Best Philosopher Ever

 

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.[1]

 

C

[1] This essay goes back to an amusing discussion I had with Ken Levy some months ago.

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19 replies
  1. Joseph K.
    Joseph K. says:

    This is the best argument for the sheer superiority of an intelligent being since Anselm’s Ontological Argument for the existence of God.

    I would venture to suggest one last – admittedly indirect – way you might have made the fortress of your central contention even more imposing (terror-inspiring even), and impenetrable. Your total athletic superiority to every single one of your philosophical contemporaries. As the ancient Greek proverb had it: a healthy body makes for a healthy mind.

    Now, which one of the sedentary so-called sages among your contemporaries dared (or even made a halfhearted try) to pick up a tennis racket or, standing on the precarious edge of a surfboard, ride aloft a ripping wave?

    So, the plain fact, that the vital radiance of your philosophical body of work vastly exceeds the offerings of your peers in brightness (to a degree that might be likened to the sun’s advantage over the moon in this regard)—this fact, I say, perfectly aligns with what the modern science of physiology would lead us to expect.

    Reply
      • Joseph K.
        Joseph K. says:

        I must confess to having hesitated for a brief moment upon writing that line, almost erasing it for fear of being branded as a frivolous exaggerator; yet, steeling myself against the predictable intemperate cavils of dissolute, rascally men and women in the what is euphemistically termed ‘the philosophical community’, I took a deep breath and conjured a picture in my mind’s eye of your body of work, as well as a picture of the work (such as it is) of the grand old men of philosophy. Setting them side by side in comparison, I proceeded cautiously to make as sober and fair a judgment of their respective merits as the nature of human frailty permitted. Having concluded the exercise, I thought to myself ‘By God, if it isn’t an apt metaphor—there’s just no comparison—it really is that much better. Can the truth be an exaggeration? No, let it stand.’ And stand it did.

        Dr. McGinn, your immortality is assured. Mankind will study and revere your works long after all memory of your so-called peers, and their legions of professorial lackeys and scholastic hangers-on, has dissolved in the mists of time.

        Reply
        • Colin McGinn
          Colin McGinn says:

          Nicely put–sometimes you know just what to say and say it. I’m reading Voltaire at the moment and he is very good at that. One small point, however: I don’t actually have a doctorate–I took an Oxford B.Phil in 1974.

          Reply
          • Joseph K.
            Joseph K. says:

            Oh that’s right. I’d forgotten. What by Voltaire are you reading? I love 18th century writers. I recently read a nice essay by William Hazlitt, “On Court-Influence,” about the way in which a person’s integrity can be corrupted by undue yearning for honor and fame. The essay closes with these fine words:

            Happy are they, who live in the dream of their own existence, and see all things by the light of their own minds; who walk by faith and hope, not by knowledge; to whom the guiding-star of their youth still shines from afar, and into whom the spirit of the world has not entered! They have not been ‘hurt by the archers,’ nor has the iron entered their souls. They live in the midst of arrows and of death, unconscious of harm. The evil thing comes not nigh them. The shafts of ridicule pass unheeded by, and malice loses its sting. The example of vice does not rankle their breasts, like the poisoned shirt of Nessus. Evil impressions fall off from them, like drops of water. The yoke of life is to them light and supportable. The world has no hold on them. They are in it, not of it; and a dream and a glory is ever about them.

  2. jgkess@cfl.rr.com
    jgkess@cfl.rr.com says:

    Whew, talk about risky. Expect a little push-back. Irony and bravado, by turns and simultaneously (as the saying is)—what better way to befuddle the reader? All in all, though, I suspect you are more than half-right. Yours is a peculiar instance, among philosophers, of wide-ranging interests and depth of penetration. Your book on Wittgenstein, nevermind the exegesis, still strikes me as one of the most insightful books ever written on the topics of “meaning” and “understanding”.

    Reply
  3. Henry Cohen
    Henry Cohen says:

    “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…. The same is true for artists and novelists: they have absorbed the past and can go beyond it.”

    I agree with the first sentence that I quoted, but not the second. This is because artists’ and novelists’ greatness is based on their originality and creativity rather than on their knowledge. Picasso is not better than Velazquez just because he created in styles that didn’t exist in Velazquez’s day. Although Picasso’s art may be better than it otherwise would be because of his knowledge of Velazquez’s art, it doesn’t follow that he could have created great art in Velazquez’s style. His knowledge didn’t give him that ability. He no doubt could have imitated Velazquez, but that’s another matter. Likewise, Philip Roth wasn’t better than Tolstoy just because his fiction may have benefited from his knowing Tolstoy’s.

    Reply
    • Colin McGinn
      Colin McGinn says:

      The analogy between philosophy and art is not precise, but it is surely indisputable that art has progressed over time, from cave painting to the Italian Renaissance (just think of the discovery of perspective). So we can make a distinction between originality and expertise, as we can in philosophy.

      Reply
  4. Ken Levy
    Ken Levy says:

    “[I]t does make me shake my head over my current situation.” Mine too, Colin. Mine too. It’s been 10 years since you had a brief, romantic relationship with a then-26 year-old graduate student, and – despite being pressured out of Miami – neither academia nor the publishers have forgiven you. Most of them supposedly liberal, supposedly fair-minded, supposedly compassionate people – and they still won’t let you back in. 10 years. It’s almost as if none of them have ever made a mistake, including this particular mistake…

    Anyway, I certainly have no problem with the proposition that, as of 2022, Colin McGinn is the best philosopher ever. In addition to his four criteria for determining good philosophy/philosophers (quality of writing, breadth, quantity, and rightness), I would add three others, all starting with “i”: imaginativeness, interestingness, and insight. On these three additional criteria as well, Colin’s work once again easily wins.

    Above all, what Colin has proven to me, and to the philosophical world, is that seriously solid, productive, and provocative philosophy can be written clearly. Even our “top” philosophers today still get accolades and attention for work that is far too often opaque, jargony, implausible, unoriginal, and way too long. We – and especially the journals and companies that publish them – would do well to hold them to a much higher standard, a standard that Colin started setting in the 1970s.

    Reply
  5. paul reinicke
    paul reinicke says:

    You’ve got my vote. And if I recall correctly, Socrates could’ve been better treated in his day. Perhaps just as much today as in the distant past, we live in an upside down world in many respects.

    Reply
  6. Michel
    Michel says:

    Do you think Shakespeare knew he was an unparalelled literary genius, and dwelled on this fact in depth? Can you imagine Shakespeare being humble mentally, a good little modest saint? We know he spoke too rapidly and had to be told to slow down or to stop jumping from insight to insight — that’s about as much as we get by way of anecdote about his mannerisms.

    Reply

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