08 June, 2005

Vote on the best philosopher ever

Picked this up from Verbum Ipsum, a weblog that I'll have to add to my links at right before too long.

The BBC is having a vote on the greatest philosopher. You can vote for one of the twenty in the "short list". To facilitate your informed vote, they have a short summary of each philosopher on the list, both written and audio files. The list includes (in parentheses, something that each is famous for):

  • T. Aquinas (Aristotle, meet Christianity; Christianity, meet Aristotle; Averroism, so long)
  • Aristotle (logic, ethics, how to do study nature)
  • R. Descartes (dualism)
  • Epicurus (philosophy of pleasure)
  • M. Heidegger (I should know, but I don't, and from what I read, I would fall asleep trying to find out)
  • T. Hobbes (man is born in a state of warfare with other men, and the king must keep peace)
  • D. Hume (light-hearted skepticism)
  • I. Kant (Critique of Pure Reason)
  • S. Kierkegaard (Christian existentialism)
  • K. Marx (communism)
  • J.S. Mill (utilitarianism)
  • F. Nietzsche (insanity — seriously! — also the Will to Power; actually he's one of the most fun philosophers to read)
  • Plato (dialogues, immaterial forms)
  • K. Popper (who?)
  • B. Russel (the book Why I am not a Christian, also a theory of materialism whose name eludes me)
  • J.P. Sartre (atheistic existentialism)
  • A. Schopenhauer (all I know is that the classmate who reported on him found him very, very depressing)
  • Socrates (the gadfly who asked uncomfortable questions; "I know that I don't know")
  • B. Spinoza (patheism)
  • L. Wittgenstein (I should know, but I don't)
NB: So: looking at the list, I'm disappointed. It's not a bad list, but:
  • John Locke is far more important than Hobbes: no contest. Hobbes really shouldn't be on the list, in my opinion.
  • Without question, Jean-Jacques Rousseau should be on the list, if only because Victor Hugo was so enamored by Rousseau's ideas that Hugo punished us by rambling in favor of them through half of Les Misérables.
  • Augustine should be on the list. What Aquinas did for Aristotelianism, Augustine had done 800 years prior for Platonism.
  • Epicurus should not be on the list; his philosophy was important and influential, yes, but hardly as wide-ranging as Plato, Aquinas, Augustine, etc. If Epicurus is on the list, his main (and somewhat more influential) competitor Zeno of the Stoa should be on the list, too.
  • What? no Ayn Rand? Heh, heh, heh. Throughout the Western world, a dwindling army of Randian faithful are outraged.
  • Francis Bacon should arguably be on the list before some of these clowns.
  • Maybe it's because I haven't studied them sufficiently, but Schopenhauer and Mill don't strike me as important enough. Jeremy Bentham should be on the list instead of Mill, since Bentham was a genuine utilitarian (poetry equals push-pin), whereas Mill watered utilitarianism down to the point where it was indistinguishable from more sensible philosophies (better Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied).


Brandon said...

Bentham was something of a kook, though. Mill also has the advantage over him in that Mill, as part of his utilitarian project, developed a philosophy of science that became very influential.

I agree about Hobbes and Epicurus, though.

jack perry said...

Bentham was something of a kook, though.

That didn't stop them from listing Nietzsche or Marx. Besides, isn't insanity one of the prerequisistes of a pure utilitarianism? ;-)

Just kidding. I'm guessing you mean something else of which I'm unaware.

By the way, are you Brandon from Siris? I wasn't able to leave comments on your blog lately; it told me that only team members may leave comments. Please don't get the impression that I haven't been visiting.

Brandon said...

I'd agree about the utilitarianism point! :) But he was a kook in a number of other ways, too -- in terms of his personality and approach to philosophy he was the Ayn Rand of his time.

I am the Siris Brandon. I don't know what it is with comments; my comments account is Haloscan, so the team members issue shouldn't come up. But it does, which means there are still Blogger comment links floating around the template that I haven't been able to find. I keep thinking I've eliminated all of them, but somehow they keep slipping in again. I'll have to root the problem out later today.

The upshot is, if it doesn't let you comment, click another link; you may have just clicked an outdated link.

Alessandra said...

As a woman, what I would like to see is the greatest philosophers or thinkers of all times regarding women (or male/female roles and relations). Most of these guys were horribly sexist (meaning small-minded, disrespectful, blind, and stupid) regarding women.

And then, after choosing the greatest thinkers (male and female) about men/women roles/relations, we could see from the men, which ones acted it out in their lives or just made grand speeches about their ideals.

Brandon said...

That would be an additional reason to put Mill on the list; whatever else one might say about Mill, he certainly was not sexist, either in principle or in practice.

jack perry said...


Besides Brandon's nomination of Mill, I think Plato might be another good nomination, at least as far as he considers women in his philosophy. (Here's a funny take on that.) As far as I know, we can't say anything about his personal relations with women, but he did write in The Republic that women and men ought to be equal before the law.

Of course, there were lots of things in The Republic that we would find horrifying as well: deceptions in order to pair only the best men and the best women for breeding purposes, for example; or keeping children separated from their parents so as to keep everyone loyal to the state, instead of to the family.

My understanding is that Sartre's mistress, Simone de Beauvoir, was a well-respected philosopher in her own right. I once tried reading her magnum opus, "The Second Sex", but after the first 50 or 60 pages I didn't care to continue.

Anyway, can you specify what you mean by "horribly sexist"? It's not been my impression that the great philosophers have been particularly disdainful of women, but I tend not to think of such things, so mebbe I'm more ignorant than I thought! Can you give examples?

Alessandra said...


I just read about Plato in the Dream of REason, and it does mention all or most of what you say. And apparently his idea of legal or rights equality for women was very revolutionary for his society.

What I meant about the others (I don't know specific details about their writings), is that most of them just thought about women like the whole rest of their society did (so they went along with whatever sexist and confining roles existed for the 16th, 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries).

I don't know much about any philosopher, so I'm not the best person to give a list of examples of problems about each one.

Regarding Sartre, I also don't know exactly if he wrote about women, but from memory, although Simone was revolutionary for her time in women's and gender questions, it seems her personal relationship with Sartre was terrible.

Which is a funny aspect about philosophers, sometimes they only preach, sometimes they really live out their lives based on their philosophical precepts.

jack perry said...


That's true about most classes of people. It's easier to preach something than to live it out in one's lives. Today's environmentalists are my personal favorite example of this, although people remark on it more commonly with religious people.

My understanding about Simone de Beauvoir's personal life is limited to a brief lecture on Sartre by a professor. They were a pairing of opposites: she was gorgeous, he was ugly; she was faithful, he was unfaithful; etc.

On the other hand, if you were to look at Locke, Voltaire, Hume, Rousseau, Nietzsche, Emerson, Thoreau, Dewey, and Marx, I just don't know what what their attitudes on women were, or even how those attitudes jived with their personal lives. I've read that Marx was a colossal hypocrite in general; that Nietzsche was incredibly shy, was turned down for marriage by a woman whom he loved, and frequented brothels in his youth, from which he may have acquired syphilis, which would explain his later insanity — but as I understand it, no one knows for certain. Voltaire, Rousseau, and Hume may have been very enlightened about women from the modern point of view (not sure), but you may not agree what the modern point of view considers enlightened. I know nothing about what Kant, Hegel, or the rest have to say about it.

If you're brave enough to go looking in some of the books published by Women's Studies types, you might find some more relevant information, but my vague impression is that Women's Studies, like all the humanities these days, tend to be less interested in intellectual rigor than in political correctness: i.e., justifying a previously-held point of view, as opposed to a genuine search for truth. This is only a vague impression, of course; it's not as if I've actually read any of their work, apart from the occasional anecdote.