About Rationally Speaking


Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Most overrated philosopher of the 20th century


enemyindustry.net
by Massimo Pigliucci

There is currently a Twitter survey going on to establish a list of favorite philosophers of all time, organized by Oxford University Press. I don’t know the results yet, but my entries would have to be David Hume (1st prize), Aristotle (2nd) and Bertrand Russell (3rd). The survey inspired me to use the Phi2Phi app to ask the mirror question: who are the most overrated philosophers? I wanted to keep the survey manageable, so I restricted it to 20th century philosophers who are no longer alive. Hopefully, we can assume that enough time has passed to begin to formulate a preliminary assessment of their worth. Besides, if they are dead they can’t sue...

I made it a multiple choice question, offering some provocative choices, plus a catch all (Other-please specify) category. I also tried to be even-handed between continental and analytical traditions, despite my clear leanings toward the latter. Here were the philosophers I submitted as competitors for the un-prize of most overrated during the last century:

Willard van Orman Quine, best known for his criticism of logical positivism and his push for a “naturalized” philosophy. He denied the existence of a meaningful distinction between values and facts, as well as between analytic and synthetic propositions (take that, Kant).

Ludwig Wittgenstein, had two completely different careers, the “early” Wittgenstein being a champion of the logical positivists (see above), the “late” Wittgenstein arguing that all philosophical problems are just misunderstandings of language (I’m simplifying here).

Michel Foucault, a major exponent of structuralism and post-structuralism, famous for his critiques of historical reason, particularly in his The History of Madness in the Classical Age. And for his debate with Chomsky on justice and power.

Jacques Derrida, famous for being the epitome of the obscure or obfuscating philosopher (ok, ok, that’s a bit of poisoning of the well), a deconstructionist and literary critic. As the Stanford Encyclopedia puts it: “deconstruction is relentless in [the] pursuit [of rendering justice] since justice is impossible to achieve.” Whatever that means.

Bertrand Russell, one of the founders of the modern analytical approach to philosophy, best known for his works on the philosophy of mathematics and his contributions to logic. He was the lead character in the Logicomix.

Martin Heidegger, a major practitioner of the phenomenological and existentialist approaches in philosophy, buddy of the Nazi (the well! what the well!), and a top competitor with Derrida for most obscure philosophical writer of the 20th century. He talked a lot about Being (and Time).

So far I’ve got 38 responses, plus 5 comments with alternative suggestions. If we look at the raw data, the “winner” is most definitely Derrida (15 votes). The rest are surprisingly scattered, with few votes each: Foucault (6 entries), Quine and Heidegger (4), Wittgenstein (3), and Russell (2). [1]

If we look at the comments, we find two votes for David Lewis (philosophy of language, metaethics, philosophy of mind; though his most famous contributions are in metaphysics, including his modal realism, about which Leonard has recently written). One person voted for Ayn Rand, whom I do not consider a philosopher, and who therefore shall be henceforth ignored. Another voted for Karl Popper, the philosopher of science who gave us the idea of falsifiability, and one commenter said that “Russell is the most underrated of the list,” which I took to be an anti-vote, unless the comment was meant ironically.

Now, the Phi2Phi app also allows the filtering of the data according to a number of criteria to see what certain subgroups of users think. Given the limited number of responses thus far, there is only so much data manipulation I’m willing to do, but what the heck, this is a blog, not a peer reviewed journal (though some of our readers occasionally make the mistake of confusing the two).

The most obvious filtering to be done is keeping only responses from people who are academic philosophers (both graduate students and faculty), to see if a clearer picture emerges once the field is left to the pros. Derrida still “wins,” but he is now followed closely by Foucault and then by Heidegger. That is, the continental entries in the list fared much worse than their analytical counterparts (Wittgenstein counts as both, but still). Of course, this could simply reflect continental philosophers’ antipathy for surveys (they are attempts to scientify people’s thoughts, after all!), or for apps, or for Apple devices.

Phi2Phi also allows one to filter by categories of interest. Applying the “continental” filter (i.e., leaving the field to self-professed continentalists) surprisingly yields Heidegger as the most overrated philosopher of the 20th century! [2] He was followed by Wittgenstein (also somewhat surprisingly) and Russell (perfectly predictable).

There is no “analytical” filter on the app, so I used “language + logic + science” (all favorite analytical themes) instead. The winner, once again, was Derrida, followed by Heidegger, with no votes at all for Russell.

One more twist. I wondered what users who listed science as their academic field thought of these people. There were no answers at all logged into the system.

So, let’s open it up to discussion, readers. Who do you think are the most overrated philosophers of the 20th century? And if you’d like to extend the survey to those still living, well, I’ve got a couple of suggestions there too...

———

[1] By this time I can see some eyes rolling around. Massimo, do you really think this is a scientific survey? A representative sample? No, of course I don’t. But it’s fun to think about what others are thinking, which is the whole point of the Phi2Phi app. Relax, this isn’t science. Or philosophy, really.

[2] However, the number of votes is now pretty small, so this could simply be the result of a stochastic fluctuation.

61 comments:

  1. *By whom* is Derrida "overrated" though? Certainly not, I would say, by philosophers themselves, most of whom are apt to dismiss him as an obscurantist charlatan without having made any real effort to read or understand him. Indeed, even amongst the majority of Continentalists Derrida has long since been derided (no pun intended) in favour of e.g. Deleuze and Badiou.

    More interesting than who is most overrated *in general*, I think, is who is most underrated *by other philosophers*. In that case I think a good recent candidate would be John McDowell.

    By the way Massimo, you have a typo at the end of your post: "And if you’d like to extend the survey to those still leaving [sic.]". On this you say: "I've got a couple of suggestions there too". Care to share?

    Finally, what about also doing a wee survey on the most *underrated* philosophers? I think Ernst Cassirer would be a good candidate for that, for example.

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  2. I vote for Heidegger (that is, as the most overrated). Not for actually being the worst thinker of this lot(Derrida is far inferior, philosophically speaking), but for the high ratings he got for many years among a large section of the philosophically inclined crowd.

    This suggests a methodological nicety: being the most overrated involves making and combining two assessments: what are the intrinsic qualities of the author in question, and what is the level of his prestige or renown (both in comparison to others). Thus the possibility exists that a very bad one may not be the most overrated, and the most overrated might be a relatively (or comparatively) good one.

    On the other hand, under or over ratings may change over time. The rank of Heidegger was higher in the 1960s than today, and the fame of Derrida and his deconstructionist buddies peaked in the mid 1990s before entering what seems a sustained decline.
    Thus one may ask who is more over or under rated today, or who attained the highest level of overrating at some particular time, or other variants of the question, not all leading to the same answer.

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  3. Most overrated: J. P. Sartre. His image is one of the most iconic of 20th-century philosophy yet it doesn't seem that many serious philosophers of any school take him as especially important. Derrida is far less famous than Sartre but at the same time is taken far more seriously.

    Most underrated: Ludwig Wittgenstein. Contemporary philosophy is still making the mistakes that the later Wittgenstein warned us about.

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    1. and, arguably, on the underrated side, the man of whom Sartre was jealous: Camus.

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    2. I'll go with that. Btw, I like the inclusion of Dan Dennett on your overrated list. He's vastly knowledgeable, for a Darwin impersonator, but there doesn't seem to be a lot in the way of good original ideas there. His philosophy is more a love letter to science in which knowledge accumulated over a lifetime is amorously catalogued. Saul Kripke, being nothing but originality, is sort of the opposite of Dennett, and might also be among the underrated. Sam Harris should probably not be on the list as he isn't a philosopher; he's one of those folks who comments on philosophy and philosophical matters with the attitude of being above or beyond it.

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    3. Paul, Harris' bachelor's degree is in philosophy, so that's why I placed him here. Shocking, isn't it, when you read him, to think of that, too, isn't it?

      My three main criticisms of Dennett:
      1. The "Bright" idea and then the claim that it implied nothing about theists. Lie.
      2. His refusal to accept that logically, if you reject a "Cartesian meaner," a "Cartesian free willer" has to go out the door, too.
      3. Per Darwin, his claim that evolution is algorithmic.

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    4. Paul, I agree with you about Wittgenstein. But I'm surprised he's rated as highly as he is, given how few philosophers seem to have understood and accepted his views.

      One criticism I have of Wittgenstein is that he failed to make his views clearer. I can't help feeling that he made a mistake (in Philosophical Investigations) in taking the stance that he was not presenting a positive point of view, only doing "therapy", and that this stance got in the way of more clearly explaining his view.

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  4. Nietzsche, obviously. He is a skilled writer, but strip the pretty aphorisms away and you find most of his ideas to be on the level of a garden variety angsty teenager.

    Massimo: just curious, by what process did you come up with those 5 candidates in particular? Are they people known to you to be disliked by many philosophers?

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    1. ETA: Mathematically and historically sophisticated readers will note that Nietzsche is not a 20th century philosopher. Oops.

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  5. Maybe before seeing who is most overrated, we need a survey to get an idea of where they really are rated among philosophers?

    I'd say the most "disappointing" philosophers so far are Bernard Williams and G. E. Moore. From the list, probably Wittgenstein, but I've only read EARLY Wittgenstein, so I think that makes my answer itself meaningless by any reasonable standard lol

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    1. So your thinking is perhaps that the EARLY Wittgenstein and the LATER Wittgenstein had something to do with a doppelgänger? lol

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  6. Martin "The Fuhrer alone is the present and future German reality and its law" Heidegger is the clear choice. Obscure, mystical, romantic, sometimes irrational as a philosopher;a miserable, back-stabbing, unrepentant Nazi toady as a man.

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  7. Correction to my first comment: I think McDowell is a good candidate for the most *overrated* (rather than underrated) philosopher who is still alive.

    As for my candidate for the most overrated twentieth-century philosopher, I find the question very difficult to answer for reasons hinted at by Hector M.: e.g. even if we could agree on criteria for what counts as a philosopher being too highly rated, such ratings obviously not only change over time but are also widely divergent within any given time period. For example, to take the example of Derrida again, I tend to think that in the 80s and 90s he was both overrated by many (but by no means all) Continentalists and at the same time (and indeed largely as a consequence of that) underrated by the vast majority of analytics. Similar points could be made about many other philosophers, and about changing philosophical fashions over the century in different times and places.

    However, things would obviously quickly get far too complicated if we started down that line, so to answer the question in the spirit in which I suppose it was intended, my candidate for the most overrated twentieth-century philosopher would probably be Heidegger, with Wittgenstein and Foucault tied for second place.

    As for Ian Pollock's candidate, obviously, Nietzsche was not a twentieth-century philosopher (though one could of course still make a case for him being overrated *in* the twentieth century, just as one could for e.g. Aristotle or Kant).

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    1. >As for Ian Pollock's candidate, obviously, Nietzsche was not a twentieth-century philosopher.

      It appears that I got as far as "overrated philosopher," then was so overwhelmed by my burning Nietzsche-hatred that I forgot what century he lived in.

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    2. Haha, that's okay: he was, after all, born posthumously ;-).

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  8. I vote all the above.
    Truth simply is.

    =

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  9. @Damian

    Well, if you check other entries on this blog you'll see that I don't particularly care for David Chalmers (zombies, Singularity). I may be talked into adding names over a dirty martini...

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    1. Yes, I was thinking of Dave Chalmers as well. There's a sense in which his argument in The Conscious Mind is "I can't work out how to reductively explain consciousness, so it obviously can't be done". Or perhaps he's an ironist ...

      Of those who are no longer with us I would suggest Sartre. But maybe his stock has fallen so far he doesn't count. He seems to be barely mentioned any more, whereas 40 years ago his name seemed to be all over the place.

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    2. I hadn't read your entries on Chalmers (I will search for them in a moment), but his name was certainly one of the first to spring to mind when I thought of overrated contemporary philosophers too. (I can think of far, far worse philosophers who are currently very highly rated in certain circles, mind you ... The dirty martini sounds good.)

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    3. > if you check other entries on this blog you'll see that I don't particularly care for David Chalmers.

      Well, at least that's one thing you and Eliezer have in common.

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    4. Actually (as I watch Massimo blow a gasket), I might consider Aristotle in at least my top 10, if not higher, among most **overrated.** (Of course, the mythical background of my moniker aside, Socrates, or the Socrates-Plato duo) would rank higher.

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  10. @ianpollock

    I didn't really use a systematic method for the initial list. These are just names that came to mind either because they are obviously controversial (e.g., Heidegger for analytical philosophers), or because they offered a relatively unbiased counter (Russell, who many continentals think of as the epitome of what's wrong with analytic philosophy).

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  11. It bothers me that Heidegger comes up frequently as being overrated. I’ve been attempting to contemporize a Heideggerian Marxism as an undergraduate, along the lines of Marcuse’s early work in the 30-40’s, and feel that if you can get through Heidegger’s stylistic issues there is something important in his philosophy. If you’re desire is to understand and make sense of the human experience in a concrete secular way, much of Heidegger’s work is vital and revelatory. I surely do not mean all of his work, but much of Being and Time as well as his critiques of Descartes and Kant. His personal/political life was certainly detestable (at least from 1935 on), and his pride definitely worked against his character, but to equate the quality of his philosophy with these choices is simply a bad idea.

    There is an interesting exchange of letters between Marcuse and Heidegger regarding Heidegger’s Nazism and failure to admit his errors after the war (I believe they can be found online – perhaps in JSTOR???).

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  13. Isn't this akin to asking whether someone's popularity was justified when they were popular? I'm outside this discipline, but I keep asking myself whether there is any point in asking who were the most overrated poets or novelists of the 20th century. Perhaps it would make a bit more sense to ask what poem or novel from the 20th century was the most overrated? Then again maybe I haven't read them all or understood them all? I imagine if Darwin had never existed, "Petersen" might have filled the vacancy. The fools in Shakespeare play integral parts in his plays.

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  14. Hume a definite No. 1. He is eminently readable, a bonus among philosophers. Also, with his thoughts on the self, etc., arguably the father of modern psychology, and a more distant ancestor of modern cognitive science.'
    Diogenes. Life would be more authentic if we, and the world in general, thought more like him.


    Now, a couple of underrated ones (all time, not just 20th C):

    1. Pyrrho. Pyrrhonic Skepticism influenced Hume, among others.
    2. Camus, per a comment above. More insightful than Sartre, yet barely even gets considered as a philosopher by many.
    3. Gilbert Ryle
    4. Diogenes here

    Overrated (all time, not just 20th C)?
    1. Socrates (my moniker riffing on the myth, not the reality)
    2. Plato.
    These two go together. Plato totally set up straw men for Socrates to argue against. And, one need not be Izzy Stone to see that both were antidemocratic elitists, to boot.
    3. Aristotle. Were he Jewish and 200 years older, we'd probably finger him as the author of the "P" strand of the Torah. Highly influential in terms of basic logic, yes, but, if we want to in a sense call him the first philosopher of science, he was a disaster.
    4. Dan Dennett.

    I don't think Wittgenstein was overrated. He is a mixed bag, but I"d put him in underrated, still, overall.

    OK, underrated 20th C:
    1. Camus
    2. Ryle

    Overrated, 20th C:
    1. Heidegger/Derrida/Foucault and any progeny
    2. Dennett as a special case
    3. Sam Harris and any other Gnu Atheist claiming to have disproven the existence of god

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    1. OK, Massimo, you "forced" me to write a blog post about this: http://socraticgadfly.blogspot.com/2013/01/overrated-and-underrated-philosophers.html

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    2. Good post Gadfly - Trying hard to stay out of the David vs Yudkowsky discussion a couple of comments away. My most underrated philosopher pick is Charles Peirce. Maybe he broke all kinds of new ground with his pragmatism. But to my mind, the branch of semiotics he created called semiosis makes him one of the leading lights of information - circa 1870. Then take a look at Gleick's 2011 "The Information". Shannon has over 60 references in this book, and Peirce none.

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  15. Antony Flew. (See the Philosopher's Lexicon.)

    What were the reasons given for identifying David Lewis as overrated? Was it just on the basis of his modal realism book (which, despite being seemingly crazy, I found quite interesting, especially to compare and contrast with other possible worlds approaches to semantics for modal logic such as John Pollock's in his _Foundations of Philosophical Semantics_).

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  16. A couple of general observations following on from Hector's methodological niceties. This "most overrated" game works best for artists (writers, film directors, actors...) than for technical specialists (and analytic philosophers tend in the latter direction). We don't ask, "Who was the most overrated meteorologist of the 20th century?" for example.

    On the other hand, technical specialists, while they are not often deemed to be overrated, are often deemed, quite rightly, to be underrated. (Saul Kripke might – just might – be the exception that proves the rule.)

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  17. @ianpollock

    I can imagine some of the reasons why Eliezer wouldn't like Chalmers. Then again, the latter has been enthusiastic about the Singularity...

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    1. Here is mine:

      http://rationallyspeaking.blogspot.com/2008/07/zombification-of-philosophy-of-mind.html

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    2. I did read that one a while ago, it was excellent.

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    3. I agree with you that Chalmers was out of bounds with pZombies. Same mistake/is misrepresentation as was made with with "Mary's Room." But for some reason you find Chalmer's Matrix arguments worthwhile. To me, it's the exact same misstep. That something cannot be "conclusively disproved" has zero existential import. For similar reasons, I would lump Bostrom in with Chalmers.

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    4. >That something cannot be "conclusively disproved" has zero existential import. For similar reasons, I would lump Bostrom in with Chalmers.

      Hm... whether I agree with Bostrom's conclusions or not, there is no escaping the *topic* of anthropic reasoning; one way or another we need to know how to account for observer selection bias.

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    5. There is definitely a conceptual itch that needs some scratching. Gravity, the arrow of time (aka the arrow of entropy) and the uniqueness of "now" need to be accounted for. They seem to be discontinuous with "all possible worlds" type reasoning. "Most worlds are simulations ergo I must be in a simulation" sneaks in so many assumptions. Namely that most worlds are simulated worlds (from which one can somehow make reasonable inferences about the condition of most worlds)? How is that an axium that doesn't even need to be justified? If most worlds are simulated, wouldn't they mostly be bad simulations, short-lived simulations, simulations that don't have structure and order akin the the actual world? So the SA is really an argument for giving up on trying to understand anything. It's no coincidence that anthropic reasoning also leads us to the similarly nihilistic and hopeless Doomsday Argument.

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    6. @OneDayMore - You might try to attack the gravity/now vs all possible worlds with a 'centered-world' approach (not sure I understand all of it but basically a pair consisting of a world and a 'point of view' - your thought, you, a country, doesn't matter). So you would end up with an infinite amount of centered worlds, an infinite amount of realities.

      I can see why you would think that simulation arguments et al lead to throwing up your hands and either saying - well all we have is rationality, let's build a better shared world and all that jazz, but one can also use the new stuff to shine a light on old stuff. For example if we were to conclude each 'atom' (in the computer science sense) is or generates its own world, what fascinating thing could we start learning from the soft sciences, the sociologies, the economics and the like. All of a sudden the concepts of work, friendship, hatred, etc become scientific law do they not? Or hypotheses to re-prove in light of an infinite number of the realities you just conjured.

      Its just a matter of our changing and rearranging language to ease the understanding that is to follow.

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  18. @Gadfly

    Well, glad it stimulated further discussion!

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    1. I shared your link here in a couple of groups I belong to on Facebook, humanism related ones ... you may get more visitors.

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    2. One more addition to overrated, all time? Lucretius, based on The Swerve.

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  19. To respond to KWB Dyami's question "we need a survey to get an idea of where they really are rated among philosophers?", here's a link to Leiter's most important philosopher of the last 200 years survey and you can check how they were rated and fared among professional philosophers. http://leiterreports.typepad.com/blog/2009/03/so-who-is-the-most-important-philosopher-of-the-past-200-years.html

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  20. Herbert Marcuse.

    Feeling a bit unclean from either playing this game or reading a bit of Marcuse stuff not sure which. Marxism was a very big deal 80 years ago, so one can understand how thinking people could get caught up in the currents. But this? (from a 2001 paper entitled Rethinking Reification: Marcuse, Psychoanalysis, and Gay Liberation)

    Over this twenty-year span, both before and during his sustained exploration of the revolutionary implications of psychoanalysis, Marcuse would, first of all, consistently
    link the estrangement of labor power to repression: the reification of the body under the interdependent regimes of what the Frankfurt school influentially called “instrumental reason” and of what Marcuse called procreative, “genital supremacy” required, he argued, the restriction of eroticism
    to the genital area of the body

    Triple shot of Chalmers, Derrida, and Bohm please, there is such a thing as too much coherency.

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  21. @OneDayMore

    The difference between zombies and matrix / simulation universe is that the latter are logically and metaphysically coherent, while the first one doesn't even meet that criterion, in my opinion. I'm not bothered by ideas that cannot be tested empirically, that's why I'm a philosopher. But I am bothered by incoherence or silliness...

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  22. And here is a recent survey by Philosophy Now:

    http://philosophynow.org/issues/93/Twenty-First_Anniversary_Survey

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    1. David Chalmers the second most important living philosopher?!?! (Well, as we were saying: highly overrated.)

      As for the two two lists of the 40 most important philosophers (the one linked to here and the Leiter one linked to further up the page), it's noticeable that Derrida's name does not appear on either. I mention this not because I think his name *should* appear, but because it suggests to me that when people say that they think Derrida is the "most overrated philosopher" I suspect all they really mean to say is that he's their candidate for the "most undeservedly famous" (or perhaps just their "least favourite") philosopher, i.e. because it's not at all clear that many people *do* rate him highly. After all, if Massimo's little survey were extended and it turned out that (say) 98% of philosophers think Derrida is one of the most overrated philosophers (and it wouldn't surprise me that much if this *were* the outcome), it would surely suggest, ironically, that he is *not* in fact overrated at all (i.e. because virtually nobody rates him very highly -- at least amongst philosophers)!

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  23. Update: this post has been picked by the New York Times' Stone this week:

    http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/01/16/stone-links-matchmaking-made-easy-all-too-easy/

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  24. Isn't the common thread through this that foreigners, or people who didn't write in English, are considered overrated by English speakers? In other words, people value philosophers closest to them ethnically. That seems to be the rule, with some exceptions. And it appears to explain the general tendency, better than the disparate rationalizations.

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    1. Pulling my Marcuse vote, so that is one less non-English speaker, and apologize to him/his soul for crapping on something I did not understand. Had not looked at 'post-modern' texts for some time, and now follow some of the links in those ideas.

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    2. Also apologies to Chalmers, as I've never found his stuff incoherent at all, Derrida - yes, but clearly by design, Bohm - only his defense of an objective reality :)

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  25. My vote would be either Dennett or Carnap.

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  26. This survey is too trivial to be of much value, maybe a time filler for people to vent about their pet hates, without any decisive analysis of what makes the targets overrated.

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  27. Sir the meaningful activity you are pursuing in this survey is dazzling. what will you do if you find out who is held to be the most overrated philosopher? I would be interested in knowing that. please elaborate!

    overrated needs to be analyzed by the way! do this analysis for us, its more interesting

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  28. You do realize that by conducting the poll in english on twitter: the only language in which continentalism is treated with such contempt academically, you automatically biased your poll?

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  29. To me most overrated: Aristotle and Platon - both just plain wrong and misleading others for centuries.
    On the the other hand I can read and reread anything from Heraclitus, Schopenhauer and Nagarjuna.

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  30. I just forget to say that 20th. century philosophers are overrated almost all when compared to those like Nagarjuna or Heraclitus. People like Derrida, Heidegger, Nagel, Chalmers etc are plain obscurantists.

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  31. I know Bernard Henri-Levy's body is still alive but his brain has been dead for a long, long long time.

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