The Most Impressive Philosopher You’ve Met
Philosophy Bites has compiled the answers philosophers have given to the question, “Who is the most impressive philosopher you’ve ever met?” I am listening to it now. It is delightful to hear the admiration and smiles and warmth in the voices of these philosophers as they name and explain their choices. Feel free to discuss their choices, or add your own, in the comments.
(art: detail of Stadia II by Julie Mehretu)
Nice Podcast. No surprise that Lewis, Williams and Parfit all get lots of mentions. I was slightly surprised that Kripke only got one shout-out – and from Scanlon of all people.
From the generation of philosophers after Lewis, Williams and Parfit, I personally have to agree with Barry Smith’s nomination of Crispin Wright.
(And I suspect anyone who did their grad work in London in the past decade or so would attest to how impressive/scary Mike (MGF) Martin is . . . )Report
It is interesting to me how many of the respondents have not only named as “most impressive” philosophers they describe as terrifying, or devastating, or even in one case driving them to tears, but quite clearly look back on those terrifying interactions with affection. I do it, too. I found many of my philosophical interactions with my undergraduate mentor, Abisi Sharakiya, somewhat scary, even though we were quite friendly by the time I graduated, and I look back on the time he spent with me with immense gratitude and fondness. He had very high standards that I knew I would never satisfactorily meet. I wonder if this combination of fear and fondness is especially prevalent among philosophers.
The other thing I was happy to notice is how many of the philosophers picked as most impressive were described as imaginative. I think the creative and imaginative aspects of philosophy are sometimes overlooked in comparison to precision and rigor, and it was good to hear the importance of imagination emphasized.
Personally, I am impressed by so many of the philosophers I’ve met. But if I had to pick just one, I think I would pick Parfit. As many know, he is not only ridiculously smart and astoundingly creative, but also extraordinarily kind and generous with his time and energy, and utterly inspiring in his pursuit of truth.Report
i would second prof. sharakiya’s brilliance and scariness. as a student at binghamton u. in the late 90s, he hit me like was a bolt of lightning. i learned a ton (maybe not all of it philosophical) and consider myself lucky to have crossed paths with him. i found this page by chance and am delighted that i’m not alone in respecting his game.Report
Completely agree. One of the most influential educators I’ve ever had.Report
Scattered, only barely related, thoughts:
(1) In the entire program, only three women mentioned. Marcus, Anscombe, Kamm. Not surprising, for many reasons, but sad. I wouldn’t myself know even how to begin to compare some of the names mentioned (whom I have met), but there were certainly particular men mentioned, not of the Williams-Scanlon-Rawls standing, whom I have met and I can think of women to whom those men don’t hold a flickering philosophical candle.
(2) The overlap between this thread and the one on class in academe. E.g. the story about really getting to know Scanlon because both philosophers have summer homes in freakin’ Martha’s Vineyard.
(3) A number of men mentioned were/are (infamous) problems for women, both of the sexually harassing sort and in other ways. [no, I’m not naming names– not the point] That doesn’t in any way (in my view) entail they were not/are not impressive philosophers. It means women don’t get the benefit of that in the way do men.Report
oops! Four women: Haslanger.Report
Unfortunately I don’t have time to listen, but I’d love more of the data on underrepresented groups in philosophy. How many black philosophers were mentioned? LGBTQ? Disabled? Theist? Poor?
It seems someone always looks for the numbers on women, but never (or at least rarely) these other categories.Report
Post Doc: might be worth remembering that Scanlon originally started out as a logician, before moving onto moral and political philosophy.
anonymousuntenured: One of these things is not like the other – why list theist? They may be a minority in philosophy, but listing them amongst groups that actually face systemic disadvantages and oppression in general is quite odd.Report
Is there any evidence that LGBTQ philosophers are underrepresented in the discipline? (Serious question – I’m genuinely not sure).Report
anonymousuntenured’s point was about being “underrepresented,” not about being systemically disadvantaged and oppressed. A group may be underrepresented–thereby contributing to a lack of diversity–without being oppressed. Unless you just thought that to be underrepresented is to be oppressed. But why think that?Report
didn’t mention any of those other categories, because I don’t know. The very famous names I recognized were all caucasian, there were some male names I didn’t recognize, I didn’t hear any names of any out lbgtq philosophers (out in the sense that a person who doesn’t know them personally would know); a few names were definitely theist but no clue about how many or in what proportion; no clue about economic background. I looked for numbers of women in this case for a simple reason– I could– pronouns.Report
I met Deleuze briefly but had no conversation, and attended his classes for 6 years – this is one of the greatest experiences of my life. I had a couple of conversations with Lyotard. These two philosophers are the most impressive I have ever met, and their seminars were the most impressive that I have ever attended. The intellectual freedom and originality, extreme concision and conceptual resonance of language, the sense that a new philosophical world was being created before my eyes, an intensity of attention to what was being said as if it were all up for grabs and was continuously being rethought instead of just repeated. I would add Michel Serres to this short list, for the same reasons. I met all three in 1981, and have met noone comparable since.Report
I wouldn’t be surprised if out-in-the-open theists in some departments are oppressed in rather overt, deliberate ways. It’s a mistake to assume that treatment of theists is universal.Report
Far and away, the most impressive philosopher I ever met was Jean Hampton.Report
Plouffe: Fair point, and taken. However I’ve always thought that the primary reason to be concerned with the lack of diversity in philosophy was because it was a form of or result of systematic disadvantage and/or oppression, and thus showed us that we, qua philosophers, were committing to or supporting an unjust situation. When viewed this way, the lack of theists isn’t particularly alarming, as it’s unlikely that they’re systematically excluded (or treated poorly) from the profession based on their views. But as Anon (1:08PM) notes, we should perhaps be careful not to assume that they’re not in fact treated poorly.Report
MM McCabe is perhaps the most impressive philosopher I’ve ever met, not least because of her humanity and emotional insight.Report
Bit late to the party, but I think it’s worth saying:
Lots of the people interviewed found ‘impressiveness’ in some narrow notion of intellectual acumen (being super smart), or argumentative fluency; but almost no-one said that they found someone most impressive because they found that person wise, or because they devoted their lives to something really important, or anything along these lines. Impressiveness was always, it seems, due to the impressive person doing what they did/do very well; and never because they did something especially worth doing.
I don’t mean this as a criticism of any particular interviewee. But for me, if there were two philosophers equally good at their area of philosophy, but one is working on something of little import for anyone who doesn’t happen to have some sort of fetish interest in that area (I’ll refrain from betraying my prejudice by giving an example of something I think would fit), and another is working on, say, how best to understand equality in the political sphere and by so doing improves the quality of political debate on the topic, or (to give an example of something that’s valuable in a very different way) what ‘beauty’ in art amounts to in a way that deepens her readers’ appreciation of art, then I would go for the latter every time. I feel, after listening to that Philosophy Bites compilation, that this weighting of philosophical priorities – of wisdom and extraprofessional relevance over narrowly-understood intellectual brilliance – is peculiarly absent among philosophers. And this is rather depressing for me, as in my own work and thought, I strive to be insightful and to say things worth saying over being rigorous (which of course is not to say I disdain rigour), and I feel like I’m trying to enter a profession which nowhere values what I value; and so, I fear I may not be admitted, and even that I may not in fact want admission.Report
Philosophy should be about the search for Wisdom,
not the perfect argument.
Analytical Philosophy tends toward solving “Crossword Puzzles” intellectually respectable
but hardly profound.
I would like to learn more about the teachers of Philosophy that they respected deeply,
though little known outside their departments.Report