Thursday, January 26, 2006

Theism and Philosophy

Bill Vallicella, the Maverick Philosopher, recently posted a brief take on atheism and philosophers, claiming that the greatest philosophers have all been theists and have largely tended to reject materialism. I challenged his assertion, and he followed up with his listing of what he takes to be the greatest philosophers. His list is certainly interesting and worth checking out. Regarding his methodology for assigning rankings, though, I have one rather serious objection. Here are Bill's criteria:

1. Truth of the philosopher's conclusions
2. Belief in reason's power to discover some of the ultimate truth
3. Rigor of argumentation
4. Appreciation of the limits of reason
5. Depth and centrality of the problems addressed
6. Breadth and systematicity of vision
7. Originality
8. Long-term influence
Bill goes on to say that condition (1) is defined as, effectively, "accords with my views." The problem is that if I happen to reject theism and materialism and then use that rejection as my first criterion for picking out good philosophers, then of course all the greatest philosophers will likewise reject theism and materialism. Similarly, one's own particular subfield of philosophy will be likely to affect one's working out of condition (5). After all, the problems that I as a political philosopher view as central are likely to be very different from the problems that Bill as a metaphysician would view as central. That said, here's my listing of the twenty greatest philosophers, using 2-8 as my criteria. And no, I didn't include myself. I'm actually 21st.

1. Aristotle
2. Immanuel Kant
3. Plato
4. David Hume
5. Thomas Hobbes
6. John Locke
7. John Stuart Mill
8. Rene Descartes
9. Karl Marx
10. Socrates
11. Thomas Aquinas
12. Adam Smith
13. Bertrand Russell
14. Ludwig Wittgenstein
15. Willard V.O. Quine
16. John Rawls
17. Niccolo Machiavelli
18. Friedrich Nietzsche
19. Karl Popper
20. Richard Rorty

For the record, I think that there is a dramatic drop-off in importance between 1-3 and 4 on this list. I ranked Plato below Aristotle and Kant, which might strike some as odd. My reasoning, however, is that while there would be no Aristotle without Plato, almost no one has ever actually been a Platonist.

Some subsequent ideosyncratic choices: Hume makes the list as the greatest of the empiricists and as the spark for Kant's critical period. Locke ranks as highly as he does for his influence on Jefferson and Madison and thus indirectly on most of 20th C liberalism. Mill wins his place not just for his moral and political philosophy, but also for his work in logic and economics, which were standard texts for better than a century. Adam Smith is not always thought of as a philosopher, but Wealth of Nations is, I think, pretty clearly an important work of political philosophy, one with rather a lot of influence.

UPDATE: John makes a nice point in the comments that my list doesn't include any Eastern philosophers. Similarly, other than Nietzsche and Marx, there are no Contintental philosophers included. My defense here is that, frankly, I don't know the Eastern or Continental traditions enough to even begin to rank the importance of thinkers in those traditions. I'm firmly in the analytic tradition, trained in a program that some might call hyper-analytic. My listing, then, is a ranking of philosophers important mainly in the analytic tradition.

UPDATE 2: Yes, it's true. My post started out being about philosophy and theism and then I failed to get back to the initial question of whether most important philosophers have been theists. Partly that will depend on what we mean by 'theists'. Does it mean that one believes in something like the traditional Western monotheistic YHWH/God/Allah? Or does it simply mean that one believes in the existence of some sort of supernatural entity? I think that at least the spirit of Professor Vallicella's original point was to say that the best philosophers have been theists in the traditional Western sense. That would rule out all the pagan Greeks by definition. But in the spirit of generosity, I'll include everyone who believes in God or gods.

Theists from my list would then include Kant, Plato (sort of), Locke, Descartes, Socrates (sort of), Aquinas, and Smith. That's seven out of the twenty. OTOH, it's also seven of the first twelve names on the list. If one takes Bill's original point that the greatest philosophers have rejected both atheism and materialism, then the list shortens as that standard excludes both Locke and Smith.

I think that it is interesting to note that, from my list at least, Kant is the last important philosopher to be a theist. Plato and Socrates are pre-Christian, Aquinas is 13th C, Descartes and Locke are 17th C, and Kant late 18th C. At least in the analytic tradition, then, the trend in philosophy is decidedly away from theism and immaterialism. But again, that observation simply begs the question, as analytic philosophy just is Anglo-American empiricism. It strikes me as pretty obvious that the more emphasis one places on the observable, the less credence one will give to the existence of non-empirical phenomenon, be they noumenal selves, minds that aren't brains, or supernatural divinities.


Anonymous Mitch Ullman said...

I've made the following comment on various websites in the past: all "Top N Lists" (N being the arbitrary number that the list-maker deigns appropriate) beg the question... hard.

Oh, and I hoist a fair amount of blame on Plato for the rampant dualism in the West. Not all of it, mind you, but a fair portion.

8:48 AM  
Anonymous John Quince said...

This is an interesting list, a keeper to print out, frame, and hang on my wall and all, but I would like to see your picks for the next 20 greatest philosophers, a much harder list to construct I'd imagine. And forgive my ignorance, but I don't think that there's an Eastern philosopher on your top 20, a couple of whom, like maybe Buddha and Confucius, really ought to be included.

3:09 AM  
Anonymous Mitch Ullman said...

Which Buddha?

11:38 PM  
Anonymous jimi said...

to dr. jjm: yes, but which are or aren't theists (as if this is really a salient point)?

to mitch: the one i killed on the road yesterday.

2:20 AM  
Anonymous Mitch Ullman said...

Jimi: good answer.

7:10 PM  
Blogger Drew said...

if it excluded locke and smith then what was there responses to it if they didnt premote such a thing. forgive me i dont no that much about these philosphers, only what iv read in books

2:36 PM  

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