If you had to write: a history of 20th-21stC philosophy…

…who, or what would you talk about?

Anthony Kenny has finished a mighty tome; of the history of  Western Philosophy; and towards the end, he addresses the issue of the best philosophers of the recent period. Being a Wittgenstein commentator; he mentions Wittgenstein; he also mentions Strawson as the last great philosopher.

I will not deny that Strawson is a fine philosopher; but the latest greatest philosopher should surely be David Lewis. I can accept that Kenny can’t make everyone happy and indeed he will necessarily upset some people.

This led me to think; who are the greatest philosophers of the last century?  I’ll make a list of 15.

  1. David Lewis (worked in decision theory, ‘ethics and political philosophy’, metaphysics, epistemology and logic)
  2. Peter Strawson (metaphysics and epistemology, Kant, disagreed with Quine a lot)
  3. Willard Quine (epistemology and metaphysics, semantics)
  4. Bertrand Russell (best contributions of his are in semantics, mind, epistemology and metaphysics … his political writings are ‘interesting’)
  5. Hilary Putnam (metaphysics, semantics)
  6. Saul Kripke (semantics, modality)
  7. Elizabeth Anscombe (ethical theory, virtue ethics, philosophy of action)
  8. Ernst Nagel (political philosophy and metaethics)
  9. Rudolf Carnap (philosophy of science, Vienna circle)
  10. Karl Popper (various toics; most poignant for his doctrines on philosophy of science, and his ‘Open Society’ – publically recognisable philosopher)
  11. Martha Nussbaum (political and legal philosophy, ethics, Aristotle and ancient philosophy)
  12. John Rawls (ethics, political philosophy, Kant)
  13. Karl Hempel (Philosophy of science)
  14. Amaryta Sen (political philosophy)
  15. (reserved)

I didn’t put anyone in aesthetics, because of my lack of familiarity  with the area.



2 thoughts on “If you had to write: a history of 20th-21stC philosophy…

  1. I was going to give my top 15. But I think it’s a bit hard to tell who of the living philosophers should be on the list, since their work won’t have been completely appreciated yet. I think David Lewis and Quine probably only made this list for most people when they died (perhaps because people knew they wouldn’t be publishing any more and they could be fully quantified- pun intended).

  2. It is most certainly correct that the most popular living philosophers may also be forgotten in the annals of history; conversely, some of the greatest philosophers today may have been forgotten during their time. David Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature fell on deaf ears due to it being a big book, I guess Scottish audiences weren’t ready for that philosophy, the legends go that it was K–t that made Hume popular in the grand scheme of things.

    Frege is another brilliant example; just imagine how influential he is today; but back then, he was the obscure philosopher living and working in the backwater Jena; in the shadows of inferior popular philosophers of the time like the German Idealists, the British Idealists, and Phenomenologists.

    There are certainly some people who will not be forgotten today; but who? I’d have thought those who not somuch introduced substantive research (important as that is), but those who made us not only think differently, but think in their way, even if to refute them; so Lewis would be a strong candidate here.

    I suppose there would also be a little bit of politics about who we choose as the great living philosophers…given our own philosophical prejudices.


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