Philosophical pecking order

Tiberius asked:

I have developed a point system for philosophers where I give them points for insight varying from 100 to 5000. It is subjective and arbitrary, but it has produced a top ten philosopher list. Confucious, Democratus, Nietzsche, Tzu and Aristotle have all scored well. My highest point getter is Jean Jacques Rousseau by far. I would like Mr. Lawrenz’s opinion of this great man.

This request must pass the ‘moderator’ who throws away 95 per cent of my work. Aristotle said older minds become envious and ‘contemptuous of opinons’. A tottering pride can set in as well. Wrinkles on the face also end up on the mind. The mind reaches it’s prime at 49 according to Aristotle. I am 50 now.

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

Well, Tiberius, seeing that you ask my opinion, I will not duck your question. In fact, I welcome it, because I’ve often been asked by people who are understandably confused by the fact that there seem to be 10,000 philosophers around today, yet we always go back into history to study writings from 200 to 2000 years old!

Now you didn’t even give me a sample of the insights which determine the ranking order on your list. That makes things difficult. I recall I used to do something much the same when I was young; but over the course of my life I came to understand that my own insight into insights kept changing – let me be bold and claim that it became deeper as I added more years to my enthusiastic beginnings. This suggests that ‘insights’ may be a very unstable basis for judging philosophers when you turn them into point values. But by no means irrelevant; and, incidentally, the same basis one could use to differentiate between great, good and trash novels, poems, dramas, pictures, music etc.

In good time I came around to the understanding that this analogy is not far from the mark – i.e. great art and great philosophy share something (namely insight) despite their incompatible ways of communicating it. Moreover, if you pursue this line further, another analogy comes forward, which could be called authenticity. Once again unstable connotations, yet relevant again because we humans have the capacity of spontaneous recognition. Without this spontaneity, the word itself would have no meaning.

Authenticity is not much different from original creativity, an innovative frame of mind, an inner drive for exploration, and an obsession with the truth about human nature. If I may dwell on this for a moment: A novel by Dostoyevsky is a testament of human truth (insight!), whereas the novel you pick up at the train station is likely to offer nothing other than temporary entertainment, something to while the time away, without the least challenge to your intellect or deeper emotions.

A third criterion arises out of these two. Which is that, in this stringent sense, philosophers are creators of coherent thought systems in the same way as a great novelist offers a coherent image of people and society in their totality of being. Hence the basis of any judgement of depth, relevance, greatness can only be the insight, authenticity and creativity of their work.

As mentioned, these are criteria which appeal to our spontaneous recognition. There is no way of methodically or scientifically adjudging such a performance. Almost the only reliable way we have, is to examine either the degree of creative revelation (which is essentially a synonym for insight) or their impact on society.

Now this brings me to your favourite Rousseau. He did have a huge impact on the world; and some of the brainiest people of his time (Kant!) admired him. But in the long run, one cannot escape the fact that his thinking was very much trapped in his own time and place. Once you get past his purple patches and scrutinise the actual solutions he offers, you soon discover that he promoted the kind of tyrannical systems of which fascism and communism were to be the ultimate expression. But this argues for very little insight into human and social conditions; and when you see that his medicine involves repression, deprivation and compulsion, one’s respect suffers a huge dent!

This is incompatible with an authentically humane, happy, creative life and the freedom that is fundamental to such pursuits.

Now I see Confucius and Aristotle among your top ten. No argument, but contrast their teachings with that of Rousseau! The cornerstone of both their philosophies is precisely the freedom to authenticity that is missing from Rousseau. Freedom entails responsibility (Confucius) and a happy, prosperous life requires the consistent pursuit of excellence in everything you do (Aristotle). So individuals add up to the foundations for the prosperity of his/her society. A healthy society is a collective whose members strive always for the best and seek voluntarily to curtail those aspects of life which are part of our animal estate.

In a word: Confucius and Aristotle ask you to lift up your head and be a full-fledged human being in command of all your best faculties. This is hard, but not unachievable. Rousseau demands we put our head down and cop punishment, with or without crime! This is not compatible with great or deep philosophical thinking!

I obviously cannot go through your list, nor offer an alternative. But you should make yourself aware that well-meaning philosophies, written in inflammable prose, can easily influence society to go off the rails. Consider Marx, who would probably be shocked out of his mind if he knew that his doctrines of a workers’ paradise ended up creating a workers’ hell, as bad as they suffered before Soviet communism was established. Consider in contrast John Locke, who made only small waves, but is the intellectual godfather of western liberal democracies. So we end up having to admit that quality of insight which excludes foresight is not worth much. The kind of foresight I’m speaking of here is nothing other than the hindsight gained from historical precedents, because socially and politically nothing is new under the Sun.

Altogether then, ‘insight’ is a quality, or attribute, that cannot be judged without adding the word deep to it. I offer you a test case: Plato. Many critics over 2 millennia have professed to abhor his ideal society, sometimes for the same reasons I used in castigating Rousseau. But they usually miss the clue at the heart of his thinking. Plato himself admits that his social structure is an unapproachable ideal and recommends that societies should be content with implementing only those of his recommendations that are appropriate to their way of life, customs, traditions etc. However, they should aspire to be better, more humane, more just and fair than they are. And now the crucial issue is, that he wrote about 30 books in examination of a multitude of profound human issues like love, beauty, justice, modesty, temperance etc., with such deep truthfulness that readers are rattled into a profound insight into their own natures.

So if I were to judge philosopher according to your numerical criterion, I would be forced to say: Plato had 30 deep insights into the human condition, Rousseau just one. And then similar criteria would apply to Aristotle, Kant, Hegel, Confucius, Augustinus and a few others, in an wholly analogous way to our appreciation of Leonardo, Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Goethe, Beethoven and so on. On the face of it, this seems ridiculous; but I’m playing the game along with you and I’m hopeful that you will see now that your numbers game has to be played with the rules modified to reflect a more relevant set of criteria.


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