Although considered abstract, philosophy consists of numerous theories and approaches to answering the most difficult questions in life. Speculation on human thought, nature, and the universe resonate in this field, and outstanding philosophers ponder, create, and debate answers to these great questions.
Contemporary philosophers make careers in academia, mostly teaching and publishing in the field. Their approaches, however, go beyond responding to canonical works and authors; instead, they delve into the intersectionality of the connections between humans, their societies, and natural elements to demonstrate new ways of thinking about great questions. While there are numerous schools of thought, many individual philosophers specialize in one and tackle their specific concerns through that lens.
In looking at these ten outstanding philosophers, it is easy to identify strains of critical engagement and socio-political thought. Much of their contribution to the field is built out in their approaches to solving tangible issues. Additionally, they have numerous publications available for consumption. Be inspired by their ideas!
Allan Gibbard: Outstanding Philosopher of Ethical Theory
As an ethical theorist, Allan Gibbard made his mark in the world of contemporary philosophy through academia and publications. He is an outstanding philosopher who argues the need for consideration of action for agreeable social norms. In short, he proposes morality is based on socially normalized actions and beliefs. A majority of his work discusses normative ethics.
Gibbard is currently serving at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor as the Richard B. Brandt Distinguished University Professor of Philosophy Emeritus. He holds a bachelor’s in mathematics from Swarthmore College. There, he began his inquiry into philosophy and physics as academic minors. Gibbard went on to Harvard University to study philosopher, eventually earning his Ph.D. in the field.
In addition to teaching at the University of Michigan, Gibbard held professorships at the University of Chicago and the University of Pittsburgh. Prior to his collegiate teaching career, he taught young students in physics and math through the Peace Corps in Ghana.
Gibbard is also well-published. He has four major books: Wise Choices, Apt Feelings: A Theory of Normative Judgment (1990), Thinking How to Live (2003), Reconciling Our Aims: In Search of Bases for Ethics (2008), and Meaning and Normativity (2012). While his books vary in the exact topics of ethical philosophy, they ultimately build toward Gibbard’s stance on moral judgment. Philosophically, he identifies with utilitarianism in his approach to ethical conduct.
Beyond his deliberate works in ethical theory, Gibbard has contributed to other realms of thinking. These include metaethics, language, social choice, and moral psychology. Additional works, including academic critiques of others in the field, are available in peer-reviewed journals.
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Christine M. Korsgaard: Great Philosopher and Educator
With a wide variety of interests, Christine Korsgaard contributes predominantly to the field of moral philosophy. She is particularly invested in the history of moral philosophy and its influence on modern thinking in the field. Much of her work builds upon Kantian thinking. Her other interests as an outstanding philosopher, however, include agency, human-animal relations, personal identity, and practical reason.
Korsgaard currently teaches at Harvard University, which is also her alma mater for her Ph.D. in Philosophy. She began her academic career at Eastern Illinois University, where she studied English and philosophy. Later, she obtained a bachelor’s in the field from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Though she did complete a Ph.D., she also holds two honorary doctorates. From the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, she holds a Doctor of Humane Letters, and from the University of Groningen (Netherlands), a Doctorate Honoris Causa.
In addition to teaching at Harvard, Korsgaard held several tenures elsewhere. She taught at Yale, UC Santa Barbara, and the University of Chicago. Additionally, she was a visiting professor at UC Berkeley and UC Los Angeles.
Although she has many amazing educational contributions, Korsgaard is also an author. She has written four books: The Sources of Normativity (1996), Creating the Kingdom of Ends (1996), The Constitution of Agency (2008), and Self-Constitution: Agency, Identity, and Integrity (2009). Beyond her books, Korsgaard has several published articles, encyclopedia entries, and interviews. Much of her writing can be found in peer-reviewed journals.
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Cornel West: Inspiring Philosopher and Activist
A political activist, educator, orator, and thinker, Cornel West serves as a beacon for contemporary American philosophy. While his work is considered controversial by some, his intent is to embolden the intentions of Martin Luter King, Jr. through the philosophical exploration of ethics, race, religion, and society. Ultimately, as an outstanding philosopher, he aims to uphold King’s legacy and promote justice, love, and truth.
West serves as a professor at Harvard University, which is also his baccalaureate alma mater. There, he teaches on the Practice of Public Philosophy as well as courses in the Harvard Divinity School and in the department of African and African American Studies. While he began his academic career in Boston, he went on to earn both his master’s and his Ph.D. from Princeton University. He holds the title of Professor Emeritus at that institution.
In addition to his teaching career, West is a famous orator who appears in various media outlets. He is a recurring guest on CNN shows and newscasts. Additionally, he has appeared in numerous documentaries and even had a ground-breaking film debut in the Matrix.
Moreover, West is well-published. The author of Race Matters (1993), he has written and contributed to 20 books. He has edited another dozen. Race Matters is perhaps West’s most famous work and has celebrated the release of a 25th-anniversary edition. The work argues that nihilism is the largest obstacle to peaceful relations among different races in America.
In addition to his written publications and frequent speaking engagements, West is an activist. Of note, he collaborates on spoken word albums with contemporary musicians to reach new audiences with his message on harmonious living.
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Hilary Putnam: Outstanding Philosopher of Cognition
The son of an author/translator, Hilary Putnam’s academic career had a trajectory toward excellence from birth. As an outstanding philosopher, his areas of expertise include epistemology, metaphysics, and mathematics. He currently serves as the Cogan University Professor Emeritus at Harvard University in the Department of Philosophy.
He graduated with his bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania. Later, he went on to earn his Ph.D. from the University of California, Los Angeles. During that tenure, he worked with Hans Reichenbach, another outstanding philosopher of knowledge, science, and logical empiricism. He also holds several honorary degrees through his membership with American and European academies.
After a brief tenure at Northwestern University, Putnam held tenure at Princeton University for nearly a decade. He taught not only in departments of philosophy but also in mathematics. For about four years, he even taught at M.I.T. Ultimately, he joined the Harvard faculty.
Putnam held numerous leadership positions in the world of philosophy. He was president of several associations, including the Association for Symbolic Logic, the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association, and the Philosophy of Science Association. Additionally, he is a fellow with both American organizations and European academies.
In addition to his teaching career, Putnam is a philosophical author. His topics of extensive interest include epistemology, language, mathematics, metaphysics and physics, and philosophy of the mind. He also discusses the work of other philosophers, including American Pragmatists and Wittgenstein. Putnam’s most recent collection, Philosophy in An Age of Science, was published in 2012 by Harvard University Press. Of note, Putnam is also an award recipient for his work. He holds both the American Philosophical Association Prometheus Prize and the Rolf Schock Prize in Philosophy.
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Judith Butler: Inspiring Philosopher of Critical Gender Theory
Considered a profound contemporary critical theorist, Judith Butler explores the intersectionality of society and individuals on various levels. Her work, often rooted in comparative literature, manifests in gender and sexuality studies but intensely engages social and political theory, action, and critique. As an outstanding philosopher, she brings to light issues of identity.
Currently, Butler is the Maxine Elliot Professor at the University of California, Berkeley. She teaches in both the Department of Comparative Literature and the Program of Critical Theory, which she founded. Butler holds her Ph.D. in Philosophy from Yale University. Additionally, she holds nine honorary degrees from universities around the world. Of note, she is also a corresponding fellow of the British Academy and a member of the American Philosophical Society.
Her publication repertoire is extensive. She is the author of numerous books, including Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990), Excitable Speech (1997), Undoing Gender (2004), and Senses of the Subject and Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly (2015). Moreover, she is a co-author with Talal Asad, Athena Athanasiou, Wendy Brown, Saba Mahmood, Catherine Malabou, and Gayatri Spivak on several other works.
In addition to her teaching tenure, Butler served in leadership for UC Berkeley. She acted as Department Chair for both the Department of Rhetoric and the Department of Gender and Women’s Studies. Also, she was the Chair of the Board of the University of California Humanities Research Center in Irvine. Presently, Butler is the Principal Investigator for a project to develop an International Consortium of Critical Theory Programs.
Beyond her academic work and publications, she is active with human rights organizations and issues. Her most recent work is with the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York and Jewish Voice for Peace.
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Jürgen Habermas: Influential Philosopher of Moral Discourse
One of the most influential philosophers of all time, Jürgen Habermas is prolific. He speculates across numerous topics, including epistemology, language, religion, and social-political theory. Through this extensive appeal, he has impacted the fields of philosophy, communication, law, politics, rhetoric, psychology, sociology, and theology.
Born in Germany just a decade before the rise of the Nazis, Habermas’ education was vastly shaped by experience. It was not until after World War II that he completed his primary degree. He attended universities in Bonn, Göttingen, and Zürich. At Bonn, he finally received his Ph.D. in philosophy. Later, he completed a second doctorate at the University of Marburg.
His primary career in education took him around the world as a lecturer. He began with humble roots as an unpaid professor at Marburg. However, he quickly moved into tenured positions, even earning the title of Extraordinary Professor at the University of Heidelberg. Habermas went on to teach at Frankfurt University, where he remained (except for a stint at the Max Planck Institue in Starnberg as Director) until his retirement. His life since retirement has consisted of traveling to major universities, such as Northwestern University and New York University, as a guest lecturer.
The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere
Habermas’ collection of publications is immense having begun in 1962 with The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. His major works include more than 30 books and hundreds of essays and dialogues. His recent publication, The Crisis of the European Union (2012), reflects his engagement in socio-political discourse beyond the bounds of “regular” philosophy.
In addition to his inspiring career, Habermas is a highly recognized thinker. He is the recipient honors like the 1980 Theodor W. Adorno Award, the 2004 Kyoto Prize, the 2013 Erasmus Prize, and the 2015 John W. Kluge Prize.
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Martha C. Nussbaum: Outstanding Philosopher and Educator
Currently serving as the Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago, Martha C. Nussbaum is an outstanding contemporary philosopher. As a critical thinker in ancient philosophy, feminism, and political theory, she has international fame in the field.
Nussbaum holds her Bachelor of Arts degree from New York University. She earned both her Master of Arts and Philosophical Doctorate from Harvard University. Moreover, she holds honorary degrees from sixty-three colleges and universities Africa, Asia, Canada, Europe, Latin America, and the US. She is also a member of several academies, including the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Philosophical Society.
Prior to Chicago, she held tenures at Brown University, Harvard University, and Oxford University. Her work in academia includes research, advising, and lecturing. Of note, she worked with the United Nations University as a research advisor for the World Institute for Development Economics Research in Helsinki. Additionally, she has chaired numerous committees. These include the Committee for Public Philosophy and the American Philosophical Association’s Committee.
Nussbaum wrote a number of books. Her first work, Aristotle’s De Motu Animalium, was published in 1978. The Cosmopolitan Tradition: A Noble but Flawed Ideal, published in 2019, is her most recent book. There are more than two dozen more in her repertoire. Additionally, she edited more than 20 books and published more than 450 articles.
Lastly, Nussbaum is the recipient of numerous awards. Among her collection are the 2002 Grawemeyer Award in Education, the 2015 American Philosophical Association’s Philip Quinn Prize, the 2016 Kyoto Prize in Arts and Philosophy, and both the 2018 Don M. Randel Prize for Achievement in the Humanities from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Berggruen Prize for Philosophy and Culture.
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Nancy Cartwright: Great Philosopher and Educator
Outstanding philosopher Nancy Cartwright is a philosophy professor at Durham University. She is also a Distinguished Professor at the University of California, San Diego. Her work in the philosophy of physics and natural sciences as well as in economics garnered her many awards and recognition.
Durham holds a B.S. in mathematics from the University of Pittsburgh. She also has her Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Illinois, Chicago Circle. Additionally, she holds two honorary doctorate degrees from the Southern Methodist University and the University of St. Andrews. Of note, her research interests are varied and include causal inference, evidence and evidence-based policy, science, and social technology.
In addition to her tenure at Durham, Cartwright is the co-director for the Centre for Humanities Engaging Science and Society. Prior to her current work, she taught at the London School of Economics, Oslo University, Pitzer and Pomona Colleges, the California Institute of Technology, and Stanford University.
Beyond her academic work, Cartwright is an avid author. She wrote numerous books, most recently including Nature the Artful Modeler: Lectures on Laws, Science, How Nature Arranges the World, and How We Can Arrange It Better (2019). In total, she is nearing a dozen publications, including three co-edited collections on philosophy.
Moreover, she is an affiliate with several philosophy organizations. She is a Fellow of both the British Academy and the Academy of Social Sciences; and she is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, and the Academy of Europe. Cartwright also received a MacArthur Fellowship. Additionally, she is a recent recipient of the Hempel Award and the Martin R Lebowitz Prize from the Phi Beta Kappa Society.
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Noam Chomsky: Influential Philosopher of Language and Discourse
Known for grand strides in linguistics as well as pervasive critiques of various political systems, Noam Chomsky is an influential contemporary philosopher. A scholar coming into his own during World War II, he brings much of his experience from that unique global perspective. As an outstanding philosopher, he contributed most greatly to the field of linguistics.
Chomsky began his academic career at the University of Pennsylvania. He later completed his Ph.D. in linguistics at that institution. As a professor, he taught at the Massachusettes Insitute of Technology. In that capacity, he developed and authored numerous theories on linguistic capacity. Moreover, many of them produced controversy, particularly those that dissented with popular opinion on U.S. foreign policy.
Perhaps his most notable theory is structural linguistics. This notion breaks language into clearly defined elements. Through that distinction, he found that language reveals things about society. In other words, the way language is used dictates how a society operates and dictates those operations. Additionally, he introduced the idea of transformational grammar.
Chomsky is widely published, and his best-known work is Syntactic Structures (1957), which focuses on linguistics. Much of his early works through the 1980s focus on language. However, Chomsky also critically engages popular culture, especially politics. As a self-described libertarian socialist, his thoughts and publications in the political arena are often met with controversy and debate. His most recent book in the political sphere is On Western Terrorism: From Hiroshima to Drone Warfare (2013).
Ultimately, Chomsky is a distinguished philosopher. He holds several academic and humanitarian awards. His collection notably includes the Kyoto Prize in Basic Sciences and the humanitarian Sydney Peace Prize.
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Slavoj Žižek: Outstanding Philosopher and Psychoanalyst
Considered one of the most brilliant European philosophers, Slavoj Žižek is inspirational. Much of his work revolves around sociological theory and political critique, particularly of modern capitalism and democratic ideology. As an outstanding philosopher, his theories revive German Idealism.
Currently, Žižek is a professor at the European Graduate School, teaching philosophy and psychoanalysis. He earned his master’s in philosophy at the University of Ljubljana (Slovenia). Later, he completed his doctorate in philosophy at the same university. Interestingly, while he initially focused on French structuralism, he invested in German Idealism in his dissertation.
In addition to teaching at the EGS, he is a world-traveling lecturer. He is also a Distinguished Professor of German at New York University. His travels have led to him holding international positions, including being the International Director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities. Moreover, Žižek is also a senior researcher with the Institute for Sociology and Philosophy at his alma mater. He also founded and is the president of the Ljubljana Society for Theoretical Psychoanalysis.
As an author in the field, Žižek boasts more than 30 titles. He publishes in both Slovenian and English, and he co-authors many works with the likes of Judith Butler, John Millbank, and Eric Santner. More famous than his books and essays, however, are his lectures. In particular, he is famous for his style in all of these elements. From the title of one work, Žižek’s Jokes: (Did you hear the one about Hegel and negation?) (2014), it is easy to garner that some criticize him for not being serious enough. Ultimately, he presents his material in a way that appeals to both “high” and “low” culture, negating the formalized line he finds is a false creation of Western thought.
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