Staff Top 10
Top Ten Least Favorite Philosophers

a short time ago, I did my Top Ten Favourite Philosophers in this space. As I’d hoped, it got some good discussion going in the comments section. Since it went so well, I figured I’d do a list of my least favorite thinkers as well.

Even more so than last time, I have to emphasize that just because I dislike a philosopher does not necessarily mean I think they’re worthless. This is least favorite, not worst. It doesn’t even necessarily mean I think they’ve gotten things wrong, as you’ll see from the list. It was actually a lot harder to come up with this list than the last, because aside from a few thinkers I’ve had grudges against for years, I had to pull out all of my old textbooks and go searching for people. As before, the only order these ten are in is historical.

1. Anaxagoras of Clazomenae (500-428 BCE)
On the one hand, ol’ Anaxagoras (say it ten times fast!) did reject any distinction between appearance and reality, which is kind of neat (if, I think, ultimately untenable). But he also was the first Western thinker to draw a distinction between matter as inert, boring lump and mind as active organizing principle. Ah, you might say, what’s wrong with that, but it leads to us, thousands of years later, having all sorts of silly debates about how our minds connect to matter. I don’t agree with Anaxagoras, so on to the list he goes.

2. Rene Descartes (1596-1650 CE)
Don’t get me wrong: A lovely man by all accounts, and a brilliant mathematician, but an overrated philosopher. Yes, he has his famous (and faulty) cogito ergo sum, but he was just restating the work of earlier Christian thinkers. He was, however, a much more entertaining writer than those thinkers, so he gets the glory. Fair enough. What I don’t like about him is how he messed around with words. These days, I might ask you something like “what substance is that chair made of?” and it’s a perfectly legitimate question. Which is fine, but Spinoza or Aristotle used the words that we translate as “substance” in a wholly different way than Descartes did. The problem being, of course, Descartes’ conception is the one that persisted into the modern day, and so now when most people go back to read Spinoza, Aristotle, and a host of other ancient thinkers, they look either crazy or stupid. All of which probably wasn’t what Descartes intended, but who else do I blame? Inadvertently or not, he’s caused an awful lot of damage to those older thinkers.

3. Immanuel Kant (1724-1804 CE)
Again, by all accounts a very nice man, and in his case even a bona fide genius–but as boring as watching the proverbial paint dry. In his Prolegomena, Kant himself admits that reading his work is “a disagreeable task, because the work is dry, obscure, opposed to all ordinary notions, and moreover long-winded”. I give him credit for the self-awareness, and for the fact that he wrote like that because he felt it necessary to get his metaphysical project off the ground (“popularity may follow, but is inadmissible at the beginning” he said), but sweet monkey Jesus is his stuff hard to read. And, of course, he is such a foundational thinker for so many who came after that we all have to read him anyway…

4. Gottlob Frege (1848-1925 CE)
Poor Gottlob. He slaved for years over his “Begriffsschrift” (German for “concept-language”), attempting to create a perfect system of language so people could talk to one another and actually understand what the other meant with no possibility of mistake. The Begriffsschrift was also intended to take the place of Aristotelian logic, which had been working hard for a few thousand years and needed a rest. He failed at both, although modern symbolic logic does look to Frege as its father. The problem is, as much as I realize its value and potency, I hate symbolic logic, because I am awful at it. I couldn’t do it properly if I had a gun to my head. And a few years ago I had to wade through the Begriffsschrift, still one of the most confusingly distressing academic experiences in my life. If you’re into analytic philosophy you’d probably like Frege, but as for me I’d just as soon never see his name again.

5. Martin Heidegger (1889-1976 CE)
Let’s leave aside the Nazi thing, for two important reasons: First of all, it’s near impossible to calmly discuss that sort of thing, and secondly I disliked Heidegger immensely before I ever read the bits of work where he praises the National Socialists. Besides, the party line on Heidegger’s life is riddled with lies (despite what most will tell you, he was never an actual student of Edmund Husserl, and by the time of Husserl’s death he was denouncing Heidegger to anyone who would listen). He invented something most of the academic world calls phenomenology, which is interesting but not really phenomenology; Being And Time (which was never finished) is pretty much the only solid piece of work he ever did, and (like Sartre) he mistook psychological insights for ontological ones. Now, some of those insights are pretty keen, and Being And Time is something more people should read, but Heidegger somehow wound up being the most important, most lauded and most influential thinker of the last century. This is a damned shame and has done more harm to non-analytic philosophy than just about anything else. A minor thinker, blown way out of proportion, which was just the way Heidegger liked it. Also, especially in his later writings, an incredibly pompous, deliberately obscure, pseudo-profound windbag.

6. Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951 CE)
Born the same year as Heidegger, but far smarter and generally an all around better person, Wittgenstein unfortunately started a couple of trends that I find abhorrent. For starters, he claimed that anything that cannot be talked about in a logical way is unintelligible nonsense, it means nothing. This cuts us off from, among other things, love, art and much of philosophy. He’s also lurking behind the idea that our consciousnesses are necessarily structured by language; that is, that we cannot think about anything pre-language or separate from it. My experiences with music (among other things) tell me these simply aren’t true, but Wittgenstein’s followers have constructed an airtight logical box within which they are happy to remain and wag disapproving fingers at all those of us doing things they tell us it’s impossible for us to do. Luckily, Wittgenstein came to the conclusion that he was trying to be too precise in his later life, and later Wittgenstein (though still belonging to a tradition I have little personal interest in) is excellent.

7. Leo Strauss (1899-1973 CE)
The sound bite on Strauss right now is this: The philosopher behind the Bush administration. This is basically correct. Strauss believed that democracy was too good for the people, that the elite must and should tell whatever lies they can to keep power (because they are superior), and that all good philosophers obscure their thought in their writings so only a chosen elite few can understand them. If that all sounds like a good idea to you, please stay away from me. One of the biggest beefs I have with Heidegger, Strauss and others is that I (naively?) believe that even very difficult thought can be properly communicated through relatively clear language. In Strauss’ case, he thinks the majority of humanity is too stupid to understand him.

8. Ayn Rand (1905-1982 CE)
A bit of a ringer, I’ll admit. But as long as my local Chapters continues to file her in the philosophy section, I’ll keep pointing out how bad she was. Putting her next to real philosophers is like filing Dianetics in the religion section; Objectivism just happens to be a more benign cult than Scientology. Admittedly it’s possible to like Rand’s ideas without subscribing to the idea that the woman herself was infallible (which she demanded all of her followers do), but the idea of selfishness as the highest human ideal doesn’t sit well with me. Yes, her nonfiction books were often works of philosophy, albeit bad, sloppy philosophy, but we don’t stock the rantings of any other dead cult leaders in that section, whether they could technically count as philosophy, so why Rand?

9. A.J. Ayer (1910-1989 CE)
Ayer is a bit of a stalking horse for me, but I wanted to do ten individuals, not groups, so he gets to stand in for the logical positivists as a whole. His Language, Truth And Logic did sum up the group’s beliefs pretty succinctly, after all: Verifiability being the only criteria of worth, a complete rejection of all branches of philosophy except logic (metaphysics is meaningless, aesthetics and ethics are meaningless due to subjectivity, and so on), and emphasis on logic and scientific thinking above all else. Although I don’t like trying to use the symbolic language, I’m all for logic–but saying that it is valid and everything else isn’t is as stupid as the converse. While I disagree with those who claim that analytic philosophy is useless, Ayer and his pals piss me off more because my prime interests lie in ontology and aesthetics, and I think most of us don’t like it when we’re told our field of study is utterly meaningless.

10. Judith Butler (1956- CE)
I don’t dislike Judith Butler. I think she’s one of the more intelligent people writing today, even if I only agree with her conclusions some of the time (I think). The reason she’s here, though, is that it is so hard to figure out what her conclusions are. Martha Nussbaum’s excellent essay ”The Professor Of Parody” offers the best example of this:

“Last year Butler won the first prize in the annual Bad Writing Contest sponsored by the journal Philosophy and Literature, for the following sentence:
The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.
Now, Butler might have written: ‘Marxist accounts, focusing on capital as the central force structuring social relations, depicted the operations of that force as everywhere uniform. By contrast, Althusserian accounts, focusing on power, see the operations of that force as variegated and as shifting over time.’ Instead, she prefers a verbosity that causes the reader to expend so much effort in deciphering her prose that little energy is left for assessing the truth of the claims.”

Being brilliant is no excuse for bad writing. If Butler was a more lucid stylist she might even have made my other top ten list, but as long as she coats everything she does in a thick layer of jargon she stays on this one instead.

By: Ian Mathers
Published on: 2004-06-09
Comments (13)

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