Dr. Cornel West with several hundred activists from Stop Mass Incarceration Network rallied at Union Square Park. Editorial Credit: a katz / Shutterstock.com

5 Living Philosophers To Know

Most people are familiar with the philosophers of ancient times, such as Plato and Aristotle. These are the philosophers usually talked about in an introduction to philosophy class. However, philosophy didn't end after this time period, and new ideas are still being developed today. As the times change, philosophers have different ideas to share. Noam Chomsky is a philosopher who comments on everything from debates between rationalism and empiricism to developmental psychology. Peter Singer is a modern-day philosopher known for his take on utilitarian morals. These are only a couple of today's philosophers. Here, we will go over some of today's most influential philosophers who are still alive and discussing interesting ideas. 

Noam Chomsky

Close up Noam Chomsky and Ilan Pappé's Gaza in Crisis book in the bookshop. Stack of books.Editorial credit: hamdi bendali / Shutterstock.com
Close up Noam Chomsky and Ilan Pappé's Gaza in Crisis book in the bookshop. Stack of books.Editorial credit: hamdi bendali / Shutterstock.com.

Noam Chomsky is one of the most well-known modern-day philosophers. His interest in philosophy goes back to his childhood. Chomsky attended an experimental self-directed learning elementary school that encouraged him to develop his own interests. When he was 13, Chomsky took the trips alone to New York City. There, he found new books and came into touch with the working-class Jewish intellectual community. His experience early on fostered his belief that everyone can understand political issues and make their own decisions. Chomsky believes everyone gets satisfaction from acting freely and creatively. One of Chomsky's underlying political beliefs is that if authority cannot reach a strong test of rational justification, it is illegitimate. This idea helped form Chomsky's view of anarcho-syndicalism, an anarchist school of thought where workers control the means of production instead of the state.

While Chomsky always had an interest in politics, he didn't get publicly involved with any issues until the Vietnam War in 1964. Chomsky spoke out against the war in protests. He argued the Vietnam War was only one case where the United States was using its military power to gain control over larger areas of the developing world. 

Beyond politics, Chomsky is well known for his ideas in cognitive science and linguistics. According to Chomsky, human linguistic creativity involves using different mental faculties and needs a system of mental organization. In this system, there are several innate "modules." Chomsky describes language as one of these modules. While each module operates on its own automatically, there is a distinct set of rules that determine what modules affect each other. The interactions of these modules create perception, thought, and other cognitive products. 

Today, Chomsky is still a socially critical and public intellectual. He has written extensively about his ideas in linguistics, cognitive science, politics, and history. Some of his most well-known works include The Logical Structure of Linguistic Theory, Hegemony or Survival, Understanding Power, and Profit Over People. 

Martha Nussbaum

Martha Nussbaum. (2023, December 12). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martha_Nussbaum
Martha Nussbaum. (2023, December 12). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martha_Nussbaum.

Martha Nussbaum is a modern American philosopher and legal scholar known for her wide range of works. She is currently the Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago. Nussbaum wasn't the only one in her family interested in law and philosophy. Her father, George Craven, was an attorney. Early in her career, Nussbaum studied at Wellesley College. After two years, she dropped out to pursue a career in theater. Later, she eventually continued her studies and pursued philosophy at Harvard, where she received her master's and doctorate of Philosophy. 

Nussbaum's philosophy has covered a wide range of subjects. She has written about ancient Greek and Roman philosophy, the philosophy of law, moral psychology, ethics, feminism, political philosophy, and aesthetics. Over the years, her work has been an important contribution to debates on human rights. Nussbaum's diversity of philosophical ideas opened the door for interesting conversations.

Nussbaum also created the Capability Approach. This was the inspiration for the United Nations Human Development Index. The Capabilities Approach is an approach to human welfare that focuses on the rights of a person to live a life they value and how capable a person is of achieving this life. Nussbaum explains that in order for someone to achieve their highest potential, they must have certain opportunities available to them. Nussbaum cofounded this idea with philosopher Amartya Sen.

Alasdair Macintyre

Alasdair MacIntyre. (2023, November 7). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alasdair_MacIntyre
Alasdair MacIntyre. (2023, November 7). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alasdair_MacIntyre.

Alasdair Macintyre is a Scottish-born philosopher, well known for his moral philosophy. Macintyre attended the University of London, where he earned his bachelor's degree. Later, he went to Manchester University and the University of Oxford for graduate studies. His schooling led him to teach at several universities in Britain and the United States, including Oxford. In 2010, Macintyre retired from his teaching career. However, his ideas live on in his books. 

Macintyre's most popular book is After Virtue. The book helped a resurgence in Virtue Ethics. In his philosophy, Macintyre uniquely emphasizes the role of history in philosophical theorizing. This is different from other philosophers who have a more analytic approach to philosophy, using rationality as the basis for their ideas. 

Over the course of his career, Macintyre's thinking shifted from a Marxist view to one with new Catholicism and Neo-Aristotelian insights. One of Macintyre's earliest works was Marxism: An Interpretation, which he published when he was 24 years old. However, Macintyre didn't like the moral problems in Marxist regimes. In his early essay, Notes from the Moral Wilderness, Macintyre delves deeper into these ideas. 

Cornel West

Carl Dix (3rd from L) and Cornel West( 2nd from L) walk with protesters against police brutality. Editorial credit: lev radin / Shutterstock.com
Carl Dix (3rd from L) and Cornel West( 2nd from L) walk with protesters against police brutality. Editorial credit: lev radin / Shutterstock.com.

Cornel West is another prominent modern philosopher. West's love for ideas and philosophy dates back to his childhood. West grew up in an African-American working-class neighborhood in Sacramento, California. In his childhood, West attended services at the local Baptist church. There, he heard stories from parishioners whose grandparents were previously slaves. The stories they shared about their struggles moved West. Near the church West attended were the offices of the Black Panther Party. They shared ideas of the importance of political activism at the local level with the West and introduced him to Karl Marx. 

West continued learning about philosophy at school. He went to Princeton University to pursue graduate studies in philosophy. He was the first African-American to receive a Ph.D. in philosophy from Princeton in 1980. After getting a doctorate degree, West started a career teaching philosophy, religion, and African-American studies at numerous different colleges, such as Yale, Princeton, and Harvard. 

Over the years, West has written 20 books focusing on politics, religion, race, and ethics. A few of his most popular books include The American Evasion of Philosophy: A Genealogy of Pragmatism, Beyond Eurocentrism and Multiculturalism and Democracy Matters: Winning the Fight Against Imperialism. One of West's most well-known philosophies is pragmatism. He pioneered the school of neo-pragmatism, focusing on race and class in America. He calls the United States a "racist, patriarchal" nation because white supremacy continues to define everyday life. Today, West continues his teaching and is the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Chair at Union Theological Seminary in New York City.

Peter Singer

Peter Singer. (2023, November 10). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Singer
Peter Singer. (2023, November 10). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Singer.

Born in Melbourne, Australia, Peter Singer is one of the most famous living philosophers of today. Singer's parents were Austrian Jews who immigrated to Australia from Vienna after Austria's annexation in 1938. While his family's background was Jewish, Singer is an atheist, and growing up, his parents didn't celebrate Jewish holidays.

Singer went to the University of Melbourne and the University of Oxford. He decided to major in philosophy after having an interesting conversation with his sister's boyfriend at the time. His master's degree for a thesis called Why Should I Be Moral? Morality was the focus of much of his philosophy. 

Singer wrote the book Animal Liberation in 1975. The book makes the case for vegetarianism. It expands on the utilitarian idea of "The greatest good of the greatest number" by applying the principle to animals. Singer argues there is no reason not to apply this concept to animals. He believes the boundary separating humans and other animals is arbitrary.

Other books Singer wrote include Practical Ethics, The Expanding Circle, Marx, Hegel, and How are We to Live? Rethinking Life and Death, and A Darwinian Left. One of Singers' more recent books is The Life You Can Safe. The book explains how the utilitarianism philosophy says people should be practicing altruism right now. Singer created an organization from this idea called The Life You Can Save. The organization makes suggestions on what charities to donate to based on a charity evaluator. Singer also cofounded the organization Animals of Australia. 

Over the course of his career, Singers' work has gained wide public recognition. Twice, Singer served as chair of the philosophy department at Monash University. There, he founded the Centre for Human Bioethics. In 2004, the Council of Australian Humanist Societies also recognized Singer as the Australian Humanist of the Year. Today, Singer is the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University. 

Why Learn About Today's Philosophers

While it is great to learn about philosophers of the past and important for understanding philosophy, the importance of learning about modern philosophers is often underrated. Modern philosophers talk about the problems of today. They make social criticisms of our current societal situations. For example, Noam Chomsky has been an important social critic, at times criticizing government actions. Similarly, Peter Singer's philosophy makes us question our current situation and treatment of animals. He urges people to be vegetarian and to donate more to those in need. Learning about these modern philosophers applies philosophical concepts directly to our own lives. Philosophers have always shared their thoughts and critiques of society. Being aware of the ones today makes us more reflective on our current society and ourselves.


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