Thursday, 16 September 2010

What have the philosophers ever done for us?

Having been smitten by philosophy (after discovering Thomism) even within the past year, it is now time for a backlash.

After all, if I really believed in the necessity of philosophy I would be Roman Catholic rather than (sort of) Orthodox...


Here is Charles Murray's list of the most important philosophers from his book Human Accomplishment - in order of importance:

Philosopher Index score

Aristotle 100
Plato 87
Kant 74
Descartes 51
Hegel 46
Aquinas 39
John Locke 37
Hume 36
Augustine 30
Spinoza 27
Leibniz 27
Socrates 26
Schopenhauer 24
Berkeley 21
Nietzsche 20
Hobbes 19
Russell 18
Rousseau 17
Plotinus 17
Fichte 17

The question is - which of these philosophers have done good, which have done harm, and which made no difference either way?

My own feeling is that almost all of them did net harm or made no difference outside of profesional philosophy - exceptions being (probably) Plato, Aristotle and Augustine.

Aquinas's was a remarkable achievement - the most comprehensive system - and he was a very good man; but Scholasticism is overall 'a bad thing' since it leads Christianity to put philosophy at its root, and thereby brings Christian philosophy under the sway of fads and fashions in academia.

(A survey of Roman Catholic philosophy - like Alasdair MacIntyre's God, Philosophy, Universities - shows that the RC church has for 1000 years been ravaged by philosophical disputations which went back and forth and led nowhere).

Kant, Descartes, Hegel, John Locke, Hume, Spinoza, Schopenhauer, Berkeley, Nietzsche, Hobbes, Russell and Rousseau seem pretty obviously to have been pernicious influences. Although some wrote excellent prose; overall, from the perspective of human life as a whole, it would have been better if they had not been.

Plotinus and Fichte were harmless because barely significant and technical.

Socrates - I'm not sure. He might have been a very good thing, or a very bad thing - and where the balance comes out... Well, I keep changing my mind.


  1. Russell advocated the removal of political boarders - big mistake. I think if he were around today he would take a different stand; he would realise that they are a necessity.

  2. Russell was a pioneer of political correctness - I imagine he would be 100 percent in favour of all the bad ideas going!

  3. My daughter would assure you that Aristotle is The Man. Murray's so-called objective ratings seem to agree.

    (By what miracle does compiling a count of subjective ratings render them objective? Seems quasi-religious to me.)

  4. It'd be nice to have a brief explanation of why you think each of these philosophers was a pernicious influence, analogous to what you wrote about Aquinas. Some of (Nietzsche, Russell, Rousseau, etc.) are clear enough, but it's not immediately obvious to me why, say, Kant, Descartes, and Leibniz should be considered baddies.

    I'm also a little puzzled by your statement that Plato was (probably) a net positive but that you're not sure about Socrates -- since the bulk of Socrates' influence on the world has been through the mediation of Plato.

  5. @dearieme - Murray doesn't claim his method is anything other than what it is - an estimate of influence.

  6. Ooh, "estimate" is a pretty ductile sort of a thing.

  7. @wmjas - well... For a start, anybody after Aquinas is taking a step-backwards; and so whatever local gains they make are invalidated by the loss of the big picture.

    And this shows itself in a kind or narrow fanaticism, selective blindness, lack of follow-through and lack of balance which these philosophers exhibit - and which they encourage in those whom they influence.

    Also, philosophy detached from theology is inevitably harmful (later if not sooner) - to prevent this harm requires frequent return to common sense and revelation.

    Socrates - I've never been clear about the extent to which he was a dramatic creation of Plato's. Socrates seems quite different when other people wrote about him. He seems ascetic, brave and honest; but also drives me crazy with his method of quibbling, and the sense that he had the effect of stirring up sophomoric cynicism.

  8. @dearieme - I use 'estimate' in a somewhat epidemiological sense - which involves taking a 'representative' sample (ie. books of reference which purport to be representing the professional consensus) and measuring a proxy of that which is of interest (ie. relative word counts etc. as an estimate of importance).

  9. The illusion about philosophers becomes problematic, when it is assumed that they should be followed, and their philosophy is an ideology or something comparable. I avoided this by first dividing everything they say to pieces and then using them as tools and concepts.

    Philosophy (and science) has become in essence counterfeit substitute religions to many. Thus demotion to tool status balances them to more realistic level.

    Marx's philosophy as a whole is horrible. But what about e.g. his concept of "usefulness" of thieves in their competition with ordinary people and locksmiths. Thieves create an environment, where security technologies gradually achieve high complexity and increase knowledge, and create work opportunities and the related education. Even if we notice that opportunity cost of thieves is taken away from something else, perhaps, at least in the short term, from something more important, there is something in this concept, and the alternatives to thieves doesn't take away all "usefulness" of thieves.

    In addition to utilizable concepts, philosophers often compile good list of categories, which might give avenues to new ideas. E.g. I am presently eyeing the following book, and contemplating if it would be useful catalogue about cooperation and thus worthwhile small investment:

    As an added bonus, these kinds of studies are often a bit less political than expected.

    Although I don't have too much good things to say about philosophy, sociology is on average worse. It is largely a free riding business, a list of angles to get money from society, without giving it anything. E.g. you can listen to the following podcasts and count the new things you learn. I vexed myself with six parts, without learning anything. Peruse any sociology papers and you notice this is a quite typical phenomenom. Perhaps 2-3% sociologists contribute something, anything to the science, and it is mostly very little. I would say that sociology is an affirmative action program to those who are monetarily challenged, and need a pension from 20 something onwards.

  10. Even if the list is an order of impact and not usefulness, it is sometimes a strange one. Who has had more impact on the last 250 years than Rousseau, and just as Aristotle was fading in importance he was reborn.

    Aristotle's opinions about the earths place at the center of the universe were the product of an ordered, reasoning, logical mind--or so he thought--opinions which had staying power for two thousand years as the experience of Galilio demonstrated. To Aristotle the existence of an order of human activities transcending the vision of an ordering mind seemed impossible, even though he was already witnessing the invisible hand in the evolving prosperity of Athens.

    The philosophers that have done good were invariably good men themselves. Smith, Burke, de Tocqueville. Marx and Rousseau were individuals with horrendous faults.

    Socrates was a good man. A confessed gadfly, an annoyance, to be sure. Yet in the end he saw what had happened to his culture and, demonstrating his love of it's achievements, refused to bow to it's debasement. I don't think Jesus was possible without Socrates.