What Living Philosophers Will Still Be Read in 2123?

Which philosophers that are alive today will people still be reading one hundred years from now? I struggle to think of a single person I could name with confidence. That’s not because I can’t think of a single person doing excellent work. Excellence is (one hopes) a necessary condition for enduring influence but it isn’t a sufficient condition. There’s excellent philosophy and then there’s excellent philosophy that lasts. What’s the difference?

Philosophy in 1923

One way to approach this question is to imagine your way back to 1923 and ask yourself which living philosophers at that time would have seemed likeliest to have a lasting influence. Wittgenstein’s Tractatus had been published a couple years earlier but its impact had hardly registered. Heidegger had just taken up a professorship at the University of Marburg and was rumoured to be working on something big but the world wouldn’t see it until 1927. Frege was still alive but known only to a small handful of mathematicians and logicians.

The likeliest bets, to my mind, would have been Henri Bergson and Bertrand Russell. Both already had significant public reputations and both were taken seriously as heavy-hitting philosophers.

These guesses would have been correct: both Bergson and Russell are still in print. But Russell, while still highly respected, is now much better known for his popular writings, and as a major figure in early analytic philosopher he tends to be overshadowed by Frege and Wittgenstein. Bergson has clung on to relevance but mostly as a marginal figure whose influence is scattered. There isn’t anything like a Bergsonian school of philosophy and the idea of an élan vital hasn’t aged especially well.

Reading the Ngram Tea Leaves

The Google Books Ngram Viewer, if you don’t already know it, is a fun way to idle away a bit of time online. It lets you track the frequency with which a specified term appears across time in Google’s massive archive of scanned books. Among other things, it allows you track the rising and falling fortunes of philosophers based on how frequently their names pop up in books.

Tracking Bergson from 1900 to the present reveals that he has indeed experienced a renaissance in the 21st century. But what’s most striking about his curve is the spike of interest in his thought in the 1910s followed by a steep decline that was already well underway in 1923. A cautionary tale for predictions of future greatness is Josiah Royce, who was Bergson’s reputational equal in 1923. The story since is one of gradual but steady decline, to the point where you’d be hard pressed to find a philosopher working today (myself very much included) who could tell you anything more than the vaguest generalities about what had once made Royce famous.

Contrast Bergson and Royce with Edmund Husserl. Husserl was already sixty-four years old in 1923, and most of the work that would establish his reputation was behind him. He shows up as a reputational midget on the Ngram Viewer next to Bergson and Royce in 1923 but his stock has risen steadily so that he retains a slight lead over Bergson and has left Royce far behind.

The World That Husserl Made

What explains Husserl’s steady rise? In a word, phenomenology. Here are two basic facts about phenomenology. First, it’s been one of the dominant approaches in European philosophy in the twentieth century. Second, Husserl is generally credited as its founder. It’s not that copies of Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological Philosophy are flying off the shelves (if you think the title is dry and uninviting, you should try reading the contents). It’s rather that other people you’ve more likely heard of also identify as phenomenologists. That Heidegger fellow rumoured to be working on something big did indeed turn out to have something to say that made people take notice. Jean-Paul Sartre’s unlikely bestseller Being and Nothingness was subtitled “an essay in phenomenological ontology.” Jacques Derrida’s first book was a translation and extended commentary on Husserl’s Origin of Geometry.

In short, Husserl’s work proved fertile. But Husserl’s lasting influence today has at least as much to do with the influence of some of the successors who drew inspiration from his work as from the importance of the work itself. Had there been no Heidegger, no Sartre, no Derrida, I’m not sure people would still be reading Husserl today.

What’s more, Heidegger, Sartre, and Derrida wouldn’t have had this reputation-bolstering effect if they had simply echoed the words of the master. For Heidegger’s say-so to make us pay attention to Husserl, Heidegger himself has to hold independent interest. And he wouldn’t hold that interest if he hadn’t departed radically from his erstwhile teacher. Husserl has staying power only because very interesting people disagreed with him.

Influence works through a chain of people saying, “Hey look, this thing is worth reading.” Heidegger tells us that Husserl is worth reading. Heidegger is worth reading because a parade of other notables (Derrida among them) tells us that he’s worth reading. They, in turn, are worth reading because… If a generation ceases to see why so-and-so was such a big deal, that person fades from view (sorry, Royce). By contrast, a figure becomes “canon” when there are enough nodes of interest that it’s hard to see them all drop off at once. Phenomenology is no longer the big deal it was in the mid-twentieth century but it’s gone on to influence enough subsequent domains of thought that Husserl’s reputation is likely secure.

Which brings me back to the philosophers of 2023. I think it’s hard to predict lasting influence because the influence of your work isn’t entirely up to you. Your future reputation is partly a hostage to the future readers who take you up. As Husserl’s story suggests, you’re better off with brilliant critics than mediocre sycophants.

Philosophy and the Universities

There’s a further question of how this interest gets disseminated. At the moment, the university system—and more precisely the elite universities in a small number countries, like the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany—is the dominant authority in determining what matters philosophically. Who matters philosophically is who gets read, taught, and written about in these universities.

In case that seems like an obvious point, bear in mind that this is a fairly recent development. Medieval Scholasticism indicated where things were headed but even most of the major figures in the early modern period—Descartes, Locke, Spinoza, Leibniz, Hume—had at most occasional contact with the university system. Kant in the eighteenth century is arguably the first great philosopher who was through-and-through a university man. By the twentieth century the rare exceptions (Sartre, Beauvoir, Weil) were the important philosophers who weren’t.

The stranglehold the university system has on what passes for philosophy isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Jordan Peterson has far more public recognition than David Lewis but I think the universities are right in giving more scholarly attention to Lewis. But the university system does place certain constraints on what ideas get disseminated and how. To begin with, the standard modes of dissemination are the journal article and the academic monograph and the form of both of these is fairly rigid. If you want to publish a paper in a reputable journal, you’ll need to situate your argument in ongoing debates, provide the right apparatus of footnoting and bibliography, and so on.

There are reasons for these constraints. By disciplining the form that philosophy takes in these ways, we probably see more good philosophy published each year than ever before. But these constraints might hinder the production of some kinds of great philosophy. To take one easy example, Wittgenstein—who had an uneasy relationship with university philosophy but spent nearly two decades of his life in Cambridge—didn’t write anything that fit the standard models of academic “output.” It’s hard to imagine an academic press publishing the Tractatus or the Philosophical Investigations today.

Ludwig Wittgenstein (Wikimedia Commons)

How Did Wittgenstein Make the Canon?

Another problem Wittgenstein faces in the chain of influence is that he was steadfastly anti-systematic. His later philosophy in particular defies easy summary because “it compels us to travel criss-cross in every direction over a wide field of thought,” as Wittgenstein writes in the preface to the Investigations. His work mostly consists of disrupting theory-building tendencies and undermining generalizations. He doesn’t give his readers any kind of programmatic agenda to build upon or—as was the case with Husserl’s greatest followers—to defy.

But wait, isn’t Wittgenstein as “canon” as any twentieth century philosopher? Yes, but. First of all, his unease in university settings is reciprocated. Philosophy departments have never quite been sure what to make of him either. For the most part, people who make use of Wittgenstein in an academic context fall into one of two camps. Either they assimilate his work to mainstream forms of analytic philosophy, making him part of the conversation at the cost of erasing much of what made him original in the first place. Or they constitute themselves into a priesthood that polices how the Great Master’s thought may be taken up while contributing very little of independent interest. Only rarely do you find a philosopher—Stanley Cavell is one and Cora Diamond is another—that remains true to the spirit in which Wittgenstein wrote while doing something interesting and original.

But maybe the main point here is that it’s a small miracle when oddball geniuses sneak into the canon. Nietzsche and Kierkegaard are two other examples. They’re too much unlike everyone else to fit into a “school” of any sort, or to be the founders of their own “school.” But they manage to compel enough interest and provoke enough commentary in a variety of different contexts that they slip into Google Ngram immortality nonetheless.

And even these oddballs are at least close enough to the concerns of university researchers to generate scholarly interest. Full-on weirdos like Robert Burton or Emmanuel Swedenborg remain on the margins, and no doubt there are even more marginal and even more exciting thinkers I’ve never heard of.

Post-University Philosophy

In short, the institutional needs of the university place constraints on what philosophy has staying power. And those constraints don’t obviously or straightforwardly correspond to generating excellent philosophy.

Here’s the twist. Philosophy since the time of Kant has been principally a university affair. But will it remain so in a hundred years’ time? There are a few reasons to think this might not be so. The main one is the much-reported-on death spiral of humanities in the university system. As universities turn into some combination of the research arm of tech-driven capitalism and a finishing school for white-collar professionals, it becomes increasingly difficult to explain what place Aristotle or Emily Dickinson are supposed to have in either teaching or research.

The happiest outcome of this death spiral is the way that philosophy is increasingly seeping outside the walls of academe. Trained philosophers, both inside and outside the university system, are writing books and articles addressed to the general public. In the arcane accounting system that determines academic merit, universities are placing greater emphasis on “relevance” and “impact.” There’s a growing expectation that people who aren’t professional philosophers should care about what philosophers do.

Professional philosophers have taken notice. As recently as when I was in grad school (okay, so not that recently), the idea that the tools of analytic philosophy might be turned to questions of social justice or meaning in life were at best niche pursuits. Now you’re expected to say something about your commitment to social justice in your job applications—and bonus points if it’s part of your research.

The idea of philosophy that doesn’t have direct bearing on how we conduct our lives might turn out to be the odd historical blip. Philosophers have always been interested in arcane issues in logic, metaphysics, and epistemology. But for the ancients, these pursuits were part of a way of life that had a principally ethical orientation. Epictetus at turns insists that his students study logic if they want to be philosophers and that they not get so caught up in logical pursuits that they forget the ultimate purpose of logic as a tool in learning to lead an untroubled life.

Inside the Large Hadron Collider (Wikimedia Commons)

But Wait, Do We Want a Canon?

If that’s the future, the pioneers of modal metaphysics might not have a durable afterlife. But proponents of “core” areas of analytic philosophy might not be so troubled by this. Scientific research has its own canon of giants whose shoulders we stand on—Galileo, Newton, Darwin, Einstein, and the rest—but it’s not clear any scientist since the mid-twentieth century can aspire to that kind of stature. That’s not because science is no longer generating new discoveries. It’s because scientific research is a less individual pursuit. Scientific research nowadays involves multi-million-dollar research facilities and international teams each contributing a small part to a bigger picture. Breakthroughs concerning the human genome, the gut biome, or the Higgs boson (despite its name) are bigger than any one solitary genius. The same may be true of many areas of philosophy as well. And the people working in those areas would say, all the better. It’s a sign that philosophy has finally grown up.

So that’s another future for philosophy. Not one in which philosophy migrates outside the university but one in which university philosophy migrates away from an approach that lends itself to canon formation.

And of course these two futures aren’t mutually incompatible. In fact, here are three compossible futures for philosophy. The first is philosophy-as-big-science in which the historical narrative shifts from pioneering individuals to innovative collective research projects. The second is extramural philosophy, in which the university system cedes its central place in shaping the philosophical canon to a more decentralized set of circles, institutions, and charismatic individuals. And the third sits between these two: a university philosophy that’s more engaged in matters of public concern.

Most likely we’ll see all three of these trends unfolding to some extent or other. As I said, it’s not as if they’re mutually incompatible or anything.

So Who Will People Be Reading in 2123?

I guess I can’t pose the question without taking a stab at the answer. Let me address it in terms of the three categories I mentioned above.

The philosophy-as-big-science trend is anti-canonical by design so maybe I can punt on that one. But I can foresee that a hundred years from now, people will still think it was important that philosophers started paying attention to modal logic and non-classical logics in the late twentieth century. I’d wager at least some of the weirder moves in the philosophy of mind—stuff like panpsychism or the extended mind—will have staying power. On the flip side, I bet the way people are thinking about consciousness will have changed enough that not a lot of work in that area will remain relevant in 2123. And I suspect that a lot of hardcore metaphysics and epistemology will come to be seen in the same light as Medieval Scholasticism: gosh people devoted a tremendous amount of intelligence and rigour to stuff that no one really cares about anymore.

What about extramural philosophy? I’ll lay out my criteria for staying power in this domain. It needs to be work that’s generally accessible but has sufficient philosophical rigour that it generates further commentary. And it needs to be strikingly original—work that provokes people to really think differently. I’m not sure I can name any work that’s done anything like that. But I can imagine Agnes Callard pulling off the trick. Or Justin Smith-Ruiu or Amia Srinivasan. They’re all young enough that they could be remembered in 2123 for something they wrote in 2040. All three also have university jobs. Someone, somewhere, right now, is working on material that will be read in 2123 even though they don’t have a university affiliation. I just don’t know who they are, yet. (To be clear, I’m not coyly hinting it might be me.)

As for more publicly engaged academic philosophy, one bet that I feel reasonably good about is Miranda Fricker’s Epistemic Injustice. It’s already generated enough scholarship that it’s as canon as anything written in the 21st century. It has philosophical rigour, it addresses issues that people actually care about and will probably continue to care about. And if you’re a historian of philosophy writing in 2123, you might well cite it as emblematic of a shift in analytic philosophy toward matters of public concern.

European philosophy has always been a bit more engaged with politics and public life. I’m guessing object-oriented ontology will be forgotten and that Žižek’s reputation will decline when he’s no longer around to entertain people with his antics. In both cases, I’d say if you’re trying too hard to turn yourself into an institution, history will not look kindly on your efforts. By contrast, I can imagine Giorgio Agamben continuing to exercise influence in 2123, but less so than someone like Foucault.

The Sociology of Philosophy

Setting aside a few shot-in-the-dark prognostications, though, the main lesson I draw from this exercise is that it’s hard to predict the future of philosophy because philosophy’s future is about more than just philosophy. In particular, it has to do with the broader institutional changes that affect how philosophy operates. Speculating about the future of philosophy is less a matter of speculating about philosophy itself and more a matter of speculating about the sociology of philosophy.

The closest this blog has ever come to “going viral” was a post I wrote a couple years ago in criticism of the PhilPapers survey. That survey presented itself as contributing something to this “sociology of philosophy” in that it recorded what philosophers in 2020 were interested in. My criticism was that the survey also stacked the deck in a way that reflected a particular conception of philosophy. My far less scientific reflections here suggest, among other things, that that conception of philosophy won’t have the dominance in 2123 that it has in 2023. But the authors aren’t wrong to think that they’ve provided an interesting snapshot of the state of the discipline in 2020, one that historians might take interest in. It’s just that part of what might catch historians’ interest is that philosophers had a very different conception of what philosophy was in 2020 than they do in 2123.

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