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Who are the most important, widely-read or influential living philosophers still actively working and contributing to the field today? Which thinkers are recognized for doing the most interesting and urgent work?

This is clearly subjective borderline territory so please try to justify your claim. As per the discussion it's probably not that important to limit yourself to one thinker per answer, but the best answers already justify their decisions based on a reasonable assessment of the importance of the new concepts the thinkers produced. It isn't necessary that the thinker be the most prolific, but she or he should probably rank fairly high in terms of number of citations (Gettier, for instance.) Thank you!

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    Voting to close--"list" types of questions are strongly discouraged. The FAQ lays this out pretty explicitly. Such questions violate at least the "every answer is equally valid", and "there is no actual problem to be solved" guidelines of questions that should not be asked. It's really much too broad to be answered, and there's no "correct" answer that can ever be determined. I don't even think this is a good community wiki: "most influential" is far too subjective and argumentative, and in a bad way. Philosophy is broad, and there are many camps. – Cody Gray Jun 10 '11 at 10:58
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    List does not imply community wiki. CW is reserved solely for explicitly making posts editable by almost everyone. It's great for rapidly-changing or oft-updated information, mostly. All that aside: This is not a good question for all the reasons stated. – user20 Jun 10 '11 at 16:32
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In analytic philosophy, I would say Saul Kripke, without a doubt.

Although his output has by no means been prolific, everything he has written has had a huge and lasting impact. He is quite a character too.

See especially, Naming and Necessity and Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language.

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    Naming and Necessity is a cracking read, there's no question. – boehj Jun 10 '11 at 6:41
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    "Another of his most important contributions is his argument that there are necessary a posteriori truths, such as 'Water is H2O.'" Only in philosophy would saying "Water is H2O" make someone famous. :D – dimo414 Jun 11 '11 at 1:51
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The Wikipedia article on Saul Kripke, referenced by @Chuck, actually links to a survey done of 600 philosophers asking Who is the most important philosopher of the past 200 years?

The top 10 are:

  1. Ludwig Wittgenstein
  2. Gottlob Frege
  3. Bertrand Russell
  4. John Stuart Mill
  5. W.V.O. Quine
  6. G.W.F. Hegel
  7. Saul Kripke
  8. Friedrich Nietzsche
  9. Karl Marx
  10. Soren Kierkegaard

I can't speak to the rigor of this survey, but perhaps it's a little more objective than just naming people, at the very least.

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    All long dead, right? – Joseph Weissman Jun 11 '11 at 2:53
  • Yes, though Quine died pretty recently (compared to the rest, at least) – Jeff Jun 11 '11 at 3:46
  • Nice find. I don't know who did the voting but it's a massive vote of confidence for Kripke (and deservedly so). – boehj Jun 11 '11 at 5:47
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    Good point Joe, sorry about that, got too excited that something empirical existed. Either way, I'd still claim it's better than arbitrary conjecture of whichever people feel like visiting this question. – dimo414 Jun 11 '11 at 6:45
  • If Marx is to be included at all (despite his dead-ness), then surely he must be at the top, no? The peoples of these states have a good claim that they were influenced by his philosophy (however bastardized). The folks in Nth Korea, Laos, Cuba, China and Vietnam could say they're still being influenced heavily by his philosophy. – boehj Jun 11 '11 at 8:02
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Noam Chomsky

Although known widely as a political dissident and an anarchist, Noam Chomsky's opinions are widely read and he is definitely one among the most influential living philosophers.

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    Most of Chomsky's influential works (and nearly all of his landmark contributions) were in the realm of linguistics, rather than philosophy. His later work became popular in critical theory circles because it played so nicely into the framework that had already been established, providing real geopolitical examples of the theoretical conflict scenarios that had been rehashed for years. But I don't really count "Hegemony and Survival" and its brethren as all that influential, as they merely provided support for theories that had been kicked around by others for much longer. – Cody Gray Jun 10 '11 at 10:54
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These types of questions are very difficult to answer.

Again from the analytic school, again someone that didn't publish much at all. I'm going to say Edmund Gettier.

Gettier's paper, published in 1963, entitled "Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?" spawned an entire cottage industry of responses and re-ignited a great deal of interest in the field of epistemology. Entire volumes have been written in response to his three-page paper.

One of the things that epistemology (or theory of knowledge) examines is, "What are the necessary and sufficient conditions of knowledge?" From the time of Plato it was thought that a knower S knows that a proposition p if and only if the following obtain:

  • p is true;
  • S believes that p;
  • S is justified in believing that p.

Gettier demonstrated, by way of two counterexamples, that in order for something to qualify as knowledge, there must be an added something, X, added to the above tripartite. Gettier showed that the above tripartite is not sufficient for knowledge.

We have yet to find what that extra X is, despite countless person-years of inquiry since 1963 to discover what it might be.

Here is a link to the full-text of this milestone paper [PDF: 111 KB].

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    It's crazy to think that someone who published only one widely-read paper is among the more influential philosophers. – loevborg Jun 10 '11 at 10:13
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    Not sure if you think I'm crazy for suggesting him or not. If the former: An extensive wikipedia article about the so-called Gettier problem, his own section in epistemology, mentioned throughout the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, including 'A Priori', Dretske, Nozick, Goldman have written papers about him. I studied a full semester of epistemology in post-grad philosophy @ Uni of London about the problem. He's a major figure. – boehj Jun 10 '11 at 10:49
  • "... Gettier is remembered for his 1963 argument, which called into question the theory of knowledge that had been dominant among philosophers for thousands of years. In a few pages, Gettier argued that there are situations in which one's belief may be justified and true, yet fail to count as knowledge... Gettier contended that while justified belief in a true proposition is necessary for that proposition to be known, it is not sufficient... a true proposition can be believed by an individual [...] but still not fall within the "knowledge" category..." – boehj Jun 10 '11 at 10:53
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    The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9. – boehj Jun 10 '11 at 11:03
  • There are many more and a pile of books a couple of metres high just dealing with the problem he discovered. He would be discussed in any epistemology post-grad program worldwide. Once again, the comment section in a SE isn't the ideal spot to point out the mountains of evidence that this fellow was one of the major figures of 20th/21st century philosophy. – boehj Jun 10 '11 at 11:07
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A condition for them to be "living" limits the list quite heavily, so here is my:

Its quite easy to knock most of them out (even Kripke) of the list, for not being "true philosophers", but it don't see a real point to do it. List is already short, an most of those guys are very old, so it will get even shorter soon, anyway.

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  • I'm going to have to disagree with Searle. The Chinese Room is flashy, but it's never held as much truck with the community as people think it does. Fodor probably has a stronger claim to the most influential philosopher of mind. I haven't spoken to any X-phi's on this, but I suspect that the Churchlands and Dennett have had a great influence on them. Chomsky's impact on philosophy is a lot more subtle then people realize. His theories about deep grammar and the critical period get all the truck, but very few people remember that he pretty much destroyed behavioralism with one book review. – Nathan Oct 4 '11 at 12:13
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For Continental Philosophy we now have to say Zizek and Badiou.

Zizek and Badiou are still living, while a lot of the great names in Continental Philosophy have died recently like Deleuze, Derrida, Foucault.

Zizek is influetal because of his interpretation of Lacan in terms of Hegel's relation to Kant and its application to Cultural and Literary and Filmic phenomena.

Badiou is influential because of his book Being and Event and its follow up which reduces Being to Set Theory. This is wrong of course but is very thought provoking.

Why these two? This is because they have caught the American imagination somehow and are continuously coming here to talk at various universities. Thus there star status has been enhanced by American interest in their philosophies.

Zizek because he is so outrageous, because he will comment on anything, and he speaks at occupy wall street, and because he still claims to be a Marxist, and that is now OK because there is no more Cold War. Also because of his attacks on Derrida and Deleuze.

Badiou because he is like an Analytic Philosopher which is a novelty. Also because of his attacks on Deleuze.

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In the English-speaking world, John McDowell, who teaches at the University of Pittsburgh, is well known. He has published on a wide range of topics, most influentially in Greek philosophy, philosopphy of mind, Wittgenstein's rule-following remarks, ethics, epistemology and the philosophy of mind. McDowell's book Mind and World, essentially the text of his 1990-1 Locke Lectures, is about intentionality and the relevance of experience for our knowledge of the world. It contains and combines many of the themes he is interested in. Many of his influential earlier essays are collected in the twin volumes Mind, Value, and Reality and Mind, Knowledge, and Reality. More recently, he has published another pair of article collections, The Engaged Intellect and Having the World in View, which reflect among other things his renewed interest in the philosophy of Wilfrid Sellars.

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