Thursday, October 28, 2010

Philosophy's Biggest Losers

I just had a conversation with a colleague about what might be called philosophy's biggest losers. We were trying to come up with a list of 20th Century philosophers who, although they were considered to be absolutely top-notch in their day, are at present completely forgotten and unread.

We initially thought of A. N. Whitehead. A towering figure in his day; no one cares about him now. But then we were reminded of the "process philosophy" hangers-on. So Whitehead isn't the biggest loser after all.

Norman Malcolm then came to mind. Seriously. Does any other 20th C philosopher match him? He was a major force in his day. But now nobody reads a word. Not one essay is considered essential. Not one essay is even regarded as historically significant in the development of subsequent philosophy. Malcolm is Philosophy's biggest loser.

Other views?

50 comments:

Anonymous said...

Bernard Lonergan: big loser or biggest loser?

Anonymous said...

Rush Rhees

Anonymous said...

as per Lonergan (always a niche guy anyway, never a Whitehead sort of prominence), check out this peculiar requirement for a recent ad for a t-t position: "A working familiarity with the critical realism of Bernard Lonergan is essential for participation in the department’s mission."

Anonymous said...

This would be more fun if we were making predictions.

Anonymous said...

Some of Malcolm's stuff in the philosophy of religion is given a bit of attention.

Anonymous said...

@ 5:38:

Then make some!

Anonymous said...

Prediction: Gettier, Williams and everyone who has ever written about 'testimony'.

Anonymous said...

C.I. Lewis; no doubt.

Anonymous said...

Morris Cohen: in the philosophy of law many act like the discipline started with Hart.

I got a pair of balls said...

It's tough to beat someone who's only been dead 20 years, and is completely forgotten already

Anonymous said...

Yeah, Malcolm is good.

I had a professor who knew him, and said that he was the only philosopher she'd ever met who was below average in intelligence.
I don't think anyone is going to come close to Malcolm if the metric is Contemporary Prominence X 2010 unreadness.

Anonymous said...

I don't think that Will Durant was ever seen as a serious philosopher, but he was read by pretty much every educated person of the generations two or so before me, I think. So, that's a big fall, sort of.

Also, if you took a poll about the most important philosopher of the twentieth century, say, fifty years ago, wouldn't Russell have come out by far in the lead? But now, there are a couple of papers about descriptions that people read, and this logic book that almost no one ever read, but which people still think about. He's not as ignored as Malcolm or Whitehead now, but his fall was farther, no?

Anonymous said...

G.H. Von Wright

Anonymous said...

When I was an undergrad in a Continentally oriented program, I heard a few people describe Karl Jaspers as someone who was very influential long ago but not so widely read today.

Anonymous said...

Jesus Christ (talk about unearned influence beyond lifespan) Russell and Whitehead's Principia will always stand as a watershed work--against Godel of course--as something of lasting significance. Please exclude both names from this ignominious list unless you want to exclude Godel as well. Did you ever hear of the phrase, "standing on the shoulders of giants?" Let's get history of philosophy back into the picture in front of say, presentist (in every sense of the term) navel-gazing.

Shall we not estimate everyone by his or her weakest work?

Shit my Dada says.

Alexandre Guay said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Whitehead is probably not a good case of loser because he is still discussed in recent conferences and books in France.

Simon said...

Max Scheler: read Gadamer or Löwith's memoirs and you'll see that he was once amongst the most influential and widely-read continental philosophers, the rival of Husserl, Heidegger, etc. Now, nothing.

M said...

I'd say a lot of Germans who due to the war, and the greater name of Carnap, who've fallen by the wayside.

Ernst Cassirer for instance. Who even remembers the Marburg group of philosophers? It's all Vienna during the 1920s 20thC

My personal recommendation is Stephan Korner. But that's just me being weird. Korner wrote on logic, and a bit of metaphysics and for me was an influential Kantian, and its not to say by any stretch that he wasn't writing on the mainstream issues of the day.

I think also, people who get remembered for only one thing where the rest of their work is good: like McTaggart being the 'Time guy' only.

Good post.

Perhaps I might also say, to be topical: women. Female philosophers pace the WILTBAWIP [sic] site are getting a bad deal out of academic philosophy. How many in this list are all men, for instance? We remember the male losers even in some historical context. I am not sure (unfortunately) the women may fare as well. I can't think of any woman before Anscombe for instance.

Anonymous said...

CD Broad?

Sure you have to mention 'five types of ethical theory' in a comprehensive history of the subject, but I don't think anyone reads his stuff anymore.

Anonymous said...

Bergson beats most contestants, I think.

Davidson is also fading faster than anyone would have thought.

My controversial pick for major future fader? Marx. His fame is mainly due to those who 'acted in his name'. On purely intellectual grounds history has not been kind to his ideas. The theory of history is a wash and the people who take the economics seriously are almost all (humanities) non-experts (always a bad sign). Most of what has stood up well is not terribly original. So I expect him to keep losing support steadily and ultimately fade from view.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, but Davidson will be rediscovered in a generation or so - his program is out of fashion right now, but he had a program.

Gettier would win, as usual, if it was 'loss of influence over time per pages published' - but I don't see him being forgotten any time soon. Gettier examples are so easy to discuss - either positively or negatively - that they'll be around for a while, though maybe just as examples of how not to aproach epistemology.

I say Dennett. Big in the 90s, still significant in the 00s, but nothing really juicy.

Anonymous said...

Santayana; RW Sellars. These guys were bigger than Malcolm in their day and are now more forgotten.

Jon Cogburn said...

Susanne Langer and Nelson Goodman were both (I think justifiably) gigantic in their time, but not many people write about their work now. Perhaps there might be a resurgence.

While I've spent innumerable hours going over Davidson, and strongly consider him one of the deeper philosophers of the previous century (anomalous monism, principle of charity, justification for neo-Cartesian views about animal mentality, etc.), I'm not sure the fact that he had a program is going to help his resurgence. Anyone who really works in formal semantics finds his programmatic suggestions to be insufferably and really irritatingly vague (me and a linguist once calculated how many different kinds of things are on each side of the T sentence in his various papers and we came up with something like 16 permutations; the only time Davidson was really clear about it to mean something to a linguist, he tied his fortunes to Generative Semantics, where transformations got you from a logical form to the actual sentence; this approach was empirically disconfirmed though).

Lewis and Stalnaker and Montague are just giants by comparison. All of their programmatic pronouncements are empirically informative enough to be incredibly helpful to people involved in actual research programs. If you read Lappin's edited Blackwell companion to formal semantics you see that everything rests on Montague's shoulders to some extent, that Lewis and Stalnaker are incredibly important, and that the only thing that rests on Davidson's is are two inconsistent ways that linguists read his suggestions about the logical forms of sentences referencing events (see Baver's really excellent "Confessions of a Lapsed Neo-Davidsonian" http://www.amazon.com/Confessions-Lapsed-Neo-Davidsonian-Compositional-Dissertations/dp/081532846X ).

I worry that Fodor is going to disappear pretty quickly for similar reasons. He just tied way too much of his substantive views to whatever eructations Chomsky happened to produce the previous week (this explains the genuinely weird attempts over and over again to provide a priori critiques the entire program of lexical semantics, the bizarre anti-evolutionary theory stuff, as well as the suggestion that we have an innate concept of carburetor). This is harder to say though. He's such a clearer writer than Davidson, that I hope he fairs better. And it's very hard for me to see people not needing to at least take into account the Language of Thought Hypothesis to contrast their own views to it.

On the other hand, his prose is infuriatingly dismissive of really important philosophers, linguists, and psychologists (read his piece on Brandom, for example). I don't predict this will age well.

Finally, I predict that Quine will continue to lose pre-eminence. He's already on his way to being treated as a historical figure more than someone whose philosophy we grapple with on its own terms.

More significantly, better arguments in the same neighborhood have always been on offer from Putnam. But currently Mark Wilson and and Stephen Stich make much, much better arguments in the same neighborhood and go on to draw much more compelling and interesting conclusions from those arguments. To be fair, Wilson was Quine's student, but his fascinating arguments are completely independent.

Anonymous said...

Rorty will be utterly forgotten. As he should have been from the beginning, of course.

Anonymous said...

@8:07

Russell's theory of types will keep him "current" for a long time: there are all sorts of type-theoretic approaches to logic, computer science, and other areas of math.

Ditto for Russell's Paradox - no discussion of philosophy of infinity will ever ignore it.

Ditto for Russell's "regressive method" of justification of mathematical axioms. With all those super-duper large cardinal axioms introduced in set theory, much of their justification seems to be derived from results which can be obtained with their help

Ditto for Russell's "if-thenism" view of mathematics. With ever more abstract axioms in many fields, the issue of "truth" of such axioms becomes more and more diluted (it seems), and so is the truth of theorems derived from them. But the facts of entailment established by valid proofs remain quite transparent as the subject matter of mathematical investigations.

Whether or not one accepts any of the above Russell's proposals, I think they continue to maintain their relevance to contemporary philosophy of mathematics, philosophical logic, and philosophy of language.

Anonymous said...

Oakeshott would get my vote.

Anonymous said...

I'm excited about this one: Herbert Spencer.

Spencer was absolutely huge in his day, and now he's not only unread and ignored, but (when anyone bothers to mention him) positively reviled as a monster out to starve the poor.

Anonymous said...

Josiah Royce.

Anonymous said...

Would R. M. Hare fit the bill? While 'prescriptivism' was for some decades perhaps the most-discussed topic in (meta-)ethics, no one has done any serious work on Hare in a long time.

verification: 'ribil', as in 'rub my ribil'

Anonymous said...

Two philosophers not yet mentioned come to mind: Roderick Chisholm and Gustav Bergmann

Simon said...

Re M's comment about Cassirer, he's actually enjoying something of a rebirth of interest at the moment: Peter Gordon's new book "Continental Divide," about Heidegger and Cassirer's Davos debate, is a serious engagement with Cassirer's philosophy, and Emily Levine's recent dissertation (forthcoming book) on interwar Hamburg features Cassirer prominently.

Re 1:19, isn't Oakeshott also making something of a comeback at the moment? Was he ever really that well known in the first place?

Beyond my original suggestion of Scheler, how about R. G. Collingwood? Or Karl Löwith?

Anonymous said...

Oakeshott is seeing a minor resurgence, although I've never heard anyone say anything about him in the academy, or seen a paper about him at a conference. Might be the circles I run in.

All of these figures will have some recent books out on them, probably, if only because the philosophy has sort of peaked, or overfilled, or some such, and the publishing must go on! Tenure or death!

Anonymous said...

Virtually all 20th-century philosophers will not be read. Funding for academic departments will dry up and most philosophy departments will disappear. Very few philosophers wrote well enough to thrive outside of the institutional structure characteristic of that century.

Anonymous said...

It would be good to remember here that Samuel Johnson once remarked somewhere that the influence of Locke would be relegated to the history books while the influence of Joseph Addison would endure.

Anonymous said...

Just in terms of the size of the fall, Wittgenstein has to win. Of course he still has his acolytes, but he is essentially gone from mainstream philosophy.

Anonymous said...

@6:37 PM

That's not from Johnson, it's from Hume. He's talking about the durability and wide appeal of easy and popular philosophy as opposed to really difficult and careful philosophy:

"The fame of Cicero flourishes at present; but that of Aristotle is utterly decayed. La Bruyere passes the seas, and still maintains his reputation: but the glory of Malebranche is confined to his own nation, and to his own age. And Addison, perhaps, will be read with pleasure, when Locke shall be entirely forgotten."

Jon Cogburn said...

I second Gustav Bergman. We all kind of tell a story about how Kripke made it safe to do metaphysics again after the depredations of positivism, but Bergman was keeping the flame alive in Iowa during the whole time. I think as a historical fact, his influence had just as much to do with what now constitutes modern analytic metaphysics (do some research on bare particulars versus bundle theory for example and look at the dates of the relevant articles) as anybody else. But, as far as I can tell nobody reads him anymore, and his main conceit of "ideal language philosophy" is not one that anybody now engages in (though Quine repeated the conceit in a different idiom that "to be is to be the value of a bound variable" people still share).

As far as Collingwood, I don't think that's quite right, as there is a relevant performative contradiction concerning him. At this point so many Aestheticians feel strongly that he is underappreciated that in virtue of that fact alone he is not underappreciated.

Anonymous said...

J.O. Wisdom

Frank O' Phile said...

Anonymous 1.12

Whitehead is probably not a good case of loser because he is still discussed in recent conferences and books in France.

I suspect that in the opinion of at least some contributors here, that's evidence for, rather than evidence against the claim that he's a big loser.

Anonymous said...

Leiter should run a poll for this.

M said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

losers who understand the difference between a semicolon and a comma

Anonymous said...

Well, at least we've established that no one on this thread is deserving of being durably temporally memorable, whether prehended (actual occasions), unprehended (negatively prehended actual occasions), or even appreciably and reflectively unprehended (as mere eternal objects of negation). And that includes posters like me. Except of course in the consequent prehensive nature of God, where all is retained.

Yeah, got my PhD in Whitehead, and published some stuff in that, but moved on. But I learned from him and still managed to publish in (gasp) Analysis and the like. He ain't dead yet, and he ain't stupid except for his disagreement with Einstein and lack of understanding of quantum theory. (Ok, so he may be really stupid in all that.) But in ways that he tried to integrate classic philosophy with the development of modern science, Whitehead is a study in the good, bad, and ugly of transitional ideas that we all can learn from. His idiosyncratic place in the movement from something like Bradleyan idealism to more Putnamesque pragmatism is worthy of note in the history of philosophy. Don't count that sucker out.

Anonymous said...

Ralph Barton Perry.

Anonymous said...

But at least all the serious contenders for biggest loser listed above are still reasonably well known nowadays.

You cannot say that for Bernard Bosanquet. Or so I thought. Then I found he has his own Stanford Encyclopaedia entry. Though I suppose this might be someone who is interested with him is friends with the editor, or because he was once so influential, though he no longer is.

The entry says 'Although F.H. Bradley is today far better known in philosophical circles, in his obituary in the Times, Bosanquet was said to have been “the central figure of British philosophy for an entire generation.” '

Margaret said...

As a follow-up to an earlier post, let me mention the names of a few of the many women who were publishing in leading philosophy journals at the beginning of the twentieth century, often honored by professional associations and the like but who are totally forgotten today: Mary Whiton Calkins, Grace Neal Dolson, Katherine Everett Gilbert, Kate Gordon,Grace Andres deLaguna,Hilda oakeley, Helen Huss arkhurst, Susan Stebbing, Ellen Bliss Talbot....I could go on and on

Anonymous said...

There's no trash basket in philosophy: think about Aristotelian essentialism, atomism, value ethics, ontological argument(s), descriptivism on proper names, Meinongianism, German idealism, mereological nihilism, bundle theories... It's not that sometimes they come back - they *always* come back.

Anonymous said...

Goodman is actually still going reasonably strong in aesthetics, but Collingwood, not so much. Talk about specific programs and theories, even discredited ones, may not go away, but not everyone who worked in any one area will be carried forth into the next cycle of discussion. At least, that's my speculation...

Verification" "kaytic"

praymont said...

In addition to process philosophers, Whitehead still inspires some academics outside philosophy, e.g., the physicist Henry Pierce Stapp. Collingwood is still cited in works on the philosophy of history (though often by historians). C. D. Broad is increasingly read by people who write about emergence. Karl Jaspers still gets cited a lot in psychiatry (and in philosophy of psychiatry).