June 13, 2005
On the BBC
A link sent by (of all people) my dad. (This is noteworthy because my dad is, in general, rather suspicious of philosophy. I think it stems from when I was an undergraduate and tried to explain the problem of induction to him. Since then he's suspected that philosophy secretly wants to subvert science (he trained in chemistry - surely the most real of the traditional sciences. I bet if we took a survey of working scientists and asked them whether they thought their best theories were true or merely empirically adequate, the chemists would have the highest proportion of people answering "true." Maybe I'm biased when it comes to chemists though. I lived with a bunch of graduate chemists for years. You can see why I need a blog - I could go on like this forever...)
Anyway, Radio 4 is having a vote to see who the public considers to be the greatest philosopher of all time. You can also take their philosophy quiz, and, best of all, see what various celebrities said when asked who the greatest philosopher of all time is. In an ideal world, this question would have been put to the likes of Britney Spears, Posh and Becks, and the cast of Big Brother and you'd have to drink every time someone replied "my mum." (If I'd had to pick people to ask I think Moby, Julian Cope and Bob Geldof might have been high on the list. Andrew Marr and Stephen Fry could definitely stay on too.) But in this world they've asked the likes of Anne Widecombe and Mariella Frostrup. As far as I can tell, each respondent has only had to pick a name and perhaps a quote, and then someone from Radio 4 wrote up a few paragraphs about each philosopher, complete with links to your friend and mine, the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy.
Who is my favourite philosopher of all time? I don't really know. I might have said Tarski until recently. It's a hard call because you want it to be someone who's main message you agree with, but it also seems to matter than they worked on something important, and then it should be someone with whom you feel something of a connection. So here's a short list. It's very mixed, and people are on it for very mixed reasons: Berkeley, Tarski, Epicurus, Mill, Kripke, Wittgenstein, Marx, Russell. The thing is, half the people on this list I kind of hate too. I don't know how we ever manage to like whole people; they're so complicated.
Posted by logican at June 13, 2005 03:07 PM
The trackback address for this entry is:
My list would be Aristotle, Austen, Habermas, Hamblin, Kripke, Russell B., Russell G. (of course!), and Toulmin, but then I'm a computer scientist and these folks have been influential for us.
I was trying to explain the indispensability argument to a chemist friend the other day (he saw Mark Colyvan's book on my coffee table) and he had a whole lot of trouble understanding the notion that people actually had platonist views of mathematics, or thought that numbers might be things.
Posted by: Kenny Easwaran at June 13, 2005 08:14 PM
Borges story: I was waiting for Hugo, seated on a leather couch at the back of the Biting Dog in Salvador, when I discovered an old paperback book, wedged between the seat and the back of my couch. The book was called "Introductione de Great Philosopherse" and was written in an unfamiliar dialect of English. It had ten chapters, each directed at the work of a great philosopher: Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Augustine, Leibniz, Hume, Kant, Hegel, Hamblin and Toulmin. When Hugo arrived - he was a little late leaving the library owing to an incident with a grenade - I sheepishly confessed that I had never encountered the latter two philosophers with the similar names. Hugo said that he had read bits and pieces of their joint work but considered it inferior to that of Hume, or Hamboul, and we ordered more wine and began to discuss the political situation. Not 20 minutes after he had arrived, Hugo stood, swearing and gasping and clutching at his braids. He apologised but said he must leave on urgent business. I began to thumb through "Introductione de Great Philosopherse" as I finished my drink. Apparently, Toulmin would never write anything without Hamblin, though Hamblin had occasionally been known to publish short treatises of his own. At least, this is what was claimed in the chapter on Toulmin, but when I reached the final chapter I discovered that it was really the other way around. The final chapter also noted that after the second world war Toulmin and Hamblin's joint work had been suppressed by the guild, so that any novice found in possession of a tract was forced to drink sufficient hemlock to kill an ass. Such was the fear of this punishment that study of Toulmin and Hamblin had fallen out of favour and it was feared that they would soon be forgotten altogether, given that the younger scholars never encountered them, and the power of wishful thinking-whereby a scholar believes that which it is most prudential for him to believe - had such a powerful grip on the minds of the elderly that few now believed the two philosophers had written anything.
When I returned home, I sought their works in the library at Geneva, but with no success. Hugo, it turned out, died that night from a large piece of shrapnel lodged - unsuspected - in his brain.
Posted by: Gillian Russell at June 13, 2005 09:04 PM
A couple of years ago I met Eric Scerri (UCLA) who is a specialist in philosophical aspects of chemistry:
Posted by: Varol Akman at June 14, 2005 03:38 AM
As a rule I'm a pretty big fan of the BBC, their forward thinking attitude to dissemination and the internet, the way they encourage innovation, the generally excellent content they produce, all contribute to British culture in incalculable ways. However, my feelings on the consuming public are somewhat more ambivalent and considering it's that public which has recently voted the bicycle (I ask you) as the World's Greatest Invention, I have to wonder if this particular foray into the highbrow is a doomed attempt from the off.
Posted by: Jacob at June 14, 2005 04:47 PM
Loved the Borges story.
However, in case anyone doubts the existence of either philosopher, Stephen Toulmin, student of Wittgenstein and one-time brother-in-law of Austin, gave the invited address at the OSSA Meeting last month (Ontario Society for the Study of Argumentation), the major North American conference in the philosophy of argumentation.
And of Charles Hamblin, see my biography written for the Australian Computer Museum Society, here.
Funny. My dad has the same fear about philosophy - that it is a conspiracy against science - inspired by reading Thomas Nagel's book, "What does it all mean?" (which I foolishly gave him). I haven't been able to dislodge it since.
Posted by: Kieran Setiya at June 16, 2005 08:40 AM
It's too tough to pick just one...
I just wish some more interesting celebrities were asked.
Posted by: lumpy pea coat at June 17, 2005 11:06 PM