Who is the worst philosopher?

That was one of the questions I was asked at my Jane St. Capital talk on Wednesday night.

My answer was Edmund Husserl, at least if we restrict the question to philosophers of renown.  I believe his work is a waste of time and I write that as someone who does not believe Heidegger is a (total) waste of time, especially in the essays.  As for Husserl, we can pull this bit off Wikipedia:

Therein, Husserl in 1931 refers to “Transcendental Subjectivity” being “a new field of experience” opened as a result of practicing phenomenological reduction, and giving rise to an a priori science not empirically based but somewhat similar to mathematics. By such practice the individual becomes the “transcendental Ego”, although Husserl acknowledges the problem of solipsism. Later he emphasizes “the necessary stressing of the difference between transcendental and psychological subjectivity, the repeated declaration that transcendental phenomenology is not in any sense psychology… ” but rather (in contrast to naturalistic psychology) by the phenomenological reduction “the life of the soul is made intelligible in its most intimate and originally intuitional essence” and whereby “objects of the most varied grades right up to the level of the objective world are there for the Ego… .” Ibid. at 5-7, 11-12, 18.

The Stanford Encyclopedia gives you more detail on his philosophy.  Here is Husserl presented on YouTube, in his own words as they say.

I suggested both Aristotle and Nietzsche as overrated philosophers, although clearly both are still great philosophers, worthy of major reputations.  But neither should be considered a real candidate for “greatest philosopher ever,” which is what you sometimes hear.  I’ll reserve that for Plato and Hume.



It is Gary.

How about Leo Strauss?

Look, the answer is clearly Bernard Henri-Levy.


Maybe BHL is not well-known enough; we can give it to Hegel or Schopenhauer instead.

TC is clearly just trollin' WRT Aristotle and Nietzsche

Except you need actually to be a philosopher to be the worst philosopher.

My preference is for Thomas Reid.

Thomas Reid as greatest philosopher ever, maybe Nietzsche as the worst.

I would suggest that you don't much understand Aristotle. Have a read through Ed Feser's blog.

Nietzsche is absolutely great for demolishing other philosophers, but his own system, if one can even call it that, is retarded.

Plato is fantastic at raising philosophical issues, but doesn't usually take them anywhere. A great writer though.

Your response to someone saying that Aristotle is not "a real candidate for 'greatest philosopher ever'" amounts to "Then you don't understand him, read a community college professor's blog." Really? Have you considered that people may understand him perfectly well . . . and still not think he's the best ever?

Or maybe they . . . don't understand him. We could keep going on this hamster wheel forever.

Love the rank pulling too.

We're not on a hamster wheel. You suggested that dismissal of Aristotle comes from not understanding. I said there could be other reasons. "Or maybe they . . . don’t understand him" is not an argument against there possibly being other reasons, including philosophical knowledge, for dismissing him.

Moreover, it's perfectly valid to consider the "rank" of a source, especially if one is an outsider in the field. It's odd a conservative like you (and like me, some days) would go for the kind of anti-elitism most associated with the left. If someone is basically a nobody in the world of academic philosophy, it's rational to discount their opinion somewhat.

Can their be any doubt that someone of Feser's ability combined with a different score on the all-important "Race/Gender/Ideology" rubric would have a different rank than the one he has currently attained?

I don't know anything about Feser, but Aristotle definitely belongs in the discussion for greatest philosophers. C'mon, seriously...he is the chief exponent and developer of one of the three main ethical theories, he's arguably the greatest metaphysician in all of history, and he invented formal logic (!!). None of his views on those topics are grossly wrong, either. Hume was wrong about almost everything. Of course, Aristotle wrote a lot of great stuff that is basically just wrong too. But he still has great stuff on the mind and body, epistemology, etc.

How good a job do you think academic philosophy does at elevating people based on merit when the main internet hub for academic philosophy is a blog run by Brian Leiter?

And then, Spinoza was a lens grinder, and so on, and so on.

"Nietzsche is absolutely great for demolishing other philosophers, but his own system, if one can even call it that, is retarded."

Strangely, especially when you consider that he generated the main problems for the next century in continental philosophy yet had no interest in the seeds of analytic philosophy, Nietszche's system is one of the only teleologically consistent ones of his era (or since).

Nietzsche contradicts himself wildly all the time and his claims about the origins of morality are ridiculous.

What are some of Nietszche's wild contradictions?

Nietzsche's contradictions are part of what makes him great. He doesn't try to tie everything into a system. After all, why do that? Maybe truth doesn't tie into some big system. What if truth were a woman? What then? You're going to seduce her with talk of systems?

"What if truth were a woman?" seems a rather un-Nietzsche thing to say (except in a Straussian ha-ha) ... gee, he would've fit in great here.


because it's the opening to one of Nietszche's best books.

After all, why do that?

Let me turn this around: If things don't tie together, why are you doing philosophy? You could say it's all crap and go with postmodernism, but then you get into so much silliness I'm not sure why you'd bother.

You can put on quite the fireworks display though doing that sort of thing though, and Nietzsche is fun in a "let burn down the house" kind of way. He is, without doubt, the most entertaining of all philosophers.

This way of thinking about Nietzsche is not really considering him as a philosopher, but more as an entertainer. Like the approach you should take if you want to be able to appreciate Slavoj Zizek

Exactly. Some philosophers are foxes and some are hedgehogs. Nietzsche is great because one can read his works and see how it applies to one's overall being and existence. I think quite a few Nietzsche critics are uncomfortable with the claims and observations Nietzsche makes. To understand Nietzsche's ideas one needs to read a good amount of his work. It is very difficult to summarize his ideas.

I came here to say this. If you think Nietzsche contradicts himself (in some sense that would "refute" him), you are confused about the point he is making.

Also let's note that the "truth is a women" line is specifically from the genealogy of morals!

Aristotle gets a lot of grief for his scientific work and the fact that he was turned into this infallible authority. The combination did a lot of damage.

As for the former, meh, science is cumulative and he was at the very beginning. Of course it's shit. For the latter, the reason he was such an authority is that his philosophy was so good. Agreed that the absolute reverence for him needed to be broken wide open, but modern philosophers tended (and tend) to do that by misrepresenting him and his followers, like Aquinas, and we tend to read him through those caricatures.

My reaction is like your, Thursday. And comparing Hume to Aristotle strikes me as a major example of recency bias.

Aristotle was notable for being the first to write a work on formal logic (as he recognized and mentioned). And it was comprehensive enough that nobody attempted to add to it for almost 2000 years.

*I have read or listened to almost every surviving work of Aristotles except Parva Naturalia

I would nominate John Dewey.

Ayn Rand: failed miserably at understanding Marx, Jesus, Smith or own navel

Right, but what is her reputation outside of the Libertarian/Objectivist clan? She's much more of a polarizing pop icon rather than respected philosopher.

I can inform all reading that Ayn Rand is not considered a philosopher of note in Germany. I'm guessing the same is true in many other countries.

So does that fall into the categories Germany gets right like optics and steel or into the categories of nationalism, race and foot fetishes?

For some idiots, Germany is for all time defined by 1930s to 1940s Nazis. Today, a less nationalist/racist people would be hard to find.

(I would've brought up scat before feet).

"I tell ya, I get no respect."

/pulls on collar

Is that an answer to my question?

A less nationalist people would be hard to find ... if you're convinced by the argument, "We are the most humble nation ever on the face of this or any other planet."

"...less racist..."? Tell it to the German Turks.

It's easy to criticize all other nations on their discrimination when you have a homogeneous population and no experience with minorities (as Sweden found out last week).

Once again, you have not provided a *less* nationalist or racist people.

"It’s easy to criticize all other nations on their discrimination when you have a homogeneous population and no experience with minorities (as Sweden found out last week)."

Sweden's performance in the face of race-riots by minorities was admirable. There was little police brutality and the minorities were allowed to burn cars and smash windows until they had run out of steam. Sweden and Norway were the only "less nationalist and racist" people I could think of (maybe Poland..?).

The point, which you missed, perhaps because you were too taken with your wit, was that Ayn Rand may not qualify "if we restrict the question to philosophers of renown."

Funny when people think others missed something they already knew.

The response was, are Germans good at judging philosophers?

I'm not a philosopher, and have virtually no opinion, except that everyone loves these "greatest rock bands ever" lists and arguing over them. I don't defend Rand as a philosopher, but I can envision a history where she looked out upon philosophy that was largely either horseshit or threats to civilization and then did what she could. As an engineer, I do find myself trying again and again to see if there is anything to objectivism rather than wasting any time on idealism.

Ayn Rand is not actually a philosopher. She has solved no open problems, provided no conjectures or even reframings of problems.

The one good idea she had was stolen from another libertarian philosopher.

"The one good idea she had was stolen from another libertarian philosopher."

Brian Doherty's book Radicals for Capitalism says the exactly opposite thing: that she was the most influential source of libertarian ideas and is closer to being a philosopher than all others "libertarian" writers (page 12). Go read some books before you trash something you don't even understand.

oh. Brian Doherty said that? well thats that then.

Yes. Because I prefer to trust an author whose book is widely considered one of the best on the history of libertarian movement than some random internet remark that gives no proof of any understanding of the subject matter whatsoever.

uh, (some interpretations of) Rousseau, Friedman? Nozick??

lol, Randians and their Austrian economist counter-parts are awesome.


You're awesome!

Rousseau is a good candidate for history's worst philosopher. Friedman's an economist.

Nozick as worst? Please state your case.

@Fallibilist L@what I'm replying to. Ayn Rand is in no way libertarianism's pre-eminent philosopher. All candidates I listed have, imho, a higher claim on this than Rand. Nozick isn't bad, but he was outmatched by his contemporaries. Friedman generated an awful lot of thought experiments and Capitalism and Freedom has very little economic content...

And do you understand Ayn Rand?

Just curious because from what I've seen, 9 out of 10 random comments on the internet that trash Ayn Rand never even bother to read a paragraph of what she said.

Show me a link that back up your claim she misunderstood Marx, Jesus, Smith please.

Show anyone a link that suggests she solved or helpfully reframed an open problem?
She claimed that "every is implies an ought" - has anyone made sense of this?

The first Google result for that phrase seems to make sense.

If you mean this humorous website:
then, no.

Of course, Hume and everyone else was aware that if you impose a moral framework then the is-ought problem disappears. "The 'concept' life" doesn't help too much in this regard with respect to which moral framework to choose.

This is just question-begging and even a Christian or Communist would have an isomorphic and equally unsatisfying response to Hume.

Well obviously you know best.

Overrated: Nietzsche, Rousseau
Underrated: Epictetus

Would that it weren't so. It would be a much less whiny world.

Hegel is overrated. So is Marx. Both wrote a whole load of intellectually sounding nonsense. Worse yet, dangerous nonsense.

Eh, materialism was a great leap forward in many senses and Hegel's thought has proven inspirational to more useful philosophies (like Strauss/Fukuyama et. al).

Marx definitely isn't the best philosopher, but compared with Husserl? It's clear who was outmatched and decided to the gobbeldygook route.

Such as? Do you mean the Great Leap Forward?

Such as what?

and you caught my pun.

Karl Marx, hands down.

Not only is his philosophy dead wrong, it is responsible for more human misery than any other single line of thought in human history.

Unfortunately it seems there are still a lot of folks who missed the TV footage of 1991 that shows Soviet Union goes kaput. How on earth can any Marxist continue to believe in what they say after 1991 is really beyond me, but we do still have plenty of them around.

Oh thats right because Marx founded communism of which a perfect representation of what that would look like politically and socially was the Soviet Union.

Do you know the word "socialism"?

Alas, the entire Soviet Union had "no true Marxists".

Ok I'll try to engage in some objective conversation. First.

Please understand there is a huge difference between the terms Socialism Marxism and Communism. Do not throw them around interchangeably.

Second, Mike, has it occured to you that the richest and most successful nations in the world including the US are already Socialist in many respects. At the very least we are mixed economies.

But please, continue in your completely ignorant ways, your amygdala has been stimulated and you feel threatened. Tribalism is a very dangerous thing. Please be aware, and more importantly be self aware.


Socialism isn't a government that spends more than Glenn Beck approves of, it's the lack of private ownership of the means of production. The US is not socialist.

To Historian: (wouldnt let me post down below)

I would counter that there are many socialist elements in our society, if you want government planning and allocation of reasources look no further than farm subsidies, subsidies in general are an incentive based way for a central government to influence allocation of resources. We offer free state sponsered education K-12 along with many other public goods.

The point I am making is that any political debate is never supposed to be black and white (only the sith deal in absolutes, sorry I couldnt resist) but a gray area where we as a people are free to decide exactly what kind of society we wish to live in.

You know, you make an excellent Marxist case that his own philosophy sucks.

"Until now, philosophers have only sought to interpret the world. The point is to change it."

Good job, Mr. Karl!

I think you need to distinguish between Marx's economics and moral philosophy. Generally, his economics is not thought very highly of. I personally think that he noted some important problems but liberal democracies found more gentle solutions to them. As a moral philosopher, I think he had a more lasting contribution, but most people ignore this aspect and simple rant about his economic ideas. See, for example, this whole comment thread.

If we don't restrict the question to philosophers of renown then it is Gary, hands down.

No, it's definitely Steve.

You are right. Steve is a douche.

Whoa whoa whoa.

You are the intellectual equivalent of a cake made of beef.

PS - what's wrong with Seattle burritos?

They are the sharpest burrito in the light bulb box.

Yeah, but Gary's theory about the "transcendental Id" was pretty daft.

I'd say that the problem with putting Hume over Aristotle is that Aristotle made important contributions in more areas. Hume has basically nothing in logic, for example, and while his work on induction is obviously important for some abstract and general issues in philosophy of science, he doesn't provide anything comparable to Aristotle on most particular sciences. If I were judging "greatest philosopher", I'd do it by asking, "who provided the most fruitful work in the largest number of areas?", and I think Aristotle clearly beats Hume and almost certainly beats Plato on that. (I'd say that, on that scale, Kant is Aristotle's only rival. Neitzsche, as good as he is at some things, isn't a plausible contender on this scale.)

How do you think Aristotle would do on that measure if plopped down in Hume's time and vice versa? Doesn't that matter for who is "the greatest"? Aristotle came up with a bunch of crazy crap in a lot of areas that was totally wrong.

I think "being fruitful" is more important for this debate than "getting things right" because if "getting things right" is the right choice, then any large number of recent philosophers are better than the great dead ones, and that seems to be a reductio to me. Whether Aristotle's ideas were "a bunch of crazy crap" is, of course, disputable, but I think that, when considered in context, it's not very easy to support such a claim. I'm not quite sure what you're considering in the "plop x down in Y's time and see how they do" idea. On one interpretation, it suggests that an average college physics professor is a better scientists than Galileo, and probably Newton, since the average college physics professor would get more physics right, but that would be absurd. On another interpretation, it's just asking "whose smarter?", and I don't know the answer to that, and don't think it's decisive of the "better philosopher" question on its own.

Do you think philosophers should get credit for being wrong or right relative to their contemporaries? (On issues on which progress towards deciding what's "right" has been made anyway). For example, my understanding (and I am no philosopher) is that Lucretius's model of the physical universe was way more accurate than Aristotle. But maybe that's just "luck", in the sense of both Aristotle and Lucretius made reasonable extrapolations based on the evidence available, and it just turned out one was more correct. In other words, do you knock down Aristotle because someone else with the same basic data was able to be more accurate?

Maybe more accurate in an objective sense, but not necessarily better at interpreting reality as it was accessible to them. Chances are Greek atomism had as much rational warrant for its truth as believing in monism or some variety of elementalism. I don't see anything very useful about judging people's theories qua their ability to come up with compelling and interesting theories on the basis of evidence and experience they had no access to.

Right, I don't mean they would travel back in time with all their adult knowledge. I mean they were born in that time. It's not a question of "who's smartest?" it's a question of "who is the best philosopher", which, after all, IS the question. I don't see why we give Aristotle extra credit for being born in a time of low-hanging fruit.

I don't see any reason to think Aristotle would be worse than Hume, in that case. (I should say, I am generally more sympathetic to Hume's ideas than to Aristotle's, but don't think he made first-rate contributions in enough areas to be a real contender for "greatest ever".) If you think it was much harder to make fruitful philosophical contributions at Hume's time than Aristotle's, then Kant _has_ to be the right answer, since he made first-rate contributions in many more areas than did Hume. I don't think it's obvious that it was easier to make important and fruitful contributions in Aristotle's time, though.

Given the magnitude, scope, rigor, and influence of Aristotle's work, he probably would have done quite well if plopped into the world with the state of science and knowledge available at Hume's time.

Fair enough, I don't know enough about Aristotle's work to say either way. Just that the criteria of doing new work in a lot of areas seems very biased towards ancient philosophers.

To me it only makes sense to evaluate the supposed best and worst in the context of their era and immediate predecessors. Husserl wins the worst hands down, as his nonsense also provided the launch for the era of 'critical theory' and the like, so bearing a grudge seems academically respectable. His was a philosophy for English professors, much as Freud provided a 'psychology' for English professors. Inevitably, though, the topic of 'best' evokes the spirit of "who was the greatest tennis player of all time?" We are speaking, after all, of philosophy as a departmental nomenclature, not a way of life.

Husserl doesn't have jack all to do with the genesis of "critical theory."

GIT: I never said Husserl had 'jack' to do with critical theory, meaning a continuous philosophical development. What Husserl did was given many young high-end English Phd's a taste of the sweet honey of bad philosophy. You may disagree, but I consider his work among the first to be accepted by the literary exegesis profession as an explanatory framework for journal papers of the sort which contained entire pages from which no meaning could be parsed.

Being one of the first cuts both ways. You're more likely to come up with something blindingly wrong if you don't have centuries of previous thinkers to rely upon; for instance, it's highly unlikely that if Aristotle was plunked down today he'd argue for a geocentric universe (as a later poster faults him for doing). But you're also more likely to be the first to come up with something fundamental.

If you think "crazy crap" disqualifies from being the greatest ever, almost no modern philosopher has a shot on the title.

Everyone is a child of his time and Hume's ideas as Aristotle's ideas are bound to that.

A better measure would be, how crappy or innovative their ideas were compared to their living brothers' and sisters' ideas and how they stood the test of time. And oh boy is Aristotle pwning Hume there...

BTW: Since philosophy is strongly tied to language, one probably almost always feels philosophers of one's own language are especially important. Hume for example, I wouldn't have even thought about nominating him...

And that should read "almost no not modern philosopher" of course.

"BTW: Since philosophy is strongly tied to language, one probably almost always feels philosophers of one’s own language are especially important. Hume for example, I wouldn’t have even thought about nominating him…"

My first thought was to waive this neo-whorfian approach away as nonsense, but then I realized that in my mind's discussion of great philosophers I had forgotten/ignored Kant!

I agree with all of this and am currently picking my way through Being And Time. And I guess: I'm curious why you don't think Heidegger is a total waste of time. So far I don't see it.

It seems to me that any person that claims that X is the "the worst philosopher" ever hasn't read much philosophy. Moreover, they don't understand a type of Collingwoodian or Hegelian approach to philosophy as a series of historical necessary arguments.

That's because Hegelian approaches in their own terms appear to be a psychological tool to raising one's status by sounding smart and the human enjoyment of white-noise-like information. They're not philosophy, but ideas.

Whoa that is so meta-Hegelian

Nietzsche, closely followed by Aristotle. Nietzsche + the eugenics movement gave an opening to the Holocaust. And Aristotle was just wrong about everything (interest = usury, geocentric universe, you name it).

This is a lame approach.
Surely Carl Schmidt is more directly responsible for the Holocaust than Nietszche, who was anti-Anti-Semitic.

Similarly, Mendel and Darwin gave an opening to the Holocaust.

If you want to blame a contemporary of Nietzsche for the holocaust then Heinrich von Treitschke is much more deserving.

So, we don't blame the Nazis anymore?

We don't blame philosophers anymore for the misappropriation of their name and the confounding of their words by men driven mad by anger and hate. Hitler and his key, uh, consultants, could have turned Disney films into their doctrinal underpinnings.

Aristotle was wrong about everything?!?

Like defining the commons problem ('People do not care for that which they do not own')?

Or stating that a middle-class was a pre-requisite for democracy about two millenia before political scientists started doing large-n cross-cultural statistical studies?

Neitzshce was against nationalism. The parts of his work that most fit the Nazi schema of thoughts was the work that his sister edited in order to make it compatible with Nazism. Heidegger would be a much better candidate for an advocate of Nazism. Or Plato for that matter who sets out an explicit eugenicist agenda in "The Republic".

Derrida. Without question.



Although I'm wary of absolute claims, he really may have been wrong about everything.

Nah, Freud was right about subconscious processes existing and the idea that dreams might reflect subconscious processes. Freudian slips also appear to be real as well...It's interesting how a lot of great thinkers massive contributions on the margin are given so little weight.

I'm a big fan of 'Civilization and its Discontents' too.

Having watched a generation of English professors wander from Husserl to Derrida and onward, I think the pair are functionally indistinguishable.

If "worst" or "bad" in this context means "seen as an advance only later to be refuted, causing waste of effort by subsequent philosophers," Aristotle or Marx must be the worst. Both were preceded by much better minds (Plato-Aristotle; Smith\Ricardom-Marx) and led many people to study what was ultimately a waste of time.

Ricardom > Ricarsub

Nevertheless, it's hard to appreciate Marx in light of the disastrous 20th century. Among his innovations were:

1. Anticipating the business cycle and their spread to the whole world
2. Created the concept of pre-History and better framed questions of historical eras
3. Framed all scientific/political questions in materialist rather than moralist terms
4. The concept of people "as members of classes" did not originate with him, but was fully developed under him.
5. Re-introduced the use of statistics in social science (which had taken a long hiatus).
6. Probably one of the first "singularity theorists" as we now recognize them
7. Almost universal Suffrage seems to have been an OK idea.
8. Gave the strongest feasible defense of the labor theory of value (which was useful so that it could be brushed aside)

Sure, he got a lot wrong, but we tend not to judge philosophers on the shit that sticks and this is a good thing.

The problem is so many philosophers whose work is not a "waste of time" thought Husserl was profound: Henri Bergson, Alfred Schutz, Martin Heidegger, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. So I think the rest of us may be just unequipped to understand why he was not, to these people at least, a waste of time.

I don't regard those names as by any means a total waste of time, but neither do I see them as the truly fruitful tradition, Merleau-Ponty least of all and Sartre was another candidate in my view for most overrated philosopher. So their endorsement of Husserl finds me in a relatively consistent opposition, though of course I recognize that not everyone is convinced.

Heidigger is opaque, impenatrable, unintelligible, and given to pleonasm.

Seriously, his awfulness is amply documented. (WARNING: Punk Rock)

If you hate a philosopher it's probably a good sign. It means they're saying something significant. I started my first philosophy degree hating Plato and thinking that he was completely over-rated. Ultimately, I ended up writing both my undergraduate and masters theses on his work. You have, in all probablility, already forgotten the worst philosophers you have encountered.

I agree, if someone's writings annoy me, and I keep reading, it's because they're making me have to justify my own positions, which is invariably a good sign: At the very least to understanding my own beliefs better, or even better, towards expanding my worldview.

Of contemporary philosophers, John Searle drives me batty for his incessant question begging (and that's even ignoring the Chinese Room sub-industry). Kripke is brilliant, but his breezy lecturing style and ingenious thought experiments smuggled essentialism back into philosophy; appeals to rigid designators are just appeals to essences. Neither of them are the worst philosophers (indeed, Kripke is among the top 5 of the 20th century), but both are who I'd most like to see get their philosophical comeuppance.

Time's advance appears to be finishing off Searle both ideologically and physically.

What do you mean that Aristotle is overrated? Are you saying everyone else considers him the best ever (or at least on the philosophical Mount Rushmore) and you only consider him top-5 or top-10? Or, do you consider him not "great" at all, so you'd rank him somewhere around 25 or 50?

On the first notion I would disagree with you but consider it defensible. The second notion I'd consider objectively false.

Calling something over-rated is one of the most powerful moves you can pull in raising your "intellectual status" among peers because there are so many ways you can defend the assertion no one is likely to call you out on it.

My vote is Hegel.

On Husserl: I think it's under-appreciated how much the phenomenology/existentialism moment in continental philosophy was an effort to find a secular basis for Catholic moral thinking, rather than a serious response to analytic philosophy. This is more or less obvious if you use Kierkegaard as a starting point, but Heidegger and others along that line were very heavily influenced by the ideas of St. Augustine. (I'm not as familiar with Husserl, but I believe his conception of time is working off of Augustine).

Obviously they didn't want to be read as religious writers, but if you take religion seriously, they make a valuable contribution to the literature... Much more so than their contribution to analytic philosophy.

Since Kierkegaard was born in a Lutheran Protestant country, I'm curious to hear in what sense you think he was trying to find a secular basis for Catholic moral thinking. Seems to me that he was neither Catholic nor secular (if anything, he comes across as a religious fanatic... Read his take on Abraham, in Fear and Trembling, and you'll see what I mean)

Kierkegaard's argued, particularly in Fear and Trembling, that belief in God was irrational, but nevertheless valuable. In other words, a secular rational for being a Christian. This argument was picked up by secular writers later, who tried to keep the value system without the religion. Particularly during the post-war Catholic revival in France, when Kierkegaard's (and the Catholic Church's) aesthetic of self-sacrifice was particularly appealing.

My favorite philosopher in this vein is Andre Bazin, who tried to use film to illustrate principle's of Catholicism and existentialism.

Things that make a reading philosopher worth while: (1) being illuminating in some way, (2) being important for understanding history, (3) being entertaining.

None of the ancients will give you much of (1), but Plato and Aristotle are invaluable for (2), the former also for (3). I don't know how you can call them over-rated, unless you're only considering (1). Marx is quite important for (2), Nietzsche mostly for (3). It is difficult to think of anyone that fails all 3 more than Husserl...

What about adding (4) which is something like "not causing harm". Otherwise, a non-illuminating but historically important and entertaining figure gets a free pass. In particular, Plato. Whatever his historical importance (very very high) and entertainment value (varies, but for most people nontrivial) - in your scale how do we deduct points for "so wrong and influential, that he retarded mankind". E.g., again, Plato. The wrong person at the wrong time...

You think Plato has somehow single handedly set back mankind? Rather ridiculous.

I'm betting you're talking to someone who enjoys Nietzsche. Nietzsche on Plato:

Let us not be ungrateful to it, although it must certainly be confessed that the worst, the most tiresome, and the most dangerous of errors hitherto has been a dogmatist error--namely, Plato's invention of Pure Spirit and the Good in Itself...It amounted to the very inversion of truth, and the denial of the PERSPECTIVE--the fundamental condition--of life, to speak of Spirit and the Good as Plato spoke of them...But the struggle against Plato, or--to speak plainer, and for the "people"--the struggle against the ecclesiastical oppression of millenniums of Christianity (FOR CHRISITIANITY IS PLATONISM FOR THE "PEOPLE"), produced in Europe a magnificent tension of soul, such as had not existed anywhere previously; with such a tensely strained bow one can now aim at the furthest goals.

I enjoy Nietzsche, but if you seriously look at causality such that, *remove philosopher X, great historical patterns and changes A, B, and C disappear*, you're insane. Plato isn't solely responsible for the idea that "the Good" or whatever exists.

I was avoiding the question of "greatest philosopher ever," rather going to the original topic of who is the biggest waste of time. I'd say it's important to know the work of someone that caused great harm to humanity (#2).

Once we got "I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind," there wasn't really a need for any more philosophy.

Most postmodern philosophers and critical theorists (Lacan, Derrida, Bourdieu, etc.) are useless.

Their epistemology is wayyy off.

I'm starting to suspect time will treat Foucault's reputation kindly. He got a lot of things backwards, but his emphasis on power over reason is being validated daily. Just look at the immigration "debate" and the Richwine affair.

Did anybody ever doubt that people have power agendas? What is original in Foucault is not true and what is true is not original.

I'm pretty sure that Foucault was the first academician to write seriously about sex in an academic style.
It wasn't his fault that it turned out to be a blind alley, and thus, he shouldn't get the title of *worst philosopher ever*.

It doesn't really matter to Steve. He's only hijacking Focault to sneak in his pet peeves.

True of most PoMo, alas; banal and true or radical and false....

Got my vote for most useless MR post and discussion.

When someone claims that X is the worst philosopher (at least out of those with notoriety), they seem to mean several different things or some mixture of the following:

1. This person's philosophy had a great deal of influence on events in history, but this influence was very harmful (e.g. Marx; you could also point to some of the early Christian philosophers or theologians).
2. This person's philosophy is gibberish or nonsensical (e.g. many people point to Derrida, Husserl, or Heidegger). If true, doesn't this mean their work isn't really philosophy at all, but sophistry? Alternatively, basing conclusions on one's own misunderstanding is dangerous territory. How can you know if it's right or wrong if you don't understand it, especially if there are a number of great thinkers that seemed to think it was not gibberish.
3. This person's philosophy is comprehensible, but their ideas are incorrect or their insights are not as profound as they are claimed to be (at least compared with the other great philosophers).

Most people's picks seem to be based on #1 or #2, when I think the question is really calling for something like #3. Hard to tell whether TC's pick is based on #2 or #3.


Is Tyler assembling a list of the unmentioned ones to find about the best philosphers?


and again



I'm going with Sartre, if only because he was the hugest waste of my time and being. Sartre's popularity seems to have been entirely a product of fashion.

Most philosophers are overrated.

Funny, I would have said Hume.

More serious answer: Descartes.

At the least, Frege, Russell and Wittgenstein.

I will throw in Spinoza for fun.

I never liked Berkeley much.

Well this is a fun signaling game. I think signaling reasons here muddle the answers a lot.

Would Robin Hanson disagree with you?

Many comments to this post are inordinately conclusory, sniffily dismissive and turgid with self-regard-- similar to conversations about One Direction, Justn Beiber, and others during my 11 year old's slumber parties.

Nearly 100 posts and no one pasted in the Philosopher's Song? Slap me thrice and hand me to mum!

I think many (Classicists) will enjoy Hermias The Philosopher, Derision of Gentile Philosophers. A snippet:

Be it so then: they differ about the soul, but have pronounced other things about it in unison: and of others, one man calls pleasure its good, another its evil, and again a third man, its middle state between good and evil. But its nature some call immortal, some mortal, and others say that it remains for a time, but others that it becomes brutalised, others divide it into atoms, others embody it three times, others assign to it periods of three thousand years. For though they do not live even an hundred years, they talk of three thousand years about to come. What then must we term these things? They seem to me, to be a prodigy, or folly, or madness, or rebellion, or all these together. If they have found out anything true, let them agree together about it, or let them join together, and I then will gladly listen to them. But, if they distract the soul, and draw it, one into a different nature, another into a different being, changing one kind of matter for another; I confess I am harassed by the ebbing and flowing of the subject. At one time I am immortal and rejoice; at another time again I become mortal and weep. Anew I am dissolved into atoms: I become water, and I become air: I become fire, and then after a little, neither air, nor fire: he makes me a beast, he makes me a fish. Again then I have dolphins for my brothers; but when I look on myself, I am frightened at my body, and I know not how I shall call it, man, or dog, or wolf, or bull, or bird, or snake, or serpent, or chimaera; for I am changed by the philosophers into all the beasts, of the land, of the sea, having wings, of many forms, wild or tame, dumb or vocal, brute or reasoning: I swim, I fly, I rise aloft, I crawl, I run, I sit. But here is Empedocles, and he makes me a stump of a tree.

So is Husserl dropping in the philosophy power rankings? Or are his reputation and alleged influence too big to fail like Aristotle?

FWIW: I was surprised no one mentioned Judith Butler. Usually when she's mentioned on science blogs, the comments are filled with immediate disdain.

re: Judith Butler--

too recent

The greatest philosopher is a mirror.

The worst are those who talk and write.

Godel was heavily influenced by him (Husserl not Bieber)

Of course, one could also ask "What is the most useless question Tyler Cowen will still come up with an answer for?"

Spinoza: unoriginal, incoherent and grammatically challenged.

You've read him in the original, I take it.

I think y'all are making a mistake to think solely in terms of Western philosophy.
The world's greatest philosopher by far was the Buddha.
And he didn't just describe reality but taught a method to become in harmony with reality.

Whoever asked this question probably deserves a nomination, up there with some of the other philosophers none of us have ever heard of.

It amuses me when people pronounce thinkers like Nietzsche and Marx to be overrated. But then again, like Beethoven, neither of them have ever been on a bubblegum card.

what i find so odd about philosophy, and don't think anyone has mentioned, is that it isn't presented as a set of settled arguments/answers. instead, you read the originals, as though the value is in thinking things through, even if erroneously, rather than obtaining actual answers. in this respect, it's more like study of philosophical lit or history, rather than philosophy itself. e.g., you would expect philosophy to start with a set of problems and their answers that have been recognized as conclusive. this would then provide a scorecard by which to measure who had interesting ideas, but was wrong. the fact that "wrong" doesn't really even exist -- or the fact that best/worst rankings of philosophers are so divergent, as shown in this thread -- suggests that philosophy's main benefit has been provoking interesting discussions, theories, political movements, etc., rather than reaching any state of real knowledge (of any real use) in and of itself. also interesting how, leaving aside language, this whole threads basically turns on western philosophy. if you really cared about human knowledge, clearly other cultures would be better represented (i'm not relativist, but hard not to think the chinese or indians might be worth considering on many of these points, given what portion of the world they represented). given all this, i can't see any real reason not to welcome science crowding out philosophy (perhaps less dangerous, firmer foundation in any event).

Bhagavad Gita is worth a mention; western philosophers reach some of the same conclusions (Spinoza, Marcus Aurelius)

Most overrated blog. What are your criteria to judge? Where is the substance.

Derek Parfit (for overrated)

I am amazed at how may philosophy scholars there are here, including Tyler.

why do you need to be a philosophy scholar to have an opinion? ... I gladly listen to non-economists hold forth on other posts about economics here. being an insider is not always the best way to judge value in a discipline.

I've wondered, how good are philosophy scholars? To paraphrase Louis C.K., the most uninteresting guy on the planet is the guy who got 3 PhDs. He knows 3 things that probably aren't even right.

You don't need to a professor of philosophy. In fact, you don't have to know a damn thing about philosphy to have an opinion. You do need to be familiar, in a more than superficial way, with the work of many philosophers for your opinion to be anything but random noise designed to impress.

being an insider is not always the best way to judge value in a discipline.

But that's the way to bet.

I don't recall anyone asking for help in filtering the comments, but thanks for your concern ... this bet stuff is overrated.

Not up on your Damon Runyon, I see.

“The race is not always to the swift nor the battle to the strong, but that's the way to bet.”

Except when it becomes systematically wrong. I think this is what Ayn Rand addresses in her way. If a field jumps the shark, betting on the insiders is probably the wrongest way to bet..

The Republic is ridiculous enough to instantly disqualify Plato from being the greatest philosopher. Socratic method leads you to a stratified social caste society? Just silly. The only possible escape route is that Republic was a joke.

Wow. I'd like to see that comment put into a dictionary somewhere as a definition-by-example of "hand-waving."

(You know that Plato wrote other political treatises besides The Republic, right? Cf., The Laws and Statesman)

Why does Heidegger only merit a passing mention? Whatever advances in metaphysics came about from his work, the direct ethical implications of the man's work was deplorable. And while playing around in the sandbox of metaphysics is fun, even the wackiest ontologies are fairly benign in the grand scheme of things. But trying to undo thousands of years of hard fought Judeo-Christian ethics ranks him as a philosopher where the elderly woman who screwed up Ecce Homo ranks as a painter - my 6 year old could do a better job!

How much Husserl - and by Husserl I mean primary sources - have you actually read? That you cite Wikipedia suggests that you're out of your league on this one.

Oh, and AlanH is definitely out of his league if he thinks Husserl and Derrida are functionally equivalent.

When I earlier was thinking of overrated/underrated philosophers, Derrida did not even come to mind. He deserves to be ignored - not a philosopher, a dilettante. Or, as others have said, an aggressive obscurantist. Like arguing the homeless guy down the street is a bad philosopher; true, but trivially true.

Most overrated "greats": Marx, Husserl

Most overrated current thinkers: Derrida, Habermas

Most annoying: Brian Leiter

Most underrated "great": Aristotle (basically launches psychology, "moral philosophy" and proto-behavioural economics, against Plato's weird and bloodless rationalism). Read the Nicomachean Ethics.

Aristotle's reputation suffers because he wasn't a great stylist, he was methodical and most of what we have are his lecture notes.

Clearly the worst philosopher of all time was/is Alan D. Sokal, author of

"Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity"

OK, perhaps that makes him the best philosopher of all time.

You just don't understand Sokal's subtle problematising of the gender-personhood quantum field and the appropriation of hegemony by the scientific-patriachal discourse!


Based on criteria #1 above; worst impact on human history, by a long way. Even if he never forsaw or intended it.

By criteria #2 above, any PoMo "philosopher"....

C. S. Peirce.

His theory of categories, that everything is composed of "firstness," "secondness," and "thirdness"... always struck me as maddeningly devoid of content.

I was told by devotees for a long time that "I just didn't get it," maybe that's it, but an incomprehensible theory won't hold much more explanatory power than one that's simply false.

shouldn't we be comparing h-indices? that's how it's done, right?

Hmmm. It's interesting that no one's mentioned Daniel Dennett, for either the positive or the negative honor. I believe Marvin Minsky's blurbed him as the greatest living philosopher. He probably IS the most prominent philosophical apologist for the notion of the mind/brain as a computer and he's done a lot of work in the philosophy of biology. He's also a great popularizer and has been around on the TED circuit.

That probably has a lot to do with Dennett's soulless materialism. He will be listed as a great philosopher after he passes though...

Plato was certainly a better writer, but I am so stunned that you would say Aristotle is overrated that I half-think you were only saying so to get the conversation rolling. Few others have had better insight into the human mind than he.

Marx is such a bad philosopher, that I'm not sure if you can really call his work philosophy. Just awful.

This is a fun question; I enjoyed reading the responses. With the usual disclaimers about lack of qualification, my pick for best: Plato; most overrated: Marx; most underrated: Hobbes. Husserl seems like a fine candidate for the worst.

Tyler, do you have a favorite continental philosopher? Loving Plato and Hume* suggests you like certain traditions (e.g. analytic) better than others.

Personally, I find Plato overrated. I much prefer Epicurus. And in the 19th century, Kierkegaard.

* notably, Nietzsch thought very little of the British Philosophical tradition

Peter Singer. Not a single new or interesting idea, but celebrated for delivering the sort of moral self-flagellation some seem to crave.

After reading through most of the comments, it looks like there aren't many phenomenologists who read MR.

Husserl is a Great Philosopher, as are most of the Philosophers being mentioned above. However, Cassirer was a Philosopher I read four or five books by and just couldn't get anything useful from.

"The Republic is ridiculous enough to instantly disqualify Plato from being the greatest philosopher. Socratic method leads you to a stratified social caste society? Just silly. The only possible escape route is that Republic was a joke."

Yikes. Please, sir, listen to a Great Courses lecture on Plato/The Republic.

I'll throw in another vote for Hegel, and I'll add that although I find Husserl's objectives valuable, his output decidedly was not.

John Dewey is the worst major philosopher in my book. He was more completely and dramatically wrong about more things than anyone else. But for that reason one should study his works with great care to see where bad thinking takes you. Dewey had the great virtue of spelling out his bad thinking and not leaving things to the reader's imagination or interpretation. In doing so he performed a great service. One can learn much from bad philosophers, although it appears Tyler would not agree.

What about the Prophet Mohammed, PBUH? Not just a great philosopher, but also a great warlord. That must count for something.

Rousseau. Can't go wrong with Rousseau. It all started to go downhill with Rousseau.

This post has generated lots of comments.
My comment - Why? Why this question?
To generate the comments/interest? But other than that, why this question?

Clearly, Tyler's approach to trolling works. I suppose a kinder way to put it would be to call it evoking affinity preferences.

I suppose I should make my own opinion clear. Plato is the worst. What is to discuss? He was clearly correct on most of what he talked about. Great. Why are we talking about him? Nietzsche rocks. We can disagree about him. (Ayn Rand, as well, but her dogma was less interesting than her proponents noise making.)

Over 200 posts and no one's mentioned Dan Dennett as either the best or worst, who may be the most visible living Anglo-American philosopher (as Zizek is the most visible Continental).

Interesting point. I guess it didn't occur to me that people thought of him as a scholar rather than a popularizer. In school, we did a couple of his papers in a class with a prof who was well-known in Phil Mind circles. This guy was both genial toward Dennett personally and sympathetic philosophically, agreeing with basically every position the guy takes, but when he tried to speak charitably of Dennett the best he could give were back-handed compliments. E.g., "He's very... creative... just not a good philoso-... not very good at parsing it all out with rigorous analysis and logic."

Plato? Can be skipped entirely - just go to Popper's "The Open Society and Its Enemies" and you can read all you need to know about Plato.

Husserl is significant not for what he got right but what he got wrong, so it's a very fair assessment to say that his philosophy isn't very good. He was incredible at what he did, just completely failed, which is why both analytic and Continental phil could try picking up the pieces from him in such varied ways.

But Sartre is a pretty solid alternative, too. He should be viewed as a pop icon like Rand, not a top-rate philosopher.

I probably agree on Husserl and Nietzsche. But Aristotle overrated? In what respect?

My vote goes to Plato for most overrated.

As a political philosopher he was simply monstrous. There are few mainstream philosopher, if any, who lend more credence to dictatorship and oppression than Plato.

He advocated dictatorship by a "Philosopher Ruler" over democracy. He advocated a Eugenics program. He also advocated systematically lying to the population. The method by which he believed people should come to conclusions was "pure reason". This form of reason is one which is not open to inspection by others. The reasons behind one's conclusions when using pure reason do not need to be explicable to others. This suggests a process very similar to divine revelation akin to that ascribed to the Pope. Finally, he claims that justice is obedience and acceptance within this society ruled by a dictator which promotes eugenics and systematic lies.

I won't go into his contributions to logic, reason and science. There is some merit to them. However, I think they pail into insignificance next to the work of the Greek Materialists.

His use of dialogues to "prove" his points are generally farcical. They are lessons in straw-man construction, ironic for someone who was so opposed to sophistry.

I won't continue further. Plato is often referred to as the greatest Philosopher in history. I think it would be difficult to argue that his contributions were on net negative. But I think he falls way short of being the greatest philosopher in history.

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