03 January 2010

Top 20 Philosophers???

The history of philosophy is about the long-haul, not this month or next week, so it really doesn't matter that I'm a few months late in learning that in the spring, blogger Brian Leiter has polled his readers and listed what they believed to be the top 20 philosophers of all time.

Follow that link, and I expect many will agree with me that that is an extraordinary list. Blaise Pascal isn't there. Neither is George Berkeley. Neither is William James! The list is entirely western: No Lao-Tzu, no Buddha. And in general it seems to value the more abstract realms of philosophy (metaphysics and epistemology) over those with a more practical bent (political, social, aesthetic).

The middle three on this list -- Frege, Aquinas, and Hegel at positions 9 - 11 -- are all vastly overrated thereby.

At any rate, the test produced an intriguing series of comments, including one who apparently thinks of Socrates as a fictional character invented by Plato. He said that including them both on the list is like including both Nietzsche and Zarathustra. Cute, though I can't really buy it. Like Leiter himself, I find the first six names reasonable enough.

Still, anyone working up such a list, or even voting and thereby contributing to a list in the collectivist methodology used here, ought to confront the basic ambiguity: vote for the twenty who seem to you most nearly right? or for the twenty who seem of most world-historical significance? or some combination of the two standards?

[Edited to correct some misstatements regarding the list.]


ciceronianus said...

No Dewey, either. The professionals continue to ignore this most sensible or philosophers.

Anonymous said...

Leiter said that Berkeley was a close runner-up for the top 20; probably in 21st place, which isn't too bad. I agree the pragmatists are getting the shaft, but the Eastern philosophers shouldn't be expected to be rated on a Western philosophy blog and readership; and Pascal is only famous for his wager.

Looking over the list, aside from Hegel and Augustine, I agree with every one on that list; I would replace Hegel and Augustine with James, Dewey, Pierce, or Quine.

Henry said...

The list states that it is of the "most important" philosophers, which seems closer to "of the most world-historical significance" than the "most nearly right." In any case, most of the philosophers on the list would not be on it if rightness were a criterion. We do not value Plato's platonic forms or Descartes' dualism or Locke's blank slate because we think that they may be right; we value them for their historical significance. With that as the criterion, it is evident that neither Christopher nor Anonymous give Hegel his due.

Christopher said...


I disagree with the claim that Pacal is remembered only for his wager. That was a valuable concise statement of a certain recurring form of argument, so it has acquired paradigmatic significance, but Pascal is important for much else.

Among mathematicians he is remembered for "Pascal's triangle," an important contribution to the development of the mathematics of probability.

Among historians of science he is remembered for his writings on air pressure and vacuums.

And among philosophers in a strict sense he is rightly remembered for a combination of scepticism and empiricism he learned from Montaigne, but to which he added his own personal flame.

Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.