Future, Present, & Past:
Speculative~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.
Thursday, February 25, 2010
Überrated, and Under-
Graham Harman (with some inspiration from Amazon) opened what he must've known would be a can of worms when he posed some criteria for answering the question, Who is the Most Overrated Philosopher of all time?
Harman suggests that since time has winnowed out most of the actually second-rate thinkers, the Most Overrated must be someone (a) 20th- or 21st-century (probably 20th because one needs some time to build up one's ratings); (b) someone who many people do consider to be one of the Truly Great Philosophers (i.e., not a more minor figure like Abbagnano or Eric Weil, who are not on very many short lists); and (c) not a bad philosopher, i.e., merely overrated, but not unworthy of being called a philosopher at all.
When I first read Harman's remarks about (b) above--"This sounds like a tautology"--I thought, "um, yeah." But the more I thought about it, the more it sparked another question in me that I mightn't have asked otherwise: O.K., but what if Abbagnano should be on everyone's short list? In other words, who is the Most Under-rated Philosopher?
This is, to me, a much more interesting question, precisely because I take (c) above for granted, only perhaps more strongly than Harman does. Harman, for instance, is keeping quiet on his own choice, but he has said in the past that he thinks Spinoza is somewhat overrated. (I'll get to my own guess about Harman's vote below; it's not Spinoza). My feeling is that if a lot of people value a thinker who I don't see the point of, I'm probably missing something. This doesn't make me want to go back and re-read that philosopher-- some people just don't grab you, after all. But the opposite is not true: if almost no one holds a thinker in esteem, it does not follow that the thinker is not worth reading. In fact, chances are much better, once a certain caliber of thought has been reached, that a neglected thinker will repay study than that one will be likewise rewarded by attention to the figure whose name is on everyone's lips. This is because of the inevitable fashions that blow through philosophy, which of course are precisely what makes it possible for there to be answers (although of course no single True Answer) to Harman's question.
Others have answered Harman's question, he informs us, with:
These are all fair given Harman's criteria, though I find myself shaking my head. Sartre will be back, mark my words; McDowell I don't know well enough, but my guess is that he's not over-rated; and Derrida is just someone it's currently hip to hate as it was once hip to love. I agree with Paul Ennis on this. Say what you want about him, Derrida was a genius. Maybe not the philosopher of the 20th century, the way some said. Overrated? Maybe, as he inspired sooooo many bad imitators. But the most overrated? Nowhere close.
[edit: as I finish writing this, I see Levi Bryant has posted his own position on the Überrated. I am pleased to see that he also declines to vote for Sartre, though partly for the same backhanded reasons Harman gives--that there aren't many Sartrian's around these days anyway. Bryant votes for Badiou, which one could see coming--there was a bit of a backlash against Badiou's popularity last year--but while I can again see this as an defensible opinion for an overrated thinker, it strikes me as gross hyperbole to call Badiou the most overrated (I was glad to see I wasn't the only one). However, I do like what Bryant says about his criteria for "greatness," insisting that fecundity and ability to inspire new work is of the essence. I should give some thought to this as one of the great philosophical virtues.]
My own answer to Harman's question must take issue with his point (a) above, because I think it is very possible for a thinker to have once been so highly rated that, though his name be tarnished or even forgotten by now, his "net overrating," so to speak, might well still place him ahead of any current competition. My vote--Herbert Spencer--was once esteemed one of the Great Thinkers, and was indeed possibly the most read philosopher of his day. And while Harman's criterion (c) does hold--Spencer is not wholly worthless-- a look through his work proves that in this case, the verdict of history will not be revised anytime soon.
In fact, Spencer I consider to be a thinker of far lower calibre than the philosopher I would name if I had to restrict myself to Harman's criteria. Regarding this figure (a living thinker, about whom I have written) I will hold my tongue for the present.
My guess about Harman's opinion? (I would love to be wrong about this). Ludwig Wittgenstein.
As to my counter-question--Who are (currently) the Most Underrated philosophers?--I've listed ten of my own, in no particular order, below. Note that here one can indeed go back through the ages, since it is very plausible that figures eclipsed by the twistings of history deserve a more honored place than they now enjoy.
I might revise this list before I settle upon a definitive ten, but off the top of my head, I come up with
Franz von Baader
Giorgio de Santillana
Rudolf Hermann Lotze
and one to grow on:
I actually considered listing Alfred North Whitehead. I of course know that Whitehead's star is rising; I just don't think it's risen far enough. But it's probably risen enough that including him on a list of the currently most under-appreciated thinkers would be mistaken. With the exception of Whitehead, I'm not sure I would argue that any of my figures ought to be promoted to Most Highly Rated. I just mean that they haven't received their due.
I'd be very interested in anyone else's thoughts on this question of the under-rated.