The Ultimate And The Highest
It could be that the most important historical question, the question that points to a monumental contrast between the West and the Rest, is the following: why did Europe produce all the greatest philosophers in history? If we agree that philosophers have been the greatest thinkers, because they have provided the best answers to the most crucial questions about being and becoming, the finite and the infinite, why there is anything rather than nothing, what is good and evil, what is the relation between freedom and necessity, then identifying the ethnicity of the greatest philosophers may be a most revealing factum. One does not have to agree with Aristotle that the “highest good” is the pursuit of Wisdom to take seriously his claim that, if “all men by nature desire to have knowledge,” and if the highest form of knowledge is giving reasons for what is, then it cannot be denied that the civilization that produced the greatest philosophers is the civilization that provided the deepest knowledge about the ultimate questions and thus the civilization that achieved the highest level of cultural expression.
Why A list Of 75?
I say “all the greatest” even though the list of 75 names I have compiled in this article (see below) includes some non-Europeans. They would have been all European if I had compiled a list of 25, which was my initial intention. I thought one or two non-Europeans might make it to this list, but after many hours of reading and thinking about multiple names, I decided that, besides two or three Jewish philosophers born inside Europe, not a single philosopher outside Europe could be reasonably added to a list of 25.
I considered a list of 50 to see if some Chinese and Islamic philosophers would make it, but then I realized that if non-European names were added I needed to add many other Europeans who were (at least) just as great. This is why I opted for a list of 75. I wanted a list with a bit of competition, rather than a list with a silencing score of 25 to 0.
Having said this, I also provide here compelling reasons for a list of 100 consisting solely of philosophers born in Europe. The 75 list is meant to be conciliatory. The 100 list, which is implicit in this article, expresses a stronger, less propitiatory impulse for truthfulness.
I was going to consult encyclopedias and dictionaries of philosophers, but these are too comprehensive in their inclusion of numerous secondary figures, so I decided to rely on my own judgement and my own library of books, referenced at the end. These books are mostly histories of philosophers, which strike me as the best way to decide which philosophers are the best, and how long the list should be.
I need hardly say that some names in this long list can be challenged. One of the disadvantages of a long list is that, as the standards are slightly lowered, the number of choices increases. Many may ask: why Carnap but not Fichte [Today, January 29, I replaced Foucault (a social theorist) with Fichte]. Or why Aurelius but not Epictetus? Why Rorty but not Gassendi? Why Bonaventura but not Pascal? Why Quine but not Dummett? My answer is that it could have gone either way. I tried to be as fair as possible, without lowering standards, in choosing from a wide variety of philosophical schools, not giving preference to particular schools, be it analytical, pragmatic, idealist, Christian, or existentialist.
In truth, there are so many great Europeans that a list of 100 could have been easily created without lowering standards, with names just as great. Contrary to what multiculturalists may think, if this had been a list of 100, the proportion of Europeans added would have been far greater than the proportion of non-Europeans. This would still hold in a list of 200. This is all the more true if we consider that many truly great thinkers, “past masters,” not seen as philosophers, contributed groundbreaking ideas in such fields as linguistics, psychology, sociology, anthropology, historical writing, and more, which had a major impact on philosophy. I am thinking of individuals such as Ferdinand de Saussure, Jacques Lacan, Tocqueville, and Montesquieu. On the other hand, I included Max Weber and Oswald Spengler possibly because I know more about them, as broad thinkers who contributed huge ideas about history, ethics, and sociology, with direct philosophical implications.
I excluded Karl Marx because he openly said that philosophy was a “scholastic” affair, that only political economy could reveal the “anatomy” of society and the logic of history. He specifically attacked the entire Western philosophical tradition as an “ideological” obfuscation of reality and as mere beliefs serving the interests of the ruling class. (It is true that Carnap was a member of the Vienna School, which aimed at the “elimination” of metaphysical questions from philosophy; still, his contribution to the logical analysis of language can’t be dismissed in our efforts to engage in metaphysics even if we conclude that these questions cannot be avoided in any investigation of the nature of reality and language use).
I decided to leave out scientists, as Charles Murray already calculated that 97% of the greatest scientists were European.
One of the advantages of a long list of 75 is that many will agree about 25 of the names included; no one would dispute that Locke, Aquinas, Hume, Kant, Plato, and Augustine made it to a 75 list.
My estimation of the top 15 philosophers are in bold. I am not certain about some of these names. Why is Schelling in this list but not Locke or Augustine? I will try to answer this question in a future article about the uniquely European predilection for asking and offering the best answers to primordial questions about what is there, what is freedom, and why is there anything instead of nothing, by way of Schelling’s essay, Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom, claimed by Heidegger as “one of the deepest works of German and thus of Western philosophy.”
In any case, the score for the 75 list is:
- European 58 = 77%
- Jewish 7
- Chinese 7
- Islamic 3
If we add the Jewish philosophers to the European list, insofar as they were all educated in Europe, then the score is 66 = 88%. Augustine was not an African; he was White, a Berber: Gerald Bonner, in Augustine of Hippo, says, “There is no reason to suppose that he was of any but Berber stock.” (p. 36). The top four philosophical groups within Europe are the ancient Greeks, the Germans, the English, and the French.
Now, we need to understand that this is not a comparison of Europe against three or two other cultural groups, but a competition of Europe versus the Rest of the world. We need to understand that aside from the Muslim and Chinese world, no other culture in the world, no civilization, not the Mayas, not the Aztecs, not the Khmer Rouge Cambodians, not the Tibetans, not the Aksum civilization, not the Egyptians, not the Assyrians, not the Bantus, not the Babylonians, not the Japanese, not the Koreans, NO other culture in the world, produced any great philosopher. Not a single individual from India made it to this list because Indian philosophy remained mystical and religious; and the few modern individuals who can be categorized as philosophers (having come under the influence of Europeans) are not great.
This is a remarkable statistical fact. Many will say this list is arbitrarily biased, my own creation. With regards to Europe, give or take a few philosophers, they can’t say it is arbitrary since it relies on many standard and respected academic texts. Seven Chinese philosophers out of 75 is more than enough. In China there are five major philosophical traditions: Confucianism, Taoism, Legalism, the School of Names, the Mohists, and the Yin-Yang school. All these traditions emerged in ancient times, and thereafter, in what we called the “medieval” and “modern” eras, all we get are “neo” developments of these schools, “Neo-Confucianism” and “Neo-Taoism,” as well as philosophers who combined aspects of the various schools to produce slightly different ideas. This is why I included only one philosopher, Zhu Xi (1130-1200), who is not from ancient times.
Including Neo-Confucians would have been the same as including notable European philosophers who followed in the footsteps of great philosophers, such as the so-called Cambridge Platonists: Henry More (1614–1687), Ralph Cudworth (1617–1688), Benjamin Whichcote (1609–1683), Peter Sterry (1613–1672), John Smith (1618–1652), Nathaniel Culverwell (1619–1651), John Worthington (1618–1671), George Rust (d. 1670), Anne Conway (1630–1679) and John Norris (1657–1711). Including Neo-Taoists would have required including many gifted Cartesians: Antoine Arnauld, Balthasar Bekker, Tommaso Campailla, Johannes Clauberg, Michelangelo Fardella, Antoine Le Grand, Adriaan Hereboord, Nicolas Malebranche, François Poullain de la Barre, Edmond Pourchot, Pierre-Sylvain Régis, Henricus Regius, Jacques Rohault, Christopher Wittich.
A very strong argument can indeed be made that the Chinese and Muslims included in the 75 list should have been included only in a list of 100, since there are many other Europeans who could have easily made it into the 75: think of Carl Hempel, Gilbert Ryle, Herbert Spencer, Alasdair MacIntyre, or Nicholas Malebranche. I already mentioned other great thinkers, Fichte, Montaigne, Epictetus, Holbach, and others who may not be called philosophers but are nevertheless great thinkers.
Some may ask why should non-philosophers, or linguists, psychologists, or sociologists be included. But is Confucius really a philosopher? After all, Confucianism is a “doctrine of worldly social-mindedness,” a guide for proper moral behaviour for the scholar gentry class of China’s despotic bureaucratic state, a doctrine that, in the words of Joseph Needham, became a “cult, a religion, based on a kind of hero worship and borrowing from the cults of nature-deities and ancestor worship” (Ronan, 1997: p. 79). Confucius never asked questions about the ultimate nature of reality. The Confucian term “all under heaven” does not refer to the universe, the infinite, but is a term that denotes the geographical area associated with the political sovereignty of the emperor.
Should We Really Include Chinese Philosophers?
In fact, one could seriously argue that China did not produce one single great philosopher. It produced individuals better described as writers of guidelines on how best to rule, how best to meditate, contemplate nature, combined with some allusions and illustrations about the “boundless” and about the ways of nature, without “elaborate reasoning and detailed argument.” These last quoted words are from Fung Yu-Lan’s A Short History of Chinese Philosophy. Yu-Lang, after stating that China has a rich philosophical tradition with contributions in logic and metaphysics; and after clearly stating that a “philosopher must philosophize…must think reflectively on life, and then express his thoughts systematically… [and offer] theories [that are] the products of reflective thinking,” (p. 2) goes on to say:
The fact is that Chinese philosophers were accustomed to express themselves in the form of aphorisms, apothegms, or allusions, and illustrations. The whole book of Lao-tzu consists of aphorisms, and most of the chapters of the Chuang-tzu are full of allusions and illustrations. This is very obvious. But even in writings such as those of Mencius and Hsun Tzu, when compared with the philosophical writings of the West, there ares still too many aphorisms, allusions, and illustrations. Aphorisms must be very brief; allusions and illustrations must be disconnected (p. 12).
He then says that this way of thinking is “not articulate enough,” but that this “insufficiency” (“briefness and disconnectedness”) is “compensated” by the “suggestiveness” of the allusions (pp. 11-12).
Yu-Lan is right that this lack of “elaborate reasoning” is “obvious” to anyone who reads Chinese philosophers. Below I will go further saying that Chinese philosophy never rose beyond the pre-rational, mystical, poetical, bureaucratic, style of writing that prevailed in all cultures up until the ancient Greeks singularly discovered the faculty of reasoning and came to realize that there is a mind that reasons, and that this mind can generate its own rules of reasoning in conscious distinction to presuppositions from extra-philosophical beliefs.
This conscious differentiation of reason from its object, and appearance of free self-determination, this awareness by reason of itself as both tool and object of reasoning, reached its culmination in post-Kantian idealism, but it was Aristotle who did the most in ancient times to delineate what constitutes a proper philosophical statement about what there is and what constitutes a valid form of reasoning about why something is so. He invented formal logic, a precise language about reality, about what things can be said to be substances and the reasons why they are as they are. He showed that true philosophical statements are composed of basic categories — substance, quantity, quality, relationship, place, time — which express the various ways in which being is, and that these statements can be formulated to be subject-predicate statements. This is just a little particle of what this incredible philosopher did.
|Aristotle: The Greatest?|
In some ways Chinese philosophers resemble pre-Socratic philosophers. Aristotle criticized the pre-Socratic for failing to articulate fully criteria for differentiating faulty arguments from good arguments. This is what Aristotle sought to provide with his formal logic and the syllogism. Chinese philosophical statements are devoid of demonstrative reasoning. Chinese arguments lack clearly stated primary premises, with precisely defined categories. Actually, in fairness to the pre-Socratics, even though they did not invent syllogistic reasoning, they did discover logos, that there is a rational order in the world and that humans have a faculty, nous, which they can employ in contradistinction to beliefs handed down without reasons backing them up.
The words from Needham I cited above about Confucianism come from The Shorter Science & Civilisation in China: 1, which is an abridgment in three volumes of Joseph Needham’s magisterial project with the same title, which consists of twenty seven books dealing with the history of science and technology in China. Needham, still recognized as the most impressive scholar of Chinese culture, is the author of most of these books. While he was not keen about Confucian philosophy, he writes admiringly about the Taoists, Mohists, and Legalists, claiming they made fundamental contributions to scientific knowledge, empiricism, and to a “mechanistic-naturalistic” conception of the world.
He thinks the thinkers associated with these schools rose above the “metaphysics” of philosophy. (Needham, by the way, was a Marxist who believed that science had rightfully displaced philosophy, and this is why he wanted to portray Chinese thinkers as harbingers of modern scientific thought. I reject this positivist downgrading of philosophy). As it is, all the passages that Needham brings up from Chinese philosophers strike me as poetical, mystical, and alchemical statements. The founding text of Taoism written by Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching (300 BC) consists of a string of impressionistic statements about “the Way.” This book of five thousand words is as long as a magazine article. He claims that Lao Tzu wrote in a language similar to the proto-scientific language of the pre-Socratics:
The ways of men are conditioned by those of the earth, the ways of Earth by those of Heaven, the ways of Heaven by those of the Tao, and the Tao came into being by itself (90-1).
He cites many similarly worded passages from later Taoist texts; for example:
All phenomena have their causes. If one does not know these causes, although one may happen to be right, it is as if one knew nothing, and in the end one will be bewildered…The fact that water leaves the mountains and runs to the sea is not due to any dislike of the mountains and love of the sea, but is the effect of height as such… (93).
But these statements are not at all “mechanistic” in outlook. They are not even at the level of the pre-Socratic search for ultimate causes. The way Taoists write about the Tao, the being that came to be by itself, lacks rigour, and is really a mystical way of apprehending a oneness that is complete onto itself, which they describe in hazy words, asserting that it is, but not deducing it. In contrast, when Parmenides wrote about “the One” he tried to deduce it from prior statements. Parmenides contrasts the expression that something is to the expression that something is not. He then argues that saying that something is not does not make sense since you cannot know what is not, and you can’t even express it. He writes:
There are only two ways of inquiry that can be thought of. The first, namely, that it is (and that it is impossible for it not to be), is the way of belief, for truth is its companion. The other way of inquiry, namely, that it is not (and cannot be), is a path that none can learn at all. For you cannot know what is not, nor can you express it.
Having said this, Parmenides follows up with his main point that only that which is can be thought about in a meaningful way, and only that which can be thought about can be:
It is the same thing that can be thought and that can be. What can be spoken and thought must be; for it is possible for it to be, but impossible for nothing to be. . . . One path only is left for us to speak of, namely, that it is.
From here he infers that what we can say about the One is that it is eternal, indivisible, unmoving, that is, uncreated and indestructible. He offers a rational reason for making this inference, saying that if we say that the One became, or came into existence, or will cease to exist, then this would be the same as saying that it was not before it became, and that it will not be after it ceases to be, which would amount to making expressions about things which are not, which is impossible since you cannot know or say anything about what is not. Therefore:
[The One is eternal], for how can “what is” be going to be in the future? Or how could it come into being? If it came into being, then it is not. Nor is it, if it is going to be in the future. Thus is becoming extinguished and passing away not to be heard of.
Needham says that the paradoxes of the Mohist Hui Shih are similar to the paradoxes of Zeno. He cites this paradox from Shih:
The South has at the same time a limit and no limit (p. 122)
It would be a stretch to deny that Zeno’s paradoxes are deeper philosophically. One Zeno paradox will suffice:
If there are many, they must be as many as they are and neither more nor less than that. But if they are as many as they are, they would be limited. If there are many, things that are are unlimited. For there are always others between the things that are, and again others between those, and so the things that are are unlimited. (Simplicius(a) On Aristotle’s Physics, 140.29).
What makes Zeno’s paradoxes superior is they way they seek to show that absurd consequences can follow from common sense assertions. They are ‘reductio ad absurdum’ arguments, in which an assertion that is seemingly sensible or valid, can be shown to be an absurd assertion by logically drawing out from it conclusions that contradict it, thus forcing one to reject seemingly obvious views we have about change, the many, an other aspects of reality.
|Zeno’s paradox has found its way into the lexicon of quantum mechanics in a class of phenomena known as quantum Zeno dynamics|
If Needham has a hard time demonstrating that the Mohists and Taoists were on the same level, in terms of reasoning, as the pre-Socratics, he is clearly bordering on the absurd when he claims that these two schools were “mechanistic” and “empirical” (in the modern Newtonian sense) just because one finds the words “cause” and “nature” in their writings. He even says that they anticipated Kant’s philosophical discussion of antinomies. This is the type of passage he cites from a Mohist text, Lieh Tzu (5th century BC):
if there is emptiness, then it has no bounds. If there are things, then they they have bounds. How can we know? But beyond infinity there must exist non-infinity, and within the unlimited again that which is not unlimited. [It is this consideration] — that infinity must be succeeded by non-infinity, and the unlimited by the not-unlimited — that enables me to apprehend the infinity and unlimited extent of space, but does not allow me to conceive of its being finite and limited (p 124).
While one can argue that this passage resembles some pre-Socratic statements, it is a real stretch to say that it anticipated Kant’s discussion of the “first and second antinomies,” as Needham says. On the surface, if one was not aware what Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason was about, there is a resemblance between this Mohist passage and what Kant says in his second antinomy about the simple and indivisible or whether the composite, the divisible and the indivisible. This Mohist passage and Kant’s second antinomy are about what are the ultimately simple substances and whether these substances are infinitely divisible, whether we can find the unlimited inside the limited, or the limited inside the unlimited.
The difference is that Kant’s discussion is framed within a very complicated discussion about the limits of traditional metaphysics when it comes to answering fundamental questions about whether the world has a beginning or whether there is a God. According to Kant, pure reason on its own, independently of any observable phenomena as its object of cognition, cannot answer fundamental questions about such matters as the nature of the soul or the beginning of things. In the second antinomy, he shows that making the claim that the world consists ultimately of simple substances is no more intelligible than saying the opposite, namely, that there are no simple substances since all substances are infinitely divisible. Kant’s discussion of the second antinomy is far more complicated than this; suffice it to say that his antinomies, which include four, are aimed at showing the limits of pure reason beyond objects of possible experience. Reason cannot know things in themselves, and it cannot answer fundamental questions such as whether or not the world has a beginning or not. Reason can offer offer answers about appearances, or things as they appear to our senses, things which can be structured as objects of knowledge by the apriori categories inherent to the human mind.
Finally, should we even include any of the major members of the Legalist school? As Frederick Mote says:
Legalism is not a movement in philosophy. It is not concerned with truth. It is not reflective thinking on the great individual and social problems of life. It does not seek the general principles under which all facts can be explained. It is a system of methods and principles for the operation of the state, and even the state is given only the barest of ideological foundations. Legalists were content to justify their system by the single comment: “It works” (p. 108).
So it looks like Hsun Tzu (298-238 BC), the founder of legalism, should be taken out from this list. Confucius too, and the Taoist mystics and the not so impressive Mohists. If we include the Legalists, then we should certainly include many other European political philosophers I left out, starting with Machiavelli, Bodin, Cicero, Marx, Thoreau, Bakunin, Grotius, Hooker, Calvin, Lenin, Harrington, Blackstone, Paine, Jefferson, Burke, Godwin, Constant, Madison, Gentile, Sorel, Oakeshott, to name some.
Honestly, the 75 list below is very conciliatory. Students across the West are being taught that non-Europeans are just as prominent in their philosophical contributions and that non-Europeans should be equally represented in short lists of the 10 greatest. Multiculturalism is inherently an ideology that suppresses the highest achievements in the planet, levels down Western culture in the name of equality. This levelling down goes directly against what philosophy is about. No wonder philosophy departments across the West have been turned into tiny inconsequential places. The last remaining White male philosophy professors are being substituted by half baked “global thinkers” from diverse cultures.
The 75 Greatest Philosophers
1. Alfarabi (870-950)
2. Anaxagoras (500-428 BC)
3. Anselm (1033-1109)
4. Aquinas (1225-1274)
5. Aristotle (384-322 BC)
6. Augustine (354-430)
7. Aurelius (21-180)
8. Averroes (1126-1198)
9. Avicenna (980-1037)
10. Bacon, Roger (1214-1292)
11. Bacon, Francis (1561-1626)
12. Bentham (1748-1832)
13. Bergson (1859-1941)
14. Berkeley (1685-1753)
15. Bonaventura (1221-1274)
16. Carnap (1891-1970)
17. Chuan Chou (369-286 BC)
18. Comte (1798-1857)
19. Confucius (551-479 BC)
20. Democritus (460-360 BC)
21. Deleuze (1925-1995)
22. Derrida (1930-2004)
23. Descartes (1596-1650)
24. Dewey (1859-1952)
25. Diderot (1713-84)
26. Fichte (1762-1814)
27. Empedocles (490-430 BC)
28. Epicurus (341-271 BC)
29. Gadamer (1900-2002)
30. Goethe (1749-1832)
31. Habermas (1921-)
32. Hegel (1770-1831)
33. Heidegger (1889-1976)
34. Heraclitus (535-475 BC)
35. Hobbes (1588-1679)
36. Hsun Tzu (298-238 BC)
37. Hume (1711-1776)
38. Husserl (1859-1938)
39. James (1842-1910)
40. Kant (1724-1804)
41. Kierkegaard (1813-1855)
42. Lao Tzu (604-532 BC)
43. Leibniz (1646-1716)
44. Locke (1632-1704)
45. Lucretius (96-55 BC)
46. Mencius (372-289 BC)
47. Mill (1806-1873)
48. Mo Tzu (479-438 BC)
49. Montaigne (1533-1592)
50. Nietzsche (1844-1900)
51. Ockham (1285-1347)
52. Parmenides (b. 501 BC)
53. Plato (428-348 BC)
54. Plotinus (204-270)
55. Quine (1908-2000)
56. Rawls (1921-2002)
57. Reid (1710-1796)
58. Rorty (1931-2007)
59. Rousseau (1712-1778
60. Russell (1872-1970)
61. Sartre (1905-1980)
62. Schelling (1775-1854)
63. Schopenhauer (1788-1860)
64. Schmitt (1888-1985)
65. Scotus, Duns (1266-1308)
66. Sextus Empiricus (ca. 200)
67. Socrates (470-399 BC)
68. Spengler (1880-1936)
69. Spinoza (1632-1677)
70. Strauss (1899-1973)
71. Vico (1668-1744)
72. Weber (1864-1920)
73. Wittgenstein (1889-1951)
74. Zeno (b. 489 BC)
75. Zhu Xi (1130-1200)
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