It is sometimes remarked that there seem to be far fewer philosophical Greats as of late. As Eric Schwitzgabel writes, "Now, it seems, there are no Greats though a number of Very Goods." Schwitzgabel continues:
Consider by century: It seems plausible that no philosopher of at least the past 60 years has achieved the kind of huge, broad impact of Locke, Hume, or Kant. Lewis, Quine, Rawls, and Foucault had huge impacts in clusters of areas but not across as broad a range of areas. Others like McDowell and Rorty have had substantial impact in a broad range of areas but not impact of near-Kantian magnitude. Going back another several decades we get perhaps some near misses, including Wittgenstein, Russell, Heidegger, and Nietzsche, who worked ambitiously in a wide range of areas but whose impact across that range was uneven. Going back two centuries brings in Hegel, Mill, Marx, and Comte about whom historical judgment seems to be highly spatiotemporally variable. In contrast, Locke, Hume, and Kant span a bit over a century between them. But still, three within about hundred years followed by a 200 year break with some near misses isn't really anomalous if we're comparing a peak against an ordinary run.
What's the deal? Schwitzgabel floats the following two hypotheses: increasing specialization and what he calls the "winnowing of greats at a distance"-effect (i.e. "The farther away your perspective on any body of people varying in eminence, the more isolated and comparatively great will the most eminent among them seem"). I suspect that there is probably some truth to both explanations -- yet I believe there is another hypothesis worth exploring: contemporary analytic philosophy's emphasis on rigor. Let me explain.
I have repeatedly found myself in a rather awkward position as a philosophy teacher -- a situation that I expect many readers of this blog can identify with. As a teacher, I do everything I can to drill the importance of philosophical rigor into my students' heads. I try to teach them to write clearly, logically, and persuasively, justifying each of their premises to a skeptical-but-intelligent reader. In other words, I try to instruct them in the methods and practices that contemporary analytic philosophers prize. And yet...the philosophical Greats I expose my students to rarely seem to exemplify these qualities!
Consider Kant's Groundwork. Setting aside the quality of Kant's prose, is there actually a good argument to be found anywhere in the Groundwork? It's a groundbreaking work for sure, but as far as I can tell the entire manuscript is populated with what I like to call "pu's": poor-and-unclear arguments. Kant literally makes one pu after another. For example, does he ever actually show that common moral judgments are categorical in nature? No, he simply cherry-picks a few Biblical examples (e.g. "Thou shalt not kill") and then simply asserts that, voila, morality is categorical. Or what about Kant's attempt to apply the Universal Law Formulation to a measly four simple test-cases (e.g. suicide, false promises, etc.)? A near-complete failure. Or what about the Humanity Formulation of the Categorical Imperative? Does Kant ever give a good argument for it? Nope (see e.g. section V of this paper by Sayre-McCord). Okay, then what about the supposed identity of the Categorical Imperative's various formulas? Nope. Or what about Kant's metaphysical argument (in Part III) that the Categorical Imperative is binding on us? A notorious failure. The Groundwork is a masterpiece in terms of its ideas, but its arguments? Not so much.
Kant is far from alone among the Greats in this regard. When I teach political philosophy, I carefully take my students through the usual cast of characters: Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, Locke, Mill, Rousseau, Rawls, etc. How many good arguments are there? Does Hobbes succeed in showing that a state of nature would be a state of war? No. Does Rousseau ever give a good argument for society conforming to the General Will? No. How many convincing arguments are there in Mill's Utilitarianism or On Liberty? Not many. And what about Rawls? Although he spent well over a thousand pages in A Theory of Justice and Political Liberalism laying out and refining his theory of domestic justice, his actual arguments for his principles of justice are incredibly brief (I count 16 total pages in A Theory of Justice). Worse yet, Rawls' first "argument" for his principles -- the maximin argument in section 26 of TOJ -- is not only a failure; it is not even his real argument (Rawls says maximin is only useful as a "heuristic"). His real arguments -- having to do with "strains of commitment", finality, and self-respect -- come in section 29 of TOJ, and they are notoriously brief, obscure, and lack a sustained defense.
I suspect many readers of this blog will accuse me of being grossly unfair to these Greats, and maybe I am. In any case, the question inevitably arises: what made the Greats so Great? Is it their awesomely rigorous arguments? I don't think so. It's that they had great ideas, in the sense that they saw old problems in new ways. This is what was so Earth-shattering about Kant's Groundwork, Hobbes' Leviathan, Rawls' A Theory of Justice, etc. They didn't provide great arguments (at least, not by my lights). What they did instead was show us new ways to think. They had revolutionary ideas.
But now what fosters revolutionary thought in a philosopher? Not, I think, an emphasis on rigor. Rigor and Revolutionary Thought, it seems to me, inherently pull in opposite directions. The more rigorous an argument is -- the more of a "sure thing" its premises are -- the less revolutionary it is apt to be. Rigor narrows the way we think about things. Rigor tells us: "If you can't justify each of your premises to an intelligent, skeptical reader, your argument is a non-starter." Yet, again, how many Great Works of philosophy actually satisfy this stricture of Rigor? I wager: not many.
I think we can all agree that Great Philosophy should, at least ideally, have two aspects:
1. Great ideas.
2. Rigorous arguments.
Have we over-emphasized the latter to the detriment of the former? Are we "rigor-ing" ourselves into obscurity? What thinks ye, Cocooners? Am I off my rocker?
I would like to close this post with one of my favorite passages in all of philosophy -- a passage from Simon Blackburn's review of Davidson's Truth and Predication:
Philosophers think of themselves as the guardians of reason, intent beyond other men upon care and accuracy, on following the argument wherever it leads, spotting flaws, rejecting fallacies, insisting on standards. This is how we justify ourselves as educators, and as respectable voices within the academy, or even in public life. But there is a yawning chasm between self-image and practice, and in fact it is a great mistake to think that philosophers ever gain their followings by means of compelling arguments. The truth is the reverse, that when the historical moment is right people fall in love with the conclusions, and any blemish in the argument is quickly forgiven: the most outright fallacy becomes beatified as a bold and imaginative train of thought, obscurity actually befits a deep original exploration of dim and unfamiliar interconnexions, arguments that nobody can follow at all become a brilliant roller-coaster ride towards a shift in the vocabulary, a reformulation of the problem space. Follow the star, and the raw edges will easily be tidied up later.