Why Hasn’t Professional Philosophy Produced Any Important Ideas in the Last 40 Years?

1. By a brilliant philosophical idea I mean a philosophical idea that manifests great intellectual creativity, insight, and originality, opens 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 it were widely disseminated and adopted.

And by an important philosophical idea I mean a brilliant philosophical idea that is indeed widely disseminated and adopted, a brilliant philosophical idea with actual significant impact and influence.

2. This essay has two basic theses:

(i) first, there have been no important philosophical ideas produced in the last 40 years,

(ii) second, the most obvious and plausible explanation for this disturbing fact is that (iia) the hegemony of leading trends in recent professional academic philosophy, (iib) the hyper-disciplined, rigidified institutional structures of philosophical education, and (iic) 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.

3.  Here is a working list of the 15 most important ideas in recent and contemporary professional academic philosophy, including the name of the philosophers who first produced them, the titles of the break-out/seminal publications in which they first presented those ideas, and the publication-dates:

1. direct reference theory/externalism/scientific essentialism

S. Kripke, “Identity and Necessity,” 1971.

S. Kripke, Naming and Necessity, 1972

H. Putnam, “Meaning and Reference,” 1973, expanded as “The Meaning of ‘Meaning’,” 1975

2. scientific naturalism

W. Sellars, Science, Perception, and Reality, 1963

3. reductive or type physicalism

U.T. Place, “Is Consciousness a Brain Process?,” 1956.

J.J.C. Smart, “Sensations and Brain Processes,” 1959.

4. functionalism

H. Putnam, “Psychological Predicates,” aka “The Nature of Mental States,” 1973.

5. non-reductive or token physicalism

D. Davidson, “Mental Events,” 1970.

6. non-reductive non-physicalism

T. Nagel, “What is it like to be a bat?,” 1974.

7. hard and soft determinism

P. Edwards, “Hard and Soft Determinism,” 1958.

8. the compatibility of moral responsibility and freedom of the will, with the denial of alternative possibilities

H. Frankfurt, “Alternative Possibilities and Moral Responsibility,” 1969.

H. Frankfurt, “Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person,” 1971

9. agent-causal libertarianism

R. Chisholm, “Freedom and Action,” 1966.

R. Chisholm, “He Could Have Done Otherwise,” 1967.

R. Chisholm, “Reflections on Human Agency,” 1971.

R. Chisholm, “The Agent as Cause,” 1976.

10. critiques of the analytic-synthetic and a priori-a posteriori distinctions

W.V.O. Quine, “Two Dogmas of Empiricism,” 1951.

W.V.O. Quine, “Carnap and Logical Truth,” 1954.

S. Kripke, Naming and Necessity, 1972.

11. knowledge is not (merely) justified true belief

E. Gettier, “Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?,” 1963.

12. naturalized epistemology

W.V.O.Quine, “Epistemology Naturalized,” 1969.

13. new virtue ethics

E. Anscombe, “Modern Moral Philosophy,” 1958.

P. Foot, Virtues and Vices, 1978 (essays published between 1957 and 1977)

14. new liberal political theory and ethics: justice as fairness, original position, reflective equilibrium, veil of ignorance, etc.

J. Rawls, A Theory of Justice, 1971

15. problems-driven moral theorizing and non-Kantian non-consequentialism

J. Thomson, “A Defense of Abortion,” 1971

P. Singer, “Famine, Affluence, and Morality,” 1972

B. Williams, “A Critique of Utilitarianism,” 1973

J. Thomson, “Killing, Letting-Die, and the Trolley Problem,” 1976

4. Of course, there are other candidates for this list of the most important philosophical ideas in recent and contemporary philosophy: Tarski’s theory of truth, Carnap’s and Kripke’s semantics for modal logic; and so-on.

But in any case, nothing on this list, or even on an expanded list, would have been published by as recently as 1977.

Therefore no important philosophical ideas have been produced by professional academic philosophers in the last 40 years.

5. Now suppose someone said:

“Well, all the evidence you’ve provided shows is that there was a burst of brilliant philosophical ideas produced between 1951 and 1976, 25 years. But it’s also plausible to think that it would take another 25 years for philosophers, to absorb, ruminate on, and then critically respond to these ideas, before they could move on to creating new ones.”

6. OK. And, looking back, it’s true that it took roughly 25 years to get from Descartes’s Meditations to Spinoza’s Ethics; roughly another 25 years to get from Spinoza’s Ethics to Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding; 21 years to get from Locke’s Essay to Berkeley’s Principles of Human Knowledge; 29 years to get from Berkeley’s Principles to Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature; 25 years to get from the first edition of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason to Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit; and roughly 25 years to get from Husserl’s Logical Investigations to Heidegger’s Being and Time.

Perhaps, then, brilliant philosophical ideas occur in roughly 25-year cycles.

7. So let’s suppose that to be true, for purposes of argument.

This means that by 2002, philosophers should have been ready to create new brilliant ideas.

8. Now since 2002, there have been at least three important trends in professional academic philosophy:

(i) analytic metaphysics,

(ii) experimental philosophy and debunking strategies, and

(iii) feminist philosophy.

But these trends have produced no brilliant philosophical ideas of their own: on the contrary, they have merely re-cycled ideas that already existed in the history of philosophy long before them.

Analytic metaphysics is essentially a recurrence to classical pre-Kantian metaphysics, plus modal logic and logical empiricism, together with the growing professional academic influence of David Lewis and his Australian, Oxford-based, and Princetonian followers in the late 1990s and early 00s.

To be sure, Lewis was a brilliant dialectician. But can you name one idea of his, that doesn’t belong to classical pre-Kantian metaphysics or logical empiricism, or that’s not already on the pre-1977 list, including the expanded version?

Experimental philosophy and debunking strategies are essentially recurrences to empiricism, including Humean empiricism, logical empiricism, or Quinean empiricism, and scientific naturalism, together with the professional academic influence of cognitive neuroscience.

Feminist philosophy says that “female ways of thinking [about philosophical issues] yield insights that have been missed in male-dominated areas [of philosophy]” (Rachel and Rachels, The Elements of Moral Philosophy, eighth edn., p. 148).

But this is an idea that has been around at least since Virginia Woolf and the early 20th century, if not since Mary Wollstonecraft in the 18th century, or since George Eliot and Harriet Martineau in the 19th century.

Therefore, even despite their popularity and institutional dominance, these important trends in professional academic philosophy have produced no brilliant (and a fortiori, no important) philosophical ideas in the last 15 years.

Indeed, on the contrary, it seems very likely that the hegemony of these important trends since 2002 has contributed substantially to the fact that professional academic philosophy has produced no important philosophical ideas in the last 40 years.

9. Even granting that, however, it seems to me extremely unlikely that no brilliant philosophical ideas have been produced during the last 40 years.

Indeed, on the contrary, surely, quite a few brilliant philosophical ideas must have actually been produced at least since 2002, that is, in the last 15 years, if we adopt the 25-year-cycle hypothesis.

10. Let’s assume that to be true. But then, where are all those brilliant ideas now?

Why haven’t they become important ideas?

Why is no one in mainstream professional philosophy paying any attention to them?

11.  It seems to me that the most obvious and most plausible explanation for this disconnect between the actual production of brilliant philosophical ideas since 2002, and their dissemination and adoption by contemporary philosophers, is this professional academic triple whammy:

first, the hegemony of analytic metaphysics, experimental philosophy/debunking strategies, and feminist philosophy, over the last 15 years,

second, the steady increase of hyper-disciplined, rigidified practices of  undergraduate and graduate training for professional academic philosophers, over the last 15 years, and

third, the gradual and now seemingly permanent entrenchment of a research-and-publication system that works at a snail’s pace, is highly adversarial, highly subject to fads and domination by professional academic status-networks, and ultimately reinforces the “normal science” of insular, hyper-specialized, and ultimately unimportant Scholastic philosophical debate, over the last 15 years.

12. Given that triple-whammy, therefore,

(i) all those who really care about real philosophy should be working like crazy now to recover and widely disseminate those lost brilliant ideas, and

(ii) all those who really care about real philosophy should also be working like crazy now to undo the professional academic philosophy juggernaut that has systematically discouraged, overlooked, and suppressed brilliant philosophical ideas since 2002, instead of producing them.

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About Z

Z is a 50-something cosmopolitan anarcho-philosopher, and previously was a tenured full professor of philosophy at a public university somewhere in North America, but still managed to escape with his life.