Greatest Achiever, Philosopher Edition


Over at Marginal Revolution, Tyler Cowen (GMU) suggests that Johann Sebastian Bach may be “the greatest achiever of all time.”

I thought it might be interesting to think about who the greatest achiever of all time is in philosophy.

Who would you suggest?

Certainly one thing that will likely be disputed is the very concept of “greatest achiever”. Or perhaps the concept of achievement. Or the extent to which achievements are comparable, such that we can identify the “greatest.”

Questions certainly abound there, and are worth asking, but even philosophers sometimes put aside such questions, at least temporarily, or may have a sense, based on implicit answers to them, of who has made more or less significant contributions to philosophy.

Cowen himself suggests the following metrics for assessing the greatness of achievers:

1. Quality of work.

2. Superiority over contemporaries.

3. Superiority over time (subsequent generations, subsequent centuries).

4. Quantity of work.

5. Peaks.

6. Consistency of work and achievement.

7. Number and degree of obstacles or other problems to solve in order to achieve so much.

8. Being so great that, eventually, one could only learn from oneself.

9. Never experiencing true “defeat”.

On those metrics, who would you pick? Or if you’d suggest alternative metrics, what are they, and what do they imply about who is among the greatest achievers in philosophy?

Readers may also be interested in this related post: “Are History’s ‘Greatest Philosophers’ All That Great?

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Marc Champagne
26 days ago

The American Aristotle, Charles Sanders Peirce.

counterpart
counterpart
26 days ago

David Lewis

PhilMath
Reply to  counterpart
26 days ago

David Lewis isn’t even the greatest achiever amongst twentieth century Americans named Lewis: that acclaim goes to C. I. Lewis!

Nathan
Nathan
Reply to  counterpart
26 days ago

Delighted that we got to the correct answer so fast.

Preston Stovall
26 days ago

Wilfrid Sellars.

zil
zil
Reply to  Preston Stovall
25 days ago

especially wrt #10: amount of gin consumed

Michel
26 days ago

I dunno about philosophers, but for the ‘of all’ portion, I submit the people who painted European caves, some of whose entrances were _under water_ at the time.

Even for those that were entirely above-ground, it’s hard to wrap my head around quite how hard it was for them to achieve what they did with what they had. And those drawings (to the extent they count as such, given their bas-relief dimensions) are really just extremely impressive.

It’s so much and such gorgeous work for places that were entered intermittently, thousands of years apart.

Last edited 26 days ago by Michel
Brandon Byrd
Brandon Byrd
26 days ago

The Greek Aristotle, Aristotle.

JDRox
JDRox
26 days ago

This seems sort obvious, but it is pretty hard of me to believe it is anyone other than Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, or Kant. But I’m using “influence” as a major metric. By the standards above maybe Leibniz and some of the other prolific Germans should be on the list.

Preston Stovall
Reply to  JDRox
26 days ago

I suppose “influence” would be number 3 in the metric above. But if subsequent thinkers can incorporate the ideas of previous figures, or develop them in ways that recognizably improve on those ideas, then the “greatest achiever” might be one who, while influenced by Aristotle or Kant, hasn’t had that much influence (yet?). We stand on the shoulders of giants, after all.

JCM
JCM
Reply to  JDRox
26 days ago

The nature of the question is such that the answer has to be obvious, and so surely one of these four is right.

m.dean
m.dean
Reply to  JDRox
25 days ago

Aquinas seems unlike the others, but otherwise this is surely correct.

JDRox
JDRox
Reply to  m.dean
23 days ago

Aquinas definitely is different in who he influenced (i.e., he has less of an influence on mainstream analytic philosophers), but the extent of his influence might even surpass Kant.

Taylor Koles
Taylor Koles
26 days ago

Assessed on a per annum basis, the honor should surely go to Frank Ramsey.

Adam Patterson
26 days ago

Marx.

Jens
Jens
Reply to  Adam Patterson
25 days ago

Plato, Aristotle and Kant only interpreted the world in different ways

Chris
Chris
26 days ago

I’m not sure he even qualifies as a philosopher, but if you put emphasis on achievement and what will still be relevant thousands of years from now, I’d go with Gödel.

Tcope
Tcope
26 days ago

David Goggins

Mark Wells
Mark Wells
25 days ago

Nāgārjuna. Or Xunzi.

Mark Wilson
Mark Wilson
25 days ago

Mario Bunge?

Clayton
Clayton
25 days ago

There’s a going theory that Nicholas Rescher is actually Leibniz and that makes the case for Leibniz all the more compelling.

Mark Wilson
Mark Wilson
Reply to  Clayton
25 days ago

Leibniz was good though!

no fun at parties
25 days ago

I don’t know who it will be, but I know it won’t be the greatness of the achiever that wins the vote, it will be the apparent cleverness of the proposal(s) for whomever.

If the vote mattered, would we get a better answer or a worse answer?

Gordon
Gordon
25 days ago

Plato and Kant, obviously!!! these newfangled examples do not meet the ‘test of time” criteria.

John Altmann
John Altmann
25 days ago

Foucault and Deleuze.

Chris
Chris
25 days ago

Aristotle; the breadth and depth and influence of his works makes it hard to imagine a competitor.

Evan
Evan
25 days ago

For quantity does work that hasn’t survived count? If so Aristotle must be out in front.

I’d put in a plea for Augustine.

Aquinas would have to be in it.

Don’t mourn, organize!
Don’t mourn, organize!
25 days ago

I wonder whether a challenge in philosophy has to do with ‘1’ (and implicitly 2-3, 6, and 8): quality of work. How much does quality map onto getting things right? Relatedly, how much does it map onto there being a consensus that you got things right?

Plato and Aristotle it seems to me got a ton of things wrong (sometimes faultlessly, sometimes perhaps not). Should that count against them with respect to ‘1?’ We don’t have Diogenes’ writings, but he was a contemporary of Plato, and if Laertius is to be trusted, maybe got some important things right that Plato missed.*

And then of course many (not all!) of those who came after Plato got less wrong, as well. So if getting things right counts, then it might count against Plato’s superiority over subsequent generations too. Could Plato have only learned from himself? Surely not (are there any philosophers for whom this is true?). But even if he could have, perhaps he shouldn’t have: maybe he should have listened more to Diogenes (and other potential interlocutors we don’t know about).

I wonder if this makes philosophy harder to evaluate in terms of greatness of achievement than science or music. Some of the comments at Cowen’s blog mention Newton and Einstein. Both seem plausible to me. For both I think there’s a consensus about just what they got right (and it was a lot, though Newton may have also gotten a lot wrong with his numerology). But the point is there’s a consensus, just as there’s a consensus about what of Newton and Einstein matters. My sense is that this kind of consensus is harder won in philosophy. Not only do we not agree on what Plato got right; we also disagree about how much what he got wrong matters for the overall picture.

What about music, where getting it right may not be a measure of quality? Perhaps we revert to judgments of taste (and idealized judgments of taste — my musicologist wife doesn’t like Mahler but recognizes his brilliance). Those, you might think, are less likely to breed consensus than judgments of philosophical accuracy. But maybe not: professional philosophers spend a lot of time analyzing what is *right* and *wrong* when we read philosophy. Musicologists don’t (as far as my wife tells me) spend a lot of time arguing about what is good/nice to listen to.

* this reminds me of a “meta” point I wanted to make that bothered me about the criteria. When a person becomes sufficiently respected, his (usually “his”) contemporaries are sometimes forgotten. It doesn’t necessarily mean he was superior to his contemporaries, it may mean that we aren’t in a position to meaningfully evaluate any comparison to his contemporaries. So I often find it difficult to form concrete opinions about how some great achiever compared to his contemporaries.

Ian Douglas Rushlau
Ian Douglas Rushlau
25 days ago

Criterion #9 strikes me as untenable; each of the four words are separately subject to challenge – ‘never’, ‘experiencing’, ‘true’ and ‘defeat’ all require more conceptual tightening and support to be useful for evaluating a person’s performance over time, and strung together, the notion that a human ‘never experienced true defeat’ seems preposterous, even if we had some agreement what constitutes a ‘true defeat’.

With regard to Bach himself, one might study every bit of biographical information we have, and not arrive at a complete picture of the experiences Bach would consider successes and failures. It also seems criterion #9 is contradicted by criterion #7,even allowing for the aforementioned porosity of definitions.

Criterion #4- Quantity?

So we need to consider the possibility that McDonald’s hamburgers are achievements, because ‘billions and billions have been served’ (for those old enough to recall the signage in the 1970’s and ’80’s, which kept a tally of the substandard patties extruded)?

Prof. Cowen might be enthralled with J.S. Bach, but one might easily choose a dozen classical and jazz composers for whom their entire musical corpus, their ‘apex’ composition, and their influence on others, exceed Bach’s work product as artistic accomplishments.

Two criteria Prof. Cowen does not include: range of types of endeavors, and enduring influence across disciplines. If these are elements of merit, one might suggest Leonardo Da Vinci has few peers in the history of European icons. Leonardo was a master in Painting (you might have heard of the Mona Lisa, which has attained some notoriety over the centuries), Sculpture, Architecture, Engineering, Biology, Physics (e.g., hydrology and optics), Anatomy, and some side gigs I’m not mentioning. His work is found in textbooks in multiple academic departments, and researchers make use of his experimental findings to this day .

And for all this, he is credited as the intellectual and artistic paragon of humanism, that is, he is considered the exemplar of an entire cultural paradigm.

But Bach is the champion of achievers?

In any event, the need to rank achievers is, of course, silly.

Ranking, on the other hand, the composition, aesthetic characteristics and overall delectability of hamburgers? That’s a worthwhile expenditure of time.

Peter
Peter
25 days ago

Among western philosophers (and assuming we are limiting ourselves to people usually categorized as philosophers above all else), I cannot see it going to anyone other than Aristotle. Mark Wells mentions Nāgārjuna and Xunzi, and I don’t know nearly enough to comment on these figures, but many of the other answers surprised me. Perhaps I am putting far too much emphasis on 2,3,7, and 8, though.

Marcos
Marcos
25 days ago

Philip Pettit. I can’t think of any contemporary philosopher who has made so many important contributions to so many different areas.

joao
joao
24 days ago

Mark Johnston (ihho)

Castorp
23 days ago

Kant

Eric
Eric
23 days ago

I’m going to make a pitch for John Stuart Mill. Excellent work, much of which stands the test of time.

Perhaps the most successful public philosopher of all time, given his interventions in newspapers and his political career. I don’t know, I think having an influence beyond the minds of other philosophers is an important benchmark for achievement (though maybe in a more diffuse way Plato would win out, then).

Donistotle
23 days ago

Many people are saying that I am the greatest achiever. Some say it’s Plato-we call him “little P”, that’s what we call him, but many people are affirming very strongly that it’s me, ok. I have the best words. My letters to Philotas were perfect, perfect, there’s no problem there, believe me.

Sever
Sever
23 days ago

Spinoza easily

Francis ZUBACK
Francis ZUBACK
22 days ago

Karl Marx.

Jackson Hawkins
Jackson Hawkins
18 days ago

Martin Heidegger must at least be in contention.

Eric M Campbell
Eric M Campbell
9 days ago

In the past several centuries, on every listed metric except for 6, Nietzsche. Moreover, his greatest philosophical works were also world-historically great works of art, with the two aspects blending and mutually reinforcing in a way not even approached by any candidate other than Plato.

And despite his status as one of the most influential philosopher of the past 200 years, we have not even begun to catch up with him, much less transcend him.

Brent Caldwell
Brent Caldwell
5 days ago

It’s Plato but that’s bc he had such an early start. There are philosophers in recent centuries that did more interesting work (in my very humble opinion as a Philosophy BA who now practices law) but even just last century it was seriously said that all of Western philosophy was footnotes on his work. Factors 3, 4, 7 and 8 are strongly in his favor. Plato is the GOAT even if he’s not my personal favorite.