15 Ideas that Inspired the World’s Leading Thinkers (2024)

For World Philosophy Day, we've asked leading thinkers around the world about the philosophical idea that has had the greatest impact on them, and set their responses alongside the big ideas posited by their recent forebears - renowned philosophers of the twentieth century. Discover the concepts behind the cutting edge of ideas, and trace their evolution through history.

Judith Butler on Hegel

Judith Butler is an American social and political philosopher, and co-director of the International Consortium for Critical Theory Programs, whose first book Subjects of Desire investigated Hegelian reflections in twentieth-century France. Butler has made major contributions to political philosophy, ethics, and literary theory, and her theory of gender performativity is highly influential.

It is probably odd to think that Hegel has something to tell us about our lives, but what if our most basic obligations toward one another and the planet could be illuminated by this early 1800s philosopher? In Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel shows us that we are not solitary creatures, disconnected from one another, although he knows we sometimes see ourselves that way. He makes the claim that only as a social being can I begin to reflect upon myself. Only by encountering others do we stand a chance of knowing ourselves, and once we come to know ourselves, we grasp the way in which we are fundamentally tied to others, in a network of living processes.

So if we thought we could know ourselves by turning inward we were mistaken. My life is never mine alone, since it belongs to living processes that exceed and sustain me. I cannot destroy another’s life without attacking the set of living processes of which I am a part. The ethical imperative that emerges is to keep oneself and the other alive. Hegel understands the fury of the individual who wants no one to be like him or equal to him. Yet he leads us to the realization that I cannot do away with this other without also doing away with myself.

For me, reading Hegel illuminated our status as living creatures, our bodily interdependency, and a sense of reciprocal ethical obligation that is also an obligation to sustain the world that makes our lives possible and livable.

Simon Blackburn on Hume

Simon Blackburn is an English academic philosopher best known as the proponent of quasi-realism in meta-ethics. He has made major contributions to the fields of meta-ethics and the philosophy of language.

The greatest of British philosophers, David Hume thought that belief in God was both uncertain, and useless. Uncertain because ordinary reasoning from experience could not guide us reliably into the misty regions of theology. Useless, because even if we thought we could obtain reasonable belief in such an area we could not properly infer anything from it. If we wished to know what God planned for the world, we would have to look at the world as we have it. If that is not very nice, then we must resign ourselves to a God that makes not very nice worlds.

If he has left it up to us to cope with it, or to try to make it better, then we must get on and cope with it, or try to make it better. If we want to know what counts as ‘making it better’ we can agree on the evils that need remedying: famine, insecurity, war, and disease, for a start. Human nature being a mixture of good and bad, religions can offer straws for each side to clutch at. They can increase our propensity to charity and peace, or increase our tendency to resentment and war. They are always dangerous allies.

Deirdre McCloskey on Adam Smith’s Liberalism

Deirdre McCloskey is the Distinguished Professor of Economics, History, English, and Communication at the University of Illinois at Chicago. McCloskey has made major contributions to the Cliometrics, virtue ethics, and feminist economics.

The time is ripe for a new, and old, liberalism, “the liberal plan,” as old Adam Smith wrote in 1776, “of [social] equality, [economic] liberty and [legal] justice,” with a modest, restrained government giving real help to the poor.

Liberalism was conceived in the eighteenth century, and slowly implemented after 1776, with many hesitations and false turns. It explains many of the good features of the modern world compared with earlier and later regimes—the economic success of the modern world, its splendid arts and sciences, its toleration, and especially its massive liberation of more and more people from violent hierarchies. Progressives and conservatives and populists retort that liberalism and its rhetoric also explain numerous alleged evils, such as the reduction of everything to money and markets, or the loss of community and God or the calamity of immigration by non-Whites and non-Christians. But they are mistaken.

From the Philippines to the Russian Federation, liberalism has recently been assaulted by brutal, scare-mongering populists. A worry. Yet for over a century the relevance of liberalism to the good society has been denied in a longer, steadier challenge, by gentle or not-so-gentle progressives and conservatives. Time to speak up.

Massimo Pigliucci on Epictetus

Massimo Pigliucci is the K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at the City College of New York. His books include How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life, A Handbook for New Stoics: How to Thrive in a World Out of Your Control, and the forthcoming How to Live a Good Life.

“Some things are within our power, while others are not. Within our power are opinion, motivation, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever is of our own doing; not within our power are our body, our property, reputation, office, and, in a word, whatever is not of our own doing.” (Enchiridion 1.1)

These words by the first century Stoic philosopher Epictetus changed my life when I first read them a few years ago. Much less than we think is under our control, and it is a waste of time and energy — emotional and otherwise — to act under the spell of that common illusion. We are truly responsible only for our considered opinions, endorsed values, and decisions to act. For everything else, all we can do is to develop an attitude of equanimity toward the obvious truth that sometimes things in life go our way, and at other times they don’t. Therefore, internalize your goals, away from outcomes and toward your intentions, and you will not be angry, you will not blame others or yourself, and your life will go smoothly.

Mary Midgley on Gaia Theory

Mary Midgley was a British philosopher known for her work on science, ethics, and animal rights. She wrote extensively about what philosophers can learn from nature, and was described by The Guardian as the UK’s ‘foremost scourge of scientific pretension’.

The idea of Gaia - of life on earth as a self-sustaining natural system - is not a gratuitous, semi-mystical fantasy. It is a useful idea, a cure for distortions that spoil our current world-view. Its most obvious use is, of course, in suggesting practical solutions to environmental problems. But, more widely, it also attacks deeper tangles which block our thinking. We are bewildered by the thought that we might have a duty to something so clearly non-human. But we are also puzzled about how we should view ourselves. Current ways of thought still tend to trap us in the narrow, atomistic, seventeenth-century image of social life which grounds today's crude and arid individualism. A more realistic view of the earth can, i think, give us a more realistic view of ourselves as its inhabitants. Indeed we are already moving in this direction. But we need to do it much more clear-headedly.

The issue is not just psychological; it affects the whole way of life. Our ideas about our place in the world pervade all our thought, along with the imagery that expresses them, constantly determining what questions we ask and what answers can seem possible.

Raymond Tallis on the Nature of Humanity

Raymond Tallis is a philosopher, poet, novelist, and cultural critic, with a former career as a clinical neuroscientist. Intelligent Life described him as ‘one of the world’s greatest living polymaths’, and today marks the publication of his latest book, Seeing Ourselves: Reclaiming Humanity from God and Science.

Many thinkers in the western tradition are humanists. Their humanism is often dominated by opposition to religion – rejecting its cosmology and metaphysics, the hard and soft power it exercises, and its wider cultural influence, in our collective life. A common mistake is to assume that a supernatural account of humankind must be replaced by a naturalistic one: human beings are pieces of nature to be understood essentially as evolved organisms.

If we look at our individual and collective lives, it is evident that, though we are in some respects parts of nature, we are in a fundamental sense apart from it. One of the most dramatic expressions of our being more than smart chimps is that we have an idea of nature and of its laws that we exploit to our advantage. We are strange pieces of matter that put ‘matter’ in inverted commas.

Evolution can account neither for the emergence of selves out of insentient stuff or explain the role of self-consciousness and first-person being. Acknowledging this failure to understand the place of the human subject in the cosmos invites, indeed demands, a re-thinking of our extra-natural nature. That this work has hardly begun is both daunting and thrilling.

Julia Kristeva on Modern Politics

Julia Kristeva is a Bulgarian-French philosopher and semiotician, prominent in structuralist and poststructuralist thought. Kristeva is author of over 30 books, including the canonical text Semeiotikè.

Today’s milestone is human madness. Politics is a part of it, particularly in its lethal outbursts. Politics is not, as it was for Hannah Arendt, the field where human freedom is unfurled. The modern world, the world of world war, the Third World, the underground world of death that acts upon us, do not have the civilized splendor of the Greek city state. The modern political domain is massively, in totalitarian fashion, social, leveling, exhausting. Hence madness is a space of antisocial, apolitical, and paradoxically free individuation.

Confronting it, political events, outrageous and monstrous as they might be – the nazi invasion, the atomic explosion – are assimilated to the extent of being measured only by the human suffering they cause. Up to a point, considering moral suffering, there is no common ground between a shorn lover in France and a Japanese woman scorched by the atom. In the view of an ethic and aesthetic concerned with suffering, the mocked private domain gains a solemn dignity that depreciates the public domain while allocating to history the imposing responsibility for having triggered the malady of death. As a result, public life becomes serious severed from reality whereas private life, on the other hand, is emphasized to the point of filling the whole of the real and invalidating any other concern.

Bernardo Kastrup on Schopenhauer

Bernardo Kastrup is a Dutch computer scientist and philosopher, whose main area of research is the mind-matter problem. As a computer scientist, Kastrup specialises in artificial intelligence and reconfigurable computing.

Arthur Schopenhauer’s seminal insight—first published in 1818—allows us to break through the boundaries of Immanuel Kant’s extremely influential epistemology, which still grips us. Kant realized—correctly—that all perception tells us about the world is how the latter presents itself to us. But through perception it is impossible to know the world as it is in itself. Schopenhauer’s key insight was that, when it comes to our own self, next to perception we also have the unmediated experience of being ourselves.

Even inside a sensory deprivation chamber we still experience endogenous emotions and desires. The matter in our brain is merely how this inner experience presents itself to others. And since our brain is made of the same elements that constitute the rest of the universe, Schopenhauer concluded that the inanimate universe, too, is just the representation of experiential inner life. The latter he called the ‘will’. The world in itself is thus will, transpersonal experiential states of a volitional nature, matter being merely how the will appears in perception. As Schopenhauer put it, “we must learn to understand nature from ourselves, not ourselves from nature.” We have much to gain from finally heeding this profound insight.

Hannah Arendt on the Banality of Evil

Hannah Arendt was a German-American philosopher and political theorist, who is widely considered to be one of the most important political philosophers of the twentieth century. Arendt is best known for her work on the nature of power and evil.

Adolf Eichmann went to the gallows with great dignity. He had asked for a bottle of red wine and had drunk half of it. He refused the help of the Protestant minister the Reverend William Hull who offered to read the Bible with him: he had only two more hours to live and therefore no “time to waste.” He walked the fifty yards from his cell to the execution chamber calm and erect with his hands bound behind him. When the guards tied his ankles and knees he asked them to loosen the bonds so that he could stand straight. “I don’t need that” he said when the black hood was offered him. He was in complete command of himself nay he was more: he was completely himself. Nothing could have demonstrated this more convincingly than the grotesque silliness of his last words. He began by stating emphatically that he was a Gottgläubiger to express in common Nazi fashion that he was no Christian and did not believe in life after death. He then proceeded: “After a short while gentlemen we shall all meet again. Such is the fate of all men. Long live Germany long live Argentina long live Austria. I shall not forget them.” In the face of death he had found the cliché used in funeral oratory. Under the gallows his memory played him the last trick he was “elated” and he forgot that this was his own funeral.

It was as though in those last minutes he was summing up the lesson that this long course in human wickedness had taught us - the lesson of the fearsome word-and-thought-defying banality of evil.

Dan Zahavi on Experience

Dan Zahavi is a Danish philosopher, currently at the University of Copenhagen and University of Oxford. Zahavi’s main areas of research are intersubjectivity, social cognition, and self-consciousness.

Can contemporary science learn from the history of philosophy? According to an increasingly influential paradigm in neuroscience, the world of experience is a brain-generated hallucination. What we perceive is not the world itself, but merely the brain’s own model of the world. The account in question is a revival of a theory that was popular among some neo-Kantian philosophers and neurophysiologists in the 19th century. It was also a theory that came in for heavy philosophical criticism at the turn of the 20th century, but it is a criticism that its contemporary defenders have still not responded to.

How can the theory avoid radical scepticism? If the entire world of perception is a hallucination, this must also include my wife, children, and all my colleagues. If they are all artefacts created by my brain, who am I then addressing in my scientific articles? If all objects of experience are brain-generated artefacts, that must of course also go for the brain that we perceive in, say, open brain surgery. But if the brain which is supposed to generate all the hallucinations, is itself a hallucination, the entire theory seems to fall apart.

Ayn Rand on Objectivism

Ayn Rand was a Russian-American writer and philosopher and an influential advocate of reason as the only means of acquiring knowledge. She is known for her best-selling novels, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, and for developing a philosophical system she named Objectivism.

Today’s frantic development in the field of technology has a quality reminiscent of the days preceding the economic crash of 1929: riding on the momentum of the past, on the unacknowledged remnants of an Aristotelian epistemology, it is a hectic, feverish expansion, heedless of the fact that its theoretical account is long since overdrawn – that in the field of scientific theory, unable to integrate or interpret their own data, scientists are abetting the resurgence of a primitive mysticism.

In the humanities, however, the crash is past, the depression has sent in, and the collapse of science is all but complete… It is philosophy that defines and establishes the epistemological criteria to guide human knowledge in general and specific sciences in particular… Mankind is not an entity, an organism, or a coral bush. The entity involved in production and trade is man. It is with the study of man – not of the loose aggregate known as a “community” – that any science of the humanities has to begin.

Steve Fuller on Orthogonality

Steve Fuller is an American philosopher-sociologist in the field of science and technology. He has made major contributions to the fields of social epistemology, academic freedom, intelligent design and transhumanism.

‘Orthogonality’ is literally seeing the world at right angles to how it normally appears. The revolutionary import of this idea sticks close to the geometric metaphor. If someone asserts a long-standing distinction between ‘left’ and ‘right’ in politics, you don’t choose one or the other poles, or for that matter, seek middle ground between them. Instead you assume that ‘left’ and ‘right’ are ripe for realignment into something that might be called ‘up’ and ‘down’. This ninety-degree axial rotation is made possible by understanding ‘left’ and ‘right’ as unstable hybrids in their own right: Half of each hybrid truly belongs with half of the other, resulting in a political reality seen aright.

The philosophical basis for thinking orthogonally is that our everyday concepts are simply the result of the sedimented practices of our predecessors. They are the fossils that fuel our imagination, the decomposition of various (human) organisms over many centuries. This is certainly truly of ‘left’ and ‘right’. The left is an amalgam of top-down technocratic planning and bottom-up communitarian sentiment. The right is an amalgam of past-facing traditionalism and future-facing libertarianism. Philosophy is at its best when it performs the analogue of chemical analysis and synthesis to refine these raw materials in a way that expedite human progress.

I have developed this point in terms of ‘up’ and ‘down’ as representing ‘proactionary’ and ‘precautionary’ attitudes to risk, respectively. On the one hand, technocrats and libertarians agree on pushing a risky proactive agenda that would take humanity away from its default positions. On the other hand, communitarians and traditionalists want to minimize harm above all, even if that means rolling back current policies. The tricky issue here is how to identify the orthogonal axes, in terms of which ‘left/right’ and ‘up/down’ constitute polar opposites.

G. E. M. Anscombe on Wittgenstein

G. E. M. Anscombe was a British analytic philosopher, who wrote on the philosophy of mind, action, logic, language, and ethics. She was a prominent figure of analytical Thomism.

The general method that Wittgenstein does suggest is that of 'shewing that a man has supplied no meaning [or perhaps: "no reference"] for certain signs in his sentences'. I can illustrate the method from Wittgenstein's later way of discussing problems. He once greeted me with the question: 'Why do people say that it was natural to think that the sun went round the earth rather than that the earth turned on its axis?' I replied: 'I suppose, because it looked as if the sun went round the earth.' 'Well,' he asked, 'what would it have looked like if it had looked as if the earth turned on its axis?'

This question brought it out that I had hitherto given no relevant meaning to 'it looks as if' in 'it looks as if the sun goes round the earth'. My reply was to hold out my hands with the palms upward, and raise them from my knees in a circular sweep, at the same time leaning backwards and assuming a dizzy expression. 'Exactly!' he said. In another case, I might have found that I could not supply any meaning other than that suggested by a naive conception, which could be destroyed by a question. The naive conception is really thoughtlessness, but it may take the power of a Copernicus effectively to call it in question.

Tony Milligan on Inclusive Dialogue

Tony Milligan is a Scottish philosopher who is currently a teaching fellow in Ethics and the Philosophy of Religion at King’s College London. Milligan’s main areas of research are in the philosophy of love, animal ethics, space policy, and civil disobedience.

Like a lot of ethicists, I have always thought of inclusive dialogue as a nice thing, a way of showing that we care about others. Working on space ethics has led me to think of it in a very different way, as a necessary thing. My change of attitude is the result of recognizing that our expansion into space is a multi-generational project. What we do now will only be a fragment of what is eventually done. Future generations will do everything else. However, we cannot consult with them about how to begin.

What we can do is to make sure that the voices in our own conversations are not limited to those of a small number of large powers. This is not a ‘many versus the few’ point. The big powers do all the heavy lifting in space. That needs to be acknowledged and respected. Rather, it is a point about the richness of the dialogue. Smaller nations bring a very different perspective from China and the US. Indigenous peoples can bring an understanding of time which is less short-termist than you, me, and almost everyone we know. Inclusive dialogue allows for a larger vision of the process.

Simone Weil on Absence

Simone Weil was a French philosopher, mystic, and political activist, described by Albert Camus as ‘the only great spirit of our times’. Weil is best known for her theories of Decreation and Uprootedness.

Absolute solitude. Then we possess the truth of the world. Two ways of renouncing material possessions: To give them up with a view to some spiritual advantage. To conceive of them and feel them as conducive to spiritual well-being (for example: hunger, fatigue and humiliation cloud the mind and hinder meditation) and yet to renounce them. Only the second kind of renunciation means nakedness of spirit. Furthermore, material goods would scarcely be dangerous if they were seen in isolation and not bound up with spiritual advantage.

We must give up everything which is not grace and not even desire grace. The extinction of desire (Buddhism)—or detachment—or amor fati—or desire for the absolute good—these all amount to the same: to empty desire, finality of all content, to desire in the void, to desire without any wishes. To detach our desire from all good things and to wait. Experience proves that this waiting is satisfied. It is then we touch the absolute good.

15 Ideas that Inspired the World’s Leading Thinkers (2024)
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