The Ten Most Consequential New Ideas?

The Ten Most Consequential New Ideas?    

Please note:  I’ve shifted the order of two posts, and I’ve renamed this one to ‘The Ten Most Consequential New Ideas?’ from ‘Intricate Nuanced Demure Ideas’.  But never-mind the administrative details.  Here we go …

This post involves a request to readers, one that will hopefully get us thinking and help each of us consider the present state of affairs in concrete terms.

The request is this:  Please identify one or more of what you believe to be the ten most consequential new findings or ideas to come out of—that is, result from—academic philosophy in the last fifty years.

The point here is not to attempt to rank-order them or to attempt any sort of consensus, both of which aims would likely be impossible and perhaps meaningless anyhow.  Instead, the point is merely to prompt each of us to think about the matter, to identify to each other some of the most consequential findings and ideas in our various opinions, to allow us all to reflect on the results, and to see what discussion might ensue, and what we might learn.

To begin the process, and as an example, I’ll suggest the so-called veil of ignorance, from John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice (1971).  Although I’m not an historian of ideas, it’s my understanding that the essence of this idea was not entirely new, but nevertheless Rawls propelled it to center stage and, I expect, elaborated and improved upon it.  Too, I can’t personally point to a major concrete instance in which a recent application of the idea “changed the world”;  goodness knows that, in theory anyhow, there are many applications of it that could substantially improve the world, if someone could figure out a way to actually motivate society at large to embrace such good ideas.  However, at least in my case, I do find myself occasionally using the idea to try to explain to someone how we should try to address certain problems in society by using it.  (To my knowledge, nobody has ever taken me up on the proposal, unless it somehow served their own immediate interests to do so, given the place in society they already knowingly occupied.)  That said, it seems to me that this idea is, or at least is potentially, a highly consequential idea, and worth listing.

In any case, in the interest of fairly assessing the state of philosophy today, at least in one important sense, will others please continue the list?  Thanks in advance for your participation!

The Ten Most Consequential New Findings or Ideas to

Result From Academic Philosophy in the Last Fifty Years





Be Well,



18 thoughts on “The Ten Most Consequential New Ideas?

  1. Jeff,
    I wanted to include the Wikipedia article on “Contemporary Philosophy” as a potential source of the “new ideas” you are seeking here. See: The article is intended to be comprehensive, but of course it never can be. None-the-less it is instructive to look through the list of theories and concepts in the box at: and also at:

    For a time line beginning in ancient times and extending through 1950 see:

    None of these lists attempt to identify the consequential new ideas separately from other ideas. They are valuable because they begin to represent the universe from which your question might be answered.

  2. Jeff,
    I his book The Better Angels of Our Nature Steven Pinker argues persuasively that violence is decreasing and peace is increasing worldwide. See:

    He suggests several reasons this might be, including the Escalator of Reason – an “intensifying application of knowledge and rationality to human affairs,” which “can force people to recognize the futility of cycles of violence, to ramp down the privileging of their own interests over others’s, and to reframe violence as a problem to be solved rather than a contest to be won.

    One interesting contributor to this is a steady increase in measured IQ called the Flynn Effect. See:

    One reason suggested for this increase is that a much larger proportion of people are more accustomed to manipulating abstract concepts such as hypotheses and categories than a century ago.

    This may in part be a result of academic philosophy.

    • I watched Pinker lecture on Better Angels a couple of years ago – I always felt part of his “objective” argument is a no-brainer: The historical rise in secular democracies, with less direct power in monarchs and religions, with their dogmatic reasons to go to war means that the “reason” of more individuals is considered in such decisions – so yes we are in an age of (more) reason.

      The bit I feel what Pinker (and IQ testing) miss is deciding what counts, what is measured, as reason and intelligence – with these naturally tending to objective scientific measures rather that wider “emotional intelligence” aspects of wisdom. I think the main factor is the democratic freedoms and responsibilities bringing the interested (subjective, enlightened self-interested) reason of more people into play, rather than better more scientific understanding of reason itself. Clearly there is some of both in play, but “the scientistic” claim reason for science and arithmetic alone.

  3. I think Nussbaum & Sen’s ideas on the capability approach have real-world impact; also, I think the “Design for Values” concept is starting to escape the cynical hands of the marketing department and making it into real products. More broadly, there is the appeal of Noel Sharkey (formally not a philosopher, I know) and the arguments he puts forward against autonomous weapon systems are gaining traction.

  4. I would say the dawning realization of the extent to which we actively construct our social reality, as discussed by John Searle and by quite a number of philosophers with various different takes on “social construction.” Getting a handle on just how contingent, and how malleable, our patterns of interaction are can free us up to create new ways of living.

    • Hi Ronnie, thanks for the comment. I agree with you wholeheartedly, but … please see my comment, below, to Lee. Because of the somewhat clear, but also somewhat unclear, nature of my question, we are essentially doing two different exercises. What I meant to ask for are findings and ideas that have already been substantially consequential in society — those that have already had some sort of substantial impact. I’ve asked this question in order to help us consider and (each person) assess the degree to which philosophical ideas of the last fifty years have had a notable and substantial impact, hopefully positive, in the real world. Can you think of any, and what are they? For more, see my comment to Lee, below.

      Be Well,


      • Hi Jeff–

        First off I have to say that I seem to have gotten way behind with where this conversation is taking place; I just discovered that you had made a couple of replies to my “4 points” I listed with regard to “edge”; I’m not sure why I didn’t see a notice of your replies, but I can try to think of some answers if the whole thing isn’t “too far back there.” Should the several related messages be relayed to the email list, which seems to have a greater following? I’m afraid I haven’t been able to keep track of what goes out to whom.

        Similar concerns about your question about consequential _results_ from academic philosophy; it should be going out all ’round, I think.

        And OK, I admit that what I expect from a wider integration of an understanding of social construction hasn’t happened _yet_, as you have clarified your interest being in “findings and ideas that have already had a substantial notable impact in society, i.e., that have already altered some real-world dynamics in a notable way.”

        As I believe Ian noted (somewhere else?), many of the ideas forthcoming from academic philosophy still are yet to be fully realized, yet to have their full possible positive effect that many of us hope they will have. But a paradigm-changing insight that so far _has_ had a significant effect (if not instigating a total transformation), and that was clearly enhanced by the emerging philosophical writings on the subject, is the notion of “animal rights” (Tom Regan and others) or “animal liberation” (Peter Singer and others). I also see this new (for some) way of looking at the world as a manifestation of a large-scale social movement toward regaining our ability to “see Life” again, something way overdue, but perhaps in part triggered by the articulation of the concerns of the “animal rights” academics, perhaps hand-in-hand with those of environmental philosophers and their counterparts in the nonacademic world. You can count a significant number of people who have become vegetarians or vegans (I can count students who have told me this after taking some of my classes), as well as people who make nervous jokes about PETA looking over their shoulders if they find themselves contemplating doing something that perhaps they shouldn’t to an animal (and witness the emergence of “animal care committees” at all major research institutions)–that’s a change in the real world, just like a developing sense of environmental awareness is a significant change, if somewhat more diffuse. We just aren’t all the way there yet with these sorts of concerns.

        Now, what kinds of changes in the real world might have resulted from all the logic-chopping that has gone on within academic epistemology, say, over the last 50 years–I’d really like to hear somebody provide a candidate from that sub-discipline!


        • Dear Ronnie, good point: the animal rights movement and thinking — a greater concern for animals — is a good and positive example. I also appreciate your question about the logic chopping within epistemology.

          I hope that others will continue to (try to) identify examples of consequential results from new (within the last fifty years) findings and ideas, if and where they exist.

          In fact, I may try to send a message (with the question) to Philos-L, hoping that Stephen will run it.

          Cheers for now. More later. Jeff

  5. Jeff,
    Philosopher Harry J. Gensler recently published the book Ethics and the Golden Rule. In it he updates the statement of the golden rule as:

    “Treat others only as you consent to being treated in the same situation.”

    as a way to overcome some “first order” objections to traditional statements of the rule.
    My review of the book is on-line at:

    While I recognize the Golden Rule is very old, his careful attention to this simple yet powerful idea can provide all of us a clear consistency principle and guide in selecting and applying moral rules.

    As a second nomination I will mention the book Leaving Truth by Keith Sewell. In it he calls upon each of us to create our own “knowledge selection procedure” as our set of rules for deciding what to believe. I have already promoted this idea extensively, so I’ll spare the group another speech on that topic.

    I reviewed his book at:

    In the book The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, Sam Harris urges us to think about morality in terms of human and animal well-being, viewing the experiences of conscious creatures as peaks and valleys on a “moral landscape.” Because there are definite facts to be known about where we fall on this landscape, Harris foresees a time when science will no longer limit itself to merely describing what people do in the name of “morality”; in principle, science should be able to tell us what we ought to do to live the best lives possible. (Excerpted from a review I did not write at: )

    Although it is too old, and not primarily resulting from Academic Philosophy, I believe the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights is, or perhaps could eventually become, one of the most important documents to be accepted so broadly. See:

    It begins with the statement: “Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world. . . ”

    I also want to mention the Charter for Compassion, lead by Karen Armstrong. See: It works to transcend religious differences and promote compassion as common ground to all religion.

    I am also a big fan of Daniel Dennett and will look over his works for other candidates.

    I do not know the impact of these ideas. It seems people believe what they find convenient to believe, so I cannot estimate how many people have been influenced sufficiently to change their beliefs as a result of these works. But these works have either influenced me, or at least reinforced what I choose to believe!

    • The Golden Rule, is very much a source of Karen Armstrong’s line on compassion too, though as a rule, I’m sure it’s a lot older than 50 years 😉 Dan Dennett, I’m a big fan of, and I can think of a few candidate ideas from him. Sam Harris I’m not – he’s the most sophisticated of the “Four Horsemen” but is ultimately entirely scientistic in deriving his moral rules (IMHO). (I have a number of others, but don’t want to pre-empt David and Alan and others’ contributions.)

      • That he is scientisitic is not in itself a problem, but it is that he is close-minded about it. If a good solution happens to be a scientistic one that ought not be any problem, but that a good one is available outside scientism that is discarded merely because it is not scientistic is. There are scientismists that are not close-minded about it, much as there are people on the “other side” of the fence that are both open- and close-minded.

        • Hi Emiliano, you’re maybe missing my distinction between scientific and scientistic. The definition of scientistic IS to believe (with a closed mind) that ALL problems are amenable to scientific or otherwise logically objective solutions. Obvious a huge number of useful solutions are scientific, but to be scientistic is to close one’s mind to many that may not be.

    • To Lee (and also Ian),

      Thanks for your helpful and optimistic inputs. I can see that, by leaving the request a bit vague in this sense, I’ve made it far too easy, perhaps. For purposes of this request, and the conversation I’m hoping will come about, I am much more interested in Consequential ideas, meaning ideas that have already been, and are already being, Consequential in society — substantially consequential in the real world on a notable scale and in a notable way. So, if we can contrast between findings and ideas that we believe are “very good”, theoretically speaking, and have the potential (in our views) to be consequential, and on the other hand the ideas over the last fifty years that have already been, and are already being Consequential, it’s the latter that I’m trying to identify.

      Since you two are, clearly, highly enthusiastic participants here (!!), can you identify one or two findings or ideas that have already proven to be Consequential in the sense I mean?

      And, it seems, the two different categorizations I’ve mentioned would seem to suggest two different exercises, because at some point it would ALSO be helpful to identify the new/recent ideas that, we believe, have the most potential to be consequential in the future. That’s a very worthwhile exercise, of course, and one that you’ve already started.

      Cheers and Be Well, and Thanks,


  6. Nice one Jeff. Rawls Theory of Justice was one of my first reads in this space. I could add a handful to your list, but let me limit myself to an obvious No.2 after your No.1

    2. Nick Maxwell’s AOR “Aim (or Human Value) Oriented Empirical Rationality” as the antidote to Scientistic Neurosis.

    • Ian, I agree with you, but please see my comment to Lee (and you), above. I’ve also explained further in my response to Ronnie’s comment.

      Thanks and Be Well,


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