Now that I’ve had a pause, I can now continue over the question of who was the greatest philosopher of the 19thC. Although philosophically, my interests are explicitly in the centrury of Kant, Hume, Newton, Leibniz, Lavoisier and Linneaus. There is a lot to be said about my more spiritual interests in the 19thC. I may be an 18thC appreciator in mind, but I feel mostly for the 19thC.
The 19th Century was one of the most interesting decades in history (excepting the ones that I have been born in). My piano teacher was born just after the end of it, and we find generations of great change on either end of it. Not long had slavery ended when the 20thC bloomed. The 19th century was the age of Romanticism. European culture had passed its classical period in music and literature, and had moved away from the formal to the expressive.
They say that Beethoven’s death marks the beginning of the Romantic period. As a piano player, I love most the music of Chopin, Rachmaninov, and the romantics I cannot even attempt to play. The Romantic period depicted in British literature is a hard time. Industry brought about poverty, but also much philanthropy. Philanthropy brought about the origins of welfare provisions which made us think more of the poor and suffering.
There was an opposition to ‘rational’ as if it were only part of the human story. The rational opposed the emotional, and was seen as rigid, boring, and empty. The polymath that was Blake epitomised this: Do not all charms fly/At the mere touch of cold philosophy?
The 19th century was, in philosophy, a century for the birth of the social sciences. In mathematics, there were philosophical developments that came to be appreciated in the next century, but the most immediate impact of the 19thC was the emergence of analytic psychology qua Freud, sociology and critical discourses through Comte, Durkheim, Weber, Simmel and Marx. Ideology and cynicism came to the fore in this century, Nietzsche was constantly polemical and Kierkegaard eschews a nuanced Christianity.
Who were the great philosophers of this period?
1. Comte/Durkheim: These two are not often seen as philosophers, but anyone who speaks to the contrary must damn themselves. Comte and Durkheim use empirical principles to apply to the understanding of people. Durkheim more than the former, considered formalisability to be the acid test of a good social science. Forget the work of what they did, but the spirit with which they gave birth to sociology.
2. Marx: I pick him because primarily of his influence, and the fact that we appeal to him often is a testimony of his greatness. In this day and age of the recession, capitalism is questioned. Just the very questioning of our system is Marx’s greatest legacy. Without Marx, we would not have had continental philosophy, or the critical discourses that have come since him: feminism, gender politics, the Frankfurt school, libeation theology..
3. Schopenhauer/Nietzsche: Nietzche and Schopenhauer are either misunderstood or ill-understood. Schopenhauer is partly distinctly anti-Kantian, and another part is distinctly tapping into the pessimism of intellectuals of the day. There was a sense of finding failure in the human condition, such that we are damned and the ones that realise it have no impact on improving the world. A response to optimism of the previous centuries was pessimism: looking at what technology had brought was not all positive, with the industrial revolution we have newer forms of oppression and poverty; suicide in Durkheim’s study, and Weber’s conceptualisation of the iron cage marked the century of depression. People make many things of Nietzsche into their own thought, but rarely is Nietzsche understood that well.
4. JS Mill: This is my actual choice of the greatest philosopher of this century. Mill is best known for his works on practical philosophy: On Liberty, On the Subjection of Women, Utilitarianism. All three are seminal works of their field, these alone make him a great philosopher, but to add icing on the cake, we should consider what was, his own master work which is now mostly forgotten. Mill’s A system of Logic is an inductive system which has influences among some philosophers of today, some of which I personally know and should not mention. Mill’s empiricism might be seen as radical particularly with the oft-mentioned aspect that he believed mathematics to be inductive and a posteriori. Mill was, to put in as most frank terms as possible, a genius. It was the influence of Harriet Taylor to which we find difficulty in determining the extent of his practical philosophy. This was a philosopher who, funny enough, has links to the greatest philosopher of the century afterwards (Russell).