Great Philosophy of the 20th Century?

by Luke Muehlhauser on February 18, 2011 in Resources

In 1999, philosopher Douglas Lackey asked thousands of philosophers to name what they considered to be the 5 most important books and the 5 most important articles in 20th century philosophy. The most-cited books were:

  1. Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations [179 citations]
  2. Heidegger, Being and Time [134]
  3. Rawls, A Theory of Justice [131]
  4. Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus [77]
  5. Russell & Whitehead, Principia Mathematica [64]
  6. Quine, Word and Object [63]
  7. Kripke, Naming and Necessity [56]
  8. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions [51]
  9. Sartre, Being and Nothingness [38]
  10. Whitehead, Process and Reality [34]
  11. Ayer, Language, Truth, and Logic [30]
  12. Dewey, Experience and Nature [25]
  13. Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception [23]
  14. Moore, Principia Ethica [19]
  15. James, Pragmatism [18]
  16. MacIntyre, After Virtue [18]
  17. Husserl, Logical Investigations [17]
  18. Husserl, Ideas [17]
  19. de Beauvoir, The Second Sex [17]
  20. Hart, The Concept of Law [14]
  21. Ryle, The Concept of Mind [14]
  22. Goodman, Fact, Fiction, and Forecast [13]
  23. Gadamer, Truth and Method [12]
  24. Parfit, Reasons and Persons [12]
  25. Russell, The Problems of Philosophy [11]
  26. Quine, From a Logical Point of View [11]
  27. Popper, Logic of Scientific Discovery [11]

And, the most-cited articles:

  1. Quine, “Two Dogmas of Empiricism” [131 citations]
  2. Russell, “On Denoting” [85]
  3. Godel, “On Formally Undecidable Propositions of Principia Mathematica and Other Systems” [40]
  4. Tarski, “The Concept of Truth” [39]
  5. Sellars, “Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind” [37]
  6. Gettier, “Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?” [26]
  7. Putnam, “The Meaning of Meaning” [22]
  8. Thomson, “A Defense of Abortion” [22]
  9. Kripke, “Naming and Necessity” [20]
  10. Moore, “A Defense of Common Sense” [18]
  11. Anscombe, “Modern Moral Philosophy” [17]
  12. Rawls, “Justice as Fairness” [17]
  13. Nagel, “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” [16]
  14. Sartre, “Existentialism Is a Humanism” [16]
  15. Austin, “A Plea for Excuses” [14]
  16. Quine, “On What There Is” [14]

What are your picks?

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{ 41 comments… read them below or add one }

Alexander Kruel February 18, 2011 at 4:48 am

Now how do I figure out which ones are worth the time without actually reading them (additionally to reading I already own ‘Parfit, Reasons and Persons’ and ‘Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations’ but haven’t read them yet.


Joel February 18, 2011 at 5:48 am

Ethics: J. L. Mackie’s Ethics. I would argue that Mackie is the Hume of our time, setting out what exactly the moral realist must prove and demonstrate, to be able to justify the objectivity of morality. Entire schools (cornell realists, for instance) revolve around showing how a particular epistemology strategy (e.g. empiricism) affords us justification in regards to objective moral facts.


Citizen Ghost February 18, 2011 at 5:56 am

What? No William Lane Craig?

Seriously though…

I won’t pretend to have read all of those works (I’ve read only a handful). My familiarity comes mainly from commentators and secondary sources. Still, I’ll add a few comments:

Some other possibilities for such a list might include “I and Thou” by Martin Buber or “Order of Things” by Michel Foucault. Any consideration for George Santayana? Or perhaps even Chomsky?

Of course the list favors the scholarly over the popular. Otherwise the list might include the influential Ayn Rand or, more convincingly in my view, Spiderman (“with great power comes great responsibility”). The list also seems to emphasize analytic philosophy and that’s fine…but if it were to include influential works of political philosophy, then Leo Strauss merits consideration.

Not sure where they rank among 20th century philosophers, but I’d argue that the writings of Martha Nussbaum and Daniel Dennett are fairly important.

Anyway….lots to read!


Luke Muehlhauser February 18, 2011 at 6:21 am


Good textbook authors cover these topics better than the original authors do. Except maybe for the Parfit.


Garren February 18, 2011 at 6:37 am

I would like a book that discusses the significance and implications of the different major theories of language. I got a ways into Naming and Necessity but I kept feeling like I was missing out on a lot of context.

While I’m at it, is there a good book on the rise and fall of Logical Positivism?


Curt February 18, 2011 at 6:45 am

Woe and behold I read Lou Rawls Therory of Justice 30 yeers ago. I do not remember a a thing from it that I read. I sure as hell hope that it influenced my subconscience otherwise I will continue to spin my whells trying to recreate the whell.
Reading some short summaries that I got off of Wikipedia I get the impression that Rawls has a lot in common with me.


Scott February 18, 2011 at 6:46 am


This was the textbook I used for my phil. of language class. Very easy to read and understand:


Alexander Kruel February 18, 2011 at 6:59 am

Alexander,Good textbook authors cover these topics better than the original authors do. Except maybe for the Parfit.  

Then allow me to request another fine post of yours. How about matching each of those works, or the most popular, with an improved contemporary version capturing the gist of the original works. That doesn’t have to be a textbook if there is some paper or long blog post that sufficiently explains or dissolves each topic.

Sorry for being a lazy bum :-)


Louis February 18, 2011 at 7:18 am

Then allow me to request another fine post of yours. How about matching each of those works, or the most popular, with an improved contemporary version capturing the gist of the original works. That doesn’t have to be a textbook if there is some paper or long blog post that sufficiently explains or dissolves each topic.
Sorry for being a lazy bum :-)  

I think that’s a brilliant idea.


Citizen Ghost February 18, 2011 at 8:04 am

I get the impression that Rawls has a lot in common with me

Is that John or Lou? Because Lou Rawls was a genius in his own right.

And I’d like to join in the request for a list or summary of popular works that do a good job of conveying the philosophical ideas of the orginals listed here.


Garren February 18, 2011 at 9:54 am

Thanks, Scott!

Local libraries don’t have it but it looks like it will be there when I go back to school this Fall.


Garren February 18, 2011 at 10:29 am

Just realized Foot’s “Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives” isn’t on the main list or even the extended list in the report. Guess philosophy teachers in general don’t like it as much as I do.


Bill Maher February 18, 2011 at 10:44 am

WTF is Heidegger so high up? He is such garbage.


Jordan Peacock February 18, 2011 at 11:32 am

Can’t say I’ve read most of those. My list would be relatively simple, and it would play fast & loose with the boundaries of what is philosophy:

0. What Is Philosophy? – Guattari & Deleuze
1. A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History – Manuel De Landa
2. Godel, Escher, Bach – Douglas Hofstadter
3. Seeing Like A State – James C. Scott
4. Propaganda – Jacques Ellul/Hatred of Democracy – Jacques Ranciere (tie)
5. Beyond Fear – Bruce Schneier/Good & Real – Gary Drescher (tie)


Luke Muehlhauser February 18, 2011 at 12:04 pm


Lycan’s ‘Philosophy of Language: A Contemporary Introduction’ is exactly what you’re looking for. It covers logical positivism, too, at least from the language point of view.


Luke Muehlhauser February 18, 2011 at 12:06 pm


That one looks good, too.


Luke Muehlhauser February 18, 2011 at 12:07 pm


That would be a huge project, and one I don’t have time for! But yes, a good idea!


Luke Muehlhauser February 18, 2011 at 12:08 pm


Yeah, Foot’s paper is generally regarded as heretical, and of course it suffers from being very recent (on philosophical timescales).


svenjamin February 18, 2011 at 1:14 pm

I’m just really fucking pleased that the collective consensus excludes Foucalt, Derrida, and their fellow charlatans.


Tarun February 18, 2011 at 1:24 pm

Glad to see Philosophical Investigations on top. Reading that book changed the way I think more radically than I would have imagined possible. Also got me to switch my plans for grad school from physics to philosophy (kind of ironic, given Wittgenstein’s stance on philosophy).

I would put Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature high on the list. As for papers, I think Searle’s “How to Derive “Ought” from “Is”" makes a super important point that is unfortunately often ignored.

Also, Alexander, I think the advice to read textbooks is generally good if you aren’t aiming for expert-level understanding. But you should read Philosophical Investigations in the original. The secondary literature differs widely on the correct interpretation of the book, and far too many philosophers (in my opinion) misunderstand the central point of the book. For instance, Scott Soames, in his otherwise excellent history of analytic philosophy, completely mangles the later Wittgenstein.


Tarun February 18, 2011 at 1:39 pm

Oh, and since people are asking for textbook recommendations, let me re-emphasize the excellence of Soames’ two-volume Philosophical Analysis in the Twentieth Century. Although he doesn’t get Wittgenstein, the books are excellent guides to analytic philosophy in the last century (particularly philosophy of language).

Otherwise, here are the best textbooks I have encountered on particular areas of philosophy:

Metaphysics – Van Inwagen, Metaphysics

Epistemology – Michael Williams, Problems of Knowledge

History of Philosophy – Kenny, A New History of Western Philosophy

Ethics – Alexander Miller, An Introduction to Contemporary Meta-ethics

Philosophy of Science – Godfrey-Smith, Theory and Reality

Political Philosophy – Kymlicka, Contemporary Political Philosophy

Philosophy of Language – Lycan, Philosophy of Language

Philosophy of Mind – Jaegwon Kim, Philosophy of Mind

Philosophy of Mathematics – Stewart Shapiro , Thinking about Mathematics

Philosophy of Logic – Grayling, An Introduction to Philosophical Logic


Luke Muehlhauser February 18, 2011 at 1:53 pm


Yup! :)

This poll would look very different if taken in France.


Luke Muehlhauser February 18, 2011 at 1:57 pm


Thanks. For the record, I prefer the Loux to the Van Inwagen on metaphysics, and I didn’t like Miller’s ‘An Introduction to Contemporary Meta-Ethics.’ Though less deep, I prefer Jacob’s ‘Introduction to metaethics and moral psychology’ there.


Tarun February 18, 2011 at 2:05 pm


I think Loux is undoubtedly better for getting a survey of contemporary metaphysics. It’s more comprehensive and less idiosyncratic in its selection of issues and arguments to cover. But I also found it pretty dry. Van Inwagen’s book, on the other hand, is just delightful to read.

I haven’t read the Jacobs. Thanks for the tip. I’ll take a look at it. I’m always looking for good textbooks to teach from.


Citizen Ghost February 18, 2011 at 2:16 pm

If you look at the remaining works mentioned in this poll, you’ll find that Foucalt and Derrida just missed the cut.

And that’s probably because votes were split among their various works. Ten of Foucalt’s works (5 books and 5 articles) received votes but his single highest ranking work (Discipline and Punish) received 10 votes. The list here goes to 11. (sort of like Spinal Tap).

Just saying.


Mike K. February 18, 2011 at 4:38 pm


Thanks for posting that list! I’ve been looking for a way to start reading more philosophic works. One question: Is Copleston’s history outdated now or is it a question of readability?


Luke Muehlhauser February 18, 2011 at 5:39 pm

Copleston’s history is way too fricking long.


svenjamin February 18, 2011 at 7:29 pm

But…I like Copleston’s writing style.


Taichi February 18, 2011 at 7:42 pm

It’s somewhat disheartening to see “Existentialism is a Humanism” up there: this paper was, after all, rejected by its author as a misleading representation of his views.


Scott February 18, 2011 at 7:58 pm

I like Copleston’s history, long as it is. It’s certainly thorough, and I skim the less-relevant parts to get to the meaty major figures, but it’s certainly for completists only. Besides, it’s always amusing when his Jesuit bias shines through.


mojo.rhythm February 18, 2011 at 8:36 pm

Jerry Falwell, Champions for God


Garren February 18, 2011 at 9:34 pm

Added the articles to my list of anthology search links. Should make it easier to check’m out!


Bill Maher February 18, 2011 at 10:50 pm


don’t be too sure about the France thing. Both France and Germany are in the process of “going analytic”. There is even a French journal for analytic philosophy now.


DaVead February 18, 2011 at 11:14 pm

Being and Time is the most important book I have ever read, it would be my #1. This idea that continentalists are charlatans, give sloppy argumentation, and make no sense is based entirely on fundamental misunderstandings and interpretive failures of the analytic community. If you think Heidegger is garbage, pick of Dreyfus or someone, or read a good compendium that focuses on putting his Heideggerese in analytic-friendly terms. And Germany and France aren’t going analytic. Yes, anglo-American philosophy is spreading somewhat, just as other American ideals are, but what’s more significant is that continentalism seems to be being revived and revisited here.


Steven R. February 19, 2011 at 11:33 am

I’m probably the only person here who hasn’t read any of these…and only heard of 2 of the listed works here. Thankfully I’ve just gotten an opportunity to start my own library so the recommendations suggested here will, I hope, soon be familiar to me.

Is there any philosophy book that is recommended as a good overview for a beginner of philosophy? I would prefer to start with the most basic overview and build my way up.


Scott February 19, 2011 at 4:34 pm

@Steven R.

The most basic of basic introductions are Nigel Warburton’s pair “Philosophy: The Classics” & “Philosophy: The Basics”, covering the history of the subject and its various topics, respectively. Quick and easy to read, but not in-depth.

For increasing quality and complexity, try “The Great Conversation” by Norman Melchert for history and “Reason and Responsibility” by Joel Feinberg for topics. There are many similar books (Pojman’s “Introduction to Philosophy”, “Classic Philosophical Questions”, etc), I just prefer R&R’s variety. Another interesting book for history is Pojman’s “Classics of Philosophy”, but that is excerpts from original works, not analyses, and for some philosophers, that isn’t worth the trouble.

I also recommend the Philosophy Bites podcast and BBC’s In Our Time radio show.


Sweetwater Tom February 20, 2011 at 9:14 am

I want to read a book titled _The Science of Philosopy_. That may be an oxymoron, but it shouldn’t be.


Steven R. February 20, 2011 at 10:18 am

Thanks a lot Scott!


Just a band name I just ran into:


Neil F. February 20, 2011 at 10:52 am

Interesting lists! I would want to place Popper’s book The Logic of Scientific Discovery much higher up, but if “importance” is supposed to combine both insight and influence on other thinkers, then the sad fact that Popper tended to be misunderstood and ignored his peers brings him down. Still, “for me” it easily belongs in the top five.

I think Quine’s “Two Dogmas of Empiricism” earns its place. Twinge of disappointment at not seeing Dennett & Kinsbourne “Time and the Observer”, but it’s hardly surprising. Even though Dennett’s conclusions about “Orwellian” and “Stalinesque” are Obviously The Correct Ones To Draw, most others philosophers of mind somehow find reasons to disagree.

What’s frustrating to me is the modern (21st century) attitude that “Since, as we all know, Dennett says that consciousness doesn’t exist, which is absurd, anything else he says along the way can safely be ignored.”


Andrew EC February 20, 2011 at 12:16 pm

I’m kind of surprised anything ranks above Rawls’ Theory of Justice.

Despite the utter bastardization it gets from hacks and quacks (e.g., the Discovery Institute), I think Thomas Kuhn’s _Structure of Scientific Revolutions_ deserves to be on the list as well.


ptah February 27, 2011 at 11:05 pm

Andrew: It’s at number 8.


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