Brian Leiter is running a poll on who the greatest philosopher of the 20th Century was. It’s an amusing exercise, and somewhat informative, at least insofar as it tells us something about Leiter’s readership, and hence about the profession.
Early in the voting, the leaders were Wittgenstein, Lewis and Russell (in that order), with a second group consisting of Rawls, Heidegger and Quine (in that order).
There are a few surprises. The two big heroes of Scott Soames’s history volumes, Moore and Kripke, are getting a surprisingly small amount of love. But what really throws me in these polls is the level of support for Russell. I’m always struck at the disconnect between how little Russell is cited these days compared to his famous contemporaries, such as Frege, Moore or Wittgenstein.
Now it’s clearly true that Russell’s theory of descriptions is of monumental importance to philosophy. I don’t think it alone is enough to make Russell the greatest philosopher of the 20th Century. I used to argue, for fun, that Grice was the greatest philosopher of the 20th century because his theory of implicature was the greatest advance in 20th century philosophy. I think the premise of that argument is plausible, but it’s a terrible argument – great philosophers have more great works.
And once we go past the theory of descriptions, I don’t think there is a huge amount to back up Russell’s case. Logical atomism is interesting, and in light of the revival of truthmaker theory, important. But I don’t think Russell really gets to the heart of the matter, and in any case I was under the (possibly false) impression that Russell’s contributions here were greatly influenced by Wittgenstein’s pre-Tractarian writings.
I don’t think Russell’s work on sense data, or phenomenalism, are going to weigh heavily on the credit side of the ledger.
Principia Mathematica was a great project, but it does seem to have ended in failure. (Although thinking about how it failed gives one reason to think that Leiter should have included Godel as an option on his list of great philosophers.)
I think Russell’s later epistemology is interesting to work through, but the best parts are somewhat warmed over versions of what Keynes said in his Treatise on Probability.
I don’t think much of the multiple relations theory of judgment, though maybe some do. And I don’t think the ethics and political philosophy is really of much philosophical significance.
Russell’s idea that acquaintance was important to de re thought was obviously a very good idea, and an important one, though he didn’t develop it in particularly compelling ways. (See the earlier discussion of phenomenalism.)
What’s left, it seems to me, is that Russell was very influential in a number of ways. His books about contemporary philosophy (such as Problems of Philosophy) and history of philosophy were great popularisers. (Although you want to be careful with the history.) Russell was obviously important in bringing the work of Frege and Wittgenstein to the attention of English-speaking philosophers, the way that Ayer was important in bringing the work of German-speaking philosophers into the English-speaking world a generation later. And Russell was incredibly important, in the way that a very good Chair, or Dean, is important, in nurturing the careers of some of these people, such as Wittgenstein. But I don’t think that adds up to best-of-century level philosophical greatness.
One other thing is left I suspect. Russell is in many ways the first recognisably contemporary philosopher. His concerns are not always our concerns, but it is easy to see a family resemblance. Much of the way we do philosophy is similar to the way Russell did philosophy; and perhaps it is that way because Russell did it that way. If we read pre-Russellian philosophers, or at least if I read pre-Russellian philosophers, they are distant in a way that Russell, and most people who come after him, are not.
But there’s one other philosopher I can say that about too, namely Moore. And it’s interesting to think why Russell gets so much more love in polls like this than Moore. I didn’t vote for Moore; I voted for Lewis. But I’m interested especially in why so many people rank Russell above Moore.
Like Russell, Moore has a flagship contribution: his work in meta-ethics. Whatever one thinks of the conclusions (and I’m hostile to just about all of them), the development of the open question argument, the naturalistic fallacy, intuitionism as a methodology, and non-naturalism in ethics all seem like a very big deal. And all of them, like Russell’s theory of descriptions, remain important to the present day.
But Moore’s other work has had more lasting importance, I think. Moore’s paradox remains a lively topic, informing debates about language and epistemology to the present day. Moorean responses to scepticism remain a central thread in contemporary epistemology, and, I think, with good reason. Moore’s work on analysis has been useful through the history of debates about analysis, and so on.
None of this makes Moore the best philosopher of the 20th century. None of it adds up, I think, to Lewis’s contributions to language, mind, metaphysics, decision theory, etc. And that’s before we start comparing Moore to Quine, Kripke, Wittgenstein, Davidson, Carnap, Grice, Stalnaker, Fodor, Williamson and so on. But it all adds to my puzzlement as to what it is I’m missing about Russell, who has long struck me as a philosopher who was highly influential, and deservedly so, without having as many of the striking original contributions as I think the really great philosophers have.
Posted by Brian Weatherson in Uncategorized