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May 12, 2005


Hilary Kornblith


I'm not at all convinced that you're right about the phenomenon. Here's a list of just a few of the books from the '60s:

Armstrong, A Materialist Theory of Mind (1963)
Chisholm, Theory of Knowledge (1966)
Chomsky, Aspects of the Theory of Syntax (1964)
Dennett, Content and Consciousness (1969)
Dretske, Seeing and Knowing (1969)
Fodor, Psychological Explanation (1968)
Geach, Reference and Generality (1962)
Lewis, Convention (1969)
Plantinga, God and Other Minds (1967)
Quine, Word and Object (1960)
Quine, Ontological Relativity and Other Essays (1969)
Searle, Speech Acts (1969)
Sellars, Science, Perception and Reality (1963)

In addition, there were a large number of important papers by Davidson, Donnellan, Grice, Montague and Putnam, as well as Stalnaker's early work on counterfactuals. And I haven't really given this much thought. I bet there's a lot of important stuff I'm leaving out. All in all, I think it was a very active time philosophically, with a lot of fruitful ideas being developed.

On the whole, I'm quite suspicious about these kinds of speculations about recent philosophy. It is, as you mentioned, very easy to lose perspective, especially on the very most recent periods.


Brian Weatherson

A few starters.

Word and Object does have a 1960 publication date. It was obviously written in the 1950s, and mostly delivered as lectures in Adelaide in 1958, but if you're going by date stamp, that should count for something. Austin's major works also count as written in the 1950s and published in the 1960s. Although I don't have the dates off the top of my head, I think several of Davidson's important papers have 1960s date stamps on them as well.


Thanks, Hilary. That's what I was hoping to see. Of course there was a lot of important work. But I meant the relevant standard to be higher than "important". So for the sake of maintaining the case: Quine's and Sellars' most important work came earlier. OK, Word and Object is up there, but it hasn't aged as well as his earlier work, and in any case it's the very early 1960s (one might discount works at the beginning and end of the period as compatible with the main point). The Sellars book is a collection of earlier pieces. One could make the same sort of case for Chisholm and Geach (e.g. via Perceiving and Mental Acts), though this is more arguable. Likewise, while the works here by Dennett, Dretske, Fodor, Lewis, and Plantinga are all important, their most important work came later. Chomsky I'll discount as not strictly a philosopher, and the Searle book is 1969 (at the APA, someone pointed out Frankfurt's 1969 paper, too). That leaves Armstrong's 1968 book as the one clear case on your list (maybe Searle too, if one doesn't discount 1969, and Chisholm, if one is partial to Theory of Knowledge).

Brian: I think it's fair to include Davidson, whose two most important papers were arguably published in 1963 and 1967. He and Armstrong were the two clearest cases I could think of. (Counting Austin, who died in 1960, feels like a stretch. But the word from the sidelines is that the 60s can have Sense and Sensibilia if the 50s can have the Investigations!) Then there's Gettier and the ensuing literature in epistemology. And certainly the philosophy of language was warming up to the 1970s explosion. So the decade isn't exactly chopped liver. But the standard set by its neighbours is pretty remarkable.

Hilary Kornblith

Just a couple of others that I left out:

Hempel, Aspects of Scientific Explanation (1965)
Kuhn, Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962)


OK, Kuhn is a good one!

Robert Johnson

Wow, I can't relate! I'm astonished that the 60s is thought by anyone to have been a down time in philosophy. Davidson, Gettier, Lewis, Quine...the list of philosophers whose work in that decade could be called 'great' is mind-boggling to me. Pehaps it is because much of the really important work was in journal articles that it seems otherwise.


Feyerabend, "Explanation, Reduction and Empiricism"
Benacerraf, "What Numbers Could Not Be"
Lewis, "Counterpart Theory and Quantified Modal Logic"

On the Plurality of Worlds starts with that Lewis paper.

Benacerraf starts the most important movement in recent philosophy of mathematics, structuralism, with WNCNB. The paper pretty much smashes any attempt to reduce mathematical objects to more "respectable" objects. Anyway, any reductive project in the philosophy of math has the arguments of that paper to face.

I'm with Robert here--a bit stunned to see the sixties seen as a period of drop-off in philosophy. Word and Object has become mostly ignored, but the reasons for that seem to me sociological rather than philosophical. Quine gets dismissed as a behaviorist and it's mostly assumed that without the behaviorism none of his major positions in the book succeed.

However, I think the diagnosis of the issue that djc is raising probably lies in a few things. Perhaps most important, Kripke and Rawls usher in a fresh set of problems and theories in the early seventies. Relative to those works, the sixties may seem lame. If I were to give a Kuhnian analysis, I'd say Kripke established a new paradigm to replace the positivistic one, which was really in a state of crisis. All of a sudden, we didn't have to wrestle with the failures of positivism highlighted especially by Quine. (It's pretty interesting that with all the work done on meaning and naturalism today, we see very little discussion of Quine's work.) We could take our meaning intuitions seriously and do serious philosophy with them. And that fecund bag of philosophical problems involving modality was fair game. Kripke not only gave us a set of problems, but a set of tools for solving the problems.

Kosta Calfas

I think the point of the post was not to start an argument, but whether one can in the span of 10 years provide mitigating factors for the quality (or lack thereof) of philosophical work. The history of philosophy certainly shows that "great works" do not span themselves out in fixed intervals of time. Rather than argue through counterexample (of which, I agree many exist), let's see what gave David this impression and whether that impression is justified.

I think one of the reasons philosophy in the 60's failed to yield work whose influence is commeasurate with the stuff of the 50's and 70's might have something to do with the cultural climate of the 60's which marked vast political change destabilizing the american state (unarguably for the better) which may have contributed to a lack of any Magnum Opuses being composed during this period.

David isn't alone in his "sixties bashing." In the Closing of the American Mind, for example, Alan Bloom laments:

"The fact is that the fifties were one of the great periods of the American university, taking into account, of course the eternal disproportion between the ideal and the real. Even the figures most seminal for "the movement," like Marcuse, Arendt and Mills, did what serious work they did prior to 1960. From 1933 on the American universities profited from the arrival of many of Europe's greatest scholars and scientists..."

The casualness of David's musing belies the deeper question of what extent historical circumstances determine the content and quality of philosophical work.

Not since Kuhn and Feyerabend have anglo-american analytic philosophers seriously reflected on historical factors which might influence the direction and reception of their work. Feyerabend was somewhat vague about what he meant by "History" but I think it's worth reflecting on this. Philosophers neither write in a vacuum nor sub specie aeterni (although, undoubtedly, many of them do think we're god).

It might be productive to ask whether there are clear cases of historical forces determining the predominance of philosophical views and the quality of their exposition. For example, I've always been curious to what extent skepticism in philosophy is a measure of malaise and disenfranchisement of the people towards their society. You'll recall that Ancient skepticism overran greece at about the same time that the romans were conquering most of it (clearly, not a fun time to be a greek).

As relevant to philosophy of mind, eliminative materialism (a la Dennett, Rorty, the Churchlands...), which, Alva Noe once correctly characterized as "perceptual skepticism" seems to have dominated the american landscape since the 80's. I don't think it's coincidental that this is a period of regressive conservative social and economic policies which largely undermined the security and happiness of the populace.

I'm not saying those philosophers are, while writing, directly influenced by their socio-political climate, but the willingness of a society to accept one school of philosophy over another I think, agreeing with Feyerabend (see Realism and the Historicity of Knowledge), has less to do with the "force of the better argument" than with historical circumstances.

As for the 60's, it could just be the case that Quine, Sellars, Lewis et al. were so busy partaking of free love, free Huey and Woodstock they didn't have time to think about ontological relativity...on second thought, maybe not.


Benacerraf is another good one. (I'll resist the temptation to cancel Benacerraf 1965 with Benacerraf 1973.) Maybe one should exempt the philosophy of science and mathematics from the thesis.

I think Lenhart is right that if one takes away Kripke and Rawls, then the 1960s and 1970s would be more or less on a par. That's a lot to take away, of course. But perhaps it suggests that (Allan Bloom and free love notwithstanding!) the explanation lies as much or more with individuals as with structures.

Alva Noe

Maybe the perception of a sparse sixties reflects a kind of demographic-cum-perspectival sort of thing. From our perspective, given our age (using you as the age-paradigm, late thirties/early forties) the sixties might seeem sparser than it really is. Many of our teachers came of age at the end of the sixties and started to do their best work in the seventies. That structures our perspective. We think of the sixties in terms of how it set the stage for the seventies. -- I'm sort of assuming that from the standpoint of many years hence, the differences between decades become less apparent.

This hypothesis makes sense of a fair bit of the data.

If you measure philosophical activity not by date of publication, but by interest and activity, then it makes more sense, I think, to think of Word and Object (and also Strawson's Individuals [1959?]) as firmly works of the sixties. It was in the sixties that they were digested and made a difference. (An interesting case is Wittgenstein's Investigations, which were published posthumously in the early fifties. To which decade/epoch do they belong?)


That makes sense. Still, I suspect it's not just an illusion of perspective to see two distinct periods of flowering: a broadly-construed 1950s (late Wittgenstein, Ryle, Austin, Strawson, Grice, Quine, Goodman, Sellars, Chisholm, Place/Smart, and so on), and a broadly-construed 1970s (Rawls, Nozick, Kripke, Davidson, Dummett, Lewis, Putnam, Armstrong, Kaplan, Fodor, and so on), with a period in between of very good work that digested the work of the earlier period, and that laid the groundwork for the work of the later period. Of course there are a few hard cases (e.g. Kuhn, Gettier) and there's some leakage (e.g. Grice, Quine, Davidson. Putnam), but it's still interesting that most of the leading postwar figures seem to fall reasonably naturally into one group or the other.

Kosta Calfas

Just thought of another few counterexamples, but I still think- and I don't think anyone's arguing to the contrary- that some decades (centuries?) are better than others for philosophical work. And I wonder if anyone might hazard some explanations, even incomplete ones.

Anyways, on to the counterexamples:

H.L.A. Hart The Concept of Law (1961)
Michel Foucault The Order of Things(1966)
Simone deBeauvoir The Second Sex (1963)
Emmanuel Levinas Totality and Infinity (1961)
Theodore Adorno Negative Dialectics (1966)


Alva Noe

Maybe decades are just not fine grained enough. Dave put Wittgenstein and Ryle in the 1950s. But Concept was published in 1949, and Philosophical Investigations was written earlier. Quine and Grice did important work in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, but perhaps exerted their strongest influence in the 1960s (?). Rawls is an interesting case. His seminal paper "Two concepts of rules" was published in Phil Review in 1955 and Rawls spent the 1960s writing Theory of Justice, which was published in the early 1970s. Davidson is a creature of the 1960s. It seems there's leakage all around.


Most of Putnam's papers that are often given credit for getting functionalism off the ground were published in the 60's- "Dreaming and 'depth grammar'" (62), "Brains and Behavior" (63), "Minds and Machines" (60), "Robots: macines or artificially crated life?" (64) "The mental life of some machines" (67), "The nature of mental states" (67), also, much of his important early work on logic was done in the 60's, such as "It ain't necessarily so" (62). While the functionalism papers are not read that much (I think) anymore for themselves, they are surely important for really getting functionalism off and running.


Alva: Agreed. The point of the "broadly construed" was to relax the artificial boundaries of decades to allow somewhat more flexible "periods". As for writing time vs publication time, presumably this will preserve relative times (just changing absolute times), except when there are significant publication delays, as with Wittgenstein's and Austin's posthumous works (part 1 of the Investigations could have been published around 1947 if Wittgenstein had wanted, and the Sense and Sensibilia lectures presumably could have been published in the mid-50s if Warnock had gotten to work earlier). Even making the adjustment for delays in these cases, one can still discern a broad first period of flowering from 1947-1960 or so, and a broad second period of flowering from 1967-1975 or so.

Matt: Right, the functionalism literature is one of the big contributions of the 1960s. Still, it's interesting in retrospect that the really influential works have turned out to be Putnam 1967, Armstrong 1968, and Lewis 1972.

Kosta: Note the restriction to analytic philosophy in the original question. I don't have any reason to believe that the phenomenon generalizes to non-analytic philosophy.

robert johnson

Well, if you put Gettier's paper plus Davidson's 'Actions..' paper into the mix, you get a lull of a couple of years. Right? And what about Lewis' 'Theoretical terms' paper? That seems to rank up there. No. The '60s were a golden age.


For what it's worth: Lewis, "How to Define Theoretical Terms", Journal of Philosophy 67:427-446, 1970. Though of course the thesis is not that there was no important work in the intermediate period.

Ignacio Prado

Goodman, Fact, Fiction, and Forecast

Grice's essays on meaning

A certain paper about justified true belief


With the same caveat as above: Goodman, Fact, Fiction, and Forecast, 1954. Grice, "Meaning", 1957. I take it that Grice's other most influential work was the "Logic and Conversation" lectures, delivered in 1967, with the most crucial bits published in 1975. (Though his 1961 and 1962 papers on perception are not exactly chopped liver.)


Setting aside the 1960s for a second, I'm interested in the view that the 1980s and/or 1990s are down decades. Admittedly, there's room to worry about perspective, given how little time has passed. Still, my own impression is that the view that there's been a recent dropoff is pretty widely held. Is this always the case? Do people always long for the good old days? It seems to me that many philosophers in the 1970s took themselves to be in something of a "golden age", while I don't think very many philosophers would say that now. I might be wrong -- I wasn't around in the 1970s, so I don't really know the mood of the time in a firsthand way. Anyhow, I was wondering if there's been another time (comparatively recently) at which philosophers have been so down on recent work as they seem to be now.

Kosta Calfas

Fair enough. I guess the only one on the list left is Hart’s Concept of Law.

Perhaps our criteria for evaluation and demarcation should be along the lines of Lakatos' demarcation of progressive and regressive research programmes in science, i.e. a progressive research programme is one which introduces at least one novel fact. Unlike science, however, philosophy does not strive for the introduction of new facts but new problems and methods for addressing those problems. Essentially, I’m agreeing with lenhart's "Kuhnian analysis".

If one were to try to argue that the 50's and 70's were "better" than the 60s (although I agree with Alva that "decades" probably aren't a fine-grained enough demarcation), one would have to show, under this definition, that the 60s failed to yield new problems or methods. We'd be saying, in effect, "if history is repeating or “regressing”, you're doing something wrong."

Likewise, while you can always point out famous or influential works of the 60’s, counterexamples would not properly address the Kuhnian or Lakatosian historical criticism that the intellectual hegemony was “better” or “worse” (i.e. gave rise to novel problems or methods) than another period. Fame and influence can also be based on doxastic agreement or compatibility with historical circumstances.

Ignacio Prado

Sorry, I originally breezed through the thread. (And hey, I wasn't actually alive! I just go by what my apparently Second Edition books and my Professors have told me). In all seriousness, I think the spirit of an earlier post is right: what ideas were generating a lot of philosphy in the 1960s, even if wasn't in the form of magnum opus type work (this was maybe the golden age of the individual essay making an impact, no?).

From what I have absorbed second-hand, it seems like what Quine, Chomsky, Grice, Davidson, Putnam, and Austin were doing generated a lot of new, explicitly theoretical work in the philosophy of language. What Putnam, Smart, Feyerabend, Rorty, Lewis, Armstrong, and Sellars were doing generated a lot of philosophy of mind. Kripke was having many of his most influential ideas. Nozick was doing his work on Newcomb's Problem and philosophical issues in decision theory were coming of age. Rawls' original essays on justice as fairness, which became the basis for his __Theory of Justice__, were being published. People were dealing with "grue" and Gettier counter-examples. Davidson and Anscombe's work generated a serious philosophy of action. Strawson, Shoemaker, Lewis, and others were reviving analytic metaphysics. Some work by Chisholm, Austin, and Lehrer broke down the roughly Anglo-American Compatibilist consensus and revived debate about Free Will. What would come to be known as "virtue ethics" had some of its foundational essays written during this time. "Naturalized epistemology"--and naturalized philosophy generally--were being formulated as research programs. Or so I've been told.

Justin Fisher

I'd like to echo Alva's thought that this apparent lull may be an artifact of when one gets one's philosophical training.

My *own* gut feeling is that the 80's were a livelier and more fruitful period than the 70's. Of course I'd be willing to admit that there was *some* good work in the 70's, yada, yada, but relatively little of it grabs me in the same way as a lot of 80's stuff.

I might be disappointed, but not too surprised, if this really is a consequence of my beginning my own philosophical training in the mid 90's, by which time the 70's had been pretty thoroughly exhausted, and 80's work constituted canonical sources for what were then contemporary problems. Insofar as Dave is roughly a decade older than me, you would predict that his gut feelings would favor the "opening-up" 70's over the "passe" 60's.

At any rate, I don't think that the methodology employed in the postings above (namely, list a few classic writings from the alleged lull, and see how big of oohs and ahhs these writings evoke) can resolve this. At the very least, we'd need a good sample listing for comparison from the allegedly fecund decades, and I'm not sure how you'd get these lists, or how you'd compare them. Anybody have good suggestions regarding how you might operationalize your claims?

Lacking such suggestions, my suspicion is that we're really just generating post facto rationalizations for intuitive prejudices that can likely be explained away (at least in part) along the lines that Alva and I suggest.


Actually, I didn't start formally studying philosophy until 1989, and think of myself as a creature of the 1980s. But in any case, I'm not sure that your attitude to the 1980s, as a philosopher of mind and cognitive science, is just an artifact of perspective. I think there's a reasonably widespread view that the 1970s were a period of especially significant activity in the philosophy of language, metaphysics, and political philosophy, while the 1980s were a period of especially significant activity in the philosophy of mind and cognitive science. See e.g. Tyler Burge's Philosophical Review paper "The philosophy of language and mind 1950-1990" for a version of this claim.

As for the decades since then, it's probably too soon to say. But maybe this way we can say that the 1960s were a period of especially significant activity in epistemology and the philosophy of science, and then everybody can be happy.


Well, the 60's weren't so shabby––it was a heady time in modal logic:

-Marcus's "Modality and intensional languages" (1961)
-Kripke's four seminal papers on the semantics of modal logic ("Semantical analysis"––parts I and II, the intuitionism paper, "Semantical considerations") were all published in the 1960's
-Stalnkaer's conditionals paper
-Montague's "Pragmatics"––though clearly not as important/influential as PTQ––was a 1968 paper

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