Everyone holds a wide set of beliefs that, although rarely brought to explicit attention, inform and structure the basic ways you go about navigating the world. For example, maybe you think you are a body and a mind and that these two aspects of your being interact somewhat mysteriously. Perhaps you take this idea for granted and assume it to be built in to every human’s self-understanding. However, we can trace the pervasive reach of this belief back to seventeenth century France in the philosophy of Renee Descartes, and even farther back to the origins of our intellectual tradition in the dialogues of the ancient Greek philosopher Plato.
Amazingly, you might hold this set of beliefs without ever having read a word of Descartes, Plato, or of any other historical thinker. This is because philosophy has always worked in the manner of a ghost haunting the house of our shared conceptual world without drawing too much attention to itself (except, of course, at university).
But, how long does it take for this level of influence to hit the mainstream? Just how influential are the philosophers who are philosophizing now, in the time of Starbucks and Pokemon Go? With the advent of mass media and global communications, the impact of contemporary thinkers can challenge and change held beliefs rapidly, worldwide. Although there isn’t any hard data on how many college-aged omnivores have converted to vegetarianism after reading Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation, the influence of his arguments for animal rights can be seen in the framing of ongoing public policy debates over animal agriculture, factory farming, and scientific experimentation.
In the arena of foreign policy, philosopher Noam Chomsky is the most prominent and widely cited critic of America’s support of the internationally contested Israeli occupation of Palestine, appearing countless times on popular media outlets like NPR’s Democracy Now. Princeton philosopher Cornel West is among the most well known public intellectuals in the world, having helped bring the issue of race to the forefront of national political discourse, shaping, for instance, the focus of discussion at the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.
More often than not, professional philosophers go unseen, resigning themselves to a life of obscure, challenging, and sometimes thankless work. If you’ve ever expressed your own thinking by way of concepts like “paradigm shift,” “cognitive dissonance,” “intersectionality,” or “social construct,” you can be sure that some philosopher somewhere has already gone to work on you.