For World Philosophy Day 2023, eleven leading thinkers nominate philosophers you probably haven't heard of, but you should know about, from Ancient Greece all the way to the present day. Martha Nussbaum, Carlo Rovelli, Cheryl Misak, Peter Adamson, Andrew Bowie, Tommy J Curry, Emily Thomas, Paul Giladi, Maria Balaska, Sara Heinämaam, Hugo Drochon and Sophie-Grace Chappell put forward their choices.
Martha C. Nussbaum
Porphyry (c. 234 - c. 305 CE)
A Neoplatonic philosopher born in Tyre, and later living at Rome, who wrote in Greek. He wrote the best work in the entire history of Western philosophy before the twentieth century on the intelligence and complex sentience of nonhuman animals and the cogent reasons for not killing and eating them. Called "On Abstaining from Eating Animals," it is a very lengthy work and survives in its entirety. An English translation by Gillian Clark was published in 2000 by Cornell University Press.
Martha C. Nussbaum is Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago and one of the world’s most celebrated moral philosophers, according to the Financial Times.
Anaximander of Miletus, 5th century BCE
Anaximander is a giant of human thinking, standing at one of the deep roots of modernity and is very little known. He is the one that realized the first cosmological revolution, understanding that the sky above us continues below us and the Earth is a big stone floating in the void. This is the discovery of the worldview that will characterize the West for centuries, the birth of cosmology, and is the first scientific revolution. It is the discovery that scientific revolutions are possible: in order for us to understand the world, we must be aware that our current worldview may be mistaken, and we can redraw it. He is the first geographer.: the first to draw geographical maps. The first biologist, contemplating the possibility that living beings evolved over time. He is the first astronomer, making a rational study of the movements of heavenly bodies and seeking to reproduce them with a geometrical model. He is the first to propose two conceptual tools that would prove fundamental to scientific activity: the idea of natural law, guiding the unfolding of events over time and by necessity; and the use of theoretical terms to postulate new entities, hypostases used to make sense of the observable world. He starts the critical tradition that forms the basis of today’s scientific thinking: he follows his master Thales's path while at the same time searching for his master’s mistakes. He created what the Greeks called Peri phuseos istoria (hence “physics”), the “inquiry into nature,” giving birth to a tradition that would form a deep root basis for the entire scientific development to come. Even the literary form of this tradition, a treatise in prose, starts with him.
Carlo Rovelli is an Italian theoretical physicist and loop quantum gravity pioneer. He is the author of, many bestselling books, including The Order of Time, Reality Is Not What It Seems, and Anaximander.
Cora Diamond (1937 - )
Asking ‘What do women want in a moral theory?’, Annette Baier in 1985 included Cora Diamond in her list of women philosophers who spoke 'in a different voice from a standard moral philosopher's voice'. Since then many years have passed and Cora Diamond has been giving us more and more samples of that voice. At a time where so many philosophers still put forward a view of ethics as a series of calculations, mapped on endless versions of trolley problems, it is imperative that we listen to a voice that can teach us differences, as Wittgenstein had hoped for. From her early thought-provoking 'Eating Meat and Eating People' to her more recent discussions on the nature of truth in ethics (what should we make of the statement 'Slavery is wrong'?), Diamond keeps bringing philosophy face to face with what she calls 'difficulties of reality'. This is where philosophy begins.
Maria Balaska is a research fellow at the University of Hertfordshire and at Åbo Akademi University. She is the author of Wittgenstein and Lacan at the limit: meaning, and astonishment, and the editor of Cora Diamond on Ethics.
Fakhr al-Din al-Razi ( 1150 - 1210 CE )
A formidable theologian and philosopher who responded in great detail to the ideas of the more famous Ibn Sina (Avicenna, who died in 1037). Al-Razi is well known in the Islamic world as the author of a massive commentary on the Quran but also wrote many works detailing his disagreements, and occasional agreements, with Ibn Sina. He had innovative things to say on pretty much every area of philosophy, for instance by challenging Ibn Sinā on points of logic, developing a new conception of metaphysics, and arguing for a consequentialist ethics. It's especially interesting to see how he weaves together ideas from Avicennan philosophy with doctrines from Islamic theology. He was also very influential, and was quoted for centuries in later Islamic philosophy.
Peter Adamson is Professor of Ancient and Medieval Philosophy at King’s College London, and Professor of Philosophy in Late Antiquity and the Islamic World at Ludwig Maximilan University of Munich. He is the host of the podcast History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps.
Frank Ramsey (1903 – 1930)
Frank Ramsey died at the age of 26, too young to have personally influenced generations of students. But his importance is legendary. He was at least Wittgenstein’s equal in philosophy and a major influence on his difficult friend. In philosophy, we have Ramsey Sentences, Ramsey Conditionalization, and much more. A fruitful branch of combinatoric mathematics is named after him. He founded two branches of economics and, in figuring out how to measure degrees of belief, laid the basis for contemporary economics and social science.
His life was as exciting. He began his Cambridge undergraduate degree just as the Great War was ending; he was part of the race to be psychoanalyzed by Freudians in Vienna; and he was in with the Bloomsbury set of writers and artists. Virginia Woolf described him ‘as something like a Darwin, broad, thick, powerful, & a great mathematician, & clumsy to boot.’ As if that weren’t enough, he had important things to say about (socialist) politics and the (atheist) meaning of life.
Cheryl Misak is University Professor and Professor of Philosophy, University of Toronto, and author of, among other books, Frank Ramsey: A Sheer Excess of Powers.
Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher (1768-1834)
Schleiermacher is well known as a key founder of modern Protestant theology, but in the Anglophone world he is still not widely known for his philosophical insights into language, that presage key ideas present in Wittgenstein, Habermas, Brandom, and others, let alone his views on aesthetics, and ethics. These ideas emerge particularly through his concern with interpretation as fundamental to human existence. He sees interpretation as an ‘art’, which is ‘that for which there admittedly are rules, but the combinatory application of these rules cannot in turn be rule-bound’. This leads him to a rejection of foundational forms of epistemology: the ‘completion’ of episteme is ‘coming to an understanding’, which is ‘an art techne’. It is ‘an activity’ and episteme and techne ‘are the same’. As such, ‘the art of finding principles of knowledge can be none other than our art of carrying on conversation’. This leads him to a rejection of the analytic/synthetic distinction: the ‘difference therefore just expresses a different state of the formation of concepts’. By taking issues present in aesthetics as central to philosophy he offers an alternative approach to modern philosophy which has not been adequately appreciated.
Andrew Bowie is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy and German at Royal Holloway, university of London, and author of, most recently, Aesthetic Dimensions of Modern Philosophy.
Tommy J. Curry
Jean-Louis Vastey (1781-1820)
Also known as Pompée Valetin, Baron de Vastey, he authored The Colonial System Unveiled in 1814. This book analysed the colonial endeavours of Europe broadly as a system of ideological claims driven by greed. Vastey explained: “When Europeans came to the new world, their first steps were accompanied by crimes on a grand scale, massacres, the destruction of empires, the obliteration of entire nations from the ranks of the living”. Baron de Vastey argued that Europe’s economic and intellectual advances were not based on its superior white civilization but on its unbridled genocide and violence against darker races. Baron de Vastey claimed that Europe’s Enlightenment was rooted in racist pseudo-sciences dedicated to advancing slavery and colonialism against the humanity of African and Indigenous peoples and greed, not knowledge.
Baron de Vastey’s philosophy explored topics of historiography, ethnology, and Black self-determination that laid the foundation of normative Black political theory and decolonial ethics well into the early 20th century.
Tommy J. Curry is an American scholar, author and professor of philosophy, holding a Personal Chair in Africana philosophy and Black male studies at the University of Edinburgh. He is the author, most recently, of Another White Man's Burden: Josiah Royce's Quest for a Philosophy of White Racial Empire.
Constance Naden (1858 – 1889)
Constance Naden is well-known as a Victorian poet, but she was also a philosopher. During the 1880s, she drew on the science of her day to controversially defend atheism and materialism. I read Naden as arguing that, whilst we only directly know the contents of our own minds, we should believe that outside our minds lies matter. And, as neuroscience shows our brains deeply affect our minds, we should believe our minds are made of matter. To give a flavour of Naden’s work, take her 1882 “Animal Automatism”. It attacks evolutionist T. H. Huxley for advocating a kind of ‘phenomenalism’, on which matter depends for its existence on our minds. Against this, Naden turns Huxley’s own evolutionary theories against him. “Unless his views have recently undergone a marvellous change,” Naden writes, “the earth was in being very long before the appearance of any sentient organism”, and “mind is developed from matter”. Mind, indeed life itself, evolved in the distant past from non-living matter. So matter must exist independently of us.
Emily Thomas is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Durham, and author, most recently, of a book on Victoria Welby.
Enrique Dussel (1934-2023)
Dussel was arguably the most important philosopher from South America born in the 20th century. Though rarely (if at all) featured and discussed in mainstream Anglo-American and continental European philosophical circles, he was a prolific writer and world-leading figure in the articulation and propagation of liberation theology.
Dussel is also known for developing the radical and challenging concept of ‘transmodernity’. Throughout his life’s work on this difficult subject, Dussel argued that transmodernity is a way of producing both a lifeworld (a set of values that are formative for developing society, personality, and culture) and economic systems that transcend the Global North-centric conflict between modernity and postmodernity. Transmodern thinking and institutional design operate under an ‘ana-dialectic’ or ‘analectic’ logic, which moves critical theory and political economy beyond the Frankfurt School and Foucault, and instead centres the voices, epistemologies, and vocabularies of ideologically-marginalised Global South communities.
Dussel famously wrote that a “project of ‘trans’-modernity, a ‘beyond’ that transcends Western modernity (since the West has never adopted it but, rather, has scorned it and valued it as “nothing”) … will have a creative function of great significance in the twenty-first century”. Given how the Global South is currently posing concrete challenges to the Global North’s hegemony, Frantz Fanon’s vision of a ‘critical humanism’ produced by the Global South may start to materialise in no small part due to Dussel’s work.
Paul Giladi is a university lecturer in philosophy at the School for Oriental and African Studies, co-founder of the Naturalism, Modernity, Civilization and International Research Network. He is the co-editor of Epistemic Injustice and the Philosophy of Recognition.
Aurel Kolnai (1900 - 1973)
Aurel Kolnai’s phenomenology of disgust is still the best philosophical analysis of the emotion that we have. Via various readings, it influenced many 20th century theories of revulsion and nausea, but also ingenious artistic presentations of the emotion in paining and cinema. Most importantly Salvador Dali and, via Dali, also Alfred Hitchcock, drew from Kolnai’s insights. Similarly Kolnai’s analysis of game-behavior still operates as a secret source of many 21st century contributions in philosophy of games. Its distinctions help us understand what is at issue in ice hockey and boxing but also in virtual games, war games and chess. Finally, Kolnai’s early analysis of Nazism, The War Against the West (1938), illuminates new totalitarian ideologies that are mushrooming in our own time. The unifying topic of all Kolnai’s contributions is the question how willing and feeling combine in human behavior. We would do well if we were to attend to his alert.
Sara Heinämaa is Professor of Philosophy, University of University of Jyväskylä and President of the Philosophical Society of Finland. She is the author of Toward A Phenomenology of Sexual Difference.
Vilfredo Pareto (1848 - 1923)
Italian economist, sociologist, and philosopher, Pareto is perhaps best known for 80/20 rule - the thesis that 80% of wealth will always belong to 20% of the population, in an early rending of the 1% vs the 99%. He is worth revisiting today to help us understand the political era of populism we are still in the midst of. Populism pits a pure people against a corrupt elite. Yet most populist leaders are themselves elites. Trump is part of the financial 1% and was a TV star (The Apprentice) before coming to the White House. Boris Johnson is as establishment as they get: Eton, Oxford. Here, Pareto’s ‘circulation of elites’ thesis can come in handy. Pareto saw politics as the competition between ‘lions’ and ‘foxes’ (both expressions of the elite): lions more inclined towards centralised and faith-based rule, foxes in support of decentralisation and scepticism. Maybe another way to interpret the politics of the last while is to think of it as a circulation from foxes to lions?
Hugo Drochon is Associate Professor of Political Theory at the University of Nottingham, and author of the book Nietzsche's Great Politics.
Aurel Kolnai (1900-1973)
I don’t know if people haven’t heard of Aurel Kolnai (1900-1973)—perhaps they have—but he is certainly someone whose work deserves more attention. He was an ethical philosopher who began with experience, not with systematic theories or grands récits, and whose influences included Aquinas, Husserl, G.K.Chesterton, Scheler, and British “common sense” philosophy. He himself was an influence on Bernard Williams, David Wiggins, Isaiah Berlin, and Vaclav Havel. As someone outside the “analytic mainstream”, and as a Jewish Catholic philosopher from Austria-Hungary in the time of the Nazis, he had great difficulty throughout his life in securing a conventional job in academic philosophy. But his writings, with their scepticism both about totalitarianism in politics and about what Levinas calls totalisation in philosophy, are of permanent value—and given that he wrote an anti-Nazi reflection with the title The War Against The West, perhaps have a particular resonance at our present unfortunate point in history.
Sophie-Grace Chappell is a Professor of Philosophy at the Open University, who writes about ethics, politics, feminism and epistemology. Her books include Ethics Beyond the Limits, Knowing What To Do, and Ethics and Experience. Her most recent book is the edited collection Intuition, Theory, and Anti-Theory in Ethics, published in 2015.