Greatest Philosopher of the Twentieth Century

by Harry on March 1, 2009

I imagine that everyone in Philosophy is discussing the NYT review which asserted, without qualification, that Wittgenstein was the greatest philosopher of the 20th century. Leiter proposes to settle the issue once and for all with an internet blog poll. Go and vote. (I haven’t voted because I don’t know the answer. Carnap? Sellars? Moore? Merleau-Ponty? or, perhaps, John-Paul Sartre….

{ 261 comments }

1

zach 03.02.09 at 12:00 am

heidegger was the last philosopher

2

dm 03.02.09 at 12:03 am

None of the above, its Douglas Adams by acclamation.

3

Nick Valvo 03.02.09 at 12:08 am

Martin Heidegger would be my pick, too.

Of course, I kind of wonder what ‘greatness’ consists of. Originality? Influence? Thoroughness? Clarity? I kind of suspect it’s just a question of style, but what constituents of greatness one chooses probably ordains one’s choice.

How about Sigmund Freud?

4

Dave Maier 03.02.09 at 12:09 am

The problem is that there are a whole lot of Wittgensteins. Not only early and late, but also this interpreter’s version as opposed to that one’s. (I voted for mine.)

I won’t disclose who the current leader is, at 19%. Bright guy but not my cup of tea, philosophically speaking. No love for Gadamer yet, which is a bit suprising.

5

chris 03.02.09 at 12:15 am

Whitehead, obviously. Actaully, I’m thrilled Leiter even thought of him.

6

Jonathan Lundell 03.02.09 at 12:17 am

Holt’s judgement is somewhat balanced in the article by that of his subject.

My only serious complaint about the book concerns Waugh’s glancing treatment of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s philosophical work. He dismisses it as “incomprehensible” and attributes Wittgenstein’s influence to his “striking looks, manner and extraordinarily persuasive personality.”

Leiter omits William James, presumably on the grounds that he more properly belongs in the 19C, but surely his most interesting work was after 1900. Absent James, I guess LW is as good a choice as any, on the grounds of pervasive influence, if nothing else.

7

Brian 03.02.09 at 12:19 am

Harry, you’ve just destroyed the scientific validity of the results with this link! Now we’ll never know…

8

yoyo 03.02.09 at 12:36 am

Sacre Bleu! It’s Jean-Paul Sartre, not John-Paul Sartre!

9

DaveMB 03.02.09 at 12:38 am

Russell and Whitehead and Hegel and Kant
Maybe I shall and maybe I shan’t
Maybe I shan’t and maybe I shall
Kant, Russell, Whitehead, Hegel et al.

from The Space Child’s Mother Goose

10

onymous 03.02.09 at 12:41 am

This non-philosopher is baffled: who is David K. Lewis (OK, Wikipedia gives me a clue), and why does he get so many votes relative to so many people I’ve heard of?

11

Matt 03.02.09 at 12:45 am

Of course I don’t think Leiter means this to be anything more than a mild amusement, and even that only ironically, I’d guess. But more seriously, I suspect we’ve not had enough time to consider many of these people’s achievements (or lack there of.) Two thoughts come to mind- one from Thomas Nagel somewhere noting how no one would have thought, even in the very early days of the 20th century, let alone the end of the 19th, that Frege and Pierce would be thought to be two of the more important philosophers to have mostly worked in the 19th century. And, someone making a joke somewhere (I wish I remembered who it was) about how some day a 23rd (or so) century equivalent of Quentin Skinner would write about how of course everyone knew that Brian Barry was the dominant and most important political philosopher of the 20th century, but if you really wanted to understand what he was on about, you had to read this other, much more obscure philosopher working at the same time, John Rawls…. This _sort_ of thing, that seems plausible enough to me, makes me hesitate strongly before having any opinion. (Not that I think it much matters, of course- it’s just fun.)

12

dsquared 03.02.09 at 12:45 am

Slightly surprised at so little love for Karl Popper, who was the only serious competitor to Wittgenstein while both were alive.

13

larry c wilson 03.02.09 at 12:49 am

William James

14

onymous 03.02.09 at 12:49 am

Slightly surprised at so little love for Karl Popper, who was the only serious competitor to Wittgenstein while both were alive.

They’re afraid of being beaten with a poker.

15

rea 03.02.09 at 12:58 am

Richard Bach

16

tom s. 03.02.09 at 1:25 am

“settle the issue once and for all with an internet blog poll”

If Kenneth Arrow won it, would he be automatically disqualified?

17

Dan Kervick 03.02.09 at 1:28 am

I also vote for David Lewis. I continue to learn from him every day.

18

Ben Alpers 03.02.09 at 1:35 am

Brian Leiter (on his blog): Unfortunately, the poll has now been linked from sites with lots of non-philosophical readers, which is likely to skew the results in predictable directions.

If John Emerson has a Bat Signal, it’s just been activated….

Surely an internet poll of (mostly) “philosophical” readers is itself not “scientific” (I’ll assume Brian had his tongue at least slightly in cheek). And while I think it is interesting how Leiters regular readers answer this poll, I think it’s also interesting how intellectuals in general and the general reading public would answer it (sort of like those “Greatest President” polls that include results both from historians and from the general public).

Finally, a serious question: does Leiter’s readership draw evenly from among professional, academic philosophers, or would a poll confined to that readership itself “skew the results in a predictable fashion” (e.g. David Lewis’s close, second-place position before the unwashed masses were invited in to take part)?

19

Deliasmith 03.02.09 at 1:42 am

On Popper: counts as British, I guess, so NYT readers discount him.

20

ben 03.02.09 at 1:55 am

(I’ll assume Brian had his tongue at least slightly in cheek).

Leiter doesn’t even have a tongue.

21

MH 03.02.09 at 2:02 am

I voted for Bertrand Russell because he was the only one I’d read who didn’t annoy me in some way or another.

22

Paul Gowder 03.02.09 at 2:02 am

Greatness is so multidimensional. Lewis for flair and sheer chutzpah, Davidson for the shock and awe value of being completely incapable of understanding anything he says, Russell for, you know, starting the whole 20th century philosophy thing. So I voted for Rawls. Because, well. Rawls.

23

Matt 03.02.09 at 2:58 am

On Popper, I assume he’s not getting much support because most of his major positions are now held by very few philosophers- the belief that there’s a clear answer to the demarcation problem and that the falsifiability test provides it, Platonism and the “third realm” idea, and a fairly goofy form of dualism where the immaterial mind can effect matter if matter is _really, really, small_. Now, maybe Popper will win out in the end and people will come back around to these positions or something like them, but most all of them are highly out of favor at this time.

24

jim 03.02.09 at 3:25 am

I was torn between Tarski and Whitehead, but in the end decided the Banach-Tarski paradox weighed heavier. I at least pushed Tarski into double digits.

25

harry b 03.02.09 at 3:45 am

MH — read his autobiography.

yoyo, you have to click the link and listen for a while to have an inkling of why I misspelled “Jean”

Brian — I’m actually feeling pretty guilty, and am sorry, It did occur to me, but you didn’t request no links, so I went ahead. I really wish I’d waited 48 hours and given you fair warning of the link. Sorry.

26

Adam Kotsko 03.02.09 at 4:00 am

So exactly how did Leiter come to have this “gatekeeper” function in the field? He strikes me as being to analytic philosophy what non-scientist “science advocates” are — all the attitude and then some (particularly against “continental philosopy,” his supposed discipline), but none of the rigor. He establishes that he’s an “analytic philosopher” by expressing dismay at how many votes Heidegger’s getting and leaving Derrida off entirely, whereas actual analytic philosophers establish that they are such by going to the trouble of solving philosophical problems that, while arguably a bit narrow from certain perspectives, are actually difficult.

27

lisa 03.02.09 at 4:10 am

I know some people that are going to be hopping mad that Frege didn’t make the list. This is going to be like that list of the 100 greatest novels that probably just showed that a list of the 100 greatest novels will be wrong in at least 99 different ways.

28

Russell Arben Fox 03.02.09 at 4:16 am

The correct answer is Heidegger, of course. But I fault the test on two grounds: one, any poll on this subject matter that doesn’t attract even one vote for Gadamer plainly isn’t reaching enough people who actually know what they’re talking about, and two, any poll on this subject matter that doesn’t even list Charles Taylor as a choice has to be treated as completely blinkered from the start.

29

John Quiggin 03.02.09 at 4:18 am

Presumably, Wittgenstein is benefitting substantially from a framing effect here.

30

MH 03.02.09 at 4:27 am

Given that Russell’s autobiography would take a while to read, I read his Wikipedia page instead. Based on that, I’m sure you are correct.

Also, the voting is closed.

31

Matt 03.02.09 at 4:39 am

Lisa- the majority of Frege’s most important work was done in the 19th Century. A few important papers come out in the tens or early teens, but by far his most important contributions were before 1900, making it more plausible to think of him as a 19th century philosopher.

32

Michael Bérubé 03.02.09 at 5:01 am

How can it be a serious poll if it doesn’t have Ayn Rand?

33

dsquared 03.02.09 at 8:02 am

So exactly how did Leiter come to have this “gatekeeper” function in the field?

I once ate a meal cooked by a noted author of restaurant guides; it wasn’t much good.

34

JoB 03.02.09 at 8:28 am

Donald Davidson, Donald Davidson, Donald Davidson …

Because he’s the only one that attempted to bring together the thought of all of the others on a list like this.

Then again, maybe he really is more of a 21st century philosopher who happened to publish a century too early.

I also started out hating him because I didn’t understand any of it but with some dedication it’s pretty much logic (which is quite the reverse of Heidegger in all possible aspects).

35

Phil 03.02.09 at 8:40 am

Why so many votes for Russell? Who the hell is David K. Lewis? And where, O where, is Husserl? (If I had two votes Wittgenstein would get #2, I have to admit.)

36

David Wright 03.02.09 at 9:24 am

Good to see so many votes for Russell!

Wittgenstein had some great insights, but when faced with an enigma he would tend to sit back and revel in it, whereas Russel always had the good sense to roll up his slevees and get to work analyzing it with the most precision and clarity he could muster.

While his primary contributions are obviously to epistimology, he did good work in the philosophy of languge, ethics, and political philosophy; that’s a breadth of serious work with which few others can compare.

And in terms of sheer influence he’s hard to compete with; limiting ourselves to names on the ballot, I count: Carnap, Kripke, Lewis, Popper, Putnam, Quine, Searle, Tarski, Whitehead, and, of course, Wittgenstein.

37

Neil 03.02.09 at 10:13 am

dsquared, Adam, you don’t need to like Leiter or the function he has appointed himself to, but there is no doubt at all that he is a competent philosopher.

38

Chris Bertram 03.02.09 at 11:10 am

If figures as minor as Rorty, Dummett, C.I.Lewis, Dewey, Cassirer, and Deleuze get included, then why not Ryle or Austin?

39

Nick Valvo 03.02.09 at 11:47 am

But CB: «Un jour, peut-être, le siècle sera deleuzien!»

40

Scott Martens 03.02.09 at 11:53 am

George Carlin. Period. No one else comes close, although honorable mention goes to Douglas Adams.

41

Chris Bertram 03.02.09 at 12:19 pm

#39, Peut-être, mais le lendemain, il ne le sera plus.

42

jholbo 03.02.09 at 12:25 pm

Wittgenstein.

43

Tom Hurka 03.02.09 at 12:47 pm

Re Wittgenstein (a horrible influence on philosophy, in my opinion):

At the Edinburgh Festival in 1977 I saw a wonderful play called ‘Ludwig and Bertie.’ It was about Wittenstein and Russell … and Bertie Wooster. You see, Russell and Wittgenstein have agreed to meet, for the first time, in the Trinity College, Cambridge library, which happens to be where Bertie Wooster is going to meet this new man he’s hired, called Jeeves. (He’s going to the library to find an ethics book and read about this ‘categorical aperitif.’) Well, various misidentifications follow, with Russell thinking Bertie is Wittgenstein (and utterly unsuited to philosophy) while Wittgensein thinks Bertie is Russell (and the stupidest man he’s ever met). It all reaches its climax when Russell encounters Jeeves, who’s of course been the Wittgenstein family butler in Vienna and taught Ludwig everything he knows. How, Russell asks him, can the sentence ‘The present king of France is bald’ be meaningful if there’s no present king of France? ‘May I venture to suggest, sir,’ Jeeves replies, ‘that we can analyze this sentence as saying that there is one and only one x such that x is the present king of France and x is bald?’ Fantastic!

My (or a) nominee: W.D. Ross, the greatest historian of philosophy of the 20th century and, at the same time, author of one of the century’s best, if not the single best, books of moral philosophy. With none of grandiose obscurity of many of the other leading names (including Rawls) on Leiter’s list.

44

CK Dexter 03.02.09 at 12:54 pm

Wittgenstein, Lewis, and Russell? Seriously?

This list shows we clearly need a Most Overrated Philosophers of the 20th Century Poll. I think the results should be the same. Wittgenstein, though, by a landslide. Tractatus is very good, but Philosophical Investigation is a sloppy amalgamation of superb examples unanalyzed–unanalyzed, because there’s no longer a philosopher in the vicinity to do the work.

Possible-worlds-are-real-Lewis? How does any one take this guy seriously? It’d be like including Plantinga.

45

dsquared 03.02.09 at 12:59 pm

I love the way that all the people who don’t like Wittgenstein seem to basically end up arguing against him by pointing and saying “See! This man isn’t doing philosophy properly!”

46

CK Dexter 03.02.09 at 1:11 pm

“See! This man isn’t doing philosophy properly!”

It’s not a matter of “properly” but “at all.” It’s why the Buddha and Jesus and Ayn Rand ain’t philosophers, either. Shewing the fly that there’s a bottle isn’t shewing its way out of crap.

Re: 26:
“He establishes that he’s an “analytic philosopher” by expressing dismay at how many votes Heidegger’s getting “

Where did he say this? I didn’t see a comments section. I’m dismayed by how low Heidegger’s results are.

47

JoB 03.02.09 at 1:23 pm

And obviously it will lead to this: a discussion that the one type of philosophy is better than the other – which is why Davidson is the greatest because he stands in the line from Frege to Quine, AND he managed to say something sensible about people like Gadamer.

(the dividing line will bring all of the usual early against late Wittgenstein discussion up here as well: see 44, there is merit in pointing out the need for analysis, and this merit does not need to include a successful analysis – there may be even value in pointing out what can’t be analyzed & why it so resists analysis without going to abyss of philosophy-as-a-minor-branch-of-poetry)

48

matt mckeon 03.02.09 at 1:38 pm

Can no one link to the drunken philosopher’s song from Monty Python? O the humanity!

49

CK Dexter 03.02.09 at 1:42 pm

“see 44, there is merit in pointing out the need for analysis, and this merit does not need to include a successful analysis – there may be even value in pointing out what can’t be analyzed & why it so resists analysis without going to abyss of philosophy-as-a-minor-branch-of-poetry”

Very true, but I still maintain Wittgenstein fails to do anything with his examples: he doesn’t point out what can’t be analyzed or why it resists analysis. The continental tradition is full of thinkers who do the latter, and do it much, much better, than Wittgenstein does.

As for the abyss: I happen to like Tractatus because it is both a beautiful piece of poetry and a brilliant, though failed, work of true philosophy.

50

engels 03.02.09 at 1:52 pm

One of the clearest testaments to Wittgenstein’s greatness is surely the obsessiveness of his detractors.

51

Chris Bertram 03.02.09 at 1:55 pm

#50, oh if that were a test of greatness, there’s be an awful lot of great philosophers ….

52

JoB 03.02.09 at 2:00 pm

CKD – I won’t convince you if he can’t convince you but it’s difficult to ignore the fact that there are quite a number of examples that were at least enough to inspire others*. More: if you do like philosophy sounding like poetry surely you have to be endebted to the great Witt for giving you Ordinary Language Philosophy!

* that would be, like, 95% of everybody else (not death before the Tractatus) on the initial list

53

CK Dexter 03.02.09 at 2:02 pm

“One of the clearest testaments to Wittgenstein’s greatness is surely the obsessiveness of his detractors.”

A better route might be for those who agree with the assessment tosay something specific about why they think he’s a particularly great philosophy. And posting his glamor shots or telling cute stories about his life doesn’t count.

JoB made a thoughtful contribution on this score, even if I disagreed.

But perhaps a clear testiment to a Wittgenstein fan is a tendency for high-minded Silent-Remaining. At least on matters of why.

54

dsquared 03.02.09 at 2:07 pm

I really find myself wanting to reformat #53 as a series of numbered aphorisms:

114:A better route might be for those who agree with the assessment to say something specific about why they think he’s a particularly great philosophy.

115. And posting his glamor shots or telling cute stories about his life doesn’t count. (JoB made a thoughtful contribution on this score, even if I disagreed).

116. But perhaps a clear testiment to a Wittgenstein fan is a tendency for high-minded Silent-Remaining. At least on matters of why.

55

Tom Hurka 03.02.09 at 2:16 pm

Well, Wittgenstein’s central example of a concept that can’t be analyzed is that of a game. But he didn’t exactly try hard, did he? A brilliant analysis of the concept of a game, as ‘the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles’ is in Bernard Suits’s book The Grasshopper: Games, Life, and Utopia. It kicks Wittgenstein’s ass.

56

ejh 03.02.09 at 2:29 pm

#55: you forgot to declare your interest….

57

dsquared 03.02.09 at 2:32 pm

117. An imagined conversation: “Using a blog comment thread to promote a book that you wrote the introduction for without mentioning the fact? What’s your game, laddie?”

118. But this is not what we would normally call a game. Or is it?

119. Trolling philosophers by accusing them of shilling their books – a fine afternoon’s amusement! But what is the unnecessary obstacle to be overcome? Perhaps this is not so simple after all.

58

dsquared 03.02.09 at 2:34 pm

And also, I am nobody’s idea of a Wittgenstein expert, but if you think that the point of the games example was that “game” is an unanalyzable concept, you’re pretty badly traducing him.

59

Antti Nannimus 03.02.09 at 2:35 pm

Hi,

According to the poll, Ludwig Wittgenstein is the greatest 20th century philosopher. –But is this true? What is the meaning of “greatness”? In fact, what is the meaning of “meaning”?

Pogo: “It was a finger-of-speech–I apologize.”

How can it be a serious poll if it doesn’t have Pogo? It seems this notion that Wittgenstein is the greatest 20th century philosopher has been a presumption.

Have a nice day!
Antti

60

CK Dexter 03.02.09 at 2:46 pm

“I really find myself wanting to reformat #53 as a series of numbered aphorisms:”

dsquared, the correct format is: 114, 114.1, 114.2…

” game, as ‘the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles’ “

That’s the best definition of a game I’ve ever heard. Case in point: poetry _and_ philosophy. Exhibit B: Pogo. Though my vote’s for Harpo: that’s philosophically remaining silent.

Re: 52
“it’s difficult to ignore the fact that there are quite a number of examples that were at least enough to inspire others”

I wonder if this is true? Is Wittgenstein’s popularity principally among those who’ve read him, or rather those who’ve read his bio or heard him referenced on The Simpsons? Maybe he’s the P.B. Shelley of 20th century philosophy. Or maybe he’s so inspirational because he leaves us to do all of the work for him? ( I should clarify that I do think he’s a “great” philosopher, which doesn’t disqualify him for “most overrated.”)

“if you do like philosophy sounding like poetry surely you have to be endebted to the great Witt for giving you Ordinary Language Philosophy!”

Oh god, no. Good poetry only — most poetic philosophy is rubbish. Plato was the only consistently good philosophical poet. Maybe Freud is a candidate for second place.

61

novakant 03.02.09 at 2:47 pm

Yeah, the Dark Knight is the greatest movie evaa, like, totally, 1 BILLION BUCKS, so there, and if you like Slumdog you’re like totally GAY or something and the Oscars suck bigtime coz DK wuz ROBBED!

62

JoB 03.02.09 at 2:51 pm

CKD,

JoB made a thoughtful contribution on this score, even if I disagreed.

But you didn’t (disagree), now did you? Unless tacit disagreement counts as disagreement, or the mention of disagreement suffices to count as disagreement — neither option seems to be a very attractive one ;-)

PS: my man is Davidson, Donald Davidson to be precise!

PPS: I think he (the great not-so-witty Witt) did a good job of analyzing ‘games’ – a tremendous job in fact and it was clearly stated as well – maybe even a poetic classic on the words necessary & sufficient

63

belle le triste 03.02.09 at 2:53 pm

I like the ideas of the philosophers LW proved were unnecessary proving they are in fact indispensible by demanding to have his work explained to them, bcz they don’t get it.

64

Hidari 03.02.09 at 2:54 pm

What a strange list. No surprise that Wittgenstein and Russell get the highest scores, but…no Marxists? At all? And why such a high score for Heidegger when Husserl isn’t even mentioned? You might like or hate either of those philosophers but the simple fact is: no Husserl … no Heidegger.

Likewise to reiterate Chris Bertram’s point, why Wittgenstein and no Ryle or Austin?

I might also be politically correct and note that it is simply taken for granted that ‘philosopher’ is automatically assumed to mean ‘male philosopher who wrote in English, German or French’.

65

JoB 03.02.09 at 2:55 pm

CKD – cross-post, sorry. More on 60 later. Call it 60.1 for all I care ;-) Now I know that you are in the ‘philosophy can never be science’-camp so the add-on question would be: “why bother in these slumberings” or in the words of Ricky Gervais: “Are you having a laugh?”.

66

ejh 03.02.09 at 2:59 pm

That’s the best definition of a game I’ve ever heard.

It’s not that great as a definition. It’s a very good description of a central aspect of game-playing, but it doesn’t really define, does it?

67

CK Dexter 03.02.09 at 3:06 pm

“But you didn’t (disagree), now did you? Unless tacit disagreement counts as disagreement”

I took this to be the substantial statement of disagreement: “Wittgenstein fails to do anything with his examples: he doesn’t point out what can’t be analyzed or why it resists analysis.” Much of Wittgenstein consists of presenting the example, in “So there!” or “take that!” fashion (cf. belle la triste’s question-begging argument). But he often doesn’t seem to do more than that. (Often, of course, not always — I think the discussions of language games and family resemblances are great, e.g.)

“‘Now I know that you are in the ‘philosophy can never be science’-camp”

I don’t think I am, though I am in the philosophy (and science!) aren’t incompatible with poetry camp, and are often compatible with bad poetry camp. I’m not having a laugh, I seriously think there are philosophers who did what Witt is trying to do better than he did.

68

belle le triste 03.02.09 at 3:17 pm

taking sides: question-begging versus rent-seeking

69

Matt 03.02.09 at 3:19 pm

_but…no Marxists? At all?_

Adorno was a sort of Marxist, was he not? A particular sort, of course, but, not being hugely well read in his work, I would have certainly thought of him as a _sort_ of Marxist.

Hidari- I’d agree that Ryle and Austin are as plausible as some of those on the list, but I’d not think they are as plausible as Wittgenstein. Whatever his merits or lack there of, he’d be someone you _might_ think to include, while that seems pretty unlikely for Ryle or Austin (though I’m fond of both of them.) It’s a bit like arguing that Reggie Miller was the greatest basketball player, or Mike Mussina the greatest pitcher of the last 50 years.

70

Chris Bertram 03.02.09 at 3:30 pm

#69 There’s quite a few sort-of Marxists for a bit in there: Adorno, Sartre, Foucault, Putnam.

71

ScentOfViolets 03.02.09 at 3:36 pm

I don’t read philosophy at all except in snippets, maybe a book here or there: why is Wittgenstein considered to be so good? The one philosopher I consistently read – at least the popular stuff – is Daniel Dennett. He seems to be much more substantive than Wittgenstein. Oh, and I’ve read a bit of Popper too (introduced via Martin Gardner), though people tell me that a lot of what is attributed to Popper isn’t really his, but rather extensions by his students. What makes him the lesser figure in comparison to Wittgenstein? Are we talking about influence just on other philosophers, or influence outside the field? Etc.

72

JoB 03.02.09 at 4:02 pm

Hidari-64, why not Grice? Because they are not on the A-list. Why not? Ask Mickey Rourke.

ejh-66 – there are many games that are non-voluntary and that require you to overcome some very necessary obstacles

73

Phil 03.02.09 at 4:04 pm

Dennett describes himself (at the back of Consciousness explained) as a Wittgensteinian, or as someone who wanted to move on from being a Wittgensteinian. So there’s one answer: no Wittgenstein, no Dennett.

And no Dewey (on the list)! Fearsomely unfashionable these days, but still – no Dewey, no Rorty. (And no Rorty, no bad thing, but since he is on the list…)

74

JoB 03.02.09 at 4:12 pm

CKD,

Peace! (I think you missed my apology for cross-posting)

I think we pretty much agree on everything but employ different yardsticks. By my measure it is incredible to have 2 really good discussions (Davidson only barely mustered 3, and he is my favourite!). Obviously many have done it better, many have lived after him to profit from what he did and what Carnap did and what Quine did and what … that’s the way of philosophy: it’s not fair for those not coming last ;-)

(all my thanks goes to Carnap for this very beautiful point)

Ah yes, your parallel to The Simpsons is not on: the references I count are not by you and me – but by the ‘A-list’ of philosophers presented in the original topic.

75

grackle 03.02.09 at 4:31 pm

It seems to me that Leiter has missed a bet in limiting it to only the greatest philosopher. There should be many more categories. A few of the possibilities-

Most engaging, on first reading – Heidegger

Most ridiculous – Heidegger on Art (shorter Heidigger on art, “ I don’t know anything about art but I know what I like.)

Most engrossing, without further thought – Foucault

Most ridiculous misapplication of philosophy – Derrida

Most apt to be found in a dark room and to confuse it with being in the sun – Sartre

Most stultifying texts – the competition here is ever so great

The possibilities here are almost limitless.

Greatest philosopher of the 20th century – Gurdjieff, “I teach that when it rains, the pavement gets wet.”

76

Dave Maier 03.02.09 at 4:40 pm

JoB (#34) likes Davidson “[b]ecause he’s the only one that attempted to bring together the thought of all of the others on a list like this” – or, that is, that “he stands in the line from Frege to Quine, AND he managed to say something sensible about people like Gadamer”.

Davidson would have been my #2 choice, and this is indeed a good reason why. But it’s an even better reason for my #1 choice. On my reading (note my caveat at #4), Wittgenstein incorporates Davidson (et al) even better than Davidson incorporates Wittgenstein (and perhaps we can forgive him for not mentioning the man by name).

What I mean by that is this, and this will have to serve for those demanding an explanation from fans. Put the later Wittgenstein to one side for now. Follow the line of thought from Frege to Quine (which of course has some later W. in it already). Davidson’s extension of Quinean thought cuts to the heart of the empiricist project. Once we see the scheme/content dualism as yet another version of what Quine has rightly rejected, and see how Davidson’s picture works (esp. the later Davidson, from the late 80’s through the 90’s), then you find yourself asking ever thornier questions about how philosophy works once we learn – or in order to learn – how finally to leave Cartesianism and platonism behind. (Of course not everyone wants to do that.)

And here’s where Wittgenstein will turn out to have been three steps ahead of you the whole time. People (here as elsewhere) knock Wittgenstein for pointing at things and asking questions rather than giving rigo(u)rous arguments for the truth of P (or even, bizarrely, trying and failing). This is indeed a risky procedure. If you don’t see what he’s doing, then it will look pointless and weird. But I have found time after time that what looks like an offhand remark in the Investigations makes just the connection that helps one to, well, find one’s way around.

But as they say, your mileage may vary. If you aren’t convinced, I can only point you to Subjective, Intersubjective, Objective and Truth, Language, and History. (Both are essential, but those new to Davidson will have to start with Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation to see how the later picture grows out of the earlier – though Davidson himself thought he was saying the same thing throughout).

77

Hidari 03.02.09 at 4:41 pm

#70: Adorno…apologies I didn’t see him. The others, I think, are not primarily thought of as Marxists.

However I think my other point is much more important…perhaps i’m deluding myself with ideas of ‘progress’ (must be the Hegelian in me….) but I like to think that the equivalent list of 21st century philosophers compiled in the early 22nd, would have its fair share of Chinese, Indian, African, South American and Russian philosophers…or maybe even (gasp) a woman.

78

Paul Gowder 03.02.09 at 5:23 pm

It is kind of grim that someone can vote in this poll without even knowing who David Lewis is (#35). Brian oughta have included a pop quiz before you get to answer the poll.

79

CK Dexter 03.02.09 at 5:29 pm

JoB

“Peace! (I think you missed my apology for cross-posting)”

Yes, I did, and peace, likewise.

“By my measure it is incredible to have 2 really good discussions”

That’s sensible, and raises an interesting question about greatness measuring. How do we compare philosophers with one or two superb ideas to philosophers with many great or many, many good ideas? In my choices, I’d probably look for someone with at least one truly groundbreaking contribution, and consistent steady good ideas over a long period of time. A similar question could be raised about importance in terms of influence. Are the most influential the most deservingly influential? Is their influence a beneficial one? And so on.

#76:
“If you don’t see what he’s doing, then it will look pointless and weird. But I have found time after time that what looks like an offhand remark in the Investigations makes just the connection that helps one to, well, find one’s way around.”

Agreed on the absence of “offhand” remarks. In individual sections I think his presentation is very thoughtful, very conscientious, very intentional. But I must still insist that it’s possible to understand what he’s trying to do, to not find it pointless and weird and, yet, still, conceivably (though it stretches the imagination to the breaking point), believe he’s failed or done a less than effective job of “shew”-ing what he thinks he’s shewing.

Yes, the point is to show, not tell. But one can do so unsuccessfully. I suppose his reputation might be seen as evidence of success, but it may also be an example of how saying less allows the reader to see what they want to see.

80

N. N. 03.02.09 at 5:49 pm

44: “Philosophical Investigations is a sloppy amalgamation of superb examples unanalyzed—unanalyzed, because there’s no longer a philosopher in the vicinity to do the work.”

What counts as analysis?

55: “But he didn’t exactly try hard, did he? A brilliant analysis of the concept of a game, as ‘the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles’ is in Bernard Suits’s book The Grasshopper: Games, Life, and Utopia. It kicks Wittgenstein’s ass.”

Sigh.

An important sense of ‘greatest’ is ‘most influential.’ Wittgenstein has a claim to that title in the 20th-Century. The logical positivists (Carnap, in particular) are heavily indebted to the Tractatus and to Wittgenstein’s work in the early 30s. Indeed, the characteristic features of logical positivism are simply taken over from Wittgenstein. And no one exerted a greater influence on so-called ‘ordinary language philosophy’ than Wittgenstein.

81

Ken C. 03.02.09 at 5:55 pm

It’s indisputable that Robert Frost was the Greatest Poet of the twentieth century, while John Philip Sousa was the Greatest Composer of military marches. Any fool could see that Steven Purugganan is the Greatest Sport Stacker born in the twentieth century. However, I think it’s a matter of legitimate debate whether Leon Norman Williams or Richard McP. Cabeen can claim the crown of Greatest Philatelist of the twentieth century. Only time can tell.

82

Hidari 03.02.09 at 6:00 pm

Isn’t it interesting that we all get terribly het up about ‘who was the greatest philosopher’ and yet no one gives a toss about ‘who was the greatest dentist’ or ‘who was the greatest welder’ of any century? And yet welders and dentists (especially the latter) have a much more concrete impact on our lives than philosophy.

Perhaps a better list might be the greatest ‘welders who were also philosophers’ of the 20th century or ‘dentists who also happened to be conceptual sound poets’.

In the latter, my vote goes for Bill the dentist*. He’s great.

*Also known as Bill the conceptual sound poet (and dentist).

83

Phil 03.02.09 at 6:01 pm

#85 – you’ll be happy to hear that this ignoramus didn’t in fact cast a vote. (Never heard of C.I. Lewis either. I’m not yet persuaded that I’ve been missing much.)

I see Leiter explains his exclusion of Husserl (rather unpersuasively) and actually does include Dewey; there go both my objections so far. So I’ll add that excluding Searle is odd, excluding Bhaskar is unfortunate, excluding Lyotard and Baudrillard is understandable but wrong, and excluding Derrida is ridiculous.

84

Adam Kotsko 03.02.09 at 6:15 pm

I don’t see what’s so wrong about an educated public consisting of philosophers and non-philosophers voting in such a thing. Let’s say that there was a vote to see who the greatest Christian theologian of all time was. I assume that a generally educated public would come out strongly in favor of Augustine and Luther. A group of theologians would probably be in the same ballpark. It’s different in the 20th century because fewer people, even educated people, have heard of many of the candidates — but the same holds for philosophy. I wouldn’t really object to people voting for Hans Kung or Rowan Williams by default. They’re not my favorites, but presumably there’s a reason they are better-known than my favorites, such as being a major protest figure in the RCC or being Archbishop of Canterbury.

Similarly, Freud, Dewey, or Sartre are probably better known than David Lewis — presumably because they’ve all had impact in fields other than philosophy and also actually “done stuff” (founded a whole new discipline, worked in educational reform, and been a polymath/activist). Same with Foucault, arguably, and Foucault’s the one you see in the bookstores. It seems perverse that such things are regarded as extrinsic or even as prima facie evidence against someone’s greatness as a philosopher. (I would argue that this is more prevelant in the analytic camp than in the continental camp — but Heidegger’s “life achievements” outside of philosophy are actually negative overall, and he’s still “the greatest.”)

85

Dave Maier 03.02.09 at 6:16 pm

CK:

“Yes, the point is to show, not tell. But one can do so unsuccessfully.”

Of course. I doubt we agree on what W was trying to show though. As you say,

“[W’s reputation] may also be an example of how saying less allows the reader to see what they want to see.”

It is indeed explicitly designed to allow the reader to look for him/herself. And I’ve already copped to looking for something in particular. Having found it (and seeing why, as W. explains in the preface, it would be much harder to show in other ways), I have no complaints about this procedure (do we condemn the hardware store for merely having the right tool in stock instead of fixing my car itself?). Of course I have Davidson (and McDowell and Cavell, also missing from the list) to help me connect the dots. This does mean, I agree, that W isn’t for everyone, and so maybe not deserving of victory here given the state of contemporary philosophy. And I think he of all people was insistent on that.

86

CK Dexter 03.02.09 at 6:46 pm

Dave,

“Of course. I doubt we agree on what W was trying to show though.”

True enough, and I think that would be a fine basis for a case that the doubters don’t “get” Wittgenstein. But I still object to those who suggest that to disagree that Wittgenstein succeeded proves one has failed to understand him.

“This does mean, I agree, that W isn’t for everyone, and so maybe not deserving of victory here given the state of contemporary philosophy. And I think he of all people was insistent on that.”

A good point, taken. If I am right to understand Wittgenstein’s view of philosophy as, in some sense, the bottle he’s trying to guide us out of, the “greatest philosopher” designation amounts to something like: the most insightful bottle-dweller?

87

Harry 03.02.09 at 6:52 pm

Paul Gowder — to be fair, if I hadn’t jumped the gun, no-one would have voted who doesn’t know who David Lewis is.

Lewis was brilliant. But I suspect that his good showing is better explained by sociologists of the profession than by members of the profession itself. (In general the recently dead have an advantage over the long dead). What is striking to me about the list is that no-one on it can compete with the greatest philosophers of the 19th century, the 18th century, or the 17th century, and that despite the fact that enormously more social resources were devoted to studying and doing philosophy in the 20th than in those other centuries.

88

ejh 03.02.09 at 6:55 pm

Plato, footnotes

89

Marty Beach 03.02.09 at 7:02 pm

…And Wittgenstein was a beery swine
Who was just as schloshed as Schlegel.

90

Matt 03.02.09 at 7:04 pm

_What is striking to me about the list is that no-one on it can compete with the greatest philosophers of the 19th century, the 18th century, or the 17th century_

I might say that it’s too soon to say this for sure, but I mostly agree. I think two main, connected, points are mostly responsible. First, specialization is much more common now, making it hard to make very important contributions to lots of areas. I also suspect that, with more social resources devoted to philosophy, there is a very high level of work done in small bits by lots of people, and that this makes it hard for individuals to stand out as much. (I have in mind something like Stephen J. Gould’s writings on genius and sports stars and the like.) This in turn feeds the specialization. That said, I think that only Aristotle and Kant have really first-rate claims to being the greatest philosophers, as no others seem to me to have made as many important contributions to so many fields.

91

Dave Maier 03.02.09 at 7:21 pm

CK:

“If I am right to understand Wittgenstein’s view of philosophy as, in some sense, the bottle he’s trying to guide us out of, the “greatest philosopher” designation amounts to something like: the most insightful bottle-dweller?”

Sort of, but this sounds like the Rortyan/skeptical “end-of-philosophy” reading I find misleading. I see W as more continuous with the tradition than that (thus my only slightly facetious “pre-Davidsonian” exegesis above). So no, I don’t cede “philosophy” to the Cartesians and the platonists. Now that I know what it is, I can explain my attitude in other terms, without mentioning W at all (or only a little bit!). I’ll be happy to throw W under the bus (as the saying goes) as long as I get what I want, philosophically speaking. I just don’t think I have to do that.

92

Paul Gowder 03.02.09 at 7:33 pm

Matt, what about Plato? Hume? (I suppose I can’t get anyone else to buy Mill.)

93

Tom Hurka 03.02.09 at 7:37 pm

#56, #57

So mentioning a book I’ve praised before counts as having an ‘interest’ and ‘shilling’? I get 2 cents for every copy sold — I didn’t think that was worth mentioning, but maybe you guys would sell yourselves for that amount.

And dsquared, you know about as much about Wittgenstein as you do about international law. On which topic, you might want to consult the British military’s Manual of the Law of Armed Conflict (OUP, 2004), secs. 2.72 and 5.22.1. But hey, the authors are only senior military lawyers who’ve spent their lives thinking about these questions and you’re …. a guy who posts on a blog.

94

bartkid 03.02.09 at 7:52 pm

Bill Watterson.

And not just because he was able to answer Wittgenstein’s question about how do you speak to large canine animals.

95

Kevin Robbins 03.02.09 at 8:32 pm

#55, #93

Kieren Setiya had an interesting discussion of this issue a while back on his Ideas of Imperfection blog. I believe the link is here: http://ideasofimperfection.blogspot.com/2008/01/ant-and-grasshopper_17.html

He cames to a rather different conclusion than Tom Hurka does, however. Though I haven’t read the book to which Hurka refers, if Setiya’s comments are at all right, this doesn’t look like a very promising counterexample to Wittgenstein.

96

Matt 03.02.09 at 8:36 pm

Paul- I’m biased against Plato because I find him so boring, but I also think that a couple of things keep him from ranking quite with Aristotle or Kant’s as a contender for the very top spot- he didn’t make what seem to me to be very important contributions to _quite_ as many areas (nothing good on science, say, like we see in Kant or Aristotle, and his contributions to logic and the philosophy of mathematics seem much more dubious to me than either Kant or Aristotle’s), and I think too many of his arguments are bad- the argument from equivocation is one of his favorites. Others will disagree, of course, and I don’t think there’s really an answer here. Hume is closer, and if we were considering “greatest thinker” rather than “greatest philosopher” I’d be more inclined to put him in because of the importance and influence of his _History of England_. There’s philosophical importance in that, too, but indirectly. Mill I’d put a step down from Hume because so much of his work outside of moral and political philosophy now seems not only wrong but not to be or have been extremely fruitful, though of course there’s debate on that and some aspects of it (“Millianism” in the philosophy of language, insofar as it can actually be traced to Mill, for example) have had a stronger influence.

97

g 03.02.09 at 8:45 pm

bartkid@94, “canine” is wrong as regards both W’s.

Tom Hurka @ 93, my reading of dsquared is that he isn’t accusing you of shilling, merely suggesting that ejh was doing so. Or are you actually objecting to his #58, and claiming that the point of what W. said about games *was* to suggest that “game” is an unanalysable concept?

98

dsquared 03.02.09 at 8:53 pm

#93: gosh, how jolly grown-up philosophers are these days. I am indeed aware of those two paragraphs, and of this IIHL document where I suspect you googled them. I don’t agree with you on their interpretation; I would be prepared to discuss this, but you’ll appreciate that the nature of the blog medium is such that I can’t possible afford to set the precedent that the way to attract my attention is to make a rude intervention on an unrelated thread. So basically, I’ll just note what kind of a humourless boor is capable of holding down a job as a professional philosopher these days and move on.

First, specialization is much more common now, making it hard to make very important contributions to lots of areas

hmmmm … although this is also true of the natural sciences, and there you’d have to say that ten randomly-selected winners of the Nobel prize this century would almost certainly be able to hold their own with anyone from previous centuries except Newton, Darwin and Galileo.

99

harry b 03.02.09 at 8:59 pm

Matt — Kant would disagree with you on that one, I think. (Hume).

100

ejh 03.02.09 at 9:04 pm

So mentioning a book I’ve praised before counts as having an ‘interest’

If you praise a book and it so happens you wrote the Foreword, it’s just good practice to mention it. I’m sure you know this. It’s probably less good practice to get huffy if somebody points out your inadvertent omission. I’m sure you ought to know this too.

101

JoB 03.02.09 at 9:07 pm

Dave-76, CDK-79,

There’s little I can find disagreement with but as this is a blog thread I’ll just have to try harder ;-)

No, Davidson has to come before Wittgenstein because of the Carnapian argument: the science of philosophy progresses so anybody working out a previous idea well must be the better thinker. I’m serious here. I mean it. It would be hilarious if somebody said of Darwin that he produced the best biology ever.

Harry, that’s also why your nostalgia for the old folk is misplaced. Kant may be greater for the amount of progress he made in one step but a blanket statement like yours is an essentially counterproductive one.

Discussing who is or has the greatest is harmless until the point you take it seriously – it is not something one can measure or should measure; time will tell and even then those that do not make the A-, and not even the B-, list will have made their contribution. For every Carnap you have a Schlick, for every Schlick a … They’re all great if they further the state of philosophy and all bozo’s if they don’t and pricks if they didn’t try, but only wanted to be on the A-list.

(a tear comes to my eyes, I’m moved by myself, how is that possible?)

102

dsquared 03.02.09 at 9:07 pm

1.41.1: You pass me in a quadrangle, and a man shouts at us “2.7.2! 5.22.1!”. I say “Don’t worry, this fellow isn’t mad. We’re just trying to score points off each other from an argument we had three months ago.”

1.41.2: Although we are trying to score points, and he is putting up unnecessary obstacles, this isn’t a game.

1.42: If someone thinks I’m ignorant of paragraph 2.7.2, why would he start asking me questions about it?

1.42.1: Perhaps he wishes to show that he himself is absolutely familiar with it. But surely if that was the case, he’d have mentioned it three months ago? Surely nobody would act so high and mighty if he’d only found out himself last week?

1.42.2: In philosophy, we do not always behave as we do in ordinary conversation.

103

N. N. 03.02.09 at 9:07 pm

58: “[I]f you think that the point of the games example was that ‘game’ is an unanalyzable concept, you’re pretty badly traducing him.”

93: “[Y]ou know about as much about Wittgenstein as you do about….”

The admitted non-expert has the better of this exchange. In his “Games and the Good,” Hurka seems willing to admit that there’s a lack of fit between the use of the English ‘game’ and Suits’s definition (Hurka, for example, takes reading a novel to be ‘playing a game’ on Suits’s definition). But this is already to concede the point to Wittgenstein. This is perfectly clear on even a moderately careful reading of the relevant passages of the Investigations.

104

Anderson 03.02.09 at 9:13 pm

who is David K. Lewis

Lewis is the greatest philosopher of the 20th century, in some universe or other. Though probably not in this one.

105

JoB 03.02.09 at 9:14 pm

LOL

106

Anderson 03.02.09 at 9:15 pm

Discussing who is or has the greatest is harmless until the point you take it seriously – it is not something one can measure or should measure

Ah, but tell that to someone writing his syllabus for “20th Century Philosophy Survey.”

107

Paul Gowder 03.02.09 at 9:20 pm

Matt: What Harry said. It’s hard to say that Kant was clearly greater than Hume when most of Kant’s most interesting work is a direct response to earth-shattering challenges posed by Hume — challenges still with us today.

On the other thing, the intentionally obscure old debate, I’m taking Hurka’s side on this simply because I really liked Perfectionism, and whatever this debate is about, it looks rather silly, so may as well just side with the person who wrote the good book.

Also, Lewis: whatever else one can be said about him and the sociology of philosophy, counterfactuals matter. And so does convention.

108

Paul Gowder 03.02.09 at 9:21 pm

(Also, dsquared, do you really deny you’re playing a game? Really?)

109

parse 03.02.09 at 9:23 pm

Unfortunately, the poll has now been linked from sites with lots of non-philosophical readers, which is likely to skew the results in predictable directions.

In which direction was he predicting the results would be skewed? What was the basis for the prediction? Was he correct?

110

strategichamlet 03.02.09 at 9:30 pm

“despite the fact that enormously more social resources were devoted to studying and doing philosophy in the 20th than in those other centuries”

These resources weren’t provided to make philosophers individually better, but to push philosophy forward as a decipline, although the 20th century may come up short in that regard as well.

“ten randomly-selected winners of the Nobel prize this century would almost certainly be able to hold their own with anyone from previous centuries except Newton, Darwin and Galileo.”

The 20th century was a very productive time for natural science, but I think you over state things. In part this is probably because a lot of the earlier contributions to natural science were from people we mostly think of as mathematicians (e.g. Gauss, Euler, Lagrange). Also, the 19th century had its fair share of greats: Hamilton, Boltzmann, Faraday, Maxwell, Tesla, etc.

111

dsquared 03.02.09 at 9:37 pm

Also, dsquared, do you really deny you’re playing a game? Really?

I’m always playing a game, although not always the one you think ;-)

(1.45: I know how to play a game. But do I know how to really play a game? Do I really know how to really play a “game”? (This ought to do – repeat as necessary and bugger about with the fonts if you need to fill another page. I’ll be down the pub, it’s my darts night – LW)

112

Anderson 03.02.09 at 9:37 pm

counterfactuals matter

Man, tell it to Wikipedia.

… if Lewis actually has anything that bears on this, I’m interested. I don’t see how one can say that Midway was an important battle if one can’t discuss “what if Japan had won the battle,” which requires contemplating things that aren’t true and are by definition unknowable.

The same would seem to apply to “most important 20th century philosopher” for that matter.

113

Dave Maier 03.02.09 at 9:37 pm

[Hurka:] “So mentioning a book I’ve praised before counts as having an ‘interest’ and ‘shilling’? I get 2 cents for every copy sold”

I agree, that’s not even close to a shilling.

[JoB:] “No, Davidson has to come before Wittgenstein because of the Carnapian argument: the science of philosophy progresses so anybody working out a previous idea well must be the better thinker. I’m serious here. I mean it. It would be hilarious if somebody said of Darwin that he produced the best biology ever.”

Yes, but that’s not the same thing as being the best biologist ever. In any case, that was the point of my claiming Wittgenstein, once one absorbs the lesson of the later Davidson, to have been “three steps ahead the whole time.” Ahead of me, at least. And only time will tell if that’s really the way to go.

114

Ayuda May P. Favor 03.02.09 at 9:57 pm

“No, Davidson has to come before Wittgenstein because of the Carnapian argument: the science of philosophy progresses so anybody working out a previous idea well must be the better thinker.”

But there is no science of philosophy. I suppose you could say there is a science of formal logic, but philosophy isn’t only formal logic.
That’s the absurdity of Leiter. And he doesn’t claim that philosophy is science so that the relation of his philosophy to science is of the earthy superman to the absent god: sympathetic vibration=analogy. Philosophy as reductive literature
Never mind Witt’s aphorism’s Leiter comes off as one of Socrates’ cardboard opponents.
L – “I am a professional philosopher”
S -“And how did you come to have this profession?”
L- “I went to school. I have a Ph.D. But what right do you have to ask me such questions. Do you have a Ph.D. as well?”
S – “No. But do I have no right to ask a question?”

And on and on.
The foundational truths of philosophy are in the academy, just as they used to be in the church. Onwards to the 13th century!

115

Kieran Healy 03.02.09 at 10:20 pm

if Lewis actually has anything that bears on this, I’m interested.

Let me Google that for you.

116

Brian 03.02.09 at 10:28 pm

Harry and Chris: why, or why, do you permit comments on threads pertaining to matters philosophical? “The less they know, the less they know it” barely does justice to half of the preceding. On the other hand, there is the pleasure of watching someone who actually knows something, Tom Hurka, do battle with the ignorant. And kudos, as always, to Matt and Paul for trying to introduce a little reason and knowledge in the midst of this mess.

Harry, I agree with you that none of the 20th-century figures compare favorably with the historical greats. But I have to take issue with Matt regarding his elevation of just two, Kant and Aristotle, above the others. No one doubts that Kant was an important philosopher, but since he was wrong about everything–everything, as far as I can see–it’s hard to see him deserving such special status, certainly not when compared to Hume–or dare I mention Nietzsche?–who were right about so much.

Chris, I suppose there’s a case for Austin, harder to see the case for Ryle, given my original listing of 30. Voters seem to have concurred with you on Dummett. Anscombe is the other I somewhat regret not adding in the first round of this game, even though she surely would not have garnered more than a handful of votes. I, myself, was disappointed not to see more votes for Sartre. And the strong showing by Lewis (not to mention Rawls) is clearly myopia brought on by so many students (and students of students) voting.

E-mail me any further thoughts, since I’m done here. And promise not to link to the run-off!!!

117

Brian 03.02.09 at 10:30 pm

I should add that I posted the preceding before the latest inanity from Ayuda appeared. Aren’t you folks embarrassed to have readers this dumb?

118

Phil 03.02.09 at 10:47 pm

I commend Dowd’s Postulate:

Years ago my mother used to say to me, she’d say, “In this world, Elwood, you must be,” – she always called me Elwood – “In this world, you must be oh so smart, or oh so pleasant.” Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant. You may quote me.

119

Matt 03.02.09 at 10:51 pm

_or dare I mention Nietzsche?_.

I guess I’d put Nietzsche about on the same level as Mill- very important, clearly “great”, whatever that means, someone everyone should read at least some of and that people can fruitfully spend a lot of time reading, working on, and reading, without being a narrow specialist (like, say, a Fichte specialist or something. There’s lots of room in philosophy for people specializing on lesser figures [see Harry’s ‘social resources’ comment], but hopefully people realize that that these are lesser figures.) But, I’d not think he would be a contender for the “top philosopher” spot just because he doesn’t make significant or lasting contributions to too many areas. He obviously has lots of suggestive ideas all over, ones that can be mined and useful, but not much sustained work on epistemology, logic, philosophy of science, etc. in the same way that he does meta-ethics, moral psychology, some aesthetics, and similar areas. Not that there’s any shame in being in the same rough category as Mill, of course! I suspect that only a small handful of 20th century philosophers will do that well.

120

Anderson 03.02.09 at 10:56 pm

Ha! Hadn’t seen that site, Kieran. Hilarious.

But I think I had something in mind a bit more narrow than “counterfactuals,” though admittedly a little broader than “counterfactuals re: Battle of Midway.”

Anyway, if Lewis’s work *does* interestingly address such issues, I will have to take a look …

121

Pablo Stafforini 03.02.09 at 10:58 pm

My own pick would have been C. D. Broad. I was disappointed not to see him nominated, though I agree that, like Anscombe, he would have received only a few votes. (Perhaps one from Tom Hurka?)

122

Anderson 03.02.09 at 11:01 pm

No one doubts that Kant was an important philosopher, but since he was wrong about everything—everything, as far as I can see

I confess to having thought as much, back when I was taking a graduate seminar on Kant.

The value of “philosophers who were (and are) wrong” would comprise an interesting comment thread in itself. As, I now understand, it apparently does, somewhere.

Is the word for “philosophy that is wrong but studied anyway” … “Continental”? Or is it just “philosophy”?

123

Righteous Bubba 03.02.09 at 11:13 pm

Let me Google that for you.

Thank you for Googling that for me.

124

dsquared 03.02.09 at 11:54 pm

someone who actually knows something, Tom Hurka

I’m sure he does, but it’s apparently not good manners (a lacuna he apparently shares with Prof. Leiter), it’s not international law, and it’s not what he wrote in the introduction to a book about games twenty years ago, so if he’d hurry up and bring it on, all the “professional” philosophers could slap each other on the back, continue to congratulate each other on how much smarter they are than the ignorant multitude, and then wonder why another five philosophy departments closed down this month.

125

dsquared 03.03.09 at 12:02 am

Surely, by the way, the fact that hardly anyone in the general but largely educated readership of CT knows who half the philosophers listed are, and that nobody seems willing or able to explain, ought to be considered at least a danger sign relating to the health of modern analytic philosophy? It seems that the general public don’t care about this kind of philosophy at all, and professional analytic philosophers both a) don’t care about the general public enough to explain it to them and b) don’t care enough about their philosophy to explain it to the general public. I don’t really see how banning CT comments on philosophy-related threads is much more than an ostrich solution to this problem.

Academic disciplines do die out, you know. A hundred years ago, philology was the cornerstone of nearly every major university. Nowadays … well, there are still some philologists left, but well, who cares?

126

tom s. 03.03.09 at 12:36 am

Most people would not be able to vote usefully on the top biochemists of the 20th century, but biochemistry seems to be doing OK.

127

JP Stormcrow 03.03.09 at 12:37 am

128

Ayuda May 03.03.09 at 12:59 am

tom s.
But philosophy is not a science. If it were DD’s point would be irrelevant.
Here’s a link
to a philosopher arguing that a scientist may be right on the science but is nonetheless wrong on the philosophy. As if that made a difference. To top it off the philosopher claims to be a militant atheist. Bizarre.
It might as well be a retelling of Galilleo and the church.

129

Jonathan 03.03.09 at 1:27 am

Philology didn’t die out; it just changed names. But what do you think the cornerstone of the modern university is? Quantitative finance?

130

Nick Valvo 03.03.09 at 1:55 am

But, dsquared, we also have a strange situation in the anglophone academy where there are plenty of people doing what amounts to philosophy in departments of literature, rhetoric, women’s/gender/area studies, theory, history, etc., etc. Often these practitioners also have other research interests more inline with their putative field. How does that influence this argument? I’m genuinely curious what people think.

All because it seems to me, when some commenters above noted that it’s easier to find Capital-G, Capital-P Great Philosophers in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, that this fragmentation of the field is one of the developments we need to take into account. It’s harder to be Hegel these days — not that it was easy then — because Capital-P philosophy is harder to locate.

131

Nick Valvo 03.03.09 at 1:58 am

I should add: I also think, for similar reasons, that Leiter was justified in leaving off the various ‘anti-philosophers’ of Derrida’s generation and inclination — and subtle in leaving Deleuze on.

132

Adam Kotsko 03.03.09 at 2:09 am

I can’t wait to hear how brilliantly subtle the inclusion of Foucault was in context.

133

Paul Gowder 03.03.09 at 2:15 am

Good christ, dsquared. Do you really think philosophy is going to die because people have better things to do with their time than tell you who a bunch of philosophers were? (Especially since it takes about a nanosecond of googling to learn what Lewis, Davidson, etc. wrote about, although rather more time to understand them, at least in the latter case.)

134

Paul Gowder 03.03.09 at 2:17 am

Also, can there please be a purge of the 15 people who voted for Bernard Williams?

135

Matt 03.03.09 at 2:19 am

_It seems that the general public don’t care about this kind of philosophy at all, and professional analytic philosophers both a) don’t care about the general public enough to explain it to them and b) don’t care enough about their philosophy to explain it to the general public._

Do you think this is very much different form Kant, Fichte, Hegel, Sidgwick, or even the more technical parts of Leibniz, let alone Bradley or Mctaggert? I rather doubt it. Of course lots of people in the wider society were influenced by those people, but lots of people in the wider society have been influence by quite a few of the names in the pole, too, and we’ve had history weed out the less influential ones in the case of the past. Even in the case of philosophers like Hume, who did have large popular followings in his time, it wasn’t his strictly philosophical work that was widely read, but his History and his Essays. (The Essays have a lot of philosophy in them, and some are clearly philosophy, but they are not as sophisticated in form as the Treatise, of course.) So, this seems to me to be a pretty doubtful argument.

As for the inclusion of Foucault and Deleuze, Leiter has stated several times that he thinks both of them have interesting things to say. I don’t think he meant there to be anything “subtle” about the inclusion.

136

Kieran Healy 03.03.09 at 2:25 am

It seems that the general public don’t care about this kind of philosophy at all

Practical men, one might say, are in general quite exempt from intellectual influences.

137

salient 03.03.09 at 2:35 am

For what it’s worth, Gadamer didn’t receive a single vote. Perhaps this shows us the method of internet polling is inherently flawed, and therefore the truth is that Gadamer is the greatest philosopher of the 20th century.

138

John Emerson 03.03.09 at 3:22 am

I have very kindly not trolled this thread, because I have my own blog to troll at now: Trollblog.

If I get a few links here and there, or a front-page announcement, I’ll be a happy troll and will no longer be driven by insensate troll rage to lay waste to completely innocent CT threads.

This is not a threat at all, not in the slightest,….. but when leprechauns get their bowl of milk, they’re nice leprechauns.

I didn’t mess with Leiter’s little poll at all. I no longer need to lower myself to that level. It was hell, I tell you.

That said, James, Dewey, Whitehead, Wittgenstein, Stephen Toulmin, Ernest Gellner, and Michel Meyer were the greatest philosophers of the past century. Analytic philosophers mostly all suck, but I’ll add Charles Taylor so that they have one representative on the list.

So exactly how did Leiter come to have this “gatekeeper” function in the field?

He digitized the method by which the cartel hires, fires, and promotes. He’s a crap philosopher, but he’s like the janitor in my high school who had all the keys and knew where all the fuseboxes were, and where all the bones are buried, and who got caught with their pants down when and with whom.

139

John Emerson 03.03.09 at 3:44 am

The science of philosophy progresses so anybody working out a previous idea well must be the better thinker.

This strikes me as something that the functionaries of a featherbedded, closed-shop Contemporary Philosopher’s Union would very much like everyone to believe. Sort of the “giants standing on the shoulders of dwarves” interpreation of the history of philosophy, with tiny Plato down there at the bottom of the inverted pyramid bearing the burden of a series of increasingly monstruous and bloated geniuses.

If Continentals are permitted, certainly Foucault. 137 was my attempt to make analytics feel good about themselves, and feel that I was their friend, in case a job opens up for me somewhere. For me, keeping the cartel happy is Job One.

140

LFC 03.03.09 at 3:47 am

If there were a category called “Best philosopher of the twentieth century (writing in English) who was also a gifted novelist,” the winner, hands down, would be:
Iris Murdoch.

141

John Emerson 03.03.09 at 3:56 am

As a non-philosopher, I had heard of all the philosophers listed, and had read something by about half of them, even though I’d only read seven of them now with any interest. And one of the seven, Bergson, is one of the ones I haven’t read. I think that Leiter should reclassify me as criminally insane rather than as ignorant and stupid.

142

LFC 03.03.09 at 4:30 am

Re John Emerson @138: Ernest Gellner did write a critique of Oxford philosophy in the ’50s (Words and Things, I believe it was called, created a stir in its day — I haven’t read it), but it’s his historical-sociological works, as far as I’m aware, that are mostly being read, and written about, now. (I’m not taking sides in your (apparently rather personal) quarrel with the (apparently rather arrogant) Prof. Leiter, just noting that Gellner is not generally considered a philosopher.)

143

John Emerson 03.03.09 at 4:37 am

Toulmin and Gellner are excommunicated analytic philosophers, whereas Wittgenstein is a philosophical desert father whose appropriation by analytic philosophy is illegitimate, as he pretty clearly says, before the fact, in his own writings. Gellner would have been happy to have continued in the philosophy guild, and his works on rationality, relativism, and social theory are philosophical, as are “The Plough, the Book, and the Sword” and “Language and Solitude”.

But the cartel draws the lines where the cartel wants the lines to be.

144

Nick Valvo 03.03.09 at 5:11 am

All I meant was that Deleuze is the one of those guys who still believes in the philosophical project — although he’s less read than, say, Baudrillard. Why I couldn’t just write that the first time, who knows.

145

Paul Gowder 03.03.09 at 5:13 am

What is wrong with some of you people? It’s an internet poll, not a personal ego-pissing match.

146

Paul Gowder 03.03.09 at 5:14 am

I mean, seriously. Do you need someone to loan you a tape measure, or can you compare penis lengths by eyeball estimation?

147

John Emerson 03.03.09 at 5:30 am

Whatever are you talking about Paul? You seem upset by something. Would you care to talk about it?

148

onymous 03.03.09 at 6:10 am

Emerson, I think you should just let Eliza take over. “Tell me more about wrong with some of you people. Does that question interest you? Oh, I need someone to loan I a tape measure. Please go on.”

149

dsquared 03.03.09 at 6:49 am

126: Most people would not be able to vote usefully on the top biochemists of the 20th century, but biochemistry seems to be doing OK.

They could probably name them by description though; “the guy who invented the birth control pill”, “the DNA sequencing guy”, etc.

136: I am sure that lots of those names are very influential on the ideas of practical men when they talk about possible worlds, the nature of reference, etc – the problem is that practical men in general, don’t.

150

dsquared 03.03.09 at 7:43 am

Actually, expanding on the last point above, if there’s one thing you can’t fault modern economists for, it’s explaining the relevance of their subject to the educated laymen. Even before the current crisis, there were Bates Clark medal winners and Nobel prizewinners writing for a mass audience, and specifically doing so specifically because they thought it was important that people understand economics as it’s done in the academy. If instead the economists had just said “well, you don’t understand this because you’re too dumb, so don’t talk about economics, it’s just for us”, then they’d be in … well, they’d be roughly in the state in which rational expectations macro actually is, and that’s a dying research program.

Actually that’s also an interesting question – when was the last time that philosophers, en bloc, abandoned a previous line of inquiry as being wrong? Was it Wittgenstein, or are there other examples I’m missing?

151

Chris Bertram 03.03.09 at 7:52 am

_when was the last time that philosophers, en bloc, abandoned a previous line of inquiry as being wrong? _

When Gettier showed that analyzing knowledge as justified true belief was hopeless?

152

dsquared 03.03.09 at 8:02 am

ahhh good spot. Wow, that’s coming up to its 50th anniversary though!

153

Hidari 03.03.09 at 8:03 am

‘Surely, by the way, the fact that hardly anyone in the general but largely educated readership of CT knows who half the philosophers listed are, and that nobody seems willing or able to explain, ought to be considered at least a danger sign relating to the health of modern analytic philosophy? It seems that the general public don’t care about this kind of philosophy at all, and professional analytic philosophers both a) don’t care about the general public enough to explain it to them and b) don’t care enough about their philosophy to explain it to the general public. I don’t really see how banning CT comments on philosophy-related threads is much more than an ostrich solution to this problem.

Academic disciplines do die out, you know. A hundred years ago, philology was the cornerstone of nearly every major university. Nowadays … well, there are still some philologists left, but well, who cares?’

If I might turn back to my politically correct ‘more post-colonialist than thou’ point which everyone has assiduously avoided discussing (perhaps because it’s too dull) I might add that perhaps it is philosophy in the Western tradition which has now simply come to an end.

Perhaps, as I said, the equivalent list compiled for the 21st century by writers in the early 22nd will contain Chinese, Arabic,African etc. philosophers: more specifically, perhaps it will contain mostly writers in these philosophical traditions and few (if any) in the so-called ‘Western’ tradition.

154

Tom Hurka 03.03.09 at 8:05 am

#98

So, dsquared, you’d be prepared to discuss the shield issue now? In the other thread you weren’t prepared to discuss it — it was settled in the 1970s, the other side lost, the topic’s closed, etc. Your response to an attempt to discuss it was ‘up yours’ (speaking of good manners).

#103

You Wittgenwankers are all the same. My article didn’t say that reading a novel is playing a game. It said at best that writing a novel instantiates the same more abstract values as playing a game — a BIG difference. That the values that make x good also make y good doesn’t imply that x = y.

And the point of the Investigations section about games *is* that the concept of a game can’t be analyzed. It’s a mistake to say ‘there must be something in common or we wouldn’t call them ‘games”; there’s only a multitude of family resemblances. I haven’t a clue what else dsquared thinks the section is about.

155

Chris Bertram 03.03.09 at 8:11 am

Well I guess someone has to do the tedious job of responding to Daniel and John Emerson here and saying: (a) most of the philosophers on Leiter’s list are not “analytical philosophers; (b) most of the philosophy currently done in anglophone philosophy departments is not “analytical philosophy” in a strongly programmatic way (merely stylistic, and even then …); (c) Charles Taylor is not an analytical philosopher; (d) contra dsquared’s #150 there’s a lot of change in what “analytical philosophers” (here used merely as a synonym for “bog-standard anglophone family” think about and focus on. So Kripke’s work, for example, ushered in an immense change in focus; (e) the shelves of bookshops are groaning with works explaining philosophy to the general public (Nigel Warburton, even Nagel, for goodness sake), but the fact that there’s no popular primer on the work of Robert Brandom or Tim Williamson shouldn’t be a cause for concern about the health of the discipline.

156

Barbar 03.03.09 at 8:16 am

Non-philosopher here, with zero philosophy training, although I’ve read a lot of Daniel Dennett.

Now it seems to me that virtually no one knows anything about anything, and so I can see why professional philosophers may be impatient with the ignorant unwashed masses carelessly pontificating about things that professors spend their entire lifetimes studying.

But unlike biochemists, philosophers have nothing in the world to point to about which they can say, “Look, without us experts working hard on this, we wouldn’t have that.” Basically every human being on the planet does philosophy, although probably not very well. What exactly do professional philosophers bring to the table? This question does not have an obvious answer. Leiter’s attitude in this thread suggests that he thinks they create a rigorous status hierarchy within the American university system, which is really a worst-case answer.

I find the complete disinterest in explaining the point of serious philosophy, or even explaining to a lay audience what kind of traits make a great philosopher great, somewhat fascinating actually.

157

ejh 03.03.09 at 8:24 am

I find the complete disinterest in explaining the point of serious philosophy

But as per #155, there’s not a complete disinterest, is there? Of course you get a certain amount of we’re-the-academics-who-the-hell-are-you but you get that in any academic discipline (and for that matter, in any profession, including those which don’t involve academic qualifications). By and large I don’t think academic philosophers are disinterested in the relationship of “serious philosophy” to either the real world or the general public any more that say, academic historians are disinterested in the question of why we study history.

158

Barbar 03.03.09 at 8:56 am

157: yeah, there are pop philosophy books, and as I mentioned I’ve read a lot of Daniel Dennett myself. And yeah, there are plenty of people, academics and not, who see no reason to justify what they are doing professionally for a larger audience.

Maybe my point was simply that Brian Leiter seems to be a bit of a jackass.

159

N. N. 03.03.09 at 9:05 am

116: “On the other hand, there is the pleasure of watching someone who actually knows something, Tom Hurka, do battle with the ignorant.”

Your argument is compelling. I surrender.

154: “You Wittgenwankers are all the same. My article didn’t say that reading a novel is playing a game. It said at best that writing a novel instantiates the same more abstract values as playing a game—a BIG difference. That the values that make x good also make y good doesn’t imply that x = y.”

Wittgenwankers? Seriously?

I didn’t mean to say that your article claims that reading a novel is playing a game (though my parenthetical was not clear). In the comments to this post (at Virtual Philosopher), you state: “Another example Suits gave in an article is reading mystery novels. The idea is to figure out who did it, but you forbid yourself the most efficient means, which is reading the last page first. And you do that because you want to solve the mystery in the less efficient way. So reading mysteries is a paradigm example of a game.”

In the your article you state: “Some minor lack of fit between his analysis and the English use of ‘game’ would not be important if the analysis picks out a phenomenon that is unified, close to what is meant by ‘game,’ and philosophically interesting.” I read this as a tacit admission that there is a minor lack of fit between Suits’s definition and the English use of ‘game.’

You continue: “And the point of the Investigations section about games is that the concept of a game can’t be analyzed. It’s a mistake to say “there must be something in common or we wouldn’t call them ‘games'”; there’s only a multitude of family resemblances.”

Except that’s not Wittgenstein’s point at all. Wittgenstein does give an ‘analysis’ of ‘game.’ He gives what Strawson calls a ‘connective’ analysis. I suggest you reread sections 69-79 of the Investigations.

160

dsquared 03.03.09 at 9:13 am

#154: So, dsquared, you’d be prepared to discuss the shield issue now?

No, not with you. And a quick glance at the tape reveals that “up yours” was in fact a response to you accusing me of “smug moral certainty” – you were rude then too.

You Wittgenwankers are all the same

as I was saying …

#155: Chris, John can speak for himself but I’d reply that a) “analytic philosopher” is more like the name of a trade union than a way of doing philosophy, but as a sociological description it’s got a reasonably constant referent, b) it’s certainly interesting that not all of the names on Leiter’s list are members of that trade union, because all of the people taking the high-handed approach to outsiders were, and they’re seemingly doing it in the name of this trade union, and this is a danger sign.

I just used Amazon “Search inside”, and Nagel, Warburton and Blackburn’s “introduction to philosophy” books come up with a grand total of zero uses of the string “Davidson”, between them, plus zero for “Kripke”. I’ve read Blackburn’s book on a train and it really doesn’t contain much modern research at all – are any of the other “introductory” works different? As it happens, I do understand, a bit, why several people in this thread were prepared to say that Davidson was the single greatest philosopher of the twentieth century – I would even guess that it would be possible to explain to a lay audience why this was the case, but the fact is that in the absence of serious effort at making the case, nobody is going to care, and this matters.

the fact that there’s no popular primer on the work of Robert Brandom or Tim Williamson shouldn’t be a cause for concern about the health of the discipline.

Compare “Freakonomics”; say what you like about that book, and I certainly have, but it’s definitely publicising work that’s at at the leading edge of the literature. Freakonomics isn’t an “introduction” to economics – it’s an explanation of the results of some quite advanced economics, combined with a general exhortation to care about the project that Levitt et al are embarked upon.

I actually like the philosophy that’s done in British universities and would like it to continue to exist, but the market very much appears to be moving in the direction of Media Studies (as I say, philosophy programs are closing down and Media Studies programs are opening up – that’s the reason to worry about the health of the discipline). In answer to Matt’s 135, I think that this is quite different from how things were in the past – Karl Marx, for example, was a law student and Friedrich Engels a clerk and soldier, but both of them joined the Young Hegelians. Sidgwick corresponded with JS Mill (MP and clerk at the East India Company) and Leibniz with Newton and half the crowned heads of Europe. McTaggart and Bradley, you have more of a point, but who remembers them now?

Whereas these days, basically the only time you see philosophers talking to the educated non-professional-philosopher public is when they pop up to have a go at Thought for the Day.

161

Chris Bertram 03.03.09 at 9:51 am

_philosophy programs are closing down_

Well they may be, somewhere (which is unsurprising in the current climate of cuts) but I’m not sure where. In fact, some of the places that cut Philosophy in the 1980s have reinstated it (Exeter) and elsewhere, demand (measured in terms of applications for places) is very strong. I think you’re just misinformed.

162

dsquared 03.03.09 at 10:36 am

You might be right – I’m working on the basis of anecdote about the proverbial “job market for philosophers”, and specifically the apparent axiom of Brian Leiter’s site that (effectively) nobody who doesn’t go to one of the top twenty world universities can possibly expect a job anywhere. That might not actually be true. (I also assumed Charles Clarke wasn’t blowing smoke when talking about priorites a few years ago, which also might not be safe). Looking at the student population data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency I’d say that it’s flat to slightly up – about 10% higher than 5 years ago, which I think is in line with the demographics, but media studies is up 43% over the same period. So not the terminal decline I’d thought, but still not what I’d call rude health (actually, puttering around the data, it looks like the cultural studies, literature, humanities arm of things have been taking the brunt over the last couple of years, so maybe the trade union is working a bit).

163

JoB 03.03.09 at 11:02 am

Anderson, Dave,

I’m glossing over 50 odd posts which is probably unfair to some but I counsel them to take it up with the ones that make anything to be about their ego’s posting in between; apparently Leiter is one of them which, I think, is – for lack of a better word – funny (to stress my point: “Ha-ha”).

Anderson-106,

Are you writing a syllabus on “20th Century Philosophy”? If yes, my commiserations. Friendly, but with convinction, I’d suggest to include the following dedication:

To all philosophers and, in fact, anybody else who contributed to the findings in this work & that need to go unnamed – because they are unknown, their efforts are unknown or there wasn’t enough space – I say: none of this would have been possible without you. The best and brightest of those that are named here would gladly participate to a ceremony to the Unknown Philosopher (some wouldn’t but never mind them as they didn’t even manage to learn the first truth of the first great philosopher

Dave-113,

I stand corrected. It was a cheap shot. Nevertheless, I hope you can agree that there’s a danger, clear and present here, of misapplying this concept of Greatness of individuals to the Greatness of their ideas. A danger that reduces science and philosophy to litterature.

The basic advance of 20th century philosophy happened to be in the philosophy of logic. There is nothing that makes this advance smaller than that of other centuries other than nostalgia for a better time in history, there’s nothing more damning to philosophy than nostalgia (maybe with a notable exception of the twin menaces of elitism and vulgarization).

That being said, I’d hope that 21st century succeeds in fully integrating the modern advances in the wider context. I conceed your point on Wittgenstein in that light as well ;-)

164

Matt 03.03.09 at 12:25 pm

_the fact that there’s no popular primer on the work of Robert Brandom _

Even this is now perhaps not true:
http://www.amazon.com/Robert-Brandom-Philosophy-Now-McGill-Queens/dp/0773534865/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1236082918&sr=8-1

(I’ve not done anything more than look at the Amazon page for this book so can’t say if it’s properly a “popular primer”, but some of the other books in this series are thought of as that, I’d think.

As Chris says, while philosophy is having a hard time in the current financial crisis, it’s not having a worse time than the rest of higher education system. Sometimes a school closes a philosophy department, but sometimes the re-open a PhD program and sometimes they close down some other departments. The idea that philosophy is significantly worse off than other academic disciplines isn’t very credible and probably shouldn’t be said with much certainty by those who haven’t looked into the situation very much.

165

Phil 03.03.09 at 12:30 pm

I can see why professional philosophers may be impatient with the ignorant unwashed masses

I can’t. I spend my working life telling other adults that things they thought they understood perfectly well are much more complicated and much more uncertain than they realised. Sometimes I give them alternative simplicities and certainties to hang on to, sometimes not. Sometimes, just for a lark, I take them all the way back round to the simplicities and certainties they started with.

It’s a wonder I don’t get lynched. If I took the attitude displayed by Leiter, Hurka and Gowda in this thread, I would get lynched.

And I know I should let that sneer about David Lewis go, but I’m not going to. Here’s me with my doctorate and my publications; I’ve never studied Philosophy, but I’ve read bits of seven of those on Leiter’s list, could write a paragraph about another seven & recognise the names of all but two of the rest. I can also nominate half a dozen people who aren’t on the list but whose work stands comparison with the 14 I do know about, from Roy Bhaskar to my personal lodestar, the unjustly-forgotten Alfred Schutz. Gowda’s position seems to be that, by admitting my ignorance of the Amazing Lewis Brothers, I’ve shown that I’m incompetent to comment on this subject and may freely be told I’m incompetent. I respectfully suggest that academic philosophers, as well as being surrounded in a general sense by non-philosophers, are surrounded more immediately by the small fraction of the population represented by non-philosopher academics like myself – and that this attitude is unlikely to win friends either for Gowda’s conception of philosophy or for Gowda.

166

Phil 03.03.09 at 12:32 pm

Apologies to Gowder for mangling his name.

167

dsquared 03.03.09 at 12:58 pm

The idea that philosophy is significantly worse off than other academic disciplines isn’t very credible and probably shouldn’t be said with much certainty by those who haven’t looked into the situation very much

Hmmm – looking into the HESA statistics, it’s better off than hard sciences in growth terms (in the UK at least), but much worse off than Media Studies, Business Studies and Economics, and this is coming from a low base after the big cuts of the last 20 years (more coal mines are opening up in the UK than closing down, but that’s not really a sign that UK mining’s on the way back). It’s 40% of the size of either Economics or Politics in terms of full time undergraduates, for example. About the same size as “French studies” and only a 25% bigger than “Forensic and archaeological science”. Twice the size of “Classical studies”. Looking at postgraduate students, it’s half the size of “Theology and religious studies”.

I don’t think philosophy has always been such a minority subject; I agree with Chris that things don’t seem to be getting worse over the last five years but I wouldn’t consider this as being rude health.

168

John Emerson 03.03.09 at 1:40 pm

When was the last time that philosophers, en bloc, abandoned a previous line of inquiry as being wrong?

Not the right question, alas. It probably was when they decided that pragmatism and process philosophy were no good, back around 1940-1950. And after that, when they decided that l. positivism was no good, not too much later. After that they all look alike to me, but for all I know Tweedledum has been displacing Tweedledee incessantly ever since, like Finnegan constantly falling down the stairs.

169

dsquared 03.03.09 at 1:45 pm

hmmm, economics of course can’t really talk about this, as half the profession appears to be currently in the business of picking up an old fallacy (the “Treasury view”) and resurrecting it. Whatever its other pathologies, progress in philosophy is at least weakly and locally monotonic.

170

Kieran Healy 03.03.09 at 2:12 pm

Freakonomics isn’t an “introduction” to economics – it’s an explanation of the results of some quite advanced economics

No it isn’t, as you are well aware. It’s an explanation of the results of some quite advanced instrumental variable regressions, applied in a variety of settings. I’ll accept “the results of some papers published in some quite prestigious economics journals”.

Considered as academic disciplines, Economics and Philosophy are quite similar in many ways in their intellectual temperament, commitment toward an orthodox body of methods and styles, and attitude to uncredentialed outsiders. (The latter is not inconsistent with a relatively large amount of internal heterogeneity.) The major point of divergence is that whereas Philosophy as a discipline has little or no political leverage within Universities or in the world at large, Economics since 1945 has transformed itself into a global quasi-profession, much to its advantage.

171

John Emerson 03.03.09 at 2:14 pm

Charles Taylor is not an analytical philosopher

That was my little joke.

(a) most of the philosophers on Leiter’s list are not “analytical philosophers; (b) most of the philosophy currently done in anglophone philosophy departments is not “analytical philosophy” in a strongly programmatic way (merely stylistic, and even then

Aaron Preston, in “Analytic Philosophy: The History of an Illusion” says that analytic philosophy was always already nonexistent, because there never were any common philosophical ideas, but merely a style at best, and then later on an enforced paradigm which neither the enforcer nor the enforcee (= hapless grad student) was allowed to question (i.e., which was apodictic, per Michel Meyer).

So Kripke’s work, for example, ushered in an immense change in focus

Was he Tweedledee or Tweedledum?

the shelves of ^ bookshops are groaning with ^ works explaining philosophy to the general public

Insert “remainders” and “remaindered”. Whatever you say about the American public, they have some limits.

Historians write tons of fascinating, high-quality history books for non-professionals. It’s the antithesis of philosophy in this regard.

Of course you get a certain amount of we’re-the-academics-who-the-hell-are-you

The “certain amount” is specifically “lots”, above all in intro grad courses. The weaker a discipline is, the touchier it is about its borders.

Historians write tons of fascinating, high-quality history books for non-professionals. It’s the antithesis of philosophy in this regard. And what historians do is write good books for people as smart as themselves who specialized in different areas; they don’t dumb things down for stupid non-historians. The existence or not of a “general educated public” is one of the big issues here, because philosophy was one of the main disciplines which used to write for the GEP, but it has quit doing so. Specialties pluralism, tacitly assumed by all academic cartels, holds that that a GEP is impossible in principle; the specialties agree on that point right off, and then start jockeying for the high places in the specialties hierarchy. (Incidentally, I have enormous disagreements with Gellner, named above, but still admire him, and I’m also more than willing to give Dennett credit for his willingness to write for the GEP, even though I agree with him hardly at all.)

The apparent axiom of Brian Leiter’s site that (effectively) nobody who doesn’t go to one of the top twenty world universities can possibly expect a job anywhere. That might not actually be true.

Dsquared, this is programmatic, not descriptive. This is the cartel’s goal, not a description of present reality.

It seems to me that a simple bowl of milk now and then would be a small price to pay.

172

John Emerson 03.03.09 at 2:17 pm

Effing HTML:

The shelves of [remainders] bookshops are groaning with [remaindered] works explaining philosophy to the general public

Whatever you say about the American public, they have some limits.

173

Anderson 03.03.09 at 2:18 pm

when was the last time that philosophers, en bloc, abandoned a previous line of inquiry as being wrong?

Did anyone take the analytic/synthetic distinction seriously after “Two Kinds of Dogmatism”?

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John Emerson 03.03.09 at 2:22 pm

Considered as academic disciplines, Economics and Philosophy are quite similar in many ways in their intellectual temperament, commitment toward an orthodox body of methods and styles, and attitude to uncredentialed outsiders. (The latter is not inconsistent with a relatively large amount of internal heterogeneity.) The major point of divergence is that whereas Philosophy as a discipline has little or no political leverage within Universities or in the world at large, Economics since 1945 has transformed itself into a global quasi-profession, much to its advantage.

I agree totally. During prosperous times economists could say any dman fool thing they wanted to — and boy, did they. Now that economists infinitely smarter than you and me have succeeded in bringing on the Second Great Depression, during the transition period before we return entirely to barbarism and the turnip-standard currency I expect economists finally to take their lumps, though mass impalement is of course a Utopian pipe dream.

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Robert 03.03.09 at 2:47 pm

Mentioning “Two Dogmas of Empiricism” raises a question for me (and I am not a philosopher). Why would Quine get more votes than Putnam? From what I’ve recall of Quine’s autobiography, he doesn’t even pretend to be more than a logician. While Putnam, it seems to me, attempts to answer bigger questions within (the style of?) analytical philosophy.

Are Nelson Goodman and A. J. Ayer currently badly thought of enough not to justly even merit being on the list? By the way, Ayer wrote a book about Voltaire – was Voltaire a philosopher? Or is he outside the boundaries?

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dsquared 03.03.09 at 2:48 pm

It’s an explanation of the results of some quite advanced instrumental variable regressions, applied in a variety of settings

Hmmm no, I don’t agree with that (although it’s quite a while since I picked up Freakonomics, and I might be getting it mixed up with Tim Harford’s book or one of the other plethora). There’s a decent slug of game theory in there too, for example the discussion of the spectrum auctions. Klemperer, Bulow & Binmore is quite serious stuff and most of it less than ten years old in the literature.

(Ahhhh, I see via Google that it was Harford I was thinking of – substitute accordingly and apologies. But this is kind of the point; there are so many of these books that I’m spoilt for examples. I could take the discussion of option pricing in “When Genius Failed”, or tax theory from “The Truth About Markets”, or one of a dozen things from Krugman’s books.)

Economics since 1945 has transformed itself into a global quasi-profession, much to its advantage

Absolutely. But it’s done this because it’s (not always or universally, but to an important extent) always had people in the profession who were attempting to build a bridge to the real world of affairs and policy. The UK mobile phone spectrum auctions were designed based on the absolute cutting edge of research in auction theory. The UK guidelines on the use of embryonic stem cells were based on – well, a lot of things, but not really the cutting edge of research in philosophy journals.

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harry b 03.03.09 at 3:01 pm

#173. Yes, all British philosophers. (Somewhere Jerry Cohen has a very funny and accurate comment on the sociology of this).

Absolutely. But it’s done this because it’s (not always or universally, but to an important extent) always had people in the profession who were attempting to build a bridge to the real world of affairs and policy. The UK mobile phone spectrum auctions were designed based on the absolute cutting edge of research in auction theory. The UK guidelines on the use of embryonic stem cells were based on – well, a lot of things, but not really the cutting edge of research in philosophy journals.

But the use of lotteries in school admissions….

The profession would do well to look through a lot of the comments on this thread (Daniel’s and Keiran’s, but also several others) and wonder what to do about them.

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Daniel 03.03.09 at 3:06 pm

Actually that is an interesting one Harry – why is Philosophy of Education still such a “practical”, empirical field? One could easily have seen how it might have gone in a different direction and be full of papers about the logical structure of “learning” and where “X taught Y” implies “Y learned from X”; then they would have had to invent a new field to do all the work that’s currently done in philosophy of education (which thinking about it is pretty much what happened with “bioethics”)

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JoB 03.03.09 at 3:06 pm

Robert, my bet is: Quine was making a philosophical point with his logician’s ‘modesty’. Not the best point ever but one that illustrates how strong 21st century philosophy dropped lots of lines of previous philosophical thought (God died after all somewhere before the century began!).

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Matt 03.03.09 at 3:22 pm

_Are Nelson Goodman and A. J. Ayer currently badly thought of enough not to justly even merit being on the list?_

Goodman probably should have been on there in one sense. No one can reasonably argue from today’s perspective that he was the greatest philosopher of the 20th century, but he was surely important and as plausible as many of the others. To my mind his attack on the analytic/synthetic distinction is in some ways better than Quine’s, the “new riddle of induction” is, thankfully, not quite so much talked about anymore, but still important, and lots of his other work, on simplicity and the like, is important, too. I’m not sure of how his work on aesthetics is thought of today because I don’t know much the contemporary field, but it was quite influential for a while, at least. Maybe it still is, though there are some pretty counter-intuitive claims in it, about the nature of musical performance and the like.

Ayer is, I think, often given a bum rap and seen as less good and less original of a philosopher than he was, as if he only wrote a popular introduction to logical positivism. A lot of his later work on epistemology, probability, and some of his historical studies are quite interesting, though I think not really in fashion these days. He’s clearly not a probable choice for “greatest philosopher”, as he well knew, but I think he is unfairly under-rated.

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Brock 03.03.09 at 3:25 pm

Quine was much more influential than Putnam. I would have voted for him as the greatest, if only because of the massive influence of Quine on two of the other top candidates on the list (from my perspective) – Davidson and Lewis.

Quine thought of himself as an epistemologist more than anything, but his greatest influence was in metaphysics and philosophy of language. “On What There Is” set the stage for almost everything that’s being done in metaphysics right now.

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John Emerson 03.03.09 at 3:34 pm

“Several others” is hardly a bowl of milk.

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JoB 03.03.09 at 3:36 pm

Maybe by now (enough endorsements of Davidson) we should shift the topic: the Most Amusing Thought Experiment. I vote for Swampman.

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Brock 03.03.09 at 3:40 pm

I like the one where you push John Emerson onto the trolley tracks.

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JoB 03.03.09 at 3:43 pm

Did Swampman do that? Way to go for a fictional character!

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John Emerson 03.03.09 at 3:47 pm

I’ve decided that the problem with trolley car experiments is that they lack vividness, plausibility, schadenfreude, and redeeming social value. If trolleycar advantages had been about impaling financiers all along, you wouldn’t have heard me whining.

Carefully explained at my link.

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John Emerson 03.03.09 at 3:55 pm

You could integrate it into economics rather well, too. ” Financier A is shorting debenture tranches of housing starts at the same time Financier B is leveraging bad home loans in order to buy controlling shares in the demolition industry. Assume that each is the only financier active in their area, and that no new financiers will replace them if they are expired. What happens to the market if A is impaled; if B is impaled; if both are impaled; or if neither is impales?”

Oh, sure. Like the other trolleycar problems make sense.

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ScentOfViolets 03.03.09 at 4:04 pm

Academic disciplines do die out, you know. A hundred years ago, philology was the cornerstone of nearly every major university. Nowadays … well, there are still some philologists left, but well, who cares?’

That’s interesting, given that C.S. Lewis put Ransom, a philologist, a cut or three above Weston, a physicist in the academic pecking order. Yeah, I know, it’s Lewis, but . . .

An important sense of ‘greatest’ is ‘most influential.’ Wittgenstein has a claim to that title in the 20th-Century. The logical positivists (Carnap, in particular) are heavily indebted to the Tractatus and to Wittgenstein’s work in the early 30s. Indeed, the characteristic features of logical positivism are simply taken over from Wittgenstein.

This doesn’t make any sense at all, unless the philosophers were very late to the table on this one. Logical positivism has it’s roots in the 19th century at least; for instance the intuitionists versus the formalists in mathematics (the Frog and Mouse war as Einstein later dubbed it.) This approach also informed both relativity (time is what clocks measure) and QM, which predates the 30’s by quite a bit. I admit I don’t know much about philosophy; is this a case where the same term is being used for two different ideas?

Dennett describes himself (at the back of Consciousness explained) as a Wittgensteinian, or as someone who wanted to move on from being a Wittgensteinian. So there’s one answer: no Wittgenstein, no Dennett.

Good call (I own that and “Freedom Evolves”. Oh, and “The Minds I” if that counts.) Which is why I asked about influences inside philosophy as opposed to outside philosophy. Dennett seems to have ideas that can be at least in theory be empirically tested for their truth or falsity and seems to have a great deal of currency with scientists working in certain. Wittgenstein does not. Any more than Aristotle does, though no one would disagree that Aristotle ‘influenced’ generations of academics after him.

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engels 03.03.09 at 4:18 pm

You Wittgenwankers are all the same

Not at all. If you look, what you will see is a complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing: sometimes overall similarities, sometimes similarities in detail…

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Ayuda May 03.03.09 at 4:40 pm

But there is no right answer to a trolley problem, only answers that fit definitions of the normative in a given place and time.
Most novels revolve around the description of events to which our responses, like those of the characters, are conflicted. Novels are well written trolley problem that deal not in absolutes but in descriptions and the record of perceptions. [Trolley problems as such are bad literature.]
Analytic liberalism ignores the complexity of the world we inhabit, which is a world not of multiple truths but of multiple perceivers and perceptions. It’s the dumbing down of description in preference for labeling assumptions as facts. Bureaucracy not as banal necessity but as foundation . With that in mind:

-Science is the study of facts and philosophy the study of values.
-Conflating the two in favor of facts, values become assumed.
-Values assumed all questions are seen as those of expertise.
-Expertise as the goal terms of measurement are assumed.
-Curiosity is defined by the frame, values by the frame moral worth by the frame.
-Democracy is undermined as a value and then as a goal.,
[Give them numbers if you want]

And as I linked above a respected philosopher and professional copain of Leiter, can now accuse a scientist of being in error because his philosophical assumptions are [apodictic “must be!”] in error even though his science is correct.
Talk about putting the “heart before the course.”

Gettier: Would Leiter’s fixation on Nietzsche being “right” fit here?

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Kieran Healy 03.03.09 at 4:55 pm

The UK mobile phone spectrum auctions were designed based on the absolute cutting edge of research in auction theory. The UK guidelines on the use of embryonic stem cells were based on – well, a lot of things, but not really the cutting edge of research in philosophy journals.

You have to be careful about the structure of the relationship, though: (again, as you know) economics didn’t become embedded in policy making simply in virtue of the quality of its theory, and once economic expertise gets embedded like this it’s much easier to write books about the centrality of economics to everyday life.

On this point, let me put in an early plug for the very soon forthcoming Economists and Societies: Discipline and Profession in the United States, Britain, and France, 1890s to 1990s by my friend and sometime coauthor Marion Fourcade.

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N. N. 03.03.09 at 5:01 pm

Hurka: “You Wittgenwankers are all the same….”

189: “Not at all. If you look, what you will see is a complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing: sometimes overall similarities, sometimes similarities in detail….”

Well played, sir. I wonder if professor Hurka will return to explain how reading a novel or taking an exam are paradigmatic examples of ‘games.’

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Daniel 03.03.09 at 5:10 pm

economics didn’t become embedded in policy making simply in virtue of the quality of its theory

Quite the reverse, but at one time in the past, philosophers were also in the game of providing clever-sounding arguments for rich and powerful men about why the status quo was A-OK (Leibniz got lampooned for it in Candide) so you wouldn’t have thought they’d have lost the knack so easily. When it comes to writing high-minded explanations of why seeming atrocities can be justified if they’re convenient to American foreign policy, there are still some philosophers in the game. Presumably there’s a whole sociological literature on this, but how did philosophers manage to lose more or less the entire territory of applied ethics?

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Kieran Healy 03.03.09 at 5:19 pm

how did philosophers manage to lose more or less the entire territory of applied ethics?

Offhand, I would say they traded it away to preserve their status purity. (Contact with the public usually contaminates occupational status.) There was a moment in the late 60s and early 70s for instance, when bioethics emerged as a philosophical mediator between the state and religion in U.S. policy on genetic engineering. What was initially a subfield of philosophy became a self-subsistent field, though, and stuff like bioethics, business ethics, etc, has little or no standing in the discipline, even though there’s a lot of money there.

It’s been very interesting how economics has been able to hit the sweet spot between getting their hands dirty on the hired gun side while also insisting on the high-mindedness and purity of the field as a scientific enterprise. I think it has to do with the applied side of economics being able to retain a connection (even though it’s a often a notional one) between the applied work and the high theory.

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Harry 03.03.09 at 5:23 pm

Yes, I hardly think “lose” is the right verb. You don’t lose what you throw away. Good chapter title from a book I’m reading on school reform “We don’t want your lousy pot of gold”.
I’ll post about phil of ed later….

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John Emerson 03.03.09 at 5:24 pm

How did philosophers manage to lose more or less the entire territory of applied ethics?

They seem to have renounced it.

David Velleman:

I agree with Gerald Dworkin and Jason Stanley that moral philosophers are not “better than the average person in coming to correct answers about first-order moral matters”…..

The point is that expertise in critically examining your deliberations, though useful, is not the same as expertise in carrying out those deliberations, which (as Jerry put it, and Jason seconded) is likely to require “sympathetic feelings, experience with the subject matter, and intuitive insight”.

Two of the links in my citation seem to have gone dead. I suspect a conspiracy.

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John Emerson 03.03.09 at 5:29 pm

It’s been very interesting how economics has been able to hit the sweet spot between getting their hands dirty on the hired gun side while also insisting on the high-mindedness and purity of the field as a scientific enterprise.

“Hit the sweet spot” is a euphemism for something like “fooled a lot of people who really would have been expected to have known better” or “pulled off a heist in broad daylisht”.

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Daniel 03.03.09 at 5:37 pm

““fooled a lot of people who really would have been expected to have known better” is a euphemism for “gave the public what they want”.

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John Emerson 03.03.09 at 5:45 pm

“The public” is a euphemism for “David Broder”.

What’s “David Broder” a euphemism for, smart guy?

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ejh 03.03.09 at 6:05 pm

how did philosophers manage to lose more or less the entire territory of applied ethics?

Well, arguably in the democratic age everybody else was at it too: it ceased to be a specialist field. Economics remained more specialised because of the necessity to know mathematics.

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John Emerson 03.03.09 at 6:07 pm

Answering my own question, I’d say that “David Broder” is not a euphemism, but a personification of “effective public opinion”, where “effective public opinion” is related to “public opinions” as “effective demand” is related to “demand”. As in “Ireland exported wheat during th potato famine, because there was little effective demand for wheat in Ireland”.

202

Keith M Ellis 03.03.09 at 6:22 pm

…so if he’d hurry up and bring it on, all the “professional” philosophers could slap each other on the back, continue to congratulate each other on how much smarter they are than the ignorant multitude, and then wonder why another five philosophy departments closed down this month.

Why do you guys tolerate this kind of thing from dsquared when you have an unambiguous history of not tolerating it from commenters who aren’t him? Almost every comment thread I’ve read in which dsquared participates, he has been involved in arguments and employing sarcasm and other forms of intentionally risible rhetoric.

In any case, the adolescent superciliousness of this:

I’m always playing a game, although not always the one you think ;-)

…should be grounds for suspension of blogosphere posting rights all by itself.

But I recognize this is a lost cause. Sigh.

203

John Emerson 03.03.09 at 6:36 pm

It is indeed, Keith. :-) :-P

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dsquared 03.03.09 at 6:39 pm

When will they learn? When will they ever learn?

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Keith M Ellis 03.03.09 at 6:51 pm

By the way, I’m more than a little puzzled by the argument which amounts to one concluding that philosophy is useless and dead because it has no practical application. The same argument applies to a great many academic fields, among which there would be one or two I suspect any particular person making this argument would find themselves defending.

Part of the problem here is that Nietzsche was, in part, correct when he said that science has superseded philosophy.

However, I think that there still is a place for philosophy in continuing to examine foundational matters. I personally think that epistemology and philosophy of science are both fields with great relevance beyond themselves. And I don’t think the fruitful relationship between logic and mathematics and computer science has been exhausted…I wouldn’t place Quine over Wittgenstein, but I was glad to see him placed highly on the list, for example.

I don’t know much about analytical philosophy and while I admit that some of the things I’ve seen involving language seem to me to be more than a bit quixotic or involving a category error, I also have the impression that it’s nevertheless important and useful as an approach and a set of methods.

My sense, as someone strong on pre-20th century philosophy and history of science, is that philosophy as a discipline is going through a long period of adjustment. I think that a variety of tools and problems developed from the mid-20th to perhaps the mid-21st will result in a rebirth of the discipline and a new urgency and relevance because, in many ways, some of the sciences are ouroboros-like about to eat their own tails and will require the re-emergence of philosophy as an important and useful endeavor to accompany science.

And, in any case, philosophy is an enjoyable intellectual discipline, just as literary theory is an enjoyable intellectual discipline. I say this as someone who simply could not accept the priority of Aristotle’s “contemplative life”. I am practical at heart. Yet I don’t feel comfortable sitting in judgment upon which intellectual activities are productive. There is far too much history of apparently useless intellectual activities discovered to be quite useful. Furthermore, I see a number of intellectual activities as equivalent to Art, which I think has a utility, though difficult to pin down.

Philosophers are, at worse, quixotic and mostly harmless. The latter something not true about, say, bloggers. Leave the poor philosophers alone.

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Adam Kotsko 03.03.09 at 6:55 pm

Sarcasm isn’t allowed now?

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John Emerson 03.03.09 at 6:56 pm

“Mostly harmless” might be worked into a philosophy logo.

I don’t like contemporary Anglo-American philosophy because I would much prefer to live in David Lewis’s alternative world where philosophy developed in an entirely different directionafter about 1930.

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Righteous Bubba 03.03.09 at 6:56 pm

Philosophers are, at worse, quixotic and mostly harmless. The latter something not true about, say, bloggers.

Hmm. What measure of harm could we look at?

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bartkid 03.03.09 at 7:42 pm

>And not just because he was able to answer Wittgenstein’s question about how do you speak to large canine animals.

Good grief.
I meant to type “feline”, not “canine”.
I can’t even communicate correctly with other humans.

For a run-off vote, I’d proffer Buckminster Fuller.

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John Emerson 03.03.09 at 8:01 pm

Unless they’re hungry or have been disturbed, lions are completely harmless They won’t just kill you for no good reason, and if a lion could talk, he’d explain his reasons. But you wouldn’t understand him. You’d think “I don’t know what that guy’s trying to say, but he seems to be terribly disturbed”.

— Ludwig Wittgenstein

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onymous 03.03.09 at 8:11 pm

But as Nabokov’s Ada taught us,

“‘When a lion has finished a traveler, bones and all, he always leaves the man’s tongue lying like that in the desert’ (making a negligent gesture)”

I would like to hear the lion try to explain its reasons for tongue-avoidance.

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MH 03.03.09 at 8:12 pm

“I would like to hear the lion try to explain its reasons for tongue-avoidance.”

Because you never know where that tongue has been.

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Rich Puchalsky 03.03.09 at 8:28 pm

“I’ve decided that the problem with trolley car experiments is that they lack vividness, plausibility, schadenfreude, and redeeming social value.”

I did a whole series of Lewd and Prude fanfic about philosophical thought experiments mixed with romantic comedy here in CT comments. Vivid enough, surely.

214

Perezoso 03.04.09 at 3:58 am

Paul Feyerabend: he recognized the form and scent of the Enemy

215

John Emerson 03.04.09 at 4:17 am

Most people would not be able to vote usefully on the top biochemists of the 20th century, but biochemistry seems to be doing OK.

Or the 19th century either. Chemistry just isn’t dramatic revolutionary, and exciting. It’s sort of mysterious because we went in two centuries from barely knowing what oxygen is to thinking about assembling new life forms from parts, and it tkes a lot of chemistry to think of doing that.

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Es-tonea-pesta 03.04.09 at 4:46 am

That said, James, Dewey, Whitehead, Wittgenstein, Stephen Toulmin, Ernest Gellner, and Michel Meyer were the greatest philosophers of the past century. Analytic philosophers mostly all suck, but I’ll add Charles Taylor so that they have one representative on the list.

Typical, choose the only analytic philosopher who would be known to the general public, having popularized his ideas through footwear design and child-soldier mongering.

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Es-tonea-pesta 03.04.09 at 4:59 am

Answering my own question, I’d say that “David Broder” is not a euphemism, but a personification of “effective public opinion”, where “effective public opinion” is related to “public opinions” as “effective demand” is related to “demand”. As in “Ireland exported wheat during th potato famine, because there was little effective demand for wheat in Ireland”.

Excellent allegory or something like that.

By the way, I’m more than a little puzzled by the argument which amounts to one concluding that philosophy is useless and dead because it has no practical application.

Philosophy may be useless because it has no use, but it is not dead. Literary criticism either. And that stringy membrane theory too.

Hidari@64,77, 153: You may be right.

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Matt Brown 03.04.09 at 5:10 am

Sorry, Chris, but your view that Dewey is a “minor” figure shows a pretty enormous ignorance of the history of philosophy in the first half of the twentieth century. Then again, this ignorance seems to be shared by Leiter’s readers, which is a bit disappointing. (Of course, I am greatly biased.)

219

Ayuda May 03.04.09 at 6:26 am

“Part of the problem here is that Nietzsche was, in part, correct when he said that science has superseded philosophy.”
And many of the humanities faculty agree, and try to play dress-up, as rationalists in lab coats. And then they describe themselves as waging the struggle against irrationalism when all they’re doing is waging a struggle against history.

The reason some of us are so furious is that we defend humanism not against science but the pseudo-science of anti-humanists with science envy. The unity of the humanities and the sciences was a dream and hallmark of the original scholastics. The Renaissance brought the acceptance of their -quite logical- separation.

So here I’ll offer the measure of greatness in the humanities, including the social sciences:

Any statement intended as a statement for or from an intellectual position and made “at leisure” (removed from any practical necessity) will acknowledge either implicitly or explicitly and in great and loving detail and precise descriptive terms both the position it argues and the one it manifests. They are not identical, and history will be the judge of which is more important (if either of them are)

So any argument made by a cafe revolutionary will be remembered as “great” if and only if it is remembered as both a great argument for revolution as such and as a high-point in the history of cafe oratory. Failing in either of these will mark it of the second rank.
We would have ended up with a theory of evolution on way or the other but Darwin was one of the great writers of the 19th century. Marx was another. Wittgenstein was the greatest loon of the last years of Old Vienna, the most brilliant patient Freud never had. Their words will continue to have value whether or not we choose to decide that they were wrong on the facts. Science concerns facts. We would have had a theory without Darwin but that would still be a loss.
Philosophy is not a science and logic is a small field.
“I should add that I posted the preceding before the latest inanity from Ayuda appeared. Aren’t you folks embarrassed to have readers this dumb?”

You’re the one who should be embarrassed, not me.

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Sam C 03.04.09 at 9:33 am

It’s certainly true that professional philosophy has its problems: crappy norms, flattening of creativity, talentless careerists, arseholes. In this, it’s like most human institutions. It’s also true that professional philosophers can be touchy, pompous, and impatient. In this, we’re like most human beings. But I don’t see any reason – in this thread, anyway – for thinking that philosophy is in an especially bad state. There’s lots of exciting work going on – some of it mostly of interest to specialists (but not therefore valueless), some of it speaking much more widely. There are plenty of books which talk, without talking down, to the interested layperson*. John Emerson – as usual – is failing to distinguish between his disagreeing with the content of (what he knows of) recent philosophy, and the discipline being in crisis.

* e.g. Thomas Nagel, Mortal Questions; Harry Frankfurt, The Reasons of Love; Peter Singer, Practical Ethics; Joel Kupperman, Six Myths about the Good Life. These are just books in my areas of interest, off the top of my head. Plenty more could easily be added to the list.

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Chris Bertram 03.04.09 at 9:53 am

_Chris, but your view that Dewey is a “minor” figure shows a pretty enormous ignorance of the history of philosophy in the first half of the twentieth century._

I didn’t say that he wasn’t a major figure at the time, at least locally, in American philosophy, but people who appear important in their own place and time often appear less so in retrospect.

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dsquared 03.04.09 at 10:16 am

There are plenty of books which talk, without talking down, to the interested layperson*.

Yes but they’re not really talking about what’s appearing in the top philosophy journals right now, are they? If you compare it to a really healthy discipline, like evolutionary biology or even physics (where in the last two years I’ve read “Faster than the speed of light” by Joao Maguiero and “The Trouble with physics” by Lee Smolin, both of which are books by people at the top of their profession dealing with genuinely live debates), then you do notice a difference. I’ve drawn the comparison to economics in this thread, but as I’ve noted ad nauseam on CT, I think that a lot of economics is in serious crisis as well, also because of the retreat from the practical.

Kieran – it just struck me on the tube into work this morning that philosophers are doubly stuck because they can lose their status by contact with the public and becoming too practical, but also by becoming too abstract and moving into mathematics.

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JoB 03.04.09 at 10:24 am

What Sam said. The last century has been especially fruitful in philosophy (amongst others for the corrections it succeeded in making to naïve empirical science optimism aka scientism), and this is thanks in large part to it being less about specific persons and more about co-operation – this thread is testimonyto the fact that many people have not captured the new methods and do continue to prefer inidvidual heroics to collective progress (not that there is anything against a creative hero, far from it, but philosophy is not just a litterary style).

PS: I do not think John Emerson can be accused of failing to distinguish because the only thing he tries is to become popular with trollery (& he succeeds in that for whatever it’s worth)

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JoB 03.04.09 at 10:38 am

dsquared, you continue to make that annoying point & you seem to have an abundance of time for it. But your assessment of what is practical or not in philosophy or biology shouldn’t be the censor of what physicists and philosophers actually do. Your example of physics does not hold as it has become fashionable post-Hawking for physicists to publish vulgarizing books in which they act out a long refuted philosophical thesis that physics can explain everything (whilst they are at it gathering support for streaming more dollars into physics research).

The better example for your claim would have been Dawkins. But if Dawkins counts, Dennett is somebody that counts as well and Habermas would count and you’d have enough contemporary philosophers to conclusively refute your point that philosophy, because of lacking the practical application that you deem practical, does not have an impact on the world.

By the way much of what has been done in philosophical and mathematical logic, whether or not unnoticed by you, has a direct link to the applied sciences (AI to name one).

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dsquared 03.04.09 at 11:07 am

JoB, that’s not the point I’m making. There are lots of things that are worth doing even if they’re not interesting to the public; it’s unlikely that we’re going to see a really good popular book about the cutting edge of sewage farm management or mobile phone switches, but I for one am glad to know that progress is being made in research on both topics. I’d agree with you that research agendas shouldn’t be shaped by the popular book trade.

The point I was making though, is that people at this precise moment care about physics in a way in which they don’t care about philosophy. Neither Mageuiro nor Smolin’s books were about “how physics can explain everything” – one was about the question of whether the speed of light might have been higher in the first millinanoseconds of the universe’s existence, while Smolin’s was about whether string theory was a decadent research program. I bought them both because I’m interested in trying to understand about cosmology. Mageuiro and Smolin wrote them because, presumably, they’re interested in communicating about their work, and someone published them because they thought there was a market in it.

As you point out (good point by the way), as recently as fifteen years ago this was true about philosophy; it wasn’t just Dennett, Searle, McGinn and Chalmers also published paperback books which were at or close to the leading edge in the philosophy journals and which were marketed to normal people. Part of this was the wish to cash in on the publishing sensation of Douglas Hofstadter’s book (just like part of the reason why I have so many economics examples to choose from is that Freakonomics hit it out the park five years ago). But there was a supply side to it as well as a demand side.

Nowadays … well, look at the Basic Books philosophy list. Something’s happened here, and I think that there’s a sociological explanation which is not particularly heartening in its implications.

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dsquared 03.04.09 at 11:09 am

btw, with respect to #223, to accuse someone of “trollery” is to accuse them of not arguing in good faith, which is a form of dishonesty. Serious accusations like that should not be made other than on good evidence; they are personal attacks.

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Chris Bertram 03.04.09 at 11:50 am

_The point I was making though, is that people at this precise moment care about physics in a way in which they don’t care about philosophy._

Well I’m not sure who “people” are, but if they are the kind of people who apply to study at universities, then that doesn’t seem to be true.

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John Emerson 03.04.09 at 12:12 pm

220: Usually when people give me lists such as that one, I mark down the names and take a look at them. I’ve already looked at Singer, and like Lewis he strikes me as fully representative of batshit rationality — the meticulous and rigorous argumentation of theses chosen for shock value. (Singer’s scores 10+ because his thesis appeals to the PETA supermodel community, meaning that he’s engaged in society too, not just an alienated rationalist).

Usually I’m disappointed / validated. I’ve liked Rorty and some things by Putnam, but when you look at it they’re mostly saying “let’s get the hell out of here” and proposing to repair the damage done by 70 years of (nonexistent: see Preston above) analytic philosophy — Putnam’s Sen collaboration is key here. Bernard Williams (trollishly cursed above by Gowder) said somewhat the same, and reading Williams is tremendously sad because I think that he could have done much better work if he’d been working in a field where the ruling oligarchy was methodologically a bit more pluralistic and less fascistic.

Inwagen’s philosophically nihilist book on the Problem of Evil cites a total of three authors who wrote before 1900, one of whom (JS Mill) he refuted and one of whom was an irrelevant anecdotalist, and in whose book all of the heavy lifting was done by a C.S. Lewis mashup.

As for Leiter, he seems to think that if you write a book with the word “Nietzsche” in the title that counts as addressing Nietzsche. Enough said.

So you see, I’m trying. really I am. On the other hand, I have other things to do with my life than just this, and at a certain point you have to apply the rotten-egg one-taste principle of criticism.

My claim that professional philosophy should be in crisis should be distinguished from the claim that philosophy is in crisis. Scholasticism lasted a couple of centuries longer than it should have because it was solidly instituitionalized and even had military and police arms (the Habsburg armies and the Inquisition). I’ve been trolling economics during the same period that I’ve been trolling philosophy, and if people recently have been slightly more friendly to my points, it’s because there’s a point at which economic errors make an enormous difference, and that point has arrived. Furthermore, the present civilizational crisis almost certainly would be less intense if the economics profession had been less well-armored.

But this cannot happen with philosophy, because it’s the “wheel that can be turned though nothing else moves with it, is not part of the mechanism”. There are no consequences to bad academic philosophy, and thus there can be no crisis. [NOTE: if Wittgenstein’s wheel really is a flywheel,as I’ve seen suggested, forget I said this. My guess is that Wittgenstein has two wheels. In any case, academic philosophy isn’t any goddamn flywheel.]

People may wonder: “Where did Emerson get the idea that it’s OK to denounce a whole always-already nonexistent yet dominant school of philosophy, root and branch, without the lest trace of nuance?” The answer is that my model is the wonderfully malicious assault Russell and his friends, long before any of us were born, made on British Absolute Idealism. (You might think that Absolute Idealism never recovered, but you would be wrong. Cf. Oxford U. P.’s recent “Philosophy of Time”, ed. Poidevin, which is almost entirely dominated by McTaggart, and which almost completely ignores Eddington’s almost equally ancient contribution to the question, which is much more useful and which is grounded on science.

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John Emerson 03.04.09 at 12:15 pm

The only thing he tries is to become popular with trollery

Scoring Chicks R Me. You can’t believe how popular I’ve become. I’ve had to get a datebook divided into two hour segments.

I’ve noted that I’m able to bring out the troll in the fussiest of rationalists, though their troll skillz leave greatly to be desired.

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John Emerson 03.04.09 at 12:18 pm

“Physicists, [biologists] and philosophers” : one of these things is not the same as the others.

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dsquared 03.04.09 at 12:33 pm

#227: I meant “the general educated public”, but as far as full-time undergraduate students go, the last data release seems to have physics 14935 and philosophy 11885. So not a washout, but 25% smaller. Frustratingly, the applications data releases only give you “historical and philosophical studies”.

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Chris Bertram 03.04.09 at 12:41 pm

Yes, dsquared, but that just covers students _admitted_. Since home undergraduate numbers are capped by Hefce, you’d also have to look at the unmet demand. I don’t have access to the global stats, but I can tell you that many top universities are fighting off demand from would-be philosophers with 3 As (application to place ratios in the region of 20 to 1) , whereas the physicists struggle to recruit to their allotted places.

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Sam C 03.04.09 at 12:47 pm

Dsquared said:

Yes but they’re not really talking about what’s appearing in the top philosophy journals right now, are they? If you compare it to a really healthy discipline, like evolutionary biology or even physics (where in the last two years I’ve read “Faster than the speed of light” by Joao Maguiero and “The Trouble with physics” by Lee Smolin, both of which are books by people at the top of their profession dealing with genuinely live debates), then you do notice a difference.

I have some sympathy for this, but I don’t think it’s completely true. To pick up on one of my examples above: Frankfurt’s The Reasons of Love is not a popular treatment of old issues, it’s a direct engagement with some central problems – the nature of reasons, what a good life is, freedom and responsibility – which are topics of current professional debate. Frankfurt admittedly writes a lot better than most professional philosophers do (obviously, I include myself in this criticism), and he also has the advantage that, after the success of ‘On Bullshit’, he gets published in affordable paperbacks.

There certainly are differences – at minimum, differences in how much money can be made – between popular physics, biology, and history on one side, and popular philosophy on the other. But I wonder to what extent they’re caused by how philosophers are working and writing, and to what extent they’re to do with the current, accidental features of the book trade: what was popular physics publishing like before the (bizarre) success of A Brief History of Time, for instance?

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John Emerson 03.04.09 at 12:56 pm

I’d disagree with Dsquared here. I’d say that for us, for me at least, the collapse of academic philosophy is a desideratum rather than a fact, just as as for Leiter and his operatives the total control of hiring in academic philosophy is more a goal than a fact. Unfortubnately, I think that D^2 and I are the relatively more wishful ones. This is probably a good point to trundle out the old mole, the dialectic, the cunning of history, internal contradictions, etc.

Chief among the contradictions: WTF happens to philosophy PhDs from the third-ten and the fourth-ten schools, when the gulf between the #10 and #11 schools on the cartels’ carefully quantified hierarchy (copyright Leiter) is already enormous? Shouldn’t they be discouraged from trying for the PhD at all, unless they’re independently wealthy? (I have lots of anecdata about “bankrupt” PhDs driving bus, with the qualification that you cannot declare bankruptcy on school loans and will be in debt for the rest of your natural life).

But if the #21–#40 schools close down, where will the #11-#20 graduates work? A house-of-cards collapse like the recent global economic collapse seems very possible, especially as budgets get tighter (given that economically-rationalized mega-schools don’t really give a shit about the liberal arts anyway).

Philosophy PhDs can always go into law, of course, and practice the wisdom of Phaedrus, who knew that there’s more honor in successfully defending a false proposition than there is in successfully defending a true one, since the defender of a truth has an unfair advantage.

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Daniel 03.04.09 at 1:15 pm

Well, Carl Sagan wrote the foreword to BHoT – not really a physicist, but there was an industry in place.

232: hmmm is someone applying to a top-quality university to do an undergraduate philosophy degree really a “would be philosopher”? Surely at least some of them are planning on having an interesting and not always hugely demanding three years before buggering off to work for McKinsey?

But more generally, Physics will have been suffering from the death spiral of A-Level maths in terms of undergraduate applications. Surely it’s evidence of some sort of health in the social position of physicists that so many people who are fundamentally unable to study the subject still regard it as important enough to buy books about it?

Just to emphasise, I don’t think it’s a good idea to appeal to the lowest common denominator, or that the health of a subject can be measured off the book sales charts (as you know, I think modern academic economics is a bit of an intellectual disaster area). But given that philosophy isn’t a subject with a built-in demand because it doesn’t cause financial crises or invent birth-control pills, I would have thought that there would be at least a bit of countervailing pressure against the tendency Kieran mentioned for status to go with “purity”. I just fundamentally don’t understand the sociological dynamics here; as mentioned passim, I also thought that someone like Michael Walzer would have been absolutely all over any opportunity to get involved in the Geneva protocols negotiation process.

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Chris Bertram 03.04.09 at 1:19 pm

I wasn’t meaning for “would-be philosopher” to be taken all that literally, I was responding to your claim that “people at this precise moment care about physics in a way in which they don’t care about philosophy.” Whether they care enough to apply to study at a university would seem to be relevant, if not conclusive.

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John Emerson 03.04.09 at 1:26 pm

There are a lot of unemployed physicists too. The quants are just the glorious second wave (or third or fourth, don’t ask me) of the takeover of econ by failed physicists. Samuelson’s cohort was the first, I think.

Recently physicists applied their number-crunching abilities to historical linguistics, and came up with a model which could not recognize the Indo-European language family, and didn’t notice that Portuguese and Spanish are almost the same language.

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JoB 03.04.09 at 1:33 pm

dsq-225&226,

OK, that helps (but doesn’t explain the sweeping nature of your posts). I still disagree: a. there’s little empirical support for your claim (better: the support you quote is not sufficient to support the sweepingness of your claim) & b. popularity is a trailing indicator (vulgarized physics are on their way down, work on conceptual schemes adopted as dogmatic truth are on the up) & c. well 15 years isn’t an awfully impressive measuring range.

I do agree by the way that towards the end of the last century there were too little philosophers trying to reach out (and the ones you name are not representative at all for where we came – as little as Chomsky/Pinker are representative for current day language learning hypothesis). The hope I have, but it’s hope w/o evidence is that somewhere something is in the making that’s new enough to be academically important and able to capture the attention of the public at large.

(as to my trollery point: John E kind of makes a point to bring up trolls, I’m sure he wouldn’t be offended by an innocent jab. If he construed it as personal attack I apologize – if somebody else
construed it thusly I have it noted that I have no reason whatsoever to believe he’s dishonest.)

I do believe John is attacking a strawman: I think it was Sam that said it above – any institution, any human being have certain less savoury characteristics, he gives no reason to single out this specific body of human beings. More to the point: 20th century philosophy is not at all like the scholastic movement – that specific comparison is better reserved for neo-liberal economists.

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John Emerson 03.04.09 at 1:33 pm

Incidentally, I’m willing to cut a deal with Leiter. If he releases just half of philosophy hiring, firing, and promotion from his iron grip, and if he dissolves his goon squad, I’ll refrain from bringing philosophy crashing down in ruins.

And of course, my offer to CT still stands, give trollblog a link and a font-page announcment, I’ll quit coming here an runing everything.

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ejh 03.04.09 at 1:33 pm

If we’re talking about popular books, by the way, one of the most acclaimed children’s books of recent years, worldwide, was a guide to the history of philosophy.

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JoB 03.04.09 at 1:39 pm

John, ah, you have a gripe with Leiter. I don’t know Leiter so maybe you’re right there. Be it as it may Leiter is not all of philosophy so maybe you should just bring him crashing down. If he is as you make it out to be: he wouldn’t care anyway if philosophy came crashing down – as long as he would be the last man standing.

Trollblog, heh, is that a blog for trollery in the dsquared definition?

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John Emerson 03.04.09 at 1:44 pm

Any institution, any human being have certain less savoury characteristics, he gives no reason to single out this specific body of human beings.

??????????????????

Because it’s the topic on the table, and one in which I have a special interest.

Any institution has unsavory characteristics, THEREFORE any institution is liable to criticism and attack. Including by outsiders.

Modern academic disciplines, notably philosophy and economics, and their oligarchical leaders use academic freedom, the prestige of science, technical language and the pretense to expertise, their control of the disciplinary machinery, and a quantified algorithm for hiring, firing, and promotion (copyright Leiter) to place themselves above all criticism, transcendent and invulnerable, and feel no obligation to attend to ignorant, unaccredited, folkish sorts.

McCumber, Wilshire, Mirowski, and Donoghue are relevant, but Jeff Schmidt’s “Disciplined Minds” is the most penetrating analysis.

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Daniel 03.04.09 at 1:44 pm

Ah sorry I see what you mean (I find myself wanting to ask whether the applicants are really aware of what “philosophy” actually involves (I certainly wasn’t) but I suspect that course information is a lot better these days).

Actually, thinking about it, the best example of all is Marxist economics, which did actually die, and did so a long time before the Berlin Wall came down (it was already in intensive care by the time Thatcher came along). Marxist econ in the 1970s was never short of people who cared about the subject, often passionately, and wanted to learn all about it. Unfortunately, the subject managed to take a horrible long detour into abstract discussions of the transformation problem and abstruse properties of Sraffian models. Which meant that nearly all the people who started off interested in the subject exited with a profound feeling of “not going to do that again”. Eventually most of the good people in the field like Andrew Glyn just gave up and started doing empirical work and/or more recognisably neoclassical economics, while the theorists continued to talk to each other.

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John Emerson 03.04.09 at 1:51 pm

The Philosophical Gourmet report has an enormous institutional importance. It’s Leiter’s baby no matter how many other people are playing. I find it utterly toxic. It’s had the predictable and I presume intended effect of fixing the academic hierarchies in an objective, quantified way which is stabilized by multiple feedback loops: people choose schools by it, hire by it, and are hired from it. One effect, which I presume was intended and is in no sense a surprising outcome , has been to narrow the scope of philosophy. Once all of the philosophers of Type X are in second-twenty schools, Type X thinking is gone.

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John Emerson 03.04.09 at 1:56 pm

I am a troll and proud. Bring it on. I don’t think that gentle suasion and reasonableness are going to change anything. For very good reasons, pertinent to my institutional argument, junior academics are too timid to strike out, and tenured academics are mostly too comfortable to care. This work must be done by outsiders, trolls, and simple folk.

People really should look at the institution of philosophy, its internal power relationships, the constraints these put on individuals, and the limitations these place on what it is possible for professionals to think.

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Daniel 03.04.09 at 1:57 pm

To be honest I think this thread’s kind of drifted – I am planning to do something similar as a front page post on economics (where Paul Krugman has admitted, more or less offhand, that US universities did practice ideological censorship of rival schools) so maybe continue it there?

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Glen Tomkins 03.04.09 at 2:08 pm

I would name myself…

…largely because I am unpublished, and that is the major criterion. I mean, if you’re a Socrates, you have to let your Plato do the publishing for you. Sadly, the candidates mentioned already have taken the very unphilosophical step of writing things to convince others that a certain point of view is somehow correct. Oh, dear. I’m sure that the various things they have written are all quite clever, but, you see, the whole point of philosophy is to take the other side, the idea that generating clever theories is the root of all evil.

Which brings us back to my unsustainable claim to this crown of thorns. One could say that I have just advanced a theory. But, in my defence, at least it wasn’t at all a clever theory, and, more importantly, it was stated in such a way as to make it impossible to repose any trust in it. Just as a clever lawyer will have all of his clients pre-probate their wills, so the wise thinker will pre-falsify all of his theories, and those of the people around him. “The unrefuted life is not worth living.”, to quote the founder of this enterprise. That, really, is all a philosopher can do to protect this world from the domination of the rampant theorizing that we do uncontrollably, without even thinking — undermine the credibility of the whole enterprise of speculative thought. If I were really talented, I would exude from my conversation a cloud of incredulity that would keep people from believing, not just my theories, but all theories, in ever-widening circles around me.

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Perezoso 03.04.09 at 2:09 pm

As the day progresses and Emerson makes a dent in his jug of Bacardi, expect the generalizations to become ever more grand, the bombast to blast greater, and the Bertrand Russell bashing to commence. Russell had issues, but he also had some political spine. Let’s not forget Russell dissed the bolsheviks when most leftist academics (including Dewey) were hoping for VI Lenin and crew to march into western Europe. Russell also had words for the blackshirt fetish of the Brits (including fatboy Churchill, who blessed Il Duce and Hitler until the panzers were rolling). He protested ‘Nam in his 90s, and was not entirely supportive of the founding of Israel.

Leiter’s usual philo- hustle itself a farce: a straw poll conducted among the Richie Cunninghams of midwestern Philosophy departments asking them to fill in the scantron for their Top 10 eggheads! Geez, Potsie, have to go with ol’ Svengali Ludwig. ( LW’s barely a Glaucon to Russell’s Socrates).

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John Emerson 03.04.09 at 2:24 pm

Well, the singularity is nigh. I was just about to reveal the motivation behind my vendetta, too.

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Bill Gardner 03.04.09 at 2:36 pm

Kieran:

“stuff like bioethics… has little or no standing in the discipline, even though there’s a lot of money there.

ROFL.

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onymous 03.04.09 at 2:42 pm

where in the last two years I’ve read “Faster than the speed of light” by Joao Maguiero and “The Trouble with physics” by Lee Smolin, both of which are books by people at the top of their profession dealing with genuinely live debates

This should read “both of which are books by borderline crackpots who write books for the public because people in their own field have no interest in their ideas”. Hope that helps!

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onymous 03.04.09 at 2:52 pm

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John Holbo 03.04.09 at 2:54 pm

A little late to returning to the party:

I wrote: “Wittgenstein.”

Tom Hurka responded: “Wittgenstein (a horrible influence on philosophy, in my opinion).”

Oddly enough, I would agree with Hurka without being inclined to change my vote. Wittgenstein did have a horrible influence on philosophy. But he was still the most brilliant philosopher. (Explaining how I believe these claims go together would take a bit of explaining, I concede.)

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ScentOfViolets 03.04.09 at 3:11 pm

Yes but they’re not really talking about what’s appearing in the top philosophy journals right now, are they? If you compare it to a really healthy discipline, like evolutionary biology or even physics (where in the last two years I’ve read “Faster than the speed of light” by Joao Maguiero and “The Trouble with physics” by Lee Smolin, both of which are books by people at the top of their profession dealing with genuinely live debates), then you do notice a difference. I’ve drawn the comparison to economics in this thread, but as I’ve noted ad nauseam on CT, I think that a lot of economics is in serious crisis as well, also because of the retreat from the practical.

I suppose that a barometer for measuring the health of a discipline at any given time would be something like what are considered the Questions of the Day to the lay public. Hard to believe that they were never the equivalent of questions about whether or not Tyra Banks could be replaced as the diva/guru on America’s Next Top Model, but there was a time when the unwashed masses would crowd public halls to listen to popular lectures on the meaning of simultaneity, or whether dinosaurs were really birds.

Well, there are still preoccupations like that – just not with philosophy. Say what you will about the cranks who crawl out of the woodwork declaring that Einstein was Wrong being funny and/or sad, but at least they are preoccupied with something important. Similarly, evolution in it’s various aspects is much in the public’s eye; everything from the origin of life to evolutionary psychology. Economics, well, . . . ’nuff said.

The point is, there is enough popular interest in these subjects to sustain an entire industry devoted to publishing lay expositions of one topic or another. Philosophy as a general subject just doesn’t have this type of appeal. To the extent it does, people like me read Dennett for musings about the notion of free will, or Dawkins on ethics. So this comment make perfect sense:

Part of the problem here is that Nietzsche was, in part, correct when he said that science has superseded philosophy.

It seems to me that if philosophers want to become ‘relevant’ again, they’re going to have to tackle questions like free will and ethics and human behaviour in a way that science can’t, and in a way that has some practical significance. And, no, railing against the deficiencies of science, albeit in a relevant and cogent way, doesn’t count; the contributions have to be positive ones. Though somebody does have to pound the drum somehow to drive this point home:

The reason some of us are so furious is that we defend humanism not against science but the pseudo-science of anti-humanists with science envy. The unity of the humanities and the sciences was a dream and hallmark of the original scholastics. The Renaissance brought the acceptance of their quite logical separation.

I wouldn’t put it quite so strongly, but economics as a ‘science’ definitely fits the bill: as a description of human behaviour, it definitely belongs in the humanities; to the extent that it tries to fit everyday actions into a framework that depends upon people not behaving like human beings, it is a psuedo-science. But I use this to illustrate my point that, while adversarial debunkers and educated critques are necessary to every healthy discipline, it is not enough. People have known for a long time that economics as it has been used as a shaper of public policy is a fraud, known it for decades. But since alternatives weren’t offered, it wasn’t enough to point out that the Emporer wore no clothes. You need to get away from these sorts of declarations:

By the way, I’m more than a little puzzled by the argument which amounts to one concluding that philosophy is useless and dead because it has no practical application. The same argument applies to a great many academic fields, among which there would be one or two I suspect any particular person making this argument would find themselves defending.

Now, that’s simply not true. What did Keynes say? “Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.” I would add that the defunct economist is probably the slave of some outmoded moral system encoded by a long-dead philosopher. So a lot of people have this notion of some sort of cut-rate utilitarianism as being the last word in proper conduct. If philosophers could do something with that, maybe they’d be considered a modern force to be reckoned with in the public’s eye.

Part of the problem here is that Nietzsche was, in part, correct when he said that science has superseded philosophy.

The reason some of us are so furious is that we defend humanism not against science but the pseudo-science of anti-humanists with science envy. The unity of the humanities and the sciences was a dream and hallmark of the original scholastics. The Renaissance brought the acceptance of their quite logical separation.

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Phil 03.04.09 at 3:22 pm

Since this thread’s still going, who the hell is David K. Lewis? I’m aware that (a) lots of professional philosophers (a) rate him highly and (b) think anyone who cares about the subject ought to know about him, but that doesn’t tell me much. Who does he come after? Who did he come before? Who did he challenge? Who challenges him? Where does he fit, or not fit? I’m familiar with parallel universes – I had the thought that each individual decision might produce a branching-off point between two universes myself in about 1975 – but it must take more than that to be voted Nearly As Good As Wittgenstein. What am I missing?

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N. N. 03.04.09 at 3:23 pm

John Holbo,

Hurka doesn’t appear to have a very informed opinion of Wittgenstein.

You wrote your dissertation on Wittgenstein, so I would assume that you do have an informed opinion. Can you sketch your reason(s) for believing that “Wittgenstein did have a horrible influence on philosophy.”

By the way, the link on your website to your dissertation is dead. Are you planning on putting it back up?

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Phil 03.04.09 at 3:24 pm

Incidentally, I’m really starting to regret letting my sister talk me out of applying to do Philosophy (in about 1976). But then, of course, I wouldn’t be here now.

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john holbo 03.04.09 at 3:44 pm

OK, I’ll respond to Emerson even though lord knows he and I have had words before:

“As for Leiter, he seems to think that if you write a book with the word “Nietzsche” in the title that counts as addressing Nietzsche. Enough said.

So you see, I’m trying. really I am.”

Look, John. You’re a lovely fellow and peppery as could be, no doubt. But the notion that you are trying, but repeatedly failing, to find value in academic philosophy runs contrary to the evidence, to say the least. You are strongly, obviously quite dogmatically committed to finding no value in it. How not?

At any rate, here’s a challenge for you: take a paper by Leiter on Nietzsche – let’s say one of the ones from the volume he edited with Richardson. The title of the book is “Nietzsche”, so it seems a perfect test of your hypothesis. Make a serious argument that the paper is intellectually worthless and shouldn’t even count as an attempt to address Nietzsche. Alternatively you could just take my word for it: you can’t do it. Which, one way or the other, will bring us back to point number one. We can see that you aren’t trying. Really, we can. Which is ok, in the end. But not quite the same thing as you trying, now is it?

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John Emerson 03.04.09 at 4:16 pm

John, I did read Leiter’s book with Nietzsche in the title, cover to cover as I remember, and ended up with a thousand words of notes preparatory to critiquing it, but when I realized that Leiter’s book was old hat and already pretty much done, no longer a live issue, I lost interest.

My main criticisms that I remember were that 1.) Nietzsche’s physiological psychology may have been well-intended and perhaps philosophically well grounded, but in actual content it was incredibly crude and about on a par with alchemy or macrobiotics, something you’d hear in an organic food store; it doesn’t seem like something to celebrate; and 2.) if you write about an author who deliberately chooses to present his ideas in a certain non-standard way, and who ridicules the standard way, it’ s malpractice to pretend that none of that happened, and translate his ideas into standard format abd go from there, without either or acknowledging or crtitiquing his chosen way of writing or his motives for choosing it. This also apples to Wittgenstein, less so because people do critique Wittgenstein, and to most academic works on Chinese philosophy. (Chuang Tzu did not write the way he did because he had no examples of systematic argumentation to learn from; he did, but was rejecting those examples.)

As for my good will: sometimes people say either 1.) you don’t know what you’re talking about or 2.) you’d fint the stuff you like in present day professional philosophy, but you’re not looking hard enough. So I read stuff they say is great and that I should like. So far, Charles Taylor and Alistair MacIntyre have passed the test, and I wish there were more of them.

I never did promise to abandon my ideas about what philosophy should be, or my conviction that that kind of stuff (socially involved, generalist, pragmatism and process philosophy directed at the general educated reader) was starved out ca. 1940-1980 in philosophy as in many other fields. When I started college in 1964, these people were not extinct, though they weren’t going anywhere, and I didn’t read the tea leaves correctly.

So anyway, my American pantheon is James, Veblen, Moore, Kenneth Burke, Dewey, Whitehead, G. H. Mead, C. Wright Mills, John Kenneth Galbraith, others I’ve forgotten, and a lot of social critics outside philosophy. (Peirce is not on the list because I haven’t read much of him). Someone in 1964 with that pantheon was up shit creek, and what replaced it doesn’t measure up. And the transition was politics and mood shift, not rational.

As I’ve said many times, it’s an opportunity-cost, crowding-out problem. Is the stuff I want there? No. Is the stuff that replaced it better? NO!! Are the same jobs being done differently? No, they quit doing that stuff.

And I could take my lumps, recognize the way of the world, and politely shut up, but there’s no real reason for me to do so. No carrot, no stick.

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john holbo 03.04.09 at 4:35 pm

Aw c’mon John, admit it: you like things just the way they are. It would make you miserable if you couldn’t rage against the machine. (There’s your carrot. Who needs a stick, then?)

But down to business: “2.) if you write about an author who deliberately chooses to present his ideas in a certain non-standard way, and who ridicules the standard way, it’ s malpractice to pretend that none of that happened, and translate his ideas into standard format abd go from there, without either or acknowledging or crtitiquing his chosen way of writing or his motives for choosing it.”

This seems to me quite feeble, just the fallacy of imitative form. You can’t write well about Nietzsche unless you write like Nietzsche. I know you don’t actually believe that. But, given that you don’t, what’s the point of pretending that Leiter is blind to the obvious fact that Nietzsche is a weird sort of writer? You are just leaping from the fact that Leiter is trying to construct rational arguments of a certain sort to the conclusion that he must be deluded about the possibility that this procedure is problematic in Nietzsche’s case. (I think your sort of criticism is more applicable to Richardson, who seems to be implausibly determined to find a certain sort of system in Nietzsche. But Richardson is obviously aware that, on the surface, this is a bizarre thing to try to do.)

“Nietzsche’s physiological psychology may have been well-intended and perhaps philosophically well grounded, but in actual content it was incredibly crude and about on a par with alchemy or macrobiotics”

Leiter thinks it’s important that Nietzsche was a naturalist and that this has not always been appreciated. I think that’s right. Do you disagree? If so: why? Where does Leiter say that the crude stuff about diet and so forth is secretly not crude?

Alistair Macintyre passed the test? Now I’m really confused.

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Chris Bertram 03.04.09 at 4:45 pm

This thread should have been terminated long ago – I’m closing it now.

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