Jul 16, 2005

The history of philosophy by influence

The BBC has up a list of the 10 most influential philosophers – one of those exercises that is half fantasy baseball for nerds and half intellectual mapping – and some of the neocalvinists have followed suit.

I don’t think Popper ought to be on the list. I’m thinking “influential” means “changed the face of philosophy, or even the way we think,” and I don’t think Popper will survive the next 200 years except, perhaps, as a contemporary and rival of Wittgenstein’s. I think the BBC ranks Marx too highly, for Marx’s influence was mostly on world politics and not, actually to the way we think. To the extent he shaped our thinking he was, I think, reading Hegel. I could be wrong about that.

Gideon Strauss's list I think cants too much towards the political, which is a general disagreement I have with Gideon's philosophy. His understand of Modernism, e.g., is primarily political while I think the politics follows from the epistemology, like Locke’s political philosophy follows from his idea of the tabula rasa. So I would not include Machiavelli or Hobbes, and I don’t think Locke was the most influential philosopher of his school or generation.

My list:

1. Socrates/Plato – Necessarily combined, these two inaugurate philosophy with the ideal of abstraction and the metaphysicalist project. They radically moved past the religio-ethical thinking you'd find with the Stoics or the Hebrews, created "philosophy" and changedwhat it means to think.

2. Descartes – On my map, Descartes stands at the absolute center, where everything can be measured by its distance from him. He is, I think, the most brilliant thinker among a slew of brilliant thinkers. He suffers for this. In thinking the most clearly about the epistemological turn, he fails to really obscure the foundational problems with foundationalism.

3. Heidegger – If philosophy is metaphysics, Heidegger is the end of philosophy. His work on Being is the most sophisticated and thorough, his “turn” to language is shattering, and his later philosophy has yet to even be really explored. He’s the point where phenomenology and existentialism come together and remakes both of those schools. While not the most influential, he is arguably the greatest philosopher.

4. Wittgenstein – Brilliant and concise, LW is claimed and debated everywhere and he most effectively and influentially shows the linguistic turn of both analytic and continental philosophy. He’s also captured the imagination of more thinkers than any other philosopher.

5. Hegel – His dialect cracked philosophy’s addiction to dualisms, opening new possibilities and saved philosophy from strangling itself into Logical Positivism.

6. Aquinas – The greatest Christian philosopher, though in close competition with Augustine, whose “Aristotle and Jesus” project formed the face of Christianity and the west and to this day is the default Christian system of thinking.

7. Nietzsche – I know more people who have had their lives dramatically affected by reading Nietzsche than by reading anything or anyone else. I am leery of his work, and haven’t undertaken it like I will have to, but I do not believe one can understand and experience the condition of our world without feeling his sense of tragedy.

8. Saussure – He was in linguistics, not philosophy, yet his argument that meaning happens not by the reference of sign to object but by the relationships between signs was dramatically influential.

9. Augustine – He would top my list of theologians, his words having given shape to all the traditions of Western Christianity. As a philosopher, his critique of skepticism is the best, his Aquinas-like project of unifying neoplatonism and Christianity and his eventual lack of confidence in their compatibility, his doctrine of a Just War, and his doctrine of man are vital to the course of thinking in the west.

10. Hume – He’s normally known for skepticism, but I find him of more influence in his idea of the possibility of the end of philosophy, of a final resolving.

Considered but not included: Kant, because I’m uncomfortable with him and his project and can’t trace his line of influence; Derrida, because even though I think he’s incredible and give him a lot of my time, I don’t know completely unique influence he will have specifically on philosophy; Anselm, because he’s know too narrowly for his ontological argument to be top-10 significant.

I’d be interested in reading a list by Garver, who I know has a better and broader understanding of the history of philosophy than I do, Sam would be able to tell me about Frege, Quine, and the analytics, GC, who I’ve just started reading, Berek, and Talcott.