Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Top Twenty List - Western Philosophers Division

Let the controversy begin… (Okay, so it isn't "Gentlemen! Start your engines." But, it's the best I've got.)
So, okay, here goes. A Top 20 Western Philosophers. In 4-part harmony. With 8 x 10 color glossy pictures with circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one explaining what each one was, to be used as evidence against us….

Let's start with the criteria. In the earlier email, I used "influence" as the primary (read, "only") criterion. However, I've rethought that a bit and changed it up. There are now four.

1. Influence on Western Thought subsequent to his/her contribution. (It would be quite hard to measure influence prior to his/her contribution, yes? Or maybe not. It should be "zero," right? Though, not according to one of my students some years ago who, in response to the question, "What is the Socratic Problem?" said, "Socrates's problem is that he asks too many questions. If he had just accepted Jesus, he wouldn't have had so many questions." For those curious as to the oddity here, check a timeline….)

2. Making/marking a significant shift in philosophical world view – e.g., marking the shift between Ancient/Classical philosophy and Medieval philosophy (e.g., Augustine).

3. Ranking shall not be limited to those known strictly as philosophers (thus, Darwin gets a hearing). For a pretty good place to find a list of potentials, see All of those suggested here are found there, too.

4. Left a body of work (this rules out Socrates, for example. And, Jesus, for those presidents who might be interested in philosophical matters… hahahahahaha)

Here's the list.

1. Plato ('nuff said)
2. Aristotle (yes, I know there is much debate here, but I'm leaving like this. Here's the thing… Without Plato, Aristotle is a half-rate collector of flora and fauna.)
3. David Hume (As Roman pointed out in an earlier blog, without Hume, Kant is adrift in a sea of dogmatic slumbering)
4. Immanuel Kant (which doesn't mean that he isn't absolutely and fundamentally important. Indeed, no philosopher since Kant can well make his/her way in the world without responding to Kant.)
5. St. Augustine (This is a bit of a promotion for him, however it is made in light of both of the first criteria. It is hard to argue that Augustine [Plato in drag] isn't the first philosopher of the medieval period – indeed, he is the philosophical tipping point from the classical period into the medieval.)
6. St. Thomas (Aristotle in drag and author of one of the most dizzyingly complex works in philosophy, Thomas is the medieval bookend to Augustine. And, as a Dominican [they who gave us the Inquisition, it is perhaps wise not to demote him further…])
7. Karl Marx (aka, he who makes Hegel something other than a minor footnote in philosophical history. And, as the underpinning of the spectre haunting Europe, I must agree with Roman here, too, and elevate the Karl)
8. Rene Descartes (There was some consternation at the lower ranking of Descartes. As Father of Modern Philosophy, he clearly makes and marks a significant change in the progression of thought. However, much of Modern philosophy is a diversion into a blind and stagnant channel – as the diversion into that channel, Descartes, despite my great affection for him, falls here.)
9. Marcus Aurelius (I still think that Aurelius is the preeminent representative of the Stoic school – especially since Mr. Spock isn't available.)
10. Leibniz (another entry from the Modern period, but Leibniz's contributions to mathematics, science, and philosophy of religion commend him to this place. The immense body of work left by this important philosopher is so vast that it has yet to be catalogued.)
11. John Locke (again, Locke's contributions to political theory [Thomas Jefferson, you get an "F" for plagiarism] and psychology [Blank Slate?!? Really?!?] commend him to this level. Actually, the blank slate bit probably should drop him a touch.)
[James - thanks for noticing the typo]
12. Freud (makes the list because of the influence criterion along with the third – not necessarily known as a philosopher. The thing is, in terms of critical theory, philosophy of mind, and calling the fundamental assumptions about sex and sexuality into question, Freud is definitely deserving. Okay, he was a very poor scientist, but how about this – a rationalist pshrink…)
13. Whitehead (influence far beyond philosophy, gentlemanly but devastating critiques of the Vienna Circle, utilitarianism, and Wittgenstein along with his profound influence on Einstein and the establishment of a framework for comparative philosophy/religion between East and West)
14. John Stuart Mill (Many might put Mill higher - after all, he "strode like a Colossus through the 19th century." Here's the thing - he's not even the best utilitarian of the 19th century - Sidgwick is the far greater utilitarian. Further, Whitehead killed Millian utilitarianism deader than a hammer. Mill's other contributions - The Subjection of Women, On Liberty - keep him in the top 20, but only barely.
15. Kierkegaard (The existentialist representative. Nietzsche doesn't make the list. Sorry, guys. Kierkegaard does some interesting stuff – although, the argument that he's not really even a true existentialist with the "utter dependence/absolute dependence on God" move, but at least he's not a derivative egoist who regularly violates the law of non-contradiction, Mr. Nietzsche.)
16. Epicurus (the hedonist without which we don't get Bentham or Mill)
17. Thomas Reid (with a bullet. The Scot is getting more and more good reviews – and, the thing is, they are completely deserved. Often overshadowed by Hume, Reid may be the most influential philosopher with respect to the Anglo-American developments in philosophy in the 19th and 20th century – particularly, the development of pragmatism)
18. William James (Reid advances beyond James, but James is gaining more and more status in my eyes. "The Will to Believe" has always gotten great reviews. His influence on psychology and philosophy of religion is unquestioned. He's ahead of Russell because he at least recognizes that ethics is part of philosophy.)
19. Jean-Jacques Rousseau (dropping down the list on my view. In fact, not sure he still belongs this high.)
20. Thomas Hobbes (Hobbes may well be the first Modern philosopher, although Descartes keeps the "Father" title. Hobbes has to be higher than Nietzsche – heck, so does Thrasymachus)
21. Michel Montaigne (Only here for two reasons. First, his version of the skeptical challenge can be argued to be THE turning point that marks the move from the Medieval to Modern philosophy. It is possible that he is the Father of Modern Philosophy. Further, his unquestioned influence on Shakespeare is worthy of mention.
Honorable Mention
Simone de Beauvoir
Jean-Paul Sartre
Isaiah Berlin
John Rawls