Choose the Greatest Philosopher of all Time

by Harry on June 7, 2005

Nominations are closed, but now you can vote, at the In Our Time site, on who is the greatest philosopher of all time. I’m surprised that there is even a debate about this among educated people, but I suppose that even the CT contributors might disagree amongst themselves. For me, there’s one so far in front of the others that it’s not worth debating. To my complete dismay, my two favourite celebrities on the BBC list (the greatest living Irishman and the greatest living Englishman) chose others, and my least favourite concurred with me.



Dirk 06.07.05 at 12:23 pm

Are you going to tell us? Plato? Kant?


Kieran Healy 06.07.05 at 12:27 pm


des von bladet 06.07.05 at 12:30 pm

But Jesus isn’t even _on_ their list!

(I’m abstaining, since it would be bad form, and also technically impossible, to vote for myself.)


Kieran Healy 06.07.05 at 12:33 pm

As for Harry’s choice, my bet is that he’s leaning toward the greatest dead Scotsman.


Chris Bertram 06.07.05 at 12:39 pm

Nominations asked people for their _favourite_ philosopher! Which is a good excuse to quote Wendy Cope:

When they ask me, “Who’s your favourite poet?”,
I’d better not mention you.
But you certainly are my favourite poet
And I like your poems too.


Chris Bertram 06.07.05 at 12:40 pm

No Kieran, it must be Aristotle, because that was Anne Widdecombe choice!

The GLI must be TW, and the GLE SF, right Harry?


Elias 06.07.05 at 1:04 pm

No Hegel? Not even listed?


Kieran Healy 06.07.05 at 1:06 pm

I was thinking Blunkett was his least fave person, but of course Widdecombe would fit the bill, too.


Harry 06.07.05 at 1:18 pm

Ok, Chris is right about my favourite celebs (I think they are my favourites of all). But Kieran is right about the philosopher. Revealing that I am more or less indifferent to AW; I wonder why. But, depressingly, she picked my runner up…


Jacob T. Levy 06.07.05 at 1:32 pm

I have a hard time thinking about ranking the Scotsman, the Konigsberger, and the two Greeks. But I have a harder time understanding how there are 16 others in the running.


Daniel 06.07.05 at 1:47 pm

Land snakes, where’s the swash and buckle in this blog? We’re all bloody Hume fans apparently. So the greatest philosopher of all time is a bloody drudge whose entire work is based around the study of the bleeding obvious, and whose towering philosophical achievement was the conclusion that it’s all a bit difficult really. The man who laid the foundations of modern Anglo-Saxon philosophy (and thus is no friend of the bookselling trade, presumably). Blargh. I voted Schopenhauer.


Dan Goodman 06.07.05 at 1:48 pm

Why is this limited to one species, and a mere few thousand years?


Walt Pohl 06.07.05 at 1:48 pm

At the price of revealing my incredible ignorance, who is “the Scotsman”. Hume?


Doctor Slack 06.07.05 at 2:07 pm

I also find it mildly curious that Hegel didn’t make the shortlist. It’s even more curious that in surveying the length and breadth of philosophy, Wittgenstein and Spinoza make the cut but figures like Averroes and Mencius don’t. Not that I would have voted for any of these, but still.


Jayanne 06.07.05 at 2:13 pm

“We’re all bloody Hume fans apparently.”

worrying, isn’t it? I cast a protest vote for Sartre.


joel turnipseed 06.07.05 at 2:14 pm

I was going to say, “Well, why would Hegel be in the running?” … And then I saw the list. Sartre (who isn’t as good as, say, Gadamer)? Epicurus (but not Heraclitus)? Popper (but not Davidson or Kripke)?

I then went to bookshelves to try to find a more suitable number to flesh out the 20–and it’s hard. Strange that, in all of human history, it’s a stretch to find 20 truly great philosophers. Is there any other field with such a paucity of “greatness”? I mean, couldn’t you dash of lists of 20 great composers, poets, novelists, painters, etcetera?

Of course, there’re really only three to choose from: Plato, Aristotle, Kant… with Plato taking the prize.


jim 06.07.05 at 2:14 pm

“I have a hard time thinking about ranking the Scotsman, the Konigsberger, and the two Greeks.”

Yes. I ended up voting for the other Greek, because I refuse to have a hard time thinking about a BBC online poll.


Doctor Slack 06.07.05 at 2:27 pm

“Epicurus (but not Heraclitus)? Popper (but not Davidson or Kripke)?”

Yep, also curious choices.

“Strange that, in all of human history, it’s a stretch to find 20 truly great philosophers.”

It depends on how you’re measuring “greatness,” I guess. The best way to explain some of the choices seems to be as measures of influence and name recognition more than anything else; that would certainly explain Marx, Nietzsche and Sartre for me (I haven’t listened to any of the little “why I voted for them” clips, though). The problem is that thinkers who could begin to compete with the undisputed greats for breadth and quality of thought really don’t have much in the way of wider name recognition; that’s the best way I could explain the total omission of Eastern philosophy of any kind.


Kieran Healy 06.07.05 at 2:46 pm

_We’re all bloody Hume fans apparently._

I only count Harry flying the Humean flag so far. Anyone else?


Olivier 06.07.05 at 2:51 pm

That’s where I feel cultural gap. How could anybody vote for Hume is truly beyond my understanding (not that he wasn’t one of the greatest, but the greatest I can’t grasp). Nah, Plato is the one.


John Quiggin 06.07.05 at 3:09 pm

I’ll vote for Mill. Maybe not the greatest intellect on the list (Marx had something very cutting to say about him, IIRC), but the one with the most unambiguously positive contribution to political philosophy.


vanya 06.07.05 at 3:10 pm

I don’t want to cause no multicultural fuss, but really – no Confucius? No Buddha? They may have been treated as religious figures by their followers but they were both philosophers, and very influential ones.


engels 06.07.05 at 3:11 pm

there’s one so far in front of the others that it’s not worth debating

Yes, Alain De Botton.


Jonathan 06.07.05 at 3:12 pm

I guarantee you that Mill had the highest of what is called IQ or g of anyone on that list, though by no means do I think that is the same thing as “intellect.”


Dan Simon 06.07.05 at 3:16 pm

We’re all bloody Hume fans apparently.

Here’s my theory: anybody who isn’t actually a philosopher by trade or avocation would pick Hume in a heartbeat, because his basic message is, “all that ridiculous philosophy stuff philosophers do is a waste of time.” (Late Wittgenstein said roughly the same thing, but in a way much more flattering to philosophers, at the price of being a waste of time for non-philosophers.)

Hence, while philosophy buffs can engage in heated debates about the top philosopher, once everyone else is included, it’s Hume in a landslide.


ogmb 06.07.05 at 3:27 pm

Must be one of the Bruces.


engels 06.07.05 at 3:30 pm

[Hume’s] basic message is, “all that ridiculous philosophy stuff philosophers do is a waste of time.” (Late Wittgenstein said roughly the same thing

Russell, Ayer, Carnap, Ryle, etc arguably also said roughly the same thing.

I actually think the reverse it true. Non-philosophers tend to be more partial to the “ridiculous philosophy stuff”: hence the market for Alain De Moron.


des von bladet 06.07.05 at 3:32 pm

Hey kids, remember when the lad Quiggin stirred up a fuss by pointing out that “music” didn’t just Western art music? We have, I assert, an exact parallel on our hands: not only are Confucius and Lao-Tse conspicuous, as has been noted, by their absence, but also there is the obvious fact that questions the neo-scholastic philosophes of the Anglo-American still mistake for their property have, for some time now, been addressed far more interestingly outside the confines of their discipline.

So I’m voting for Buddha, Confucius, Marx (who certainly belongs on a more interesting list than theirs), Weber, Durkheim, Freud, Lacan, Levi-Strauss, Foucault and — greatest of all by far — Wiley E Coyote. As Camus said, “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”


Adam Kotsko 06.07.05 at 3:51 pm

It’s odd that Heidegger is one of the choices, but Hegel isn’t.

One could almost walk into Barnes and Noble and base this list off of the people who actually appear on the shelf, perhaps trading out Epicurus for Foucault.


Doctor Slack 06.07.05 at 3:52 pm

“Non-philosophers tend to be more partial to the “ridiculous philosophy stuff””

Only a certain stripe of non-philosopher, though, usually with some training in another humanities discipline. But I think the more general non-philosopher would only be tempted to pick Hume if they’re British (and fair enough, it is a BBC poll after all) — elsewhere I think they’d be likelier to go for Aristotle or Aquinas, or maybe Mill. All of whom are perfectly defensible choices, as it turns out.

Far as French postrucutralists go, I’ve always found them more interesting than their detractors are willing to admit and less impressive than their disciples seem to think; I don’t know that I’d put them on a list of “greatest” thinkers. I’d say Weber, Freud and Lacan belong on a list of most-overrated thinkers… but that’s just me.


Kevin Donoghue 06.07.05 at 4:10 pm

I did an online questionnaire which diagnosed me as an Epicurean. But I know sweet f.a. about him so I think I’d better abstain. Russell is readable – is that so bad?


Harry 06.07.05 at 4:11 pm

A conjecture: being a fluent reader of English makes Hume extremely appealing. I’ve no idea what he’s like in translation but in English he is wonderful. Russell, Quine, Carnap, Wittgenstein, Feyerabend when in serious mood — they’re all regurgitating Hume. (Ayer??)

Regarding him as the greatest, or taking him on as my favourite, by the way, doesn’t imply that I agree with anything he says. Almost the opposite is true.

If we were talking about political philosophers only, btw, I think I’d agree with Quiggin. If moral philosophers only I’d go for Aristotle or Kant.

I imagine Popper is on the list because he worked so close to Broadcasting House. There can be no other excuse (Popper but not Carnap or Quine??)

Dan Simon’s comment makes me wonder if I’m right: I’m convinced that philosophers (by which I mean, parochially, people paid to work in Philosophy departments in Universities in the english-speaking world) would vote for Hume by a landslide. My data is the plural of anecdote, but it is a lot of anecdote…


Mockler 06.07.05 at 4:14 pm

As Hegel remarks somewhere, all of Western philosophy is a footnote to Plato.


Mitch 06.07.05 at 4:17 pm

1) How can Plato possibly be the greatest philosopher when he was just a scribe for Socrates?

2) You nominate your favorite, but vote for the greatest.

3) I voted a second time based on how pleasant the celebrity endorser’s face was.


Junius Ponds 06.07.05 at 4:41 pm

(Grrr… How many times is closing quotes with the left bracket going to ruin my posts?)

>As Hegel remarks somewhere, all of Western philosophy is a footnote to Plato

I’m rather sure that was Whitehead — though I suppose you’re making a reference to the _18th Brumaire_, which (intended or not) brought a smile to my face.

As for me, I voted for Aristotle.


Anderson 06.07.05 at 4:46 pm

) How can Plato possibly be the greatest philosopher when he was just a scribe for Socrates?

You’re kidding, right, Mitch?

(I think the poll is actually an IQ test, and everyone who fails to vote for Plato, fails.)


ogged 06.07.05 at 4:51 pm

I’m pretty sure it was Whitehead who said that, mockler. And anderson is right at 35. Anyone other than Plato? Seriously?


Chris Bertram 06.07.05 at 4:52 pm

Btw, the most significant and outrageous omission from the top 20 imho, and a plausible CONTENDER (though not my top choice, I’m going with Kant) is Leibniz.


John Emerson 06.07.05 at 4:53 pm

No Hegel, no Montaigne, no pragmatists, and nothing non-Western.

No thanks.

Sartre, Schopenhauer, Popper, Russell, Heidegger, and perhaps even Mill and Kierkegaard all strike me as figures of rather local and transient importance.


Winston Smith 06.07.05 at 5:08 pm

Oh, fer chrissake, Hume is NOT seriously in the running. He’s an excellent philosopher, obviously, but no Aristotle, no Kant.

You know who’s really, really, really great but utterly misunderstood and radically underappreciated? C. S. Peirce. No, seriously!

Seems like a bone-headed, meat-axe naturalist at first blush, but actually has a truly revolutionary logic of science based on a Kantian ethics of belief. We don’t even really know how important he is yet because he’s basically ignored (everybody reads “The Fixation of Belief” and “How to Make Our Ideas Clear” once apiece, and that’s it). Also, few philosophers know enough about logic, science, or the history of philosophy to read Peirce productively. Hell, I know I don’t.

Anyway, it’s too early to include him on the list, but I predict that in 50 years he will be viewed very differently than he is today.


nolo 06.07.05 at 5:18 pm

Winston, I totally agree with you re Peirce.


urizon 06.07.05 at 5:22 pm

I vote for Zippy.


Doctor Slack 06.07.05 at 5:41 pm

“Oh, fer chrissake, Hume is NOT seriously in the running. He’s an excellent philosopher, obviously, but no Aristotle, no Kant.”

Oddly enough, I wouldn’t class Kant with Aristotle either. He’s a great thinker, of course, but I wouldn’t be any more inclined to nominate him the greatest than I would Hume. Which is a mildly heretical sentiment, I suppose.

“I predict that in 50 years [Peirce] will be viewed very differently than he is today.”

I think (or hope) the same will eventually be true of Bernard Bosanquet.


Dominic Murphy 06.07.05 at 5:42 pm

I voted for Mill. He didn’t have the best arguments, and he was short on charm, but he had perfect philosophical instincts. As John Quiggin says, you can vote for liberalism when you vote for Mill. But you can also vote for hardcore philosophical naturalism and vote against the existence of a priori knowledge.


Jonathan Lundell 06.07.05 at 5:43 pm

William James.

(And Mr Natural, of course.)


josh 06.07.05 at 6:37 pm

It is truly bizarre that Hegel’s not listed. I’m also a it surprised Locke didn’t get on there, though I’d be shocked if he won. To have Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger and Sartre also seems a bit existentialist-heavy.
Anyway, this conversation, as I understand it, is about stating preferences more than (well, ok, in addition to) rubbishing the list [and I’ve rubbished the list over at my own blog, anyway]. I can’t really select a greatest philosopher, without violating my own philosophical views. My own preference would be for Hume or Mill — Hume for his temperament or spirit, Mill for his commitments and allegiances. But the one figure on the list who seems to me utterly inescapable is Kant, and if a gun were put to my head by some deranged BBC operative, I’d go with him.


fifi 06.07.05 at 6:44 pm

Morgan at Chez Paree. I can’t explain why, and anyway the the explanation would appeal only to intellectual truthicals, as explanations do, but if you saw her soulful bosom you would understand.


sidereal 06.07.05 at 6:48 pm

No Siddhartha Gautama is a travesty. It’s not like he had any incredibly profound insights into the nature of human life and suffering or anything. Certainly more profound than, say, Nietszche’s shots at the same subject matter. His extended treatises on bodily fluids probably moved him out of the running.

Popper and Wittgenstein are bizarre entrants in that august company, Wittgenstein’s self-regard and my love for Popper notwithstanding.

Why no love for the Locke? Not even worth a mention?

I’m going with Kant. Popper soured me on Plato.


bob mcmanus 06.07.05 at 7:14 pm

Wow, came from Sanchez and he let me pick 5/20. If I have to pick one it is Kant.

However, if we remove ourselves from our modern perspective and ask who was the most important for the millions of thinkers who lived in the centuries preceding us I think you have to name one of the Greeks or a Christian:Paul,Augustine,or Aquinas.

The West was a Christian West until quite recently.


Patrick 06.07.05 at 7:39 pm

Although, I have to admit that the one example of clear philosophical progress in 2500 years is in logic.

So, if you are going by who made the most progress on the list, you’d almost have to go with Bertrand Russell for modern logic (with Frege and Carnap) or Hume for his revelation of causation/induction as a serious philosophical problem (though I didn’t vote for either…Go Kant!).


roger 06.07.05 at 8:31 pm

Where’s P.T. Barnum? and how about that little cave boy lad who said, I don’t care if you DO paint it with an arrow in the shoulder, you are too pisspoor a shot to hit a mammoth?


Mike Jacovides 06.07.05 at 8:44 pm

Hume says in his history of England that the greatest Scot was Napier. He says in “Of the Middle Station in Life” that the only two really great philosophers in the history of the world are Galileo and Newton.

I would have voted for Locke, but since he wasn’t an option, I went with Plato.


Dan Kervick 06.07.05 at 8:47 pm

Although I am a tremendous fan of Hume the philosopher, I do not like Harry care so much for Hume’s style. The two Enquiries are a major literary improvement over the Treatise (though not a philosophical improvement), and the Dialogues a further stylistic improvement over the Enquiries. But on the whole I find Hume’s writing a bit too orotund, precious, opaque, involved and delicate. It is also marred by passages of graceless vanity and superciliousness.

I much prefer the styles of Berkeley, Hobbes and Russell.


Russell Arben Fox 06.07.05 at 8:59 pm

As so many have already said, this list is slightly nuts. No Locke, no Leibniz. No effort to think that maybe, just maybe, Confucius or Mencius or Chuang-tzu or Lao-tse might have something to offer. (Or Gandhi. It’s not as though non-Western philosophy only existed anciently.) And, of course, no Hegel. And this should be clear: trying to appreciate Marx philosophically without giving due credit to Hegel is simply impossible. So to include the latter but not the former shows some pretty cracked intellectual priorities on the part of those who did the nominating.

My personal favorite out of those left out: Rousseau. Granted, Hume was a better philosopher, as well as a better person. But Rousseau has the advantage over Hume for having actually struggled with something important.


Billings 06.07.05 at 10:00 pm

What about Woody Allen. He thinks deep.


Jonathan Dresner 06.07.05 at 10:41 pm

I was torn on the Greeks, but since Socrates’ advocate was Karen Armstrong, who I worship slavishly, I had no choice.


Walt Pohl 06.07.05 at 11:28 pm

You’ve convinced me, Harry. Better Hume than — god forbid — Plato.


john c. halasz 06.07.05 at 11:37 pm

I’d vote for all the epigones.


John Emerson 06.07.05 at 11:53 pm

A peculiarity of this thread is that one batch of philosophers (Hume, Wittgenstein, et. al.) really doubts the value of philosophy as such.

As a philosopher, either Plato or Hegel is much greater than Hume. But if Hume is right, no one should want to be a philosopher.

On the other hand, how great a philosopher can Hume be if philosophy is all basically crap?


gnat 06.08.05 at 4:44 am

So, Gordon Banks in goal…


dsquared 06.08.05 at 5:09 am

I would advise all the people who complained about the absence of Eastern philosophers to join the Schopenhauer bandwagon as the next best thing.

Also, if you were to sit down and read the entire works of all 20 philosophers, you would find fewer than a dozen jokes, ten of them in Schopenhauer.


des von bladet 06.08.05 at 5:12 am

Banks in for the absent Leibniz, I suppose?

The Germans playing 4-2-4, Leibniz in goal, back four Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer and Schelling, front-runners Schlegel, Wittgenstein, Nietzsche and Heidegger, and the mid-field duo of Beckenbauer and Jaspers. Beckenbauer obviously a bit of a surprise there.

I still think they’re going to suffer without Hegel in central defence, though.


Chris Bertram 06.08.05 at 5:39 am

you would find fewer than a dozen jokes, ten of them in Schopenhauer.

Not so! There’s lots in _Leviathan_ for a start.


W. Kiernan 06.08.05 at 7:24 am

I cheated and voted twice. (Once from my work IP address and once from my home IP address – what a clever cheat am I.) And I was doubly selfish, I didn’t vote for “greatest” as viewed from Olympus; I defined “greatness” as “who did the most for me.

Because I work for a living, of the twenty candidates maybe a third are open, active enemies, almost all the rest were loftily indifferent to my low crummy sort. From work I voted for the one and only positive advocate I’ve got on the ballot, Uncle Karl. At home I live my home life, such as it is. Natch, from there I could not vote for anyone else but my man Arthur, Socî malorum, compagnon de miseres, who writes:

…If now, from the standpoint of this last consideration, we contemplate the turmoil of life, we behold all occupied with its want and misery, straining all their powers to satisfy its infinite needs and to ward off its multifarious sorrows, yet without daring to hope anything else than simply the preservation of this tormented existence for a short span of time. In between, however, in the midst of the tumult, we see the glances of two lovers meet longingly; yet why so secretly, fearfully, and stealthily? Because the lovers are the traitors who seek to perpetuate the whole want and drudgery, which would otherwise speedily reach an end; this they wish to frustrate, as others like them have frustrated it before.


Delmore Macnamara 06.08.05 at 8:01 am

The inclusion of Wittgenstein and Russell seems inconsistent with the omission of Frege.


gnat 06.08.05 at 8:14 am

I wouldn’t have believed that In Our Time’s PR wheeze would succeed so brilliantly. How many browser and column inches are they reaping from this, and how much would that have cost to buy? Fair play to ’em, I say. BBC Radio’s IOT (oh alright, and the sportsy Fighting Talk) broke me to PodCasting. The commute is a lot easier with an IOT in one’s headphones.

Oh, and Firstest with the Mostest, surely – Plato.


radek 06.08.05 at 8:56 am

I think this captures the appropriate criteria by which them fellows oughta be judged (can’t believe no one mentioned this yet):


Matt McGrattan 06.08.05 at 11:09 am

you would find fewer than a dozen jokes, ten of them in Schopenhauer.

There’s passages in Hume that raise a chuckle too.

“Celibacy, fasting, penance, mortification, self-denial, humility, silence, solitude, and the whole train of monkish virtues; for what reason are they every where rejected by men of sense… A gloomy, hair-brained enthusiast, after his death, may have a place in the calendar; but will scarcely ever be admitted, when alive, into intimacy and society, except by those who are as delirious and dismal as himself.”

Makes me laugh, anyway.


Brian 06.08.05 at 1:50 pm

And there are plenty of jokes in Marx I thought. These days my friends get criticised for putting too many jokes in the papers, so in any case it’s nice to see demand for comedic philosophy is rising. (It would be nicer if we were succeeding in raising the supply as well.)

Out of this list I’d vote for Hume, largely for the reasons Harry mentioned. I like a point Blackburn made about Ayer, one that applies to a lot of empiricists. A lot of the points Ayer made are things you get in Hume as well, and those have stood up well over time. And a lot of the points in Ayer were (relatively) new, and they haven’t stood up so well.

Though if we had some more contemporary options I’d probably vote for one of them instead.


engels 06.08.05 at 5:04 pm

It’s Johnson’s putdown then:

“Prof. Ayer, your manuscript is both good and original. But the part that is good is not original, and the part that is original is not good.”


John Emerson 06.08.05 at 7:00 pm

I would be interested in knowing which several contemporary philosophers would be competing to be named the greatest philosopher of all time.


hilzoy 06.08.05 at 7:10 pm

Kant, obviously.

He has jokes too; just not good ones.

(Kierkegaard is really funny, though.)


Delmore Macnamara 06.09.05 at 3:26 am

“I would be interested in knowing which several contemporary philosophers would be competing to be named the greatest philosopher of all time.”

Dummetf for “anti-realism”?


ACR 06.09.05 at 3:27 am

Ok, this might have been said, but I still want to say it myself.

No Hegel, but Heidegger.
No Frege, but Russell.
No Adi Shankara (or even a single non-european), but Epicurus
No LEIBNIZ, but Schopenhauer (!)

What a dumb poll.

I’m voting for Barney.


Martin Keegan 06.09.05 at 5:38 am

For comedic philosophy, one need look no further than David Stove …


Brock 06.09.05 at 10:06 am

What, no Gottlob Frege?

Since he wasn’t on the list, I voted for the Scotsman. I was kind of torn between him and the Konigsberger.

I’ve always thought the Greeks were a bit overrated.

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