Philosophical immortality

by Chris Bertram on September 14, 2003

Picking up on some remarks of mine, Brian Leiter is playing the “which contemporary philosophers will still be read in 100 years” game – which can be quite fun. My money is on Rawls and Parfit. Not that they are necessarily the best, but other contenders who have written less monumental works will have their thoughts incorporated into philosophical discourse in a way that floats free of the original form those thoughts were couched in.



Arnold Kling 09.14.03 at 2:39 pm

I think that unless a philosopher is steeped in an understanding of the pace of technological change, that philosopher is going to seem highly irrelevant in 100 years.

You really need to understand the rate at which history is speeding up. Something like “The Age of Spiritual Machines” by Ray Kurzweil is more important to read than Rawls by a long shot. Not that Kurzweil isn’t infuriating and perhaps wrong in many respects…


Chris 09.14.03 at 2:57 pm

Ah yes, Aristotle and Plato, so behind the times …


Chris Brooke 09.14.03 at 3:49 pm

An American friend of mine who did his M.Phil in intellectual history at Cambridge used to joke that in 100 years time one of the academic descendants of Quentin Skinner and John Dunn will present a paper to a history of political thought seminar there to explain that although everyone still reads Brian Barry these days, in order really to understand his work you have to study this completely forgotten figure called John Rawls…


Robert Schwartz 09.14.03 at 6:01 pm

None, it is all coterie material written for coteries that will not exist in 100 years.


Andrew Edwards 09.14.03 at 7:15 pm

I think it’s a fair point that what’s really helpful to immortality is a single, seminal book that can easily be assigned to undergraduate survey classes. Being known only to specialists is a recipe for certain death. But having complex work that’s difficult to convey or assign in a three-week period in a second-year theory course will make in much more likely that you’ll land in the hands only of specialists.

On that mark I think Rawls is obvious. I was assigned TOJ in an undergraduate theory course. Few other contemporary philosophers have that one-truly-great-work appeal.

Rawls also benefits for being important to a number of fields – political theory, legal theory, etc.


Dave 09.14.03 at 11:28 pm

Can I cheat and claim Dawkins? I’m not sure he really qualifies as a philosopher, but he has a philosophy, and I think the Selfish Gene will be around longer than anything else comparable. Not only is it a towering intellectual synthesis of disciplines, but it is also very readable.


Dell Adams 09.15.03 at 12:39 am

Along similar lines: Deepak Chopra, Thomas Moore, and Ken Wilber.


Brian Weatherson 09.15.03 at 1:39 am

If we’re going to let ‘philosopher’ range wide enough to include Dawkins (which I don’t particularly object to doing) then there’s an easy addition to the list – Chomsky.

Ol’ Noam may have political views that are, to use the politest phrase I can think of, fubarred, but he’s dominated his chosen field more completely than anyone since Keynes, if not Einstein. And that field is one of the closest fields to philosophy, which helps in counting towards being an immortal philosopher.

While his direct impact on philosophy of mind and philosophy of language hasn’t (yet) been as great as one might expect given his influence in linguistics and cognitive science, he’s sure to be an important figure for many decades to come. My impression (and I should do some actual research to back this up) is that across academia he’s the most frequently cited living person by a long way, which is a nice head start on immortality.


pathos 09.15.03 at 2:00 am


You are absolutely right as to the “head start”, and I’ll save you the research.

Chomsky was, in fact, the 8th “most cited academic source” between the years 1980 and 1992.

Here is the list: Marx, Lenin, Shakespeare, Aristotle, the Bible, Plato, Freud, Chomsky, Hegel, and Cicero.

From what I have read, however (I’m no linguist), he’s more likely to end up following the Freudian track than the Hegelian one. His theories are turning into philosophical dead ends. Once the hero-worship aspect is gone, he is likely to be seen as an interesting historical detour, not a relevant point for continued study.


Brian Weatherson 09.15.03 at 3:53 am

Even if Chomsky starts losing some stature he’s got a long way to fall. I flipped through the citation records in humantities and social sciences for the last three years for a few famous works, and here’s the (very approximate – there’s no way to do this accurately I know of) results

Kuhn, Structure of Scientific Revolutions 10000
Rawls, Theory of Justice 7000
Chomsky, Aspects 4000
Nozick, Anarchy State and Utopia 2500
Chomsky, Sound Pattern of English 2200
Quine, Word and Object 2000
Chomsky, Lectures on Govt and Binding 2000
Chomsky, Syntactic Structures 2000
Parfit, Reasons and Persons 1000
Kripke, Naming and Necessity 900
Rawls, Political Liberalism 800
Chomsky, Minimalist Program 700
Lewis, Plurality of Worlds 500

For some historical comparison, though the numbers here are even woolier

Plato, The Republic 3500
Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations 600

I wonder whether it’s right to add Kuhn to the list of who’ll be around in 100 years. He’s also got a long way to fall before he stops being very widely read (or at least cited).

By the way, Chomsky’s political works barely register on the citation indices.


John Clement 09.15.03 at 4:46 am

The idea that a philosopher must possess a profound understanding of the pace of technological change to be relevant in 100 years is pretty depressing. In its current chapter, the story of technology sees peripeteia almost continually…right?


chun the unavoidable 09.15.03 at 5:12 am

Chomsky will be remembered as an important American dissident whatever happens with his philosophical/linguistic reputation (which I believe will also be sustained), and the tendency of considerably less active academics to denounce collectively and scornfully his political work does tend to support his, perhaps at first glance paranoid, invocations of the “commisar class.”


Shai 09.15.03 at 6:06 am

I don’t buy the idea that a philosopher has to be read to be important. No one reads Chomsky’s review of Skinner’s Verbal Behavior today and yet it’s so frequently mentioned that it has become legend.

In most disciplines 100+ year old works are read as a pivot or foil for more recent discussions. If they were immediately relevant we wouldn’t have to worry as much as we do about interpretation.

I believe it’s also possible for important thinkers to have their ideas “float free of their original form” into the common toolset of a discipline within one or two generations. One generation will read the work and create a secondary literature that the following generation will read without bothering to read the primary works of the first generation. Then the following generation comments on said works, ad infinitum. It’s what happens in a somewhat anti-historical discipline such as analytic philosophy and is generally the rule in the sciences.


Matt Weiner 09.15.03 at 4:56 pm

Agreed with shai. If I didn’t think that, I wouldn’t be able to get up in the morning–I’m not so bold to think that I’ll be on the hundred-year list, but I like to think that somehow I can contribute to the free-floating stuff.

what’s really helpful to immortality is a single, seminal book that can easily be assigned to undergraduate survey classes.

Well, Kant squeaks by with the Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals–but even if he had only written the Critique of Pure Reason, he’d still be read, and only a true sadist would assign the Critique in a survey class. Aristotle I think is similar–his work isn’t assigned in survey courses because it’s easy to cover in survey courses, but because it’s so important. So I’ll go with importance over assignability. By which measure Rawls is still going to make it.


Edward Hugh 09.15.03 at 7:18 pm

My god. Arnold and I agree about something.

Now what am I doing wrong?

Kuhn…….a long way to fall before he stops being very widely read (or at least cited).

I think the last point is the important one. Who knows what will be ebing cited next year, let alone in the next century. On Kuhn and scientific revolutions. I think they call them information cascades these days: check out the Watts, Barabasi , Buchanan set if your interested.


phil 09.16.03 at 4:38 pm

I’m going to join Dell Adams above and throw Ken Wilber into the ring. Synthesizing Western and Eastern philosophies and on-going psychological research into the nature of consciousness opens up a vast realm for philosophical exploration. Wilber’s work is of great importance in this process. Plus, he is an independent philosopher who makes a living from his books and thus is having and influence outside the narrow confines of academic philosophy.

Maybe we should do a “philosophical time capsule.” Do a survey and put in the top ten or so texts that people think will still be of importance in 100 years.

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