For philosophy newbs: five thinkers to follow today.

Brittany Allen

April 29, 2024, 10:47am

To paraphrase the novelist Sheila Heti, I’ve been spending a lot of time lately wondering: how should a person be? These are vexy times, on both global and local theaters. Big questions structure the day. Questions like, what is gender? What is speech? What is democracy? What do we owe one another, or the planet? (Picture the pipe now, rising to my lips…)

People used to look to philosophy for help with such biggies. But I’ve snagged on the fact that most philosophy writing sits on a spectrum of vapid to impenetrable. On the one hand, glorified advice columns like The New York Times Magazine’s “The Ethicist,” claim to tango with the Meaty Moral Problems of our age, but mostly wind up preaching moderation to liberal home-owners. (See this smart consideration on that column’s limitations, from Current Affairs.) On the other, we have the heavy hitters; a line of furrowed brows in robes and waistcoats stretching back to Socrates. But with all due respect to Hegel and ilk, the wisdom in, say, The Phenomenology of Spirit still escapes me after multiple failed book clubs. Where, I wonder, can the commoner go for philosophy? The newb, the rube, the novel reader?

There’s precedent for the writer who troubles with both literary writing and theory: Sartre, DuBois, Sontag. But I wanted to shout out some who’re currently balancing well on that tightrope of literature and philosophy. Though the quest continues, you might give these readable intellectuals a look if you, too, are wrestling with How to Be, but lack the aid of a Ph.D.

Liam Bright

I’ve enjoyed Liam Bright’s wise/pithy Tweets for a few years nownot least because his sense of humor lowers the intellectual barrier to entry for goobs like myself. The philosophy professor and public intellectual preaches on Logic, Ethics, and Metaphysics from the London School of Economics and Political Science, and in 2020 he received the prestigious Philip Leburhulme Prize. Bright’s work is many-pronged (on his website, he summarizes the three streams of his current research). But he specializes in social epistemology, and has to my mind written many accessible pieces connecting Africana Philosophy to Marxism to the work of early twentieth century thinker/activists like Ida B. Wells-Barnett and W.E.B. DuBois.

Dying to know what positivism actually is, but too afraid to ask? Fear not, fellow traveler. You can find a list of Bright’s interviews, essays, and other plebe-friendly matter here. I especially recommend his blog, The Sooty Empiricist, for its casually elegant dispatches. Says the author by way of welcome on its homepage: “I teach and think and fail.”

Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò

A philosophy professor at Georgetown University and the author of two excellent arguments-in-essays, Reconsidering Reparations and Elite Capture, Táíwò is another public intellectual who’s as readable as he is rigorous. His fans include Ruth Wilson Gilmore and Naomi Klein, and his work tends to explore the trouble inherent to an identity-explicit politics. Táíwò makes heavy concepts, like the social epistemology mentioned above, entirely coherent. (As in his essay on elite captureor, “being in the room privilege.”) Here’s the author, in his own words:

My theoretical work draws liberally from the Black radical tradition, contemporary philosophy of language, contemporary social science, German transcendental philosophy, materialist thought, histories of activism and activist thinkers.

Though wisely, he is no longer all that active on Twitter, you can find Táíwò’s byline in journals like Jacobin, The Nation, and Dissent. He’s also a delightful regular guest on lefty podcasts. (I note that one such podcast, “What’s Left of Philosophy?” is a great companion for the generally philosophy-curious.)

Nancy Fraser

Fraser is the Loeb Professor of Philosophy and Politics at the New School for Social Research. A prominent critical theorist and Marxist feminist, Fraser is perhaps best known in America for her thoughts on racial capitalismthough her inquiry is wide. This from Anne Strainchamps of Wisconsin Public Radio:

Over four decades, [Fraser] has built a sweeping theory of capitalism, extending Marx and Engels’ ideas to incorporate feminism, racial justice, the environment and now the pandemic. Her work is widely known in Europe, where she’s achieved intellectual rock star status.

Lately, Fraser’s been using her formidable powers to write manifestos that distill heady concepts for a general(!) audience. Two such offerings are out now from Verso Books: Capitalism: A Conversation in Critical Theory (co-written with Rahel Jaeggi), and Cannibal Capitalism.

Judith Butler 

A distinguished Berkeley professor and the author of more than a dozen books, Butler may be the best known entity on this list. (Their latest book, Who’s Afraid of Gender?, is out nowand has been the subject of some useful debate.) Though your mileage may vary with the recent work, Butler’s influence on queer and gender theory is legendary. This from Becca Rothfeld, at The Washington Post:

Modern feminism and queer theory owe an incalculable debt to their epoch-making 1990 monograph, “Gender Trouble,” in which they argued that gender is not a static destiny but an activity, not something we are but something we do. If this idea now seems obvious, that is only because it has been so influential.

Also known for their work investigating mourning practices, precarity, and power, Butler’s whole canon has shaped contemporary philosophy. You might start with the difficult-but-very-worthy Gender Trouble.

Amitav Ghosh

Like Sontag or Sartre, the Indian author Amitav Ghosh is both a novelist and public thinker. He mainly writes about nature, crisis, diaspora, and the geopolitical context of climate change. Though Ghosh doesn’t self-identify as a philosopher so much as a social anthropologist, I’ve found a lot of useful provocation in his book, The Great Derangement. In that essay/argument, Ghosh “propagates a new humanism in which not only all people are equal, but humanity also abandons the distinction between man and nature.” But I hasten to add his wrestling with catastrophe is vivid, not cold or analytical. He’s often poetic on the line level, and a great deal of this piece hinges on connecting literature and philosophy. He starts the book questioning why so few novelists have tackled climate change.

This list is, of course, but a gesture. The tip of an intellectual iceberg. But I lament the fact that in America at least, most public conversations about morality and personal agency miniaturize their subjects, such that questions about community and the meaning of life become mere arguments for decorum, or personal pleasure. I think we deserve better. We should try to be, more.

(Also in hindsight: I recognize ‘philosopher’ is a slippery category these days. Some of the folks above veer a bit more towards critical theory, or criticism.

But I Kant help myself…)

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