20th Century: Not a Great Century for Philosophy

7 03 2009

The discussion started here, sparked from an article here, and then spread to here. An interesting discussion, and a worthy – if trivial – pursuit to idle away the hours: who was the best philosopher of the 20th century?

So far Wittgenstein is in the lead, with Russell and David Lewis hot on his heels.


As I mentioned on Evolving Thoughts, I think the question is tricky – but I would say that, as a philosopher myself. We’re never happy with the question. (Although note that it never stops us from just flagging the gross inadequacies of the question, or language and definitions, and just plowing on regardless.)

By ‘best’ do we mean the ‘most groundbreaking’? Or ‘most innovative’? Or ‘most influential at the time’? Or ‘most influential today’? Or perhaps my preferred definition: ‘contributed the most to our understanding of the truth’?

If we take the question to mean any of the former, contenders burst forth like zucchini’s tumbling from a split plastic bag. And landing with as dull a thump, in my opinion.

Wittgenstein was clearly brilliant, and he did make advances. Although these were arguably in a negative way by cautioning us against certain approaches to philosophy and warning us about the flaws and limitations of our tools. Sadly, these days he’s more debated than developed. And I fear he precipitated the disastrous and deeply unproductive split from logical, systemic (analytic) philosophy into the realm of ‘mapping the phenomenal/language space’ (continental) philosophy. Yet, besides his work on the tools of philosophy, I can’t see that Wittgenstein substantially advanced the content of philosophy.

David Lewis – another clearly brilliant mind. Yet here, too, he made more progress on the tools of philosophy than the content of philosophy. And that whole modal realism guff – prime example of a reductio against the way we use ‘possible’ in every day language, if you ask me.

Some have suggested GE Moore should be higher in the list. But I wonder how someone who set back moral philosophy by a century could be considered to have advanced philosophy? It’s only now that people are reengaging with moral naturalism that we’re even asking interesting questions again.

Talking about ethics, we have Rawls. Interesting book, A Theory of Justice. And it has got people thinking about real world issues. Nice. But it’s so mired in Kantianism and so enamoured with reason and so detached from nature that it’s really just a good premise for a distopian novel. Even so, I’d at least consider Rawls for an honourable mention.

Then there’s Heidegger (with a respectable 9-10% of the vote). When someone can clearly articulate to me Heidegger’s great contribution to philosophy today, I’ll perhaps give him some more credit. Until then, as far as I can tell, all he did was reverse-engineer ‘being’ – or our use of the word and concept ‘being’ – and in doing so drove us down a winding cul-de-sac that goes nowhere.

Russell – well here’s someone I can vote for. He not only worked on the tools of philosophy, but the content. And not only philosophy, but other disciplines as well. He, in my opinion, was the last Great Philosopher. Since then have been great minds, but sadly, few have progressed philosophy significantly.

I remember a professor of mine in my undergrad years commenting – not without irony – that the two great philosophical developments of the 20th century were the Gettier problems and identifying ‘quantifying in’ as a problem. That’s it.

I think we should reflect on the 20th century and in all honesty admit it was a pretty abysmal one for philosophy. I do have opinions about how philosophy could reform, but I’ll save them for another time. But I do know that philosophy can’t afford to have another century like the 20th century.

Think about it. Are you happy with the state of philosophy today?




4 responses

25 03 2009
Science, Religion and the Quest for Secular Morality « Ockham’s Beard

[…] not so much since G.E. Moore – but that’s the idea. Philosophy might have been relatively unproductive of late, but it’s still our best tool for the big job […]

26 03 2009
Christopher Smith

Where the hell is Jacques Derrida on that list???

I like Rawls. I haven’t read enough Russell. But in truth, I think the great developments of the twentieth century were advances in physics and biology, which are philosophical disciplines in some respects (or at least disciplines that have bearing on philosophy). It may be that the greatest twentieth-century philosophers were the likes of Daniel Dennett and Albert Einstein!

26 03 2009
Christopher Smith

I’m pleased to see Whitehead has 0%.

26 03 2009
Tim Dean

Oh, if only philosophy could take credit for the monumental advances in physics and biology… But, sadly, it can’t.

But I will put in a vote for Dennett.

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