Great (and not so great) philosophers

The French Enlightenment was all hype and no substance.  As Edward Feser tells it

Enlightenment is about having the right sensibilities, uttering the right shibboleths, and, perhaps above all, hating the right people. To be Enlightened is to be in love with the idea of being Enlightened, never to shut up about how wonderful it is to be Enlightened, never to stop insisting how very awful and unenlightened are those who don’t like the Enlightenment. It is about excluding those people from the ever-widening circle of inclusion, and keeping their ideas off the freethinker’s limitless menu of options.

Also, William Cavanaugh has demolished the historical claim that the philosophes saved Europe from religious violence.

This reminds me of something I came across in a one-volume history of philosophy.  I remember the author was Anthony Kenny, but it’s been years and I’m going from memory, so I can’t give specifics.  Anyway, the book comes around to the eighteenth century.  Kenny gives a couple of boilerplate sentences about the French Enlightenment.  Epochal victory of Reason over Superstition, or some such at least superficially very positive thing.  Then he drops the subject and moves on to England and Germany, where Hume and Kant actually had some interesting ideas to contribute.  I can’t help thinking that the sentence on the philosophes was actually a joke for the alert reader, who is sure to notice that Kenny spends only devotes to the entirety of this great triumph of the human mind about a hundredth of the space he’d given to Bonaventure or Duns Scotus.

Here’s something else I remember from that book’s introduction (or conclusion–one or the other) that would be a fun topic for discussion.  Kenny says, if I recall, that on any philosopher’s list of the six greatest philosophers in history, four of the names would be Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, and Kant, but there would be no agreement on the other two.  Kenny gives Aquinas and Wittgenstein for his preferences, both of whom I think are overrated by their fans.

My votes:  Avicenna and Hegel.  Avicenna because most of the Thomist adjustments to Aristotelian metaphysics actually come from or through him, and his argument for God’s existence is far stronger than anything in Thomas’ sloppy Five Ways.  Hegel because he’s the greatest political philosopher of all time.

Here’s some other suggestions:

Most overrated philosopher:  Spinoza

Most overmaligned philosopher:  Descartes

Greatest irony:  that orthodox Catholic philosophers tend to blame everything on William of Ockham and Rene Descartes, the two most innovative Catholic philosophers in history.

I’d love to hear philosopher-opinions from my readers, most of whom are better educated than I.

9 Responses

  1. My two choices for greatest in addition to those others mentioned- Plotinius and Smith

    Overrated- I agree that it is Spinoza (Sartre comes in for a close second though).

    Most over-maligned- Hobbes. After reading Schmitt’s interpretation of Hobbes I am more sympathetic to his project. Schmitt’s interpretation of Hobbes also depicts the ironic tragedy of Hobbes’s thought namely how he inadvertently laid the groundwork for liberalism which would intern undermine the basis of his state.

  2. “Avicenna because most of the Thomist adjustments to Aristotelian metaphysics actually come from or through him”, Have any proof for that?

    And Hegal? Come on!

    These really come of more as biases of yours rather than philosophic opinions. Perhaps this is not true, but you really need to flush out these sort of broad opinions–they just make you look amateurish.

  3. Of course my opinions on matters philosophical are amateurish!

    What is usually cited as St. Thomas’ major improvement on Aristotle? It’s the real distinction between essence and existence, with the two being identical only in God, right? And we know he got this from Avicenna and Al-Farabi, with Thomas’ own contribution being to explain the relationship in terms of potency and act rather than substance and accident. I’ve heard it said, although not having read the sources myself I can’t say how true it is, that Avicenna’s understanding of the relationship was actually pretty much the same as Thomas’, and his acceptance of existence as an accident was a matter of politeness to his predecessors. Gilson, in “Being and Some Philosophers”, tries to maintain that Avicenna and Thomas believe different things even when they sound the same, but I can’t make sense of his argument myself.

  4. I heard mass this morning about 8m away from Descartes’s tomb. He must be one of the greatest philosophers of all time. His analytical geometry made the simultaneous discovery of the differential calculus by Leibnitz and Newton inevitable and this, in turn, made possible an entirely new way of looking at nature, in which analysis of the common measurable properties of bodies (and only those) gives us the ability to predict and, in some degree, to control their behaviour. Alas, his metaphysics are nonsense, and mischievous nonsense. Isn’t it odd, by the way, that we have no English equivalent to René, that Christian name par excellence (René=Renatus=Reborn)
    I would also make a plea for Hume. As Miss Anscombe says, “The features of Hume’s philosophy which I have mentioned, like many other features of it, would incline me to think that Hume was a mere – brilliant – sophist; and his procedures are certainly sophistical. But I am forced, not to reverse, but to add to, this judgment by a peculiarity of Hume’s philosophizing: namely that although he reaches his conclusions – with which he is in love – by sophistical methods, his considerations constantly open up very deep and important problems. It is often the case that in the act of exhibiting the sophistry one finds oneself noticing matters which deserve a lot of exploring: the obvious stands in need of investigations as a result of the points that Hume pretends to have made. In this, he is unlike, say, Butler. It was already well known that conscience could dictate vile actions; for Butler to have written disregarding this does not open up any new topics for us. But with Hume it is otherwise: hence he is a very profound and great philosopher, in spite of his sophistry. “
    Precisely this opening up very deep and important problems is what I chiefly admire in Wittgenstein.

  5. The philosopher David Stove says that philosophers of the Enlightenment promised to slay the big, bad dragon of religion because, at the time they were writing, there were no other reasons with which to persuade ordinary people to listen to philosophers of the Enlightenment. The great increases in material wellbeing were still in the future and the repellant aspects of the Enlightenment system, as found in a writer like Holbach, were evident to everyone. It was all very well for Kant to challenge men to “dare to know,” but when men took up his challenge, what they learned was very depressing.

    The Enlightenment attack on religion had four legs, three of which were not particularly sound. The first, as you say, was that religion leads inevitably to war and persecution. The second was that religion stifles scientific enquiry and technological progress (hence the Galileo myth). The third was that men were haunted by the fear of Hell (as Stove observes, priests and preachers painted Hell in lurid colors precisely because most men took a very blithe view of Hell). The fourth was that, because of religion, men needlessly denied themselves certain innocent pleasures, mainly of the sexual sort.

    I’m not going to nominate a most underrated and overrated philosopher, but I will say that it is a mistake to that a man who is a great philosopher is therefore a great cultural force. Philosophy must be radically vulgarized before it becomes a cultural force. If we wish to understand cultural history, we should spend much more time with the third-rate philosophers, the hacks, the popularizers and the publicists. This is actually something that the third-rate philosophers of the French Enlightenment understood very well, and why they were very effective propagandists at the same time as they were vey poor philosophers.

  6. “Greatest irony: that orthodox Catholic philosophers tend to blame everything on William of Ockham and Rene Descartes, the two most innovative Catholic philosophers in history.”

    I’m not sure what you mean by this. Descartes and Ockham were certainly innovative, but as you of all people should know, “innovative” does not imply “good.” Besides, I don’t think any sensible and philosophically educated person — including the Catholic philosophers who blame them for getting modernity started — would deny that they were both geniuses of the first order; but you can be a genius of the first order and still be mistaken.

    Other than that, my hobbyhorse at the moment is that analytic philosophers (with the possible exception of Anscombe) aren’t getting more attention from the Catholic mainstream. As Fergus Kerr points out, when official Vatican documents mention 20th- and 21st-century philosophers, it’s almost always phenomenologists, existentialists, and so on. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it would be good if the many excellent Catholic analytic philosophers out there got some love, too. I’m thinking of — among others — Peter Geach, who says some really interesting things about the Trinity.

  7. Plotinus is an excellent choice. What’s the argument for Smith?

  8. Voegelin is for me one of the greatest philosophers of the XX century

    “Greatest irony: that orthodox Catholic philosophers tend to blame everything on William of Ockham and Rene Descartes, the two most innovative Catholic philosophers in history”

    IMHO: They deserve to be blamed. The Nominalism (Ockham) gave the rejection of Metaphysics, leaving faith isolated from reason. the result was the rejection of God by modern Scientism. And the Descartes method, away from any collective knowledge acquired generation by generation by some tradition, gave the madness of free-thinking.

    Even if Ockham tried to defend the total omnipotence of God with his rejection of universals, and despite the fact that Descartes used his methodic doubt as a way to confirm independently some of what the religious tradition said, both rejected something fundamental upon which not only the Church was founded but the christian civilization. and tried to fund it in new grounds that were disastrous.

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