Favourite philosophers

Over at Leiter Reports there have been (of the time of writing) two polls recently on favourite philosophers. Two questions were asked of a poll:

Who was the greatest 20thC philosopher?
Who was the greatest 19thC philosopher?

I may have changed the frame of the question: from favourite to greatest. In some respects, we always have a favourite that we are partial to, but a question concerning greatness extends beyond partiality. I decided that Bertrand Russell was the greatest philosopher of the last decade. I thought that this was the case, only after great reservation and much self-resent. I think that there are my favourite philosophers of the past century, these include:

1. Saul Kripke – his metaphysics of necessity and reference are very powerful ideas, one could almost be convinced by Kripke’s general approach

2. David Lewis – almost the antithesis of Kripke, but both put metaphysics into the agenda of general philosophy. The legacy of Lewis can be found in the debates that some metaphysicians have today, like Weatherson, Elga, Eagle, Nolan etc etc.

3. Donald Davidson/John McDowell – these two would be a contender but the choice of philosopher that would always be put on the shortlist of kinds of questions. Both McDowell and Davidson have interesting contributions to the philosophy of value, mind, and action. They are, like Wittgenstein, divisive philosophers are often tarred with association in quite a cliquey way.

4. John Rawls/Bernard Wililams – Rawls has an undeniable effect beyond philosophy. Rawls has popularised politcal philosophy and changed it from an area of philosophy that had faded into obscurity (like Kant scholarship) and had emerged into the hottest topics of our political discourse today (unlike Kant scholarship). Rawls is often mentioned in the social sciences. Williams is a challenging and in my understanding, enigmatic figure in metaethics and normative philosophy, but is a person who is often in the background of contemporary issues, such as in the discussion about reasons for action and Humean approaches in metaethics.

Honourable mentions:

a. Carnap – The Aufbau is a work that deserves more attention
b. Reichenbach – the quintessential philosopher of physical sciences
c. Wittgenstein – because of his influence on philosophy after him
d. Theodor Adorno – his work on popular music/jazz is very influential on social sciences, his culture industry notion is influential to all critical discourses in general

My favourite philosophers of the past century:

1. Stephan Korner – his theis of ‘categorial frameworks’ sounds very much like my own idea, and he is the one philosopher whose thought matches mostly to my own.

2. Jonathan Bennett – some people find his writing difficult, but this is true for his later work. Bennett, much more than Strawson, had made Kant respectable. In Kant’s Analytic and Kant’s Dialectic; Bennett has an interpretation of Kant which is both challenging and charitable and is matched only by the likes of Guyer and Allison. I think Bennett has gaps in his address to Kant, but I acknowledge his work was not for completeness but more a foil for his own ideas. I quite liked Bennett’s work on Spinoza, of which I have many more words about than I shall allow myself here.

3. Paul Guyer – the greatest and most difficult Kant scholar, living or dead. Although Guyer is living, he has a great mantle that any Kant scholar will find intimidating to take. Guyer’s work is difficult, historical, linguistic, exegetical, and sometimes, relevant to contemporary literature.

Why is Russell the greatest philosopher of the 20thC?

There are many reasons why Russell could be considered important: Russell brought logic and philosophy of mathematics to the forefront more than any other philosopher, he did so by his own work in the Principia, and theses concerning logicism and advocation of formalisation; but more so by his popularising of Wittgenstein and Frege.

Russell’s work on the philosophy of mind and psychology (which now is almost forgotten) was quite interesting and hard hitting. Russell knew his stuff in a time when quantum mechanics, developments in mathematical logic and psychology were at the state of the art. Russell’s theory of descriptions is influential, although not singularly important to claim to being the most famous of philosophers; neither is his writings on moral and political issues.

Few (if not none) else have had a public reputation as a philosopher more than he had during the 20thC. Russell addressed the issues of the day (perhaps a model that philosophers like Warburton, Baggini and Grayling purposely follow), and wrote beyond his topics of lecture. Russell engaged in broadcast media, such as television and radio (I particularly relish his radio debate with F. Copleston S.J. on the cosmological argument).

Perhaps the most sentimental appeal is that almost all undergraduates who begin study of philosophy read The Problems of Philosophy; which, after all these years, still forms the teaching stillabus of introductory philosophy.

In a following post I shall consider who was the greatest philosopher of the 19thC (perhaps an easier question).

Michael

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