Favourite philosophers (2)

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).


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).