Sure, the old Greek guys from 2,400 years ago get all the glory. But these living philosophers have a ton to say about life, the universe, and everything as it relates to right now.
It can be easy to think that all the good ideas have already been thought; after all, philosophy have been going on for more than 2500 years. But that isn't true! There are still some genius philosophers out there, of course. Here, we give you ten living people with ideas worth learning about.
One of the most cited philosophers of the modern age, Chomsky has written extensively on linguistics, cognitive science, politics, and history. His work has had an effect on everything from developmental psychology to the debates between rationalism and empiricism, and led to a decline of support for behaviorism. He remains an active social critic and public intellectual, including here on Big Think.
“Colorless green ideas sleep furiously”
Zizek is a modern Marxist who has commented extensively on culture, society, theology, psychology, and our tendency to view the world through the lens of “Ideology”. He has devoted a great deal of time to updating the idea of Dialectic Materialism. He is also a frequent Big Think contributor.
“Humanity is OK, but 99% of people are boring idiots.”
Cornel is an American philosopher who focuses on politics, religion, race, and ethics. Hardly shy for the camera, West is often seen on television talk shows and even had a cameo in the Matrixfilms. His work has expanded on the ideas of W.E.B. Du Bois on more than one occasion, and continues to focus on the issues of being an “Other” in modern society. His Big Think videos can be found here.
“The Enlightenment worldview held by Bu Bois is ultimately inadequate, and, in many ways, antiquated, for our time.”
An American philosopher at the University of Chicago, Martha has written about subjects as diverse as ancient Greek philosophy, ethics, feminism, political philosophy, and animal rights. Along with Amartya Sen, she also developed the Capability Approach which inspired the United Nations Human Development Index.
“Now the fact that Aristotle believes something does not make it true. (Though I have sometimes been accused of holding that position!)”
Alasdair Macintyre is a Scottish Philosopher who has written on ethics and morality, political philosophy, theology, and the history of philosophy. His most popular book, After Virtue, helped to fuel a resurgence in Virtue Ethics. His thought shifted from a Marxist view in his early work to one that combines his former Marxism with his new Catholicism and Neo-Aristotelian insights.
“We are waiting not for Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict.”
An American philosopher, cognitive scientist, and one of the so-called Four Horsemen of New Atheism. He has written on free will for decades, and supports the compatibilist view. He has also written on how philosophers think, explaining how the idea of the “Intuition pump” can both mislead and enlighten us. He also has very many interesting interviews with Big Think.
“The Darwinian Revolution is both a scientific and a philosophical revolution, and neither revolution could have occurred without the other.”
An analytic philosopher working at Columbia University, Dr. Kitcher has done extensive work on the philosophy of science itself. His work has focused recently on the criteria for “good” science, and the philosophy of climate change.
"A great scientific theory, like Newton's, opens up new areas of research... Because a theory presents a new way of looking at the world, it can lead us to ask new questions, and so to embark on new and fruitful lines of inquiry."
A modern consequentialist who puts his money where his ideas are. Author of The Life You Can Save, a book on how utilitarianism demands altruism from you right now, he went on to create an organization dedicated to the idea. He has also written on animal rights, and is a vegetarian. His stances on euthanasia and quality of life have been the cause of a great many protests over the years, often preventing him from speaking. His Big Think videos help explain his philosophy.
“We are responsible not only for what we do but also for what we could have prevented.”
An Indian philosopher and Nobel Prize laureate who was worked for decades in welfare economics, capability theory, and on the questions of justice. He often writes on the need to view the implementation of philosophical ideals in degrees of success, rather than as “existent” or “non-existent”. His work went on to inspire Martha Nussbaum, and they continue to compliment each other’s work.
“Democracy has to be judged not just by the institutions that formally exist but by the extent to which different voices from diverse sections of the people can actually be heard”
An American philosopher who has written on gender, politics, ethics, the self, and cultural pressures. She developed the theory of gender performativity, arguing that no gender exists beyond actions used to express a gender role. Her Big Think work can be found here.
“There is no gender identity behind the expressions of gender; that identity is performatively constituted by the very "expressions" that are said to be its results.”
The world economy is often measured in terms of money, but is this the best method?
“The economy stupid”. These words skyrocketed James Carville to political fame and helped to elect Bill Clinton in the 1990s. The state of the economy is one of the most important questions there is economically, politically, and socially, and how well the economy is doing is often listed as the most pressing issue for the public in opinion polls.
But, how do we measure the overall state of the economy?
The most common method of measuring an economy as a whole is by means of GDP, or Gross Domestic Product. GDP is simply the total value of all goods and services produced in a country in a given period of time, most often a year. Brought to the forefront of global economics in 1944 by the Bretton Woods Conference, it continues to be the primary means of measuring a country’s economic health.
It is a very general measure, often difficult to make, that can be interpreted in many ways. It is extremely useful when you are trying to grasp a lot of information in a single figure, like how exports and imports affect an economy, how two countries compare in overall wealth, and so on.
Here is a map of the world colored by GDP. You can see China and the United States are far richer than most other countries, that nations in the south are often poorer than those in the north, and smaller nations generally have less money than their larger neighbors as well.
Is this everything there is to see?
Well, no, and there lies the problem. Here is a map of GDP per person in any given country.
In this image, the darker the color, the higher the GDP per person, black being highest. Light blue is the lowest end of the scale. Notice the changes in apparent wealth in Asia.
As you can see, the values change a lot. China, the second richest nation in the world, becomes a middle-tier country on this map, while little Luxembourg in Europe, which has less money than Warren Buffet, has a remarkably high GDP per capita, showing that its population is better off, on average, than most other countries in the world.
Neither of these maps, however, show us the actual distribution of wealth. It is possible in both maps for one person in each country to have all of the money to themselves. This is another failure of GDP: it tells us only the general facts about how much money there is, and little more.
Are there any alternative measures to use, ones that might give us a better picture?
There are a slew of alternative measures for a nation’s welfare and economic health that give more detail than GDP or GDP per capita does. One of the more interesting is the Capability Approach pioneered by Indian economist and philosopher Amartya Sen.
This method is focused on the “capability” of individuals to “to achieve outcomes that they value and have reason to value”, including “the ability to live to old age, engage in economic transactions, or participate in political activities”.
This method is put to use in the Human Development Index, based on data compiled by the United Nations, which measures a cross section of societal details such as education opportunities, healthcare access, and expected wealth, to give us an idea of the welfare of the individuals in a given nation. Here is the world map for HDI.
The darker the green, the better the HDI, and the higher the welfare for a typical citizen. Red and yellow, not so much. Credit to wikicommons.
Again, this index can suffer from generalization. There does exist, however, a corrective version of this for inequality, termed IHDI (Inequality-adjusted Human Development Index). By the UN's definition, "the difference between the IHDI and HDI is the human development cost of inequality, also termed – the loss to human development due to inequality." Shown here:
The darker the green, the better the IHDI. Red and yellow, not so much. Credit to wikicommons. As you can see, the benefits of development are not evenly shared across the world.
This measure attempts to make up for the failures that GDP can have in measuring how strong an economy is, by trying to tell us how well off the people in a country actually are. There is a great deal left out if one focuses only on how much wealth a nation produces. Perhaps Robert F. Kennedy said it best about the predecessor to GDP, when he described the shortcomings of GNP.
“Gross national product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities. It counts Whitman's rifle and Speck's knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children. Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials… it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”
The key problem of our key economic indicator is that it can only measure money. This is a useful tool, but not the only one. Is it time to switch the world’s major countries over to a system that relies on HDI or IHDI? Is there a better option than that? Or is our current tendency to report GDP as the most important statistic fine as it is?