In a recent edgy essay, “Why Hasn’t Professional Philosophy Produced Any Important Ideas in the Last 40 Years?” I argued that although it’s almost certainly the case that philosophers have produced some brilliant ideas, i.e,
philosophical ideas that manifest great intellectual creativity, insight, and originality, open up a new way of looking at a large domain of concepts, facts, phenomena, theories, and/or other information, and would have significant impact and influence if they were widely disseminated and adopted,
since 1977, nevertheless none of of these brilliant ideas have become important ideas, i.e.,
brilliant philosophical ideas that are indeed widely disseminated and adopted, brilliant philosophical ideas with actual significant impact and influence,
And my conclusion was that
the most obvious and plausible explanation for this disturbing fact is that (a) the hegemony of leading trends in recent professional academic philosophy, (b) the hyper-disciplined, rigidified institutional structures of philosophical education, and (c) the entrenched practices of professional philosophical research-and-publishing over, at the very least, the last 15 years, have systematically discouraged, overlooked, and suppressed brilliant philosophical ideas.
In this edgy essay, I want to recover ten of those brilliant but professionally neglected ideas.
II. The Ideas
1. Intentional agency is embodied conscious willing. (Brian O’Shaughnessy, The Will, 1981)
Why This Idea is Brilliant: Because it avoids the basic problems of both non-causal and causal theories of intentional action, as well as those of mind-body dualism and behaviorism/materialism, while also stressing the fundamental connection between agency and rational animality.
2. Human persons are identical to their embodied conscious lives. (Richard Wollheim, The Thread of Life, 1984)
Why This Idea is Brilliant: Because it avoids the basic problems of psychological, somatic, and animalist theories of personhood and personal identity, while also stressing the fundamental connection between human personhood and organismic life.
3. Foundherentism. (Susan Haack, Knowledge and Evidence, 1993)
Why This Idea is Brilliant: Because it avoids the basic problems of both classical foundationalism and classical coherentism, while also providing a serious pragmatism-inspired alternative to Gettier-driven epistemology.
4. Non-deterministic non-equilibrium thermodynamics. (Ilya Prigogine, The End of Certainty, 1996)
Why This Idea is Brilliant: Because it formally accommodates both relativity and quantum mechanics within the same framework, while avoiding both mechanism and determinism, and also taking spatiotemporal asymmetries in nature fully seriously.
5. “After nearly a century devoted to looking for ways to avoid Kant’s problem of explaining how synthetic a priori knowledge is possible, we have come face to face with it again.” (Jerrold Katz, Realistic Rationalism, 1998, p. 186)
Why This Idea is Brilliant: Because it resuscitates Kant’s fundamental Critical problem of metaphysics, epistemology, and semantics–how is the synthetic a priori possible?–while not only defending a substantive theory of analyticity and robust metaphysical and epistemic realism, but also effectively criticizing classical empiricism, logical empiricism, and Quinean radical empiricism alike.
6. Professionalism is fundamentally inimical to all serious, creative intellectual activity, especially professional academic physics, but also fully including professional academic philosophy. (Joe Schmidt, Disciplined Minds, 2000)
Why This Idea is Brilliant: Because it explains the ever-increasing intellectual, spiritual, and moral poverty of academic philosophy since 1950, but especially since the late 1970s, while also connecting meta-philosophy directly to radical political theory.
7. “The materialist neo-Darwinian conception of nature is almost certainly false.” (Thomas Nagel, Mind and Cosmos, 2012)
Why This Idea is Brilliant: Because it provides a robustly anti-mechanist picture of physical nature, while avoiding the basic problems of ontological dualism and materialism, and also critically challenging dogmatic rejections of any attempt to reintroduce rational teleology into the philosophy of nature.
8. Source-incompatibilist rational human free agency is not only fully consistent with contemporary natural science, it also flows directly from facts about non-human animal agency in particular, and from facts about living systems more generally. (Helen Steward, A Metaphysics for Freedom, 2012)
Why This Idea is Brilliant: Because it provides a robust metaphysics of free will that’s neither determinist nor indeterminist-mechanist nor compatibilist, and also coheres perfectly with brilliant ideas 1, 2, 4, and 7.
9. Philosophical anarchism follows self-evidently from common-sense non-consequentialist ethical beliefs. (Michael Huemer, The Problem of Political Authority, 2013)
Why This Idea is Brilliant: Because it exposes the basic problem of all versions of statism, from the pharaohs to neoliberal democracy–that coercive political authority is rationally unjustified and immoral–while also challenging the classical dichotomy between ethics and political theory.
10. “The widespread conviction that equality itself and as such has some basic value as an independently important moral ideal is mistaken. It is an impediment to the identification of what is truly of fundamental moral worth.” (Harry Frankfurt, On Inequality, 2015, p. 89; but see also “Equality as a Moral Ideal,” 1987, and “Equality and Respect,” 1997)
Why This Idea is Brilliant: Because it correctly distinguishes between (i) equality of moral consideration, which is identical to sufficient respect for human dignity, and (ii) equality of treatment across individuals or groups, which, if pursued as an independently important moral ideal, is rationally unjustified and leads directly to violations of respect, thereby avoiding conceptually misguided even if politically-correct liberal dogma, while also smoothly cohering with brilliant idea 9.
III. Afterword and Critical Diagnosis
To prove that these brilliant philosophical ideas have been, and currently are, professionally neglected,you need merely
(i) state any of them out loud, with a serious look on your face, in the hearing of your PhD advisor, in a job interview, at an APA conference talk that has a large audience, or to your beloved colleagues at a department meeting,
(ii) put them forward as being not only fully intelligible but fully defensible, in a fellowship application or job application, or
(iii) try to get them published in a top-ranked professional academic philosophy journal.
Now it’s true that many or most of the people associated with discovering and first formulating these brilliant ideas are, or were, well-known and highly respected thinkers.
–But they did not become well-known and highly-respected by developing and defending and publishing these particular ideas.
Indeed, as famous and well-respected as some or even most of these people were when they published these brilliant ideas, it’s virtually a certainty that had they attempted to develop, defend, and publish them when they were young, comparatively unknown philosophers/thinkers–or if nowadays, as young, comparatively unknown contemporary philosophers/thinkers, they were to attempt to develop, defend, and publish them–they would end up as failed professional academics, like the brilliant Joe Schmidt.
I submit that it’s because all of these brilliant ideas are sharply contrary to either:
physicalism (reductive or non-reductive),
scientism and natural mechanism,
classical empiricism, logical empiricism, or Quinean radical empiricism,
standard “millennial Princeton-style” analytic modal metaphysics, epistemology, and semantics,
In short, they’re all sharply contrary to the conventional wisdom of the metaphysical, epistemic, semantic, ethical, and political foundations of the post-1950s military-industrial-university complex, especially since the late 1970s.
Therefore, if you want fellowships, tenure track jobs, tenure, full professorships, or named chairs in philosophy, then you’d better spout the physicalist, scientistic and natural mechanist, empiricist, consequentialist, (neo)liberal, statist conventional wisdom, and be a good little professional do-bee.
Or best of all, you’d better spout clever little epicyclical spins on the conventional wisdom, and also be a good little professional academic do-bee,
thereby letting real, serious philosophy go to hell in a hand-basket,
while your lovely CAREER OPPORTUNITIES flourish….