Saturday, June 01, 2013

'Worst Philosopher'

Tyler Cowen asks "Who is the worst philosopher?" The comments section is a remarkably amusing pile of utter ignorance in a state of pompous pontification. Cowen himself restricts it to philosophers of renown, which is a somewhat vague set, and concludes Husserl. I'm not a huge fan of Husserl, but this is, frankly, an absurd answer, even granted that the question is something of an absurd question. We don't even really get an explanation why, or any actual analysis of Husserl in comparison with other philosophers; in the comments, Cowen dismisses without much explanation the obvious reason to refuse to label Husserl 'worst', namely, his extensive influence on people who are obviously themselves not the worst, and the esteem in which they held him. Cowen suggests Plato or Hume as the greatest philosopher, and Aristotle and Nietzsche as the most overrated philosophers. I say this as very much a fan of Hume, but, if we were going this direction, it would be extraordinarily easy to argue that Hume is overrated: his current popularity is demonstrably Zeitgeist-driven and for the wrong reasons, having very little to do with Hume's actual philosophical activity, since it is very easy to find people attributing positions to Hume that are far less limited than he actually asserts. Plato is the obvious candidate for greatest philosopher, but it is an uphill battle to argue that Aristotle is overrated; the Prior Analytics and Nicomachean Ethics alone would still give him a serious claim to being one of the greatest philosophers in history on the basis of (1) substantive influence, (2) important argument and discovery, and (3) fruitful ideas. But saying that Aristotle is overrated as a philosopher is almost certainly like saying that Shakespeare is overrated as a playwright, or that Dickens is overrated as a novelist; we are dealing with a level for which 'overrated' could only possibly have an idiosyncratic meaning.

In reality, of course, it's a mistake to rank philosophers on a single scale; as Karl Jaspers pointed out, philosophers do very different things that are not all commensurable. Jaspers himself divided the field of philosophical greatness into six areas*:

(1) paradigmatic individuals, who provide by their practice extraordinarily influential models for philosophizing, namely, Socrates, Jesus, Buddha, and Confucius;
(2) seminal founders, who establish new large-scale traditions, namely, Plato, Augustine, or Kant;
(3) intellectual visionaries, who are the great philosophers whose excellence resides in a sort of conceptualization, like Spinoza or Leibniz;
(4) great disturbers, who are the great philosophers who excel at criticism, like Hume or Nietzsche;
(5) creative orderers, who are the great philosophers who excel at system-building, like Aristotle, Aquinas, or Hegel.
(6) specialists who excel at a particular area (e.g., aesthetics, or philosophy of law).

But it is clearly impossible to grade all of these different functions according to a single criterion. Critical problematics is a very different kind of activity from conceptual construction, for instance, with different ends, means, patterns of influence, and so forth, so greatness along one axis won't necessarily be relevant to greatness along the other, and weakness along one axis won't necessarily translate into weakness along another. People will of course end up answering such questions based on a mix of their (necessarily limited and flawed) understanding of the two and a half millenia history of philosophy and their own subjective taste.

If we're talking about taste, though, taste is only as good as its cultivation, which requires extensive experience, discriminative capacity and the ability to express it, and careful comparison. And that means only us historians of philosophy are competent to answer questions like this. The answer, of course, is that all major philosophers are underrated, taken absolutely, and you can't talk about about worst philosophers without asking specifically "worst at what philosophical activity", since there are provably many, and that Plato and Aristotle are the primary sources of philosophy in the West, and the Western philosophers who have been regarded as the most important philosophers by the most people who are serious candidates for being considered great philosophers, and such people are obviously the people whose opinion forms the standard of good taste in philosophy.

* Jaspers's scheme is, of course, only one of several possible. It's perhaps worth pointing out, however, that it is not arbitrary, since this criticism occasionally comes up. Paradigmatic individuals, great thinkers (2 through 5), and specialists have very different roles in the history of philosophy, and this can be traced fairly objectively by recognizing that the patterns of influence for each of these groups is very different. Among great thinkers, we have the vital activity of philosophy as conceptualization (3), analysis (4), and synthesis (5), and then unusual cases that combine these in ways that make it possible to build complex traditions on the basis of them (2). The problem with the scheme, if one wants to criticize, is not that it is arbitrary, or even wrong, since there is a great deal to be said in its favor, but that it is a scheme: if you take a philosopher like Berkeley, for instance, there is no way to capture both his chessmaster-like critical argumentation and his innovative theory of vision. Or, if we take Hume, how does emphasizing criticism really do justice to one of Hume's very great strengths, psychological observation, or the fact that Hume is quite deliberately system-building? Setting Aristotle down as a creative orderer simply doesn't do justice to his critical acumen -- Aristotle's entire systematic ordering is based on a thorough critique of previous philosophers -- or the extent to which Aristotle was inventing entirely new vocabularies for talking about entirely new fields of thought. In reality, of course, all philosophers do something of (3), (4), (5), and (6), so we must be dealing with proportions rather than set classes. And that, in fact, is certainly right.


  1. chris_huff2:06 PM

    The comments of the linked-to article certainly do display a rather Whiggish take on history. You certainly get the impression these folks' method of determining the best philosopher was identifying the person who held beliefs closest to their own (extra points if you didn't believe in a geocentric universe), which is why folks like Lucretius and Epicurus are just about the only philosophers who make it out of antiquity with any sort of dignity in a discussion like this.

    The whole idea that humanity was held back by Philosopher X putting forth an idea that turned out to be wrong is just silly, especially when applied to someone like Plato and Aristotle. Frankly, given the enormous output of Aristotle - from the large original contributions he made to certain avenues of thought to the development in new areas like Aristotelian logic, I don't see how he wouldn't at least be in the conversation for greatest philosopher of all time. I mean the guy provided an intellectual framework that was used for the next millennium and a half to grapple with the great questions of the day. It's certainly says something about our education system if people can get through higher ed without developing a richer understanding of one of the true giants of our intellectual heritage beyond him being the wacky guy who believed in stupid stuff like a geocentric universe and therefore held back all of the mindless zombies who succeeded him until some like Galileo came along and finally got the bright idea to question him.

  2. branemrys9:42 PM

    I think calling it Whiggish is even a bit generous; Whiggish views at least recognize progress, but there seem a lot of people whose historical accounts aren't progresses but cataclysmic events, dividing the world into before and after, with a bunch of people trying to make everything regress. It's as if they think everyone should have gotten the right answer (whatever that may be) in the first place, so that history isn't about progress at all but just about regress or lack of it.

  3. Cristian Ciopron1:02 AM

    It’s indeed a dumb topic; I didn’t read the
    thread, but I have been annoyed by similar silly things (like: Comte, or H.
    Spencer, was the worst philosopher ever; I am a big Comte fan, and I intend to
    read Spencer, because people like Bergson and Unamuno enjoyed, during their
    youth, his works).

    worst philosopher ever’ is, very likely, many would—be philosophers, and none
    of them made it into dictionaries, lexicons, etc.; it’s the same with movies—‘the
    worst movie ever’ is the many flicks directed by nobody directors, acted by
    nobody actors, with zero budgets and scripts—and not the newest flop or box—office

  4. Usually, by ‘worst’, people mean ‘scandalously
    wrong’, ‘annoyingly bad’, grievously or exorbitantly wrong, it’s an affective
    take, it’s about what annoys or puts them off.

    So, it’s more about
    payback, vengeance and resentment, symbolic punishment.

    Failure in
    philosophy, like everywhere else, is mostly about sloppiness and clumsiness,
    not about being dissed by angry bloggers. In the real world (that is, aside
    from paybacks and resent), Lenin wasn’t, perhaps, a very good philosopher; nor
    was Alfred Rosenberg, or several of the Ceau┼čist officials (like Gulian) who
    oversaw Romanian philosophy during Ceau┼čescu’s regime; not in the sense that
    they were ideologues, but in the sense that they were clumsy, not very good,
    muddled in their reasoning, unconvincing, sloppy, etc.. But these things aren’t
    very interesting, or spectacular to hear
    or find about.

  5. On another note, I cover some philosophy, but I think this link might be 'link-worthy' for your "Weblogs I Regularly View" widget:

    In Jesus, Mary, & Joseph,


  6. And on the other hand, cultural importance
    doesn’t mean philosophical greatness (and, changing what us changeable, we owe
    Peirce a lot, whether or not we recognize any philosophical value whatsoever); for some of the philosophers I enjoy, authors
    like Schopenhauer and G. Simmel (generally people from the Kantian heritage, or
    shaped by a certain German metaphysics), Aristotle didn’t count very much as a
    philosopher, although they must have been aware of his cultural place and

  7. What we can say is that he was great to some—not
    so great to others—not very used by Montaigne—or by Kant—or even by Hegel.

  8. But his place in the history of culture remains undisputed.

  9. If you mean "worst" in the sense of having done the most damage to Western culture over time, I'd vote for Jean Jaques Rousseau.

  10. MrMsungu4:14 AM

    With one quote of Aristotle you can pretty much write him off entirely: " It is clear, then, that some men are by nature free, and others slaves, and that for these latter slavery is both expedient and right."

  11. branemrys5:06 PM

    Actually, no; for one thing, very little of anything Aristotle says is based on this, and for another, the term he uses does not perfectly match up with our term 'slave', and for a third, Aristotle is actually criticizing the slavery practices of the Greeks as unjust by arguing that they are not in accordance with nature -- he is restricting, not expanding or maintaining, the sphere of those who could count as slaves. It is certainly true that he did not do so enough; but it doesn't change the fact that he is, in fact, attacking the practice of slavery, as it was practiced in his day, as unjust.

  12. Aaron4:12 PM

    You got this completely wrong... He was in fact arguing in favor of the Greek slave system, and the Oikos as a whole.

  13. branemrys5:04 PM

    Again, this is not correct. Aristotle was arguing not for the way Greek civilization was but was arguing for a Greek civilization that he thought was rational. Conflating the two will simply get you a misinterpretation of practically every Greek philosopher in existence. Nor is it exactly a new thing to point out that Aristotle's account of slavery appears to require it to be more narrow than it actually was in his day.


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