A philosophy prof I had once was famous for dismissing the biggest names in the biz as idiots. Wittgenstein? “Master of the obvious.” Heidegger? “Charlatan.” Habermas? “Unreadable.” Finally, someone — might have been me — asked him who he thought was any good. He glared at the class, and listed the only decent philosophers, ever: “Aristotle, Leibniz, Bertrand Russell… and me.”
A short list for sure, but 3/4 of it had some pretty solid all-time top thinkers on it. A review this weekend in the NYT of a new book on the Wittgenstein clan has ruffled feathers amongst professional philosophers for declaring, without the courtesy of supporting premises, that Ludwig W was the greatest philosopher of the 20th century. When I read it I just sort of nodded to myself: If it is popular opinion you are after, or something close to it, Wittgenstein is your man.
The central problem with this question, though, is the basic divide in the discipline, between “analytic” philosophers (Russell, Frege, Quine, and their ilk) and “continental” philosophers (including the phenomenologists, existentialists, and the tradition running from Heidegger to Foucault and Derrida). Wittgenstein will tend to win any vote, since he’s one of the few people that people from both camps can stomach. Anyway, Brian Leiter put together a quick poll (and closed the voting too quickly, IMO) — you can check out the results here.
I got to the site too late to vote, but I’m not sure who I would have voted for anyway. When I was an undergrad, Saul Kripke was huge, as was Donald Davidson. Then in grad school, people went on this crazy Robert Brandom kick. I liked Kripke, never got into Davidson much, and didn’t read a word of Brandom. I went through a number of phases — Heidegger and Charles Taylor as an undergrad, Richard Rorty and then Daniel Dennett in grad school. The longer I’m out of the biz the more I appreciate Quine, but I also think that Peter Strawson’s book Individuals is one of the great underrated works of mid-century Anglo philosophy. But if I had to vote, I’d probably pick Rawls, if only because his impact on political philosophy was unparalleled, and political philosophy is the one area where philosophers have had the most influence.