Most Important Philosophy Books

Eminent Philosophers Name the 43 Most Important Philosophy Books Written Between 1950-2000: Wittgenstein, Foucault, Rawls & More
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2 de Maio, 2018 0 Por Artes & contextos
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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.

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

Image by Austrian National Library, via Wikimedia Commons

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).”

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The list is also almost entirely male, save Susan Haack’s book, 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 specialist or an ordinary, “passionate” lover of philosophical thought?


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