Mention philosophy to most people, even those who go to a small liberal arts college, and immediately they’re going to conjure up images of historical figures like Plato, Socrates and Aristotle. Best case scenario, they’ll be thinking of something slightly more recent like Descartes, but that’s pretty much the extent of it unless you happen to catch the ear of a philosophy major or existential literature buff. It’s too bad, too, because the late 20th and early 21st centuries have birthed a wealth of extremely intelligent, groundbreaking philosophers who are turning the worlds of metaphysics, ethics and feminism on their heads. So, without further adieu, here is a liberal arts degree crash course in the most important philosophers of our modern era.
An extremely intelligent and often divisive figure, Noam Chomsky is a celebrated author as well as a shining example of how modern philosophy is forging on, not content to rest on the laurels set by the philosophical heavy hitters of bygone times. Spending most of his career at MIT, Chomsky is heralded as the father of modern linguistics for his intense dissection of the English language, his championing of several groundbreaking linguistic theories, such as context-free grammar and transformational grammar, and his massive influence on the field of research into language acquisition.
As well as being a philosopher, Putnam is also a mathematician and computer scientist, and as such, most of his work centers around the philosophy of mind and the philosophy of science – often dealing with such avenues of thought as language semantics and artificial intelligence. He is most famous for his Twin Earth thought experiment, in which he illustrates the point of “semantic externalism.” As well, Putnam's theory of "direct realism" seeks to return the study of metaphysics to studying the way people actually directly experience the world, not entertaining the ideas of mental representations or sense data like metaphysics has since become.
One of the 21st century’s most influential feminist philosophers, Nussbaum’s work focuses on the unequal freedoms and opportunities of women as compared to men and the radical rethinking of gender roles and relations. She rose to fame in the philosophical community because of her work the Fragility of Goodness. In this work, Nussbaum explores many ethical dilemmas, including that of individuals who are committed to justice undermining their own human growth and flourishing. It is heralded as one of the best examples of modern critical thought, with many referring to it as reaching the highest academic standards of the 21st century.
Slavoj Žižek is a Slovenian philosopher known infamously for his radical theoretical and political views. His wildly unorthodox style coupled with his radical views has made him somewhat of a pop culture icon in the realm of philosophy these days. His views on the power that a state or institution has over shaping public consciousness and thought as well as our postmodern cynicism when it comes to organized religion or government have been both critically lauded and reviled. An extremely divisive figure in the world of philosophy, Žižek is nonetheless incredibly influential, apparently reaching even liberal arts colleges in Chicago.
So there you have it, proof that philosophy didn’t end with the Greeks, and that there are still exceptionally bright individuals churning out great works to this day.