worldview, in the way that the old greats had. A lot of them probably have a worldview (I know I do at least) but the discipline is far too specialised for that to fly in terms of publications. Nevertheless, it is widely acknowledged that David Lewis is the most recent great systematic philosopher.

Since there are few really broad philosophers, you need to specify what kinds of issues you are interested in (ethics, consciousness, science...). As far as I'm concerned, the most interesting philosophy is heavily influenced by the latest scientific advances in physics, biology, psychology, neurology, computer science etc... I work in the area between aesthetics and the philosophy mind at the moment. And the most interesting philosopher I've read recently is Jesse Prinz on the emotions. He seems to be following Hume's progress at the moment in terms of exploring concepts, then emotions, then morality in the books he's written so far. On the metaphysics/philosophy of science side of things, I'm not that familiar with the field, but James Ladyman seems pretty to be on a pretty exciting warpath against metaphysics.
posted by leibniz at 12:03 PM on September 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'm nthing the comment that a clearer sense of areas of interest would help. People don't regularly write on the whole of philosophy or philosophy itself, and much of what falls into that category is pretty bad. "Radical" is also a mixed bag; today's radical idea is often tomorrow's phrenology.

If you hate semiotics because it's overly jargony and technical, then I think most contemporary philosophy, both analytical and continental, is going to turn you off. Very few people in the field write for the masses, and those that do are generally trying to entice them into further reading, not break new ground. The sophistication is not accidental even if it is offputting. We are at a historical point at which these discussions have been had a great many times and the technical aspects across the field (both analytical and continental) really do accomplish something for the people engaged in those projects, whatever you may think of those projects.

So, if what you want is someone whose work is pertinent, challenging and more accessible than the more niche-oriented projects, I think the clear figure for you to look at would be Richard Rorty. He took inspiration from a far more eclectic group of philosophers than almost any other contemporary scholar, while upending apple carts on all sides. His Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature is almost 30 years old now, but it was his great shot across the bow in which he showed that most of the western philosophy since 1600 had culminated in Anglo-American analytical philosophy, and then argued that it was a dead end. (In this sense, he may be the kind of radical figure you're looking for without simply being a crank.) He had lots of friends, being very gracious and personable, but not a lot of allies in philosophy. Some see him as too glib and anti-philosophical to matter in the long run. I strongly disagree with many aspects of his work (published some of this not two months ago), but he is a great figure to enter into contemporary philosophy by reading, neither condescending nor excessively arcane.

Also, journals are probably not a good place to start for this. All the serious, active journals in philosophy are geared towards academics and are prohibitively expensive if you don't belong to a university with a subscription. One other note: if you're doing searches, don't call what you're looking for "modern philosophy." Academics and publishers use that for a very specific period in western philosophy (roughly 1550 to about 1850) much like music scholars use "classical music" to talk about western music in the 18th and early 19th centuries. You'll have more luck with "contemporary philosophy," as well as refinements above like "continental" and "analytical." (I'd also gripe about Heidegger being the one and only great philosopher of the 20th century - even the one and only great German-speaking philosopher of the 20th century - but that's a fight for another forum.)
posted by el_lupino at 12:32 PM on September 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

So nothing from the 20th century would mean you only want stuff written/published on or after Jan 1, 2001, right?

Check out the Philosophy Now Journal. You should be able to find stuff in there that leads you to what you are actually looking for.

Good luck.
posted by hal_c_on at 12:49 PM on September 10, 2008

Ok I guess I should have stated that the 20th century doesn't interest me either (don't get me wrong, I LOVE 20th and 19th and all the other freakin' centuries worth of philosophy, but my question was about the stuff coming out NOW because I've barely read any of it, except for Peter Singer who was mentioned here and whose novel 'One World' I thought was quite good, and John Gray who I don't like so much anymore),

I already know and have read Baudrillard, Heidegger (big fan), Habermas (not a great fan), and Foucault (he is awesome, but it's stuff like Madness and Civilization that I liked best) - I really don't need recommendations for anything written before 2000 because I've read a decent amount of it, and I least know where to look to find more of it, unlike with the new stuff...

To be more specific about the field of philosophy, I'm interested primarily in:

a) ontology
b) education
c) Mind and Nature (ala Gregory Bateson)
d) existentialism

Lewis Gordon sounds interesting, as do a lot of these recommendation. Thanks and keep 'em coming!
posted by heylight at 1:19 PM on September 10, 2008

leibniz: "what is derogatively called 'continental' philosophy?" Say huh? Routledge has a series on it, there are several associations/organizations with "continental philosophy" in their name, and while your dissertation adviser may have dissed it, that doesn't mean everyone else views at as a pejorative.
I'm personally a fan of Linda Martin-Alcoff; she's radical, interesting, and for the most part accessible. I especially liked her book Visible Identities: Race, Gender, And The Self.
posted by history is a weapon at 1:41 PM on September 10, 2008

The new stuff being published in the AngloAmerican/analytic tradition is being published largely in academic philosophy journals. Examples: The Journal of Philosophy; The Philosophical Review are two of the most prestigious. But the articles published there are often dense and require some background to understand.

One new trend in the analytic world is "experimental philosophy" where traditional intuitions about various topics (eg ethical obligations in different circumstances) are tested against surveys of what people actually think, how they actually perceive, etc. Jesse Prinz, named above, is one lively person working in this area.

"Ontology" means different things depending on which tradition you're in. For continentals, it means one thing, for analytics it means something quite different (different scope of questions are asked, and different kinds of evidence are permitted). Ted Sider and Dean Zimmerman are a couple of influential young philosophers working on the analytic side of this right now.

I don't really understand the focus on stuff published in the last 8 years, irather than say the last 20 or 30 years.

Maybe you want philosophy blogs?
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:12 PM on September 10, 2008

el_lupino: I'd also gripe about Heidegger being the one and only great philosopher of the 20th century...

Oh, certainly. Sorry for confusion: Heidegger is one great philosopher, not the only great philosopher, of the 20th century.

I also want to say that you can very easily attack so-called 'continental' philosophy on Heidegger's grounds. Part of his brilliance is evinced in the fact that most of those movements he spawned were generally inferior to his work; and I generally brought him up because I think it's really more productive just to read ol' Martin.

But there are many other important ones, and, as I say, there may be more that we don't even know about yet. We have to keep out eyes out - which I guess you're doing, heylight.

posted by koeselitz at 2:27 PM on September 10, 2008

Here are a couple of quick thoughts -

Arts and Letters Daily - an aggregation of popular-press essays on all kinds of humanities topics

RSS feed of Wo's online papers in philosophy - an arbitrary updating list of online papers in philosophy; usually academic, analytic papers so maybe not so good for a popular audience

David Chalmers' list of philosophical blogs - some are probably defunct by now, but you can browse by topic here

There are also popular philosophy magazines, Philosophy Now and you can follow links on the Amazon page to find similar ones. I have no idea if those are any good at all. (If you want a popular magazine rather than an academic journal, a good rule of thumb is that popular magazines will have pictures on the cover but academic journals won't.)
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:30 PM on September 10, 2008 [2 favorites]

el_lupino: I'd also gripe about Heidegger being the one and only great philosopher of the 20th century...

Oh, certainly. Sorry for confusion: Heidegger is one great philosopher, not the only great philosopher, of the 20th century.

Oh, no offense taken. Tongue firmly in cheek, which can be hard to see online.
posted by el_lupino at 4:40 PM on September 10, 2008

I work for a publisher of philosophy, and while I'd agree it's hard to point to greatness in the last 8 years, I would point to one thing we published worth looking at, and interesting as something of a relic—Philosophy done old school.

So, yeah, self-link sort of: Structure and Being is an attempt to reconcile some of the differences between analytic and continental philosophy (is that really a derogatory term? I didn't get the memo) using a systematic approach.

A more popular bit of philosophy is On Bullshit by Harry Frankfurt. It's philosophy by a philosopher but clearly written not only for philosophers. And by that I mean clearly written. Along that line, Mindfucking: A Critique of Mental Manipulation by Colin McGinn.

But frankly, with philosophy, not unlike poetry, it can be hard to discern greatness in so short a time. So I suppose I understand why folks keep referencing significantly older books.

If we can go back further than eight years, I'll probably catch a lot of crap for it but I'd add Donna Haraway and Thomas S. Kuhn, though not technically philosophers, certainly philosophers of technology. And I like mattbucher's list, and would agree with inoculatedcities about adding Martha Nussbaum, who is also, apparently from her picture on Wikipedia, the hottest philosopher alive. I'd recommend a bunch of the French and German philosophers mentioned above too, but few of the those dead philosophers published after their deaths so that probably wouldn't answer your question.
posted by Toekneesan at 5:52 PM on September 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

An enormous list of "people with online papers in philosophy," broken down by categories. Obviously, these aren't necessarily all ground-breaking, but as noted above, it's too early to tell who's the 21st-century Descartes. Look around and see what strikes your fancy.

John Searle is "radical" relative to modern academic philosophy at large, though he's probably more conservative than most philosophers relative to the hoi polloi.

This is essentially a blog about epistemology:

No, it's a blog about philosophy, including epistemology but also many other areas in philosophy.

posted by Jaltcoh at 6:29 PM on September 10, 2008

What the heck is being written NOW that's new, radical and interesting? Like the modern equivalent to the greats of the previous centuries?

There's a lot of stuff on Brian Leiter's blog that may be of interest to you.

Which philosophers will be read in 100 years?

Here is an excellent essay by Brian Leiter about the current state of the vocation of philosophy.

Other writings on Leiter's blog about the state of the profession of philosophy.
posted by jayder at 7:19 PM on September 10, 2008

After reading the first few responses, I was planning on providing an analytic philosophy counterpoint to the continental philosophy answers, but it seems I've been scooped by a number of people. From your clarification comment, it sounds like you're more interested in continental takes anyhow.

Anyway, there are plenty of excellent, insightful philosophers out there, but asking about the "modern equivalent of the greats" is an extremely difficult question to answer; in philosophy, fame appears in hindsight. There were huge figures during the time of Hume and Kant who have all but disappeared and are read by no one but the most assiduous scholars. As far as young up-and-comers who are currently writing: we're way too close to this in order to tell. I'd guess that the current philosopher who's making the biggest splash and who has a reasonably systematic approach is Tim Williamson, or maybe Jesse Prinz or Josh Knobe.

Writings from the 80s or 90s onward are still considered pretty current. I don't think there's anything wrong with reading that stuff and treating it as current philosophy; much of what is written now are responses to papers from that time. leibniz is definitely right in saying that David Lewis is the recent philosopher who currently holds the most sway over contemporary analytic philosophy. He is ubiquitous and stands a good chance of being known for a long time to come. Of course, who knows? Could be lasting; could be a fad that will die out after a few generations.

Hmm, now that I think of it, most everyone's been offering philosophers in response to your question, but maybe it's best to answer the question "what topics in contemporary philosophy are hot?" Here are a few: (This list is pretty philosophy of mind heavy because that's my field. I didn't include links to the topics that are perhaps too technical and specialized, but thought I'd toss them in anyway. I can't comment on ethics.)


Naturalized moral psychology
Embodied cognition
Persistence, tense, and the ontology of time
Epistemic disagreement
2-dimensional semantics
The context-sensitivity of language
Intuitions and experimental philosophy
posted by painquale at 9:44 PM on September 10, 2008 [4 favorites]

Seth Benardete (wrote late 20th century; died 2001)
Stanley Rosen (living)
Pierre Hadot (living)
posted by BigSky at 10:03 PM on September 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

There are some great modern philosophers in the Philosophy of Mind. Particularly Daniel Dennet, but also Thomas Metzinger, Ron McClamrock, John Searle, and many others. There is a fascinating interaction in the field between the neuroscientists, psychologists, linguists and AI researchers who each contribute meaningfully to the discussion and have forced the philosophers to take note of actual science.
posted by sophist at 10:37 PM on September 10, 2008

I don't want to get into a debate about the merits of continental philosophy, so probably I misspoke about it being a derogatory term. I guess I meant that in a number of places I've been to, continental is just a byword for 'shit'.

Anyhoo, painquale is probably onto a good line to point you towards topics rather than philosophers. The stanford encyclopedia and the internet encyclopedia of philosophy are very good places to read up on the current status of philosophy debates. Also philosophy compass is good for this as well (though it looks like you need an athens password to access the articles, I'll give you my one if you mail me).

For my money, the most exciting area in the philosophy of mind is a whole suite of theories that claim the mind is nothing magically extra, but very much embodied in interactions with the world. These are the theories of extended cognition, collective intentionality, disjunctivism/naive realism, externalism and representationalism of the variety of Fred Dretske's Naturalising the Mind.
posted by leibniz at 2:53 AM on September 11, 2008

Oh yeah, I didn't think of Philosophy Compass. That's a great suggestion. I second it. Nearly every paper I've read there has been good. It's like the Stanford encyclopedia site, but each paper is much more in-depth. Most of the articles are written by philosophers on the youngish side too.
posted by painquale at 10:07 AM on September 11, 2008

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