Rating the Philosophers


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.

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Rating the Philosophers

    • That…was utterly uncalled for…and much appreciated.:)

      • “And Wittgenstein was a beery swine Who was just as schloshed as Schlegel.”

        Thanks for that, CR. Great way to start my morning.

  1. Altogether, taking a large view, it may have been above all what was human, all too human, in short, the wretchedness of the most recent philosophy itself that most thoroughly damaged respect for philosophy and opened the gates to the instinct of the rabble. Let us confess how utterly our modern world lacks the whole type of a Heraclitus, Plato, Empedocles, and whatever other names these royal and magnificent hermits of the spirit had; and how it is with considerable justification that, confronted with such representatives of philosophy as are here today, thanks to fashion, as much on top as they are really at the bottom — in Germany, for example, the two lions of Berlin, the anarchis Eugen Duehring and the amalgamist Eduard von Hartmann — a solid man of science may feel that he is of a better type and descent. It is especially the sight of those hodgepodge philosophers who call themselves “philosophers of reality” or “positivists” that is capable of injecting a dangerous mistrust into the soul of an ambitious young scholar: these are at best scholars and specialists themselves — that is palpable — they are all losers who have been brought back under the hegemony of science, after having desired more of themselves at some time without having had the right to this “more” and its responsibilities — and who now represent, in word and deed, honorably, resentfully, and vengefully, the unbelief in the masterly task and masterfulness of philosophy. Finally: how could it really be otherwise? Science is flourishing today and her good conscience is written all over her face, while the level to which all modern philosophy has gradually sunk, this rest of philosophy today, invites mistrust and displeasure, if not mockery and pity. Philosophy reduced to “theory of knowledge,” in fact no more than a timid epochism and doctrine of abstinence — a philosophy that never gets beyond the threshold and takes pains to deny itself the right to enter — that is philosophy in its last throes, an end, an agony, something inspiring pity. How could such a philosophy — dominate!.

    — Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil 204, 1886.

    • JM
      Is man one of god’s blunders, or is god one of mans.
      All the interesting people aren’t in heaven.
      An interesting subject for a poet, would be god’s boredom after the seventh day.
      Excuse the paraphrasing.

      • Oh and …
        Insanity in individuals is rare, but in groups, parties, nations, epochs – it is the rule.

  2. Your pick, Rawls, sounds sensible. It’s been a long time since I read him, but as an undergrad he seemed huge to me. What sticks in my mind, though, is Allan Bloom’s “Justice: John Rawls versus the Tradition of Political Philosophy,” which I read years later.

    I’ve just pulled Bloom’s Giants and Dwarfs of the shelf and blown away the dust. A couple of sentences pop out: “He [Rawls] constantly returns to our common wishes and familiar experiences to make his undemonstrated conclusions appear convincing. He is persuasive because he supports familiar contemporary beliefs, not because he provides rational grounds for them.”

    Doesn’t that have a ring of truth to it? Or am I just falling for that old Straussian black magic?

  3. I would pick Rawls for same reasons.

  4. I lost my undergrad enthusiasm for Heidegger as well, but I still can’t help but think that he was onto something, something analytic philosophy avoided: what do we mean when we speak of being?

    In the end, Heidegger knew he wouldn’t be able to answer the question. But in those first few chapters of Being and TIme, it felt that he had hit upon a question and approach that was essential but too often ignored.

    So, he was probably a charlatan, though he asked an important question.

  5. Rawls seems a solid choice, he’s also one of the few accessible outside of the analytic tradition.

    I’ve been looking at graduate schools lately tho, and scanning what phD students are up to these days and a sizable chunk (around 80%ish) are working on Wittgenstein or at least consider him part of their ‘specialty’.

    I wonder tho, if it may be early to really measure something like this? Wouldn’t a better test of philosophical import/impact be the ability to remain relevant?

  6. Hume?

  7. Bernard Williams?

  8. You were my philosophy prof about 7 or 8 years ago. I recall enjoying your class.

    • Thanks… I enjoyed teaching. The grading I could do without tho…

  9. I’d add David Hume, my favourite philosopher. His writing on religion ranks right up there.

    • Hume rocks, though died a bit too young to make it onto the list of top 20th century philosophers.

  10. I vote for Rawls… but Lou Rawls.

    Need proof? Try to find any deeper philosophical musings than:

    You’ll never find, as long as you live
    Someone who loves you tender like I do

    And this:
    You’ll never see what you’ve found in me
    You’ll keep searching and searching your whole life through

    And this:
    Whoa, I don’t wish you no bad luck, baby
    But there’s no ifs and buts or maybes

    (I doubt if even Aristotle could punch a logical hole in that one.)

    And, finally, this:
    Whoa, I’m not braggin’ on myself, baby
    But I’m the one who loves you
    And there’s no one else! No-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh one else

  11. Apologies for nominating Hume. The 20th Century is too tricky for me but I do have a fondness for Strawson’s essay on Kant, “The Bounds of Sense” and Bernard Williams’ last book, “Truth and Truthfulness”. Strawson and Williams are hardly household names though. So what about Ronald Dworkin’s paper “Objectivity and Truth: You’d Better Believe It”? Or, with a view to causing a general rolling of eyes, what about Camus’ “The Rebel”?

    • Gil Harman did some very good stuff. His two papers explicating Quine on meaning and existence helped me enormously. Not digging the Camus tho.

      • As prefaced, I didn’t expect the Camus hint to go over well. But, I threw it in because – while it might not be as rigourous as, say, Quine or as programmatic as Rawls – “The Rebel” is certainly philsophical and has the advantage of armchair readability without being as off-putting or poseur-friendly as his novels. I throw in his childhood memoir as mitigation.

        And, for what it’s worth, I studied Wittengenstein as a grad student but have never really gone back to his work. Quine, I have.

  12. I like Victor Frankl – very interesting and a huge breath of fresh air after max hegel!

    • I’ll second Frankl.

  13. phenonenologists <- should be phenomenologists. Feel free to remove this comment when it is no longer relevant.

  14. Alasdair MacIntyre! I suppose he’s more a historian of ideas than a philosopher, but still.

    As for Rawls, he wrote an interesting book (A Theory of Justice), and then spent the next few decades backtracking. And he’s far too obtuse. However, he chose catchy names for his obtuse ideas. I’ve always thought that “The Original Position” and “The Burdens of Judgement” would be great band names.

    You mention Dennett. There’s some audio floating around the internet of a recent really odd debate between Dennett and Alvin Plantinga.

  15. Does John Stewart Collis count? The worm forgives the plough, was a wonderful book?

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