January 29, 2015

Top 20 Anglophone Philosophers

At Leiter Reports there are the results of a poll of the "Most Important Anglophone Philosophers 1945-2000". Over 500 people apparently voted, which is really not that many people. Still, the results, and even the way the poll is set up, are fascinating in several ways.

The first thing that jumps out is that the top 20 people listed went to a very small number of schools. Of course, these philosophers taught, and were educated, at different schools, but here are some of the schools they were at:

Oxford: Armstrong, Anscombe, Austin, Dummett, Grice, Ryle, Sellars, Strawson, Williams
Harvard: Davidson, Kripke, Kuhn, Lewis, Nagel, Quine, Chomsky (Society of Fellows), Putnam (before getting PhD at UCLA)
Princeton: Fodor, Nozick, Rawls

As Faculty:
Oxford: Anscombe, Austin, Dummett, Ryle, Strawson
Harvard: Nozick, Putnam, Quine, Rawls
Princeton: Kripke, Lewis, Nagel
MIT: Chomsky, Fodor, Kuhn
Berkeley: Davidson, Grice
Pittsburgh: Sellars
Cambridge: Williams
Sydney: Armstrong

When I forget where these philosophers were educated or taught, it can feel as if these philosophers' views are so different, as if they cover the vast expanse of the philosophical landscape. But then when I remember that these twenty philosophers went to a small circle of schools, were in classes with each other, took classes from one another, met each other at the same conferences, then they seem so insular, as if they are just the 20 top bishops of the Anglophone Church, groomed and chosen by from within so as to continue the institutional structures they were a part of.

As a person educated within analytic philosophy I feel the grandeur of each of these names. Quine! Anscombe! Rawls! Fuck, man - what geniuses! Especially when put in the form of a list ranking them, I feel a sense of awe and wonder for the majesty and greatness of these thinkers. And not just for the thinkers, but for the institutions. Oxford! Harvard! Princeton! The names of the philosophers and the institutions pop out and glitter like diamonds, stopping me in my tracks and making me consider the names with reverence and respect. Yes, respect, and that too so highly deserved, because after all, look how beautiful the diamonds are! How smart, how brilliant!

The sense of reverence the names evoke - what is its source? On the face of it, it feels the source is simply the quality of the work these philosophers produced. Along with the diamond-like names of the philosophers and the institutions, there is of course also the names of the works. Word and Object. Theory of Justice. Intention. Naming and Necessity. What grand books, what depth, what brilliance! It feels as if to have reverential respect for the titles is a sign of one's own good taste, as if one is not a heathen or an uneducated fool, but someone who is able to recognize the good stuff when one sees it. As if when one appreciates the texts one is simply appreciating the power of the ideas by themselves independent of any institutional forces. As if in these texts, and in these thinkers' hands the ideas have broken free of institutional effects and are pristine nuggets arranged within crysteline logical space.

But what if the sense of appreciation is actually just an institutional effect? That the reason why these texts and these thinkers seem like the best is because of the power of the institutions they were a part of? Analogy: Brad Pitt! Angelina Jolie! George Clooney! For someone who never saw movies outside mainstream Hollywood these names will seem magical and ephemeral, as if they are the essence of being actors. One is so beholden to the institution that it can seem impossible to ever stand outside of it - and that sense of impossibility is what gives from within the system the glimmering sense of the stars.

In order to put the names in some perspective, let me remind myself of other names from 1945-2000: Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Foucault, Derrida, J.N. Mohanty, Radhakrishnan, Mikhail Bhaktin, D.T. Suzuki, Ortega y Gasset. It is unfortunate I can't off the top of my head name more, but that is to be expected given that in my education the only names repeated ad naseum were the ones like Quine and Strawson.

One rushes to object: "But, wait! The list with Quine, et al is just of Anglophone philosophers. No one is saying these are the best philosophers in the world in the second half of the twentieth century. Just that they are the best within Anglophone philosophy." But what does "Anglophone" here mean? Is it the English-speaking world? That can't be it, since there are philosophers in India who were writing in English during this time, but who are not considered for this list. Or is it that it is focused on analytic philosophy? Well, how is that defined? I don't know anyone who has managed to give a clear definition of that.

At its root what "Anglophone philosophy" picks out is not a language or even a philosophical tradition (like Logical Positivism or Ordinary Language Philosophy), but simply the network of departments which are considered to form a unit. Therefore "Anglophone philosophy" is just another way of saying: "doing philosophy this way, what we do, at these departments." It is a way to imply that this is the kind of philosophy that is done at Oxford, Harvard and Princeton. These philosophers are our heroes, the ones we look up to, the ones whose intellectual trajectory we are following. It is a way to draw a line, implicitly and unconsciously, that yes some changes can be made to our standard curriculum at these departments, but we need to remember what is the heart of these departments. And it is these philosophers, because they are the best of what we do: Quine, Strawson, Lewis.

But what of all the philosophical topics these philosophers didn't address? What about all the ways in which these philosophers might be now behind the times, such that we need to find new heroes and new models? The power of the list is that it makes it hard to even raise and articulate these questions. Even reading the list I can feel the temptation within me to just nod along, and repeat, "yes, Quine, Strawson, Lewis..."

I can't object to people making whatever lists they want to make. This post is a note to myself: No, you don't have to take this list seriously. It doesn't mean anything other than some people within an institutional structure rearranging the order of their saints. Beyond that, it does not matter at all. And it is certainly not tracking anything regarding objective philosophical value.


  1. Hi Bharath,

    I think you're getting to be a broken record on this topic. We get that you think it's all about the sociology of institutions and connections, and not intellectual content, but have you really argued that or just asserted it? Can you name an Indian philosopher in the last fifty years who wrote in English and explain why his (or her) work was important, indeed, as important as any of those in the top 20 or the top 30 on the list?

    1. Anonymous, I don't think it is all about sociology of institutions and not intellectual content. I think the two are connected: ideas cannot be reduced to sociology, but they are also importantly dependent of sociology. The ideas of Quine, Anscombe, Strawson, etc. are of course great. But I think those ideas are interesting partly because as philosophers they were able to work in structures which were incredibly insular. So it raises the question: precisely because of that insularity did they miss out on other ideas and topics which are also important, but regarding which they didn't say much at all? Yes, absolutely. I think it is important to highlight that and not treat them like they were just beacons of great ideas. On many important issues of philosophy they were silent, just because they didn't have to think about it from their perches on high. Saying these are the best philosophers of the last 50 years in Anglophone philosophy implies that they are the ones we should emulate the most. I don't believe that. Because in important ways we need to break with them and not be silent the way they were.

      Here is a name: J.N.Mohanty, and he was someone who was not silent. Integrating phenomenology, analytic philosophy and classical Indian philosophy, he was trying to bridge traditions, and deal with philosophical questions of what such bridging can look like.

      I am sure there are many others whose work is as important as the people on the list, and who are Asian or African, etc. And it pains me that I don't know them. Because I was educated in schools in which the lists were of the same names being recycled over and over. So the fact that I can't name more people is not a reason to accept the top 20 list as it is. It is a reason to be upset that it is lists like this which made my education insular and narrow, and so limited my ability to appreciate the true diversity of great philosophy out there.

    2. You have not explained why Mohanty's work was important, other than saying it bridges traditions. Why is that important? And how is that comparable to, for example, Kripke's contributions to modal logic and our thinking about meaning and reference? What important philosophical theses are due to Mohanty? Can you state them for us?

    3. Anonymous - can you explain why modal logic or thoughts about meaning/reference are important? Why are they more important than thinking about how to bring together disparate traditions and people, or indeed whatever (other) issues Mohanty thought about? Thinking about how to bring together traditions might do much to alleviate human suffering, and one could argue then, that it is far more valuable than advances in modal logic or theories of reference.

      The thing is, either philosophy--understood here in the broadest sense as self reflection and critical thought--is important or it is not. If it is, then there is no way to decide, in advance, which issues are more important than others, and therefore which figures.

  2. Anonymous makes a good point. It does seem like your concerns are starting to feel like overkill. You are right to note that there is insularity in academia and that it can be limiting. But doing philosophy is about getting beyond that in your own work. Of course we are all limited in so many ways, the sociological factors being only one set. But you aren't going to change that by continuously pointing it out or voicing concerns that the contemporary big guns don't care enough about the littler guns let alone the pop shooters! Thanks for mentioning Mohanty, by the way. I hadn't heard of him before and will Google him. I agree with anonymous' interest in seeing a bit more about him. If you could post some descriptions and commentary on his work, that would be helpful and enable us to see what, if anything, we are missing because of the sociological limitations you've highlighted. Thanks.

  3. Anonymous and Stuart, There are two different issues here. First, I have no problem if what I am writing is like "a broken record" or "overkill". I left academia so that I can write whatever I want, however many times I want, as long as I am not personally harming anyone. No one is obligated to read this blog. For every 10 times I talk about insularity, there were 1000s of times when I experienced that insularity with pain and was silent. People have different thresholds, and I don't think there is a set timeline when I need to move on, or get beyond psychology and sociology and focus just on the ideas.

    Second, re the ideas themselves and Mohanty. I think there are two ways that Mohanty's work is important.

    a) In terms of explaining how ideas and views from Indian philosophy shed light on the perennial topics of philosophy, and how Western philosophy can benefit from this.
    b) In terms of helping us understand the nature of philosophy problems by seeing them from the perspective of diverse traditions.

    Given my own education in Western analytic philosophy, I am not in a position to add much to (a). I don't know a lot of Indian philosophy, at least in the classical sense. I know more about non-academic Indian philosophy, such as Vivekananda or Aurobindo. For (a) best to go to people like Ganeri, Evan Thompson, the Indian Philosophy blog, and so forth.

    I am more interested in (b), which is concerned with methodological issues of how to make progress on philosophical issues. I think bridging traditions is a way to solve philosophy problems, because the broad perspective provided by bridging traditions illuminates aspects of the nature of philosophy. I think of this as a combination of Wittgensteinian metaphilosophy re any one tradition + bridging traditions to provide a new methodology for addressing problems. So how to make progress on issues of, say, internalism or externalism re meaning? I say by getting clear on the nature of the problem, and not to take the problem as obvious or sensical as stated. And one way to get clear is to juxtapose the problem as considered from different traditions, and I think this will help to reframe the problem into a new way of understanding it which will be more amenable to being solved.

    Here there is a difference between Kripke's logical work and his phil language work, or the Kripkenstein stuff. For the former it is clear to some extent what progress looks like. For the latter, not so clear. So I think that for the latter Kripke would have benefitted from reading broadly across traditions, in order to better understand the problems he was trying to solve. Since he didn't do that (at least not that I am aware), nor did Strawson, etc., I think they failed to have the right methodology for making progress in philosophy. Yes, perhaps it is best for me to stop worrying about what others didn't do, and just focus myself on what I think can be done. Its a work in progress for me.

    1. I'd be interested in seeing some of your own work. Which problems are the ones you're concerned with and what solutions or tentative solutions and clarifications have you put together to address them? I didn't mean to come across as critical of your post, only to offer the suggestion that it might be better to focus on the work than the workers.

    2. Thank you for asking. I am as interested as anyone to know the answers to these questions!

      When I was in academia I often had the feeling that the philosophy questions I was addressing and the views I was putting forward were not really my own. This was due not to the workers, but due to the institutional structures. When you keep hearing, as I heard for fifteen years, that the questions, issues and thoughts you have deep within you are not important, are marginal, are sour grapes, are you focusing on sociology instead of philosophy - it has a way of seeping into your psyche and shutting down your own sense of what is important to you. I can still feel them, those voices of criticism, saying that I am being overly sensitive, that I am finding excuses, that I should just do philosophy instead of the meta-institutional stuff. This is the dark side of the enculturation that can happen in becoming a professional philosopher. Yes, I want to get beyond this to raise the problems that matter to me, and to think about the solutions as I see them. But it will not happen because others are tired of my need to think through the institutional stuff for myself. It will happen in its own time as I heal my wounds and feel safe to do philosophy as I want to, and not on anyone else's schedule.

    3. I suppose people involved with philosophy are going to find that different things interest them and, often enough, they will be out of sync with whatever the dominant strains of thoughts and concerns are in the academic world. For my part, I could never get interested in things like existentialism or even phenomenology, the larger tradition within which existentialism arose. I knew that some people who counted themselves philosophers or wanted to be back when I was an undergrad read avidly in those traditions but it all sounded too fuzzy to me. (Perhaps it helped that analytical philosophy was dominant in my school by then, though. Still, I don't think I'd have been drawn to philosophy if a continental style had prevailed in the department of the college where I was enrolled.)

      Since we're doing confessionals here, I would add that, while drawn to a kind of Kantian transcendental idealism when first exposed to it, even that didn't suit my particular thinking style. In the end it was Hume and the empiricist tradition that pulled at me and, later, the logical positivists and the analytic tradition more broadly. My thinking, I suppose, was just too mundane, too concrete, for the speculative flights I thought characterized some of those other traditions.

      But Wittgenstein kind of turned me back again to the transcendental . . . until, in time, I came to better understand the later work which seemed to me to eschew the transcendental. I think a lot of it is personality and the ways our minds work which manifest in the kinds of question that prompts us to wonder. What ultimately held me hostage, you might say, was ethics -- although it was the least interesting part of philosophy to me at first. I guess it was the naturalistic approach of the Greeks that always seemed to me to be more superficial than the search for an explanation of knowledge itself, or the nature of things. Having given up on the metaphysical dimension of these latter questions, ethical concerns eventually began to see more compelling to me because they involved something we could kind of get our teeth into. Ethical questions are real in a way that the idealism vs. materialism debates, or the mind-body question, or issues about the nature of truth and knowledge are not. It seems to me that we already know what we mean by truth or reality or the world. We just have to look a little more carefully at what we do and say. Beyond that, speculating on a metaphysical level just seems to make no sense, at least to me. But knowing how and why we differentiate between the possible things we may choose to do, and understanding whether or not we can even fruitfully make such differentiations, these are the ethical questions and they seem to matter in our everyday affairs.

      Most people making ethical judgments don't think about them in that way, don't wonder how a claim that something is good or bad can make any sense beyond its immediate expression of how they happen to feel or whether the "code" they think they are following in having and expressing such feelings has validity enough to warrant following. But I think that in a world like ours, where so many different peoples have been thrown together, all of whom carry different cultural baggage, finding a way of parsing moral claims has an immediacy that determining whether the world is material or ideas simply does not.

      So, perhaps reflecting my own fairly practical bent, I find ethical questions to be among the most compelling in philosophy today. But others no doubt feel otherwise. We shouldn't be surprised that there are differences among us. I think, Bharath, that you should decide what aspects of our world engage you philosophically and if it's the role of the sociological in shaping our thoughts, you should pursue that question. Philosophy isn't just one thing after all and there's no sense worrying that others don't pay attention to the issues that have captured your own attention. Do the work and maybe their attention will follow.

    4. Stuart, I agree a lot with your last paragraph. And thanks also for your reflections on your own interests; that is helpful. Yes, I think there is no objective thing like that phenomenology is better than logical positivism, or vice versa, or Eastern phil is better than Western philosophy, or vice versa, etc. It is partly personality as you say, but I think it is more than that also: it is about the institutions we are a part of. And not just academic institutions, but family, culture, government, etc.

      As I see it, each person as they grow into adolescence and adulthood have some abstract and deeply personal issues that matter a lot to them, and this is set by their biographical, sociological conditions. Philosophy helps them articulate and conceptualize to themselves these issues. Different people find different philosophies helpful in this regard, for different reasons which it is fascinating to think about and understand. For example, I often found positivism boring, constraining and very conservative, and so used to feel in college and grad school as if this kind of view has to be shown to be wrong; hence my preferred authors were Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Cavell, McDowell, etc. But now I think there is no fact of the matter whether positivism is good or bad, conservative or progressive, anymore than there is a fact of the matter re Wittgenstein, etc. I now think that this issue of which view is right can get in the view of understanding ourselves and each other as people. There is no right philosophical view to come to beyond just understanding each others' situations better and living more in harmony. Sometimes traditional philosophical debate (say, "is there an analytic/synthetic divide?") helps with that, and sometimes it doesn't and gets in the way. It's just like people can get stuck on debating if God exists, but in the process fail to engage with each other as people, as if they have to first come to an agreement about whether God exists before they can see each other as members of the same community.

      One reason I am very interested in the sociology of academic philosophy is because I think academic philosophy is rife with this kind of useless debate, which has the appearance of a helpful cognitive disagreement, but which in fact is keeping people in academia (teachers and students alike) from really understanding each others' situations. In this sense, one way to do philosophy is to thwart precisely this sense that the way we normally "do" philosophy is productive, and to really question that assumption. What if there are systematic ways in which the way we normally do philosophy, inside and outside academia, are not getting to our deepest impulses for doing philosophy? What if the modes of discourse that are commonplace actually estranges us from the impulses that drew us into philosophy? This seems to me very plausible, and is what is happening to a great extent.

    5. Here I am doing two things with Wittgenstein's metaphilosophy. First, I am taking the "language leads us astray" idea and substituting institutions for language. So what leads us astray isn't some amorphous thing callled language, but rather the institutions we are a part of. The current institutional structures (academic and non-academic) are warping our sense of philosophy and so leading us into modes of doing philosophy which on the surface look like they are helping, but in fact in a more deep way they are not helping (atleast not as much as we think).

      Second, by making this link to institutions, I am able to put Wittgenstein's metaphilosophy in a framework where there is positive philosophy to do. If what is leading us astray are current institutional structures, then in order to see things aright we need to fix and change the institutional structures. This is the equivalent of "bringing words back to their everyday use". Wittgenstein makes it seem like the everyday use is something that already exists that we just need to get back to. But a better way to think of this is: we need to construct the better everyday use, and so have construct better institutional structures so that our impulses into philosophy can be better articulated. Here I am not speaking for everyone's impulses into philosophy; each person has to decide that for themselves. But I do think that for me, and for many people, we need to build better institutional structures in order to do philosophy the way we want.

      I am not surprised by the criticism that on this blog I am too focused on sociology or institutional frameworks, and am not doing philosophy. It is just another version of the objection Wittgenstein faced that what he is doing is "simply" a form of amateur sociology or anthropology, and that it is not really philosophy. But, as N below states, this is itself a big philosophical question. There is no neutral ground from which one can say, "this is philosophy and that is not". Often people think they can speak from such neutral ground, and tell others what they are really doing (you are not "really" doing philosophy), but I see this as just a way of trying to keep to the old institutional structures, since on this objection the way to do philosophy is identified with how it is currently done in some institutional contexts.

      Lastly, one might say: "Bharath, why do you care about all this? You are out of academia. Stop worrying about academic philosophy and just do philosophy how you want." My response: a main reason it is hard to do philosophy outside academia is that, in my experience, most non-academics think that like with physics or biology, philosophy also has its experts, and they live in academia. in this way, non-academics often defer to academics, and in this way they defer to academic structures for philosophy. So to break this hold, one has to first understand how exactly the structures of academic philosophy are problematic. Leaving academia doesn't magically make the grip of academia disappear, especially in a society such as ours which places academia on a pedastal (rightly in many ways, wrongly in many ways).

  4. I wonder why the activity of thinking through these (partly) sociological issues isn't already a kind of philosophical "work"? Both commenters seem to tacitly assume that if you _were_ doing something constructive or properly philosophical then you'd be putting forward some view about modal logic or reference or whatever. But why is that the only or best kind of philosophical "work", the only way of working toward "solutions or tentative solutions"? (Are dinky puzzles about the word "the" the only "problems" philosophers should care about?) That people assume this without any argument just shows how deeply entrenched these cultural biases really are. (So maybe it's even worthwhile to point out these biases and their sociological origins more than just once or twice!) For that matter, why should the activity of thinking through your personal _feelings_ about these sociological or philosophical matters not also count as a kind of philosophical "work"? That's what much of Kierkegaard's writings (for example) seem to be. Though people will claim that your point is clear enough, doesn't need repeating, in fact they don't take it seriously -- don't actually reconsider their own assumptions or intuitions about the nature of philosophy, etc.

    I honestly don't understand why Kripke's ideas are supposed to be so "important". Unless "important" is just a name for the kinds of things that people at fancy Anglosphere departments have liked to write about in recent decades. Sure, there are some interesting little thought experiments, some clever arguments, etc. But there seems to be nothing even remotely linked to the things that most of us really care about deep down -- the things we would care about even if we weren't under economic and institutional pressures. Nothing about God or ethics or politics or love or the meaning of life or anything else that seems important in human terms. Maybe I'm missing something. Maybe it really matters, somehow, whether the word "Aristotle" as actually used refers to Diogenes in some imaginary world. But even if that does matter, isn't it worrying that we really have no good way of deciding whether Kripke was even right about any of this? In the end it comes down to "intuitions" that many reasonable people don't have. (This is to say nothing of the many other reasons one might have for doubting the truth or even the intelligibility of his theorizing. Of course this applies to virtually all academic philosophy.) So how important is it to be familiar with these ideas that might well be totally false or even incoherent, for all we know, and which might well make no difference to our lives even if they were correct? The bare assertion that this kind of thing is "important" is at least very questionable.

    1. N, Thanks for your wonderful comment. I was feeling a little down and wondering if I was being obsessive and not really doing philosophy. I don't think this deep down but something the worry gets a grip on me. Your comment helped me to align better with my interests and not to feel like I have to apologize for them.

  5. I'm no expert on Kripke or Lewis (and certainly not Quine, Fodor, or Davidson), but I think that there is something to your sociological thesis. Here's one thing: I bet if you asked analytic philosophers who are well-versed in philosophy of religion who the most important philosophers of the 20th century, you'd have Plantinga in the top ten. If you expand the list of philosophers of religion away from Leiter's readership, many of whom I suspect were educated at top 10 Leiter universities (it would be nice if he did a survey on where his readers got their Ph.D's), to philosophers of religion who got the Ph.D's from Notre Dame, Saint Louis University, Catholic University of America, etc., you might see names like Richard Swinburne, John Hick, Etienne Gilson, Bernard Lonergan, etc.

    Of course, maybe these philosophers are just significantly inferior to the top 40 in Leiter's list, and the people who are interested in them aren't interested in them for their argumentative rigor but rather for the conclusions they endorse. (Though how many readers of Leiter's were really intimately familiar with the work of all 100 people on that list? I doubt more than 50 or 60 of his readers could claim that honor)

    1. Robert, I agree. The ranking of philosophers is structurally no different than ranking departments, and of course the two kinds of rankings reinforce each other. People saying we are just ranking what we are familiar with is another way of saying that the status quo is justified. It is a way of have the veneer of rationality on what is in effect just a brute assertion of the status quo. A way to make it seem as if the hierarchy is actually a meritocracy. As you point out, the ranking is not based on knowledge of even the 80 people being ranked, let along the people left off the list. The poll begins with the idea that these are the 80 most important thinkers, irrespective of areas of interest, etc. And it is offered to the readers as something "for your amusement". Which I think is a defensive move to protect oneself from raising a real discussion about it. So the whole thing has the funny effect of seeming like it is tracking purely the worth of ideas even though the process by which the tracking is supposed to happen is not really based on ideas or debate but on gut feelings, biases, etc.

  6. Dear Bharath,
    this is a great post.
    You are right about the fact that one should not take these rankings seriously; the trouble is, they wouldn't exist if they weren't taken seriously by at least some (me, some time ago, for example).
    I decided not to go into academia precisely because much of it is not the unfolding of one's own ideas. I am clearly not saying I have better ideas than Kripke and all the others, but just as clearly I did not choose philosophy for my studies to only be able to say what others think.
    The global competition for the best departments adds to the marginalization of philosophical teaching.