Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Top 10: favorite philosophers of all time

Philosophy is maybe the most maligned discipline in the arts. What’s it good for? What does it do? What is it, anyway? All of these questions (and many more) have driven people to write books on the subject, so I’m not going to try to solve them here. But for some of us, it’s one of the most important fields of study in the world. And because those few of us who like the stuff tend to be passionate about philosophy, we wind up having pretty strong feelings about individual philosophers.
I was thinking originally of calling this list “best”, but given what a divisive field philosophy can be I don’t want to be deliberately antagonistic. Even more so than other fields, philosophy is one in which the answers are very much not in the back of the textbook. I’ve been studying it in university for four years now (with one more to go) and although I don’t particularly claim to be an expect, that much reading and that many lectures means I’m ahead of the game compared to most people.
Since ranking these ten thinkers in some sort of order would be less than pointless, I’ve tried to put them into correct historical order. I’m only giving quick sketches of each, so although I’m trying not to take any mistakes, I’m sure a couple will creep in.

#1 - Parmenides (~510 BCE)

image Everyone loves the Pre-Socratics because they were so wacky. Theirs was the sort of things skeptical first-years tell their friends about to convince friends their intro philosophy class is, like, so weird, man. Yes, Parmenides (in what fragments we have of him) does say that there is only one thing, a unity in which neither change nor motion exist, and that therefore any change you see is illusory. Yes, that seems pretty crazy. But like most of the thinkers here (and most philosophers, basically) what sounds crazy in precis form shouldn’t put one off of reading the source, as Parmenides wasn’t as crazy of stupid as the novice might think . Mind you, that doesn’t mean I think that when I leave the room I’m just imagining it.

#2 - Aristotle (384-22 BCE)
image Yes, Socrates and Plato were vital for philosophy, and they’re not bad, but Aristotle is, once you get into the stuff, much more enlightening. Or rather, some of his stuff was. The general consensus now is that there was a “School of Aristotle” that produced his corpus, and there’s no real way to tell which volumes he himself wrote. While some of them deal mostly with ancient science and are only valuable as precendents, and Aristotelian logic has mostly been retired after centuries of productivity (sort of like Newtonian physics, only it remained fairly robust for much longer), at least two of his works are still sharply relevant today. The Nicomachean Ethics is, in addition to being a joy to read, the greatest of the ancient works on ethics (and one of the few that’s still pretty defensible today), and with the Poetics Aristotle gave the study of aesthetics a place to start. If you’re enough of a philosophy wonk, try taking something like a horror movie or comic book and evaluating it under the guidelines given in the Poetics - you might be surprised by the results.

#3 - Marcus Aurelius (121-80 CE)
image Yes, sadly, the guy from Gladiator whom Joaquin Phoenix smothers to death. Aurelius was remarkable not only for being the only great Roman emperor who was also a great philosopher; his key work of philosophy, Meditations, was not particularly written for public consumptions. All it really served as was as a way for Aurelius to express his Stoic beliefs and also sometimes to struggle with them. The sections dealing with the premature deaths of some of his children are particularly touching. Stoicism is more than just the ability to endure pain, as we would have it today: As with most Greek and Roman philosophies, it was an attempt at defining the way to lead a good and happy life. If I was going to stretch this to eleven thinkers I would include Aurelius’ Stoic predecessor Epictetus, a slave who professed the same ideals from a rather grimmer standpoint than as all-powerful emperor. Both thinkers’ work remains easy to read and grasp today and, remarkably, often actually helps people to lead better, happier lives if applied properly.

#4 - Saint Anselm of Canterbury (1003-109 CE)
image Yes, Anselm is now regarded as the father of the school of thought known as scholasticism, which produced good educators but bad thinkers, but he himself is most famous for his Proslogium, in which he came up with the trickiest proof of God’s existence ever. It’s a bit complicated to go into here, but suffice to say he initially intended it as a meditation tool for monks. To this day many of the objections leveled at it work on only the most superficial levels possible, and true refutations of it don’t really exist. Which doesn’t mean it’s wrong, but having wrestled with the ideas involved for about a month in first year, I’ve had a certain affection for sly Anselm ever since.

#5 - Baruch (Benedict) Spinoza (1632-77 CE)
image By the time he was 24, the Jewish community Spinoza was raised in had taken his name out of their books. In a quite literal fashion, he was dead to them. His crime was various bits of heresy, the biggest one being his argument that nowhere in the scriptures did it say things like angels exist, or that the soul was immortal. Spinoza went on to be a lensgrinder, dying young from inhaling various sorts of chemicals and substances used in the trade. Along the way, he passed on at least one offer to be a court philosopher, a pretty cushy job. Only one work, his geometric version of Descartes' Principles of Philosophy, was published under his own name in his lifetime. But Spinoza, probably my single favorite thinker in all history, was not a Cartesian; he published that work so that once his real work, entitled Ethica was published, no one could accuse him of not understanding Descartes. Usually translated as The Ethics (although The Ethic would be slightly more accurate), Spinoza’s greatest work was only published posthumously. It’s hard going until the fifth and final point, told in “geometric” form and easily misunderstood (we’ve been doing it for over three hundred years now), it’s actually quite beautiful. Most schools will teach you that Spinoza was a pantheist, a monist or a crackpot, and that he had some pretty weird ideas about free will. Only the latter is true. Although he wouldn’t have read many Eastern texts, his views in many ways are very similar to Buddhism or Taoism. These days advocating that when angry at someone you should attempt to understand why they would have done what they have done and you will then no longer be angry may not be all that hot shit, but in the middle of the seventeenth century is was pretty ahead of the curve. If I hadn’t been lucky enough to take a Selected Topics course on the Ethic I probably would have never gotten it, and it’d take pages to explain (especially since no really good translation exists), but the fact that Spinoza is hands-down the most misinterpreted philosopher as well as one of the most brilliant is just about my least favorite thing in the world.

#6 - Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860)
image Short, ugly, a pessimist who lived with his mother and a cat his entire life, Schopenhauer is one of the most striking figures in philosophy. And although his great two-volume opus The World As Will And Representation is pretty hard going (if intermittently brilliant), his Essays and Aphorisms makes for easy reading and Schopenhauer’s influence shows up in all sorts of weird places (early Nietzsche is basically a gloss on Schopenhauer with the “will” replaced with “will-to-power”). Was one of the first major thinkers to have access to Eastern thought through works like the Upanishads and all the more interesting for it. Is probably singular among philosophers for being both an atheist and yet sympathetic to Christianity.

#7 - Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900 CE)
image Ah, Friedrich. The most adolescent in writing style of the great thinkers (by which I mean; exuberant, forceful, sometimes melodramatic), and so internally inconsistent that one reading his works doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Not a fascist or a German nationalist (that was his sister, who once Nietzsche was insane chopped up his work) and certainly with enough arrogance to supply a battalion worth of writers, Nietzsche can be excused for his excesses because he was very definitely on to something. From his very first book, The Birth of Tragedy, he made philosophy seem exciting and important again, and went about saying as many outrageous things (“God is dead”, anyone?) as possible and making everything as chaotic as possible. The enfant terrible of modern philosophy, and from his brilliant re-interpreation of Aristotle’s Poetics in The Birth of Tragedy to his later works, it’s well worth the effort of picking the pearls of wisdom out of all the sound and fury.

#8 - Roman Ingarden (1893-1970 CE)
image Hans-Georg Gadamer is one of the major figures in twentieth century philosophy, albeit one little known in non-academic circles. But, as many of his students noticed, his “transcendental phenomenology” was practically indistinguishable from the Hegelian idealism he was ostensibly reacting against, and Heidegger’s “existential phenomenology” was wide enough off the mark that even Gadamer remarked that it wasn’t really phenomenology before his death. Which leaves Roman Ingarden and his realist phenomenology. Ingarden was a student of Gadamer’s, and if not for World War 2 and the fact that it left the Polish Ingarden isolated from the mainstream of philosophy behind the iron curtain, he would probably be a much bigger figure in academic circles. The Literary Work of Art is perhaps the single best work of phenomenological aesthetics yet written, and by the time of The Ontology of the Work of Art Ingarden had moved on to dealing with things like architecture. Philosophy is still catching up with him.

#9 - Jean Paul-Sartre (1905-80 CE)
image Practically deified in France. Now, say what you will about the French, but as far as philosophy goes they to this day “get it” (insofar as ”it” can be “gotten”) as much or more than anyone, certainly more than we here in North America do. They were on to something with Sartre, the great existentialist and one of the towering intellectual thinkers of the twentieth century. Being And Nothingness is one of the great contradictory achievements of our age, contradictory because some parts are so keenly insightful and accurate and some are so lacking in knowledge of basic human nature. But very few philosophers, even on this list, were consistent enough to get me or anyone else to agree with everything they said, and Sartre’s insights into how we are what we are not and how we are not what we are still brilliant. He is not to be blamed for all the young nihilists in black who smoke cigarettes and read him, or at least not blamed very much.

#10 - Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908-61 CE)
image I first got into Merleau-Ponty by reading his Humanism And Terror for a paper. Written in response to the continued support of leftist intellectuals for Soviet Russia as it became more and more apparent that the state in question was more fascist than communist, Merleau-Ponty ultimately condemns the “enemy of my enemy is my friend” mentality then present. On the state itself, he says, “In order to free men in the future it was necessary to oppress men in the present. Once the work had begun it established such forceful imperatives that all perspective was lost”, words that resonate pretty strongly these days. For this alone I’d be a fan, but given that he’s one of the few Heideggerians worth a damn (Heidegger being perhaps the second most damaging Western philosopher ever, just behind Descartes) and one of the most incisive writers on the much-misunderstood idea of phenomenology (see especially his essay “The Phenomenology of Perception”) he becomes one of the most fascinating and important post-World War 2 thinkers along with Ingarden.

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