Best Philosopher Ever
Who is the best philosopher that ever lived? I am going to argue that I am. This claim may be met with some incredulity: surely I don’t believe I’m a better philosopher than Plato or Aristotle or Descartes or Kant or Russell! Actually I am claiming that, but the claim is not as outrageous as it may sound, because many contemporary philosophers are superior to the great figures of the past. The reason for this is that I (and many others) have absorbed the teachings of these great thinkers: we have learned from the philosophers who went before. Later philosophers add to the teachings of earlier philosophers (and sometimes subtract from them). Descartes had access to Plato, but Plato didn’t have access to Descartes—so Descartes is greater. The claim is not that Descartes is more original or creative than Plato; it is that he knew more, because of his knowledge of Plato and of later intellectual developments. Who is the greatest physicist of all time? Not Newton or Galileo, because they didn’t have access to later developments; in fact, most living physicists are superior to Newton, precisely because they are the beneficiaries of Newton and Einstein (et al). Not as original, to be sure, but better equipped, more knowledgeable. We may stand on the shoulders of giants and not ourselves be giants, but there is no disputing that we can see further than them—we are simply taller. Knowledge progresses. So we can ignore the question of whether any living or recently deceased philosopher is better than some great dead philosopher—which would be hard to decide anyway if we are intent on focusing on creativity. We can assume that many later philosophers are philosophically superior to those who came before—including me. The same is true for artists and novelists: they have absorbed the past and can go beyond it. Later practitioners are generally more accomplished than earlier ones, partly because of the earlier ones. Is Aristotle superior to Plato? Probably, but remember that he was taughtby Plato. Expertise is cumulative.
So the question should be whether I am superior to any more or less contemporary rival. Here is where things get interesting (but touchy). I will include here all philosophers from this century and the previous one—Frege, Russell, Wittgenstein, Quine, etc. We need to establish some criteria: by what test can we measure philosophical superiority? I suggest four criteria: quality of writing, breadth, quantity, and rightness. First, quality of writing: who is the best writer? We can divide the question into two, concerning clarity and literary style. I venture to suggest that I am the clearest philosophical writer who has ever lived—in fact I have heard this said my whole professional life (“You are so clear!”). For the evidence take a look at my writing: it is clearer than Frege, Wittgenstein (!), and Quine, to mention a few. But aren’t there other philosophical writers who are just as clear as me—say, Russell and Kripke? Actually I think not, but I can’t hope to establish that here (I agree they are relativelyclear). There are obscurities in Russell, and Kripke is not without his puzzling passages. Still, there is the second question—literary style. Here I will cite the fact that I have written two novels (as well as short stories, poetry, and songs) and that I have an intensely literary consciousness. I doubt that any other philosopher has studied the writings of Nabokov as closely as I have, as well as other great stylists (Jane Austen, Martin Amis). Russell was a fine writer stylistically, but have you ever read his fiction? It is stilted at best. Even the best philosophical writers lack much in the way of literary flair; they don’t even make the effort (I’m not counting Sartre or Iris Murdoch). But even when they do, as with Quine, there is a lack of clarity at crucial points. It is the combination of clarity and style that sets me apart: I write like a scientist and a novelist, because I have trained myself in both (I was always good at both mathematics and English when I was at school). So by this criterion I am looking like a strong contender for the title of best philosopher ever. But it isn’t the only criterion: what about breadth? It is noteworthy that the other philosophers I have cited are not very broad: they made their mark in specific areas of the subject—language, logic, epistemology, metaphysics. But I have written in almost every area of philosophy, including ethics and even aesthetics (mainly philosophy of literature). I have two books in ethics and many articles (most written over the last several years). I have done a lot in philosophy of mind, covering virtually every topic there is, but also in epistemology, metaphysics, language, philosophical logic, philosophy of science, meta-philosophy, Wittgenstein, and even philosophy of sport. I think I am clearly the most versatile and wide-ranging philosopher on the planet: Russell doesn’t even come close let alone Quine or Kripke (or even Nagel). That is just a fact. As to quantity, again I come out ahead: about twenty books, hundreds of articles, innumerable book reviews (I am clearly the most prolific philosophical book reviewer living or dead). Since I retired ten years ago I have had time to indulge my appetite for writing; the result is about five hundred articles, mainly published on my blog, totaling over two thousand pages. I have too much material to publish! I have written approximately two papers a week for the last six or seven years—finished, polished pieces (though short). No one else comes close to that. So judging by the criteria of quality of writing, breadth, and quantity, I would appear to be the leading contender within the time frame we are considering.
But what about rightness—isn’t that the acid test? I agree that it is, but now we leave the realm of fact and enter the realm of opinion. Please don’t get me wrong: I don’t think there is any serious doubt that there is more truth in my philosophical work than in anyone else’s—so don’t accuse me of undue modesty! But the same is true of every other philosopher, justifiably or otherwise: everyone thinks his views are incontrovertibly true. Of course this is obviously false, but human nature etc. However, in my own case I think I have good grounds for my opinion, because I know the effort I put into developing my views and I am very careful in what I write (also smart people tend to agree with me). But I don’t want to rest my case on that personal conviction. What I would say is that nowadays very few people would subscribe to the doctrines of such historical luminaries as Frege, Russell, Wittgenstein, Quine, and others. It is true that other potential rivals for the coveted title—Kripke, Strawson, Nagel, Fodor, Searle, and others–also contain a good deal of truth; but they don’t do as well on the other dimensions I have cited. It’s the whole package you have to look at. Neither should you be swayed by “impact”: that is notoriously fallible, historically conditioned, and audience-dependent. Quine had a large impact for a variety of reasons (his being at Harvard one of them), but he falls short in clarity, breadth, and quantity, let alone rightness. Popularity is not the measure of excellence. Indeed, one might even suspect that philosophical accomplishment is inversely proportional to impact (I personally think there is very little of lasting merit in Wittgenstein). I do well on the rightness criterion precisely because I don’t make outlandish meretricious claims; I tend to keep it boring, pedestrian even. I hate to be wrong, so I avoid it at all costs. That is why I don’t tend to change my mind much as far as my publications are concerned (family resemblance is about the only exception I can think of—I used to like the idea, now I don’t). Am I interesting? Yes, I think I’m pretty interesting, as reaction to my work suggests; but I don’t get that much published disagreement because it’s hard to find any holes in what I say (it’s too carefully considered). Not many people seem to agree with my mysterian leanings, but at least they find it interesting, to judge from audience response surveys. But I don’t try to be interesting for its own sake; I try to be right. Bear in mind, too, that I have written books on film and Shakespeare (as well as an intellectual autobiography and an athletic one); I don’t know of any other philosopher with my main academic interests who has done anything like that. And that is really the essence of the matter: I am not limited to a narrow range of professional interests within which I exclusively labor; I range much more freely and widely than other philosophers have done. This is why I am the best philosopher who has ever lived. Some have done good work within a relatively narrow domain, perhaps better than me (but let me beware of false modesty!), but none has ventured so far afield, or done it with such success. How good do I feel about this? Not all that much, strangely (one could always do better), but it does make me shake my head over my current situation.
 This essay goes back to an amusing discussion I had with Ken Levy some months ago.