Several scholars who work on philosophy have made it onto Prospect‘s list of “The World’s Top 50 Thinkers” this year.
Here they are, along with what Prospect’s reasons for including them:
- Bruce Ackerman
The turbulence of the last few years will eventually settle—but into what? The shape of tomorrow’s politics depends on how this moment “constitutionalises.” If Boris Johnson’s prorogation wheeze sets a precedent, or Donald Trump’s judicial bench-packing continues much longer, liberal democracy is in trouble. Its defenders need to swot up on how constitutions can go wrong—and right. Bruce Ackerman, a Yale professor who’s just as informed on De Gaulle, Mandela and Wałesa as he is on America’s founders, is a sure guide. His “popular sovereignty initiative” to rationalise the process for amending the US constitution could put principled reformers back on the front foot.
- Elizabeth Anderson
She started out in economics before abandoning a field she had come to view as ethically barren, and has since combined philosophy with the social sciences to analyse the power structures around us—and, as an excited New Yorker puts it, “redefine equality.” Her interest in race and gender is urgently relevant in 2020, and her refreshing take on the Protestant work ethic (which she insists has a progressive pro-labour side as well as a conservative materialism) underpins a powerful account of modern workplace relations. Always confronting the world as it truly is rather than how we would like it to be, she won a MacArthur “genius grant” in 2019.
- Jürgen Habermas
Having come of age listening to the Nuremberg trials, Habermas, now 91, has always been seized by the urgency of defending fundamental notions like an open public sphere and the idea of truth, through post-modern decades during which the academy grew complacent and self-indulgent. The last of the generation of Rawls and Foucault, both of whom he sparred with, his breathtaking range is on show in a new history of philosophy. Despite warning that “a post-truth democracy… would no longer be a democracy,” in dark times he still retains faith in the ability of human discussion to advance the common good.
- Martin Hägglund
Can you lead a spiritual life without being religious? The Swedish atheist thinker takes up the challenge in his book This Life. For Hägglund, the meaning of existence does not lie in an imaginary afterlife but in the fact of death: “the apprehension that we will die” makes meaningful the question of what we do with our time on earth. Erudite and provocative, Hägglund’s philosophy aims to plug the God-shaped hole gap in the lives of atheists, and has become more relevant as death once more stalks the developed western world. The Prospect review of his book wondered, though, whether the questions he asks have really been as foreign to religious thinking as he imagines.
- Thaddeus Metz
This professor of philosophy at the University of Johannesburg* is reimagining what it might mean to teach his subject in an African context. As well as the traditional syllabus (Plato etc), Metz has championed native African philosophy as an object of equal worth to study. He has defended the idea of a distinctive African moral theory based on “ubuntu,” one which values harmonious relationships and human solidarity. It should, he argues, be taken just as seriously as the work of Kant or utilitarianism. That Metz is a white American makes the project, often described as “decolonising” the curriculum, all the more intriguing.
- Timothy Morton
Living in the Anthropocene turns out to require a new, less anthropocentric, vocabulary. Morton—an English professor at Rice University, Houston—provides one. A proponent of object-oriented ontology (OOO), Morton argues that “nature” or “the environment” does not, in fact, exist as we think of it, as something separate from or encompassing of civilisation. He suggests instead that all objects, from rocks to trees, live in equal and interdependent co-existence with humans. Counting singer Björk, artist Olafur Eliasson and curator and critic Hans Ulrich Obrist among his fans and collaborators, he is exerting a rare and a far-reaching impact on our intellectual and cultural imagination.
- Philippe Van Parijs
Dreams of “incomes for all” trace way back—Thomas Paine proposed one scheme. But even before the government picked up the wage bill for millions of furloughed workers, Universal Basic Income was an ambition coming of age. The rapid automation of labour switches the question from how national income can be earned, to how it might be distributed. Today’s young UBI enthusiasts draw on the books and tap the networks of this Belgian polymath, who championed it before it was fashionable. For decades, he has warned that our proclaimed freedoms to start businesses or raise children count for nothing without the real freedom that comes with a basic income.
- Cornel West
A veteran voice among African-American intellectuals, West has once again commanded global attention for his powerful commentary on the Black Lives Matter movement: “the system,” he announced in a CNN interview that went viral, “cannot reform itself.” His 40-year career has been sweeping and prodigious—West has held professorships at Harvard, Princeton and Yale, written 18 books, appeared in two Matrix reboots, and made his own spoken word and hip-hop albums. His belief that black liberation cannot happen without a wholesale rejection of capitalism has led to some high-profile conflicts with fellow African-American luminaries over the years, notably Barack Obama and one of 2019’s top thinkers Ta-Nehisi Coates.
You can see the rest of the Top 50 list, and vote for who should be named Prospect‘s “Top Thinker” here.
[Note: The original version of this post contained several omissions which have now, I hope, all been remedied. My apologies.]