The question “Who is the greatest living philosopher?” is fraught with difficulty. There is, for starters, very little chance of consensus: Saul Kripke, Martha Nussbaum, David Chalmers—there are just too many candidates for the top spot. That’s before you get into the question of whether it’s possible to provide an objective answer, or whether “greatness” exists at all (philosophers are a pedantic bunch).
This is mind Prospect approached a few thinkers, many world-leading themselves, with a different task: they weren’t to name the “greatest” living philosopher, but their favourite. A thinker whose work particularly challenges them, or who encourages them to up their game. Their answers vary wildly, but all shed some light on the shape of the discipline at the moment—and the types of people working within it.
Simon Blackburn
By Anthony Gottlieb, author of “The Dream of Enlightenment” (out in paperback now)
The most stimulating philosophers tend to be dead. Because my work is mainly in the history of philosophy, many of the living ones whose work I most enjoy write about the dead ones, and I am going to pick as a favourite Simon Blackburn, formerly of Cambridge University and now with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who draws inspiration from the work of the eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher, David Hume. Hume is the philosopher with whom I am most often in agreement; Blackburn has helped to show, I believe, how some of Hume’s ideas can be carried forward and brought up to date.
I enjoy reading philosophers who I think are barking up the wrong trees, so long as they are barking well. The benefit of studying the work of fine thinkers with whom one disagrees is that one can stress-test one’s assumptions, and maybe even change one’s mind. But it is also important to read those who reinforce convictions that one already has, because however good you are at philosophy, there will often be better reasons for your beliefs than the ones you have already thought of. It is in this latter way that I find Blackburn’s work on Hume to be rewarding.
In addition to his academic writings—on the nature of moral values, on truth, the philosophy of language, and other matters, often but not always with a Humean twist—Blackburn has written broadly philosophical books on lust and on narcissism. These fairly deep investigations of shallowness require no prior acquaintance with philosophy, and the same is true of his well-known brief layman’s introductions to ethics (Being Good, 2001) and to philosophy in general (Think, 1999.) I admire these introductions for their clarity and accuracy: two attributes that are hard to combine.
Toby Ord and Will MacAskill
by Peter Singer, Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University and Laureate Professor at the University of Melbourne. His most recent book, co-authored with Katarzyna de Lazari-Radek, is “Utilitarianism: A Very Short Introduction”
If anyone ever asks you whether philosophy makes a difference, tell them about Effective Altruism. Effective altruists aim to make the world a better place by, for example, reducing suffering and improving well-being, whether of humans or of nonhuman animals. They also want to be as effective in achieving this aim as they possibly can be. So if they have money, or time, to donate to a charity, they seek evidence that the charity to which they are donating will use that money, or time, in a highly effective way.
It’s a simple idea, but it is inspiring large numbers of people, in dozens of countries, to live their lives differently, and it has already led to hundreds of millions of pounds being donated to more effective charities than would otherwise have been the case. The result is that those donations do much more good, saving the lives of many more people and reducing far more suffering than they otherwise would have done.
“If anyone ever asks you whether philosophy makes a difference, tell them about Effective Altruism”
You’ve probably already guessed that my favorite philosopher started the Effective Altruism movement. You’re right, except that it was not one, but two, philosophers who were key to getting the movement started. Less than ten years ago, Toby Ord and Will MacAskill were graduate students in philosophy at Oxford. Thinking, as philosophers should, about what it takes to live ethically in a world like ours, Toby founded Giving What We Can, which invites people to pledge to give at least 10 per cent of their income to the best charities they can find. Will started 80,000 hours, an organisation that provides advice to people who want to choose a career that will enable them to do good.
Toby and Will now have academic positions at Oxford, and continue to combine philosophical work with active roles in the Effective Altruism movement. Meanwhile, that movement continues to flourish, thereby demonstrating the power of philosophy to change the world.
Daniel Dennett
by Helen Steward, Professor of Philosophy of Mind and Action at the University of Leeds
Dennett is a remarkable thinker. I agree with almost nothing he has written—but I have learned enormous amounts from almost everything of his that I have read. His earlier work shows the influence of his time at Oxford, where he studied under Gilbert Ryle; particularly notable was his development of a distinctive approach to so-called “propositional attitude” states like beliefs and desires.
I also love (while heartily disagreeing with) his marvellous short work on the free will problem—the beautifully-titled and thought-provoking Elbow Room. His later work has tangled with some of the most difficult philosophical problems there are, including the question of what consciousness is, and how free will might have evolved—always attempting to take into account the state of empirical work in a variety of relevant fields.
This aspect of Dennett’s work is, I think, especially valuable. Many philosophers now attempt to inform themselves of the state of play in the empirical disciplines relevant to their work. Very few have the imagination, philosophical acumen and sheer intellectual talent to be able to explain clearly the current state of knowledge; to distil the wisdom of the sciences for a philosophical (and indeed sometimes for a lay) audience; to winkle out the philosophical consequences of empirical work and present them with flair and panache. He is fun to read, his work always buzzing with ideas, fruitful examples, enlightening diagrams, models and metaphors.
Reading Dennett, you are in the presence of a seriously good mind—one that can do more than lead you step-by-step through a careful argument—one that can bring you on in leaps and bounds to new and exciting conclusions, though not necessarily ones that are in all respects the same as his.
Julian Savulescu
by Charles Foster, a Fellow of Green Templeton College, University of Oxford
Savulescu infuriates me. I disagree with most of his conclusions, and think that some of them (for instance his endorsement of “procreative beneficence” and human enhancement technologies) are downright sinister.
Yet there is one big thing that he gets very right. He does (or purports to do) his philosophising from the bottom up: he starts with (perceived) facts about the world, and only after examining them closely does he begin to think about what those facts entail for ethical decision-making. This is very unusual amongst professional philosophers—most of whom subscribe to or dream up a grand abstract theme, and then ram the facts uncomfortably into it. I suspect that Savulescu’s approach is a legacy of his medical background: rational treatment, for a doctor, follows diagnosis.
“There’s something very Greek about this Australian philosopher”
His view of the facts, though, is often deeply suspect. Many of the facts pertinent to the problems he discusses are facts about humans. Humans are far more complex, charismatic, colourful, and contrary than Savulescu credits. They and their concerns can’t be reduced to forms that slot neatly into utilitarian equations. Identity, in particular, is a fluid, multi-layered, mysterious thing. And that’s a problem if autonomy is your main moral lodestone. Who is this entity whose autonomy should be protected and maximised?
For all that, Savulescu is doing important things. There’s something very Greek about this Australian philosopher. He seems (and again it is terribly unusual) to think that philosophy isn’t a 9 ‘til 5 business. It matters. He’s changed his mind commendably often. He appears to understand philosophy in the old, literal Greek way—as love of wisdom. He has convened and encouraged an academy of people who think he’s radically misconceived.
Another Greek thought that a philosopher’s calling was to be a gadfly. Gadflies infuriate. His effect on me shows that he’s doing his job.
Susan Neiman
by Sasha Mudd, Professor of Philosophy at Universidad Alberto Hurtado, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Southampton
I came across Susan Neiman through her book The Unity of Reason (1994) while writing a doctoral dissertation on Kant, and battling a grave sense of disillusionment with the profession. This book was a massive breath of fresh air for me. Neiman—who is currently Director of the Einstein Forum in Germany—does some wonderfully surprising things that I didn’t think a professional philosopher could do.
First, she talks about Kant’s ideas with a passionate intensity that one seldom encounters in the professional literature, an intensity that is too often—and wrongly—associated with a lack of seriousness. We philosophers often feel obliged to write as though we have no particular interest in our subject matter and certainly no passionate feelings about it. In Neiman, on the contrary, I found a shrewd interpreter of Kant who nevertheless wrote about him as though he mattered intensely.
Second, her snappy, stylish prose is immensely enjoyable to read, and is clearly written to be enjoyed. This occasioned another revelation: that it is possible to be serious without being dry, and that the pursuit of truth need not come at the expense of pleasure and beauty—although it often does. Another thing that I admire about Neiman, and that makes her a favorite for me, is that she interrogates past thinkers as though they are a bunch of well known friends. In this vein she shows us that good philosophy is not only—or even primarily—about how clearly one articulates the big ideas but also about how deftly one connects them to present concerns and experiences in all their urgent, messy particularity.
After this first encounter with Neiman, I went on to realise that the moral courage that allowed her to write such an unusual, trend-bucking book marks all her work and has carried her in other laudable directions. Among philosophers it is widely noted that the enlightenment project of constructing a rational morality remains something of an embarrassment even to its most staunch defenders. Neiman breathes unapologetic life into this project in all she does. She speaks to the moral impulses that animate our philosophical projects in the largest terms, when this is neither the “done” thing, nor easy to do.
You’re still asking the wrong question
by Julian Baggini, Philosopher in Residence at The Crick Centre and author of several books, including The Ego Trick (Granta)
It would be deeply unphilosophical to select a favourite living philosopher without questioning the philosophical assumptions underpinning the task. The emphasis on great individuals reflects an emphasis on innovation, an idea that rationality is best exercised in the solitary thinking of lone minds, and an ideal of autonomy in which we should think not just for ourselves but by ourselves. These are not uniquely western ideas and values but they are more pronounced here than elsewhere in the world.
“Authorship of a philosophy resides not in individuals but in groups”
For example, although Confucius is revered in China, he is of secondary importance to the school of thought he helped develop. This is Rujia, or the school of the ru (ru is a scholar or learned man, and jia is literally house or family). Confucianism was a term coined by 16th century Jesuit missionaries, superimposing the western value on founding figures on the indigenous tradition. But Confucius saw himself as a preserver of ancient wisdom, not as a creator of a new philosophy.
In this way of thinking, authorship of a philosophy resides not in individuals but in groups. Philosophising is a quintessentially collective enterprise. In that spirit, I would nominate the East-West Philosophy Center in Hawai’i as my favourite “philosopher.” It is a unique locus for comparative philosophy, a hub for a community of scholars that extends beyond its formal members. In its orbit are exceptional thinkers like the Confucian philosopher Roger Ames and the Japan specialist Tom Kasulis.
Thinkers like these do not receive as much credit as is due in part because non-western philosophy is undervalued but also because they can be dismissed as mere interpreters rather than original thinkers. In fact, all philosophers work in traditions and some of the most creative work has always emerged as a sympathetic response to existing ideas. What is exciting about the work of the likes of Ames and Kasulis is that it breathes new life into old ideas by bringing disparate traditions into dialogue with each other. In contrast, those that plough their lonely furrows risk creeping into stagnation and irrelevance.