The underrated and overrated philosopher meme is going round again, and though I don’t normally join in such things, I had a good think about it on the bus today and figured I may as well put down my thoughts. The question of the most underrated is actually more difficult for me, because, even though the figures I’m most influenced by don’t obviously make for great bedfellows (Kant, Hegel, Heidegger, Deleuze, Wittgenstein, Quine, Brandom), they’re generally held in fairly high regard. An odd bunch, but hardly a minor tradition. Obviously one could say that some are underrated by certain philosophical traditions, Deleuze by the analytic tradition (despite Delanda’s fine work), or Quine by the continental tradition (despite Badiou’s scattered comments). Hegel certainly has been underrated at times, but isn’t anymore in either tradition. The only person who comes close to properly being underrated is Brandom (surprise surprise). He is becoming more popular, but I think he deserves a bit more recognition yet. He’s very popular in bits of Europe, but not so much in the US and seemingly even less in the UK (alas). I won’t go over his virtues again here, as I’ve done that plenty elsewhere.
Anyway, it seems somewhat of a cheat to pick a living philosopher, so I’ll have to make a different, if not so well informed choice: Wilfrid Sellars. I haven’t read much Sellars, but I’ve read a number of people who’re strongly influenced by him, and I’m increasingly reading more about him, largely thanks to the advice of Ray Brassier. Sellars strikes me as somewhat of the Captain Beefheart of philosophy, few people read (or listen) to him, but his influence is pervasive (at least in the analytic tradition). He has played a central role in shaping debates around rationality, normativity, perception, functionalism, naturalism, and scientific realism, and there are still potentially new insights to be found within his work. Moreover, much like Beefheart, despite his wide influence in a number of spheres, no one seems to be quite like him in the synoptic breadth of his concerns. As Ray has noted (following O’Shea I think), Sellarsians seem to split into right and left camps, either championing his metaphysical naturalism or his complex normative account of thought and action, but rarely do they adopt both at once. All in all, I intend to spend more time getting acquainted with him in the future.
However, if I could pick one underrated book, I’d go with Imre Lakatos’ Proofs and Refutations, which was the dissertation he wrote under Popper after fleeing Hungary. It is a truly remarkable book, presenting a rational reconstruction of the history of the Euler conjecture (a conjecture about the properties of polyhedra) in the form of a fictional dialogue between a number of pupils in an advanced maths class. It is like a slow motion replay of the development of the concept of polyhedra, that displays the curious interplay between inferential necessity and definitional choice that underlies the process of conceptual change. It’s followed by an essay in which Lakatos draws his conclusions, presenting his nuanced view of the philosophy of mathematics, which bleeds into his philosophy of science too (he is obviously indebted to Hegel here, although this influence was cloaked so as to appease Popper). In short, the book is incredibly accessible, even for those of us without formal mathematical training, and its profundity extends well beyond its insight into the philosophy of mathematics.
Turning to the topic of the most overrated philosopher, I think I’m not going to make any friends. I have three choices in mind. None of them are bad philosophers, and I think that they had many interesting and original ideas, some of which I even agree with. I nonetheless think they’re held in too high esteem, and I think that in each case this is because there is a diehard fan base that sees them as the be all and end all of philosophy. Part of this is that again, in each case, they are often the first philosopher people are exposed to, or at least the first that they genuinely connect with. Here we go then: Nietzsche, Sartre and Popper. I’m not sure which to pick, or how to order them, but there are additional considerations in the case of each.
I know a number of Nietzscheans who may be cursing my name at this point, so I feel I should explain why he was the first to come to my mind. My own views probably have more in common with Nietzsche than with either of the other two. I also genuinely think that Nietzsche was a very original thinker, and that he had many interesting and subtle insights. However, I also think his work is fundamentally fragmented and incomplete. Nietzsche’s work contains many interesting ideas that have subsequently been worked out better or in more detail by others, but many spend their time trying to locate finished products in Nietzsche’s writings that simply aren’t there. For example, I am one of those who thinks that Nietzsche is a metaphysician, and I also happen to think that his metaphysics of force is quite promising, but it’s at best a sketch of a metaphysics. It’s interesting to look at, but you’d be better off trying to develop it yourself than trying to find the needed details in Nietzsche. All this is made worse by the fact that one can find some evidence in Nietzsche for pretty much any position you like. This isn’t to say there aren’t good and bad interpretations of Nietzsche. It’s simply the case that his work tends to encourage diverging opinions and obsessive fidelity.
Now for my Sartrean friends. I must qualify my pick of Sartre by saying that I haven’t read the Critique of Dialectical Reason, and given that I’m well aware that this is in the running for most underrated book of philosophy, according to many, this might undermine my choice. Nonetheless, I’ll briefly explain my instinct. I’m one of those people who read Being and Time before reading Being and Nothingness, and so my reaction was largely a “So what?” when I did. I’ve had many discussions with Sartre fans about whether his account of ‘the look’ is more profound than Heidegger’s account of Mitsein, and I’ve yet to be convinced that it’s anything other than a step backwards from Heidegger. The same holds on a number of other points: Sartre’s pools of Nothingness vs. Heidegger’s Nothing, Sartre’s account of the emotions vs. Heidegger’s account of moods, Sartre’s account of bad faith vs. Heidegger’s account of inauthenticity, the list goes on. Moreover, this isn’t because I’m an unrepentant Heideggerian. I agree with Heidegger on a number of points, but don’t endorse most of his work. I’m also shave a soft spot for Levinas, who develops Heidegger in seemingly more interesting ways. If I ever read the CDR my mind may change, but I’ve yet to find reason to have the esteem or affection for him that many do.
Finally, Popper. Out of the three, Popper was actually my first philosophical hero (which might explain some things). This didn’t last all that long, but I still hold a place in my heart for him. He has some valid points, and there is a hard core of fallibilism in his position that is basically right. However, his philosophy of science has been surpassed several times over, and it’s time to move on. It’s been observed before that there are more Popperians in the sciences than there are in philosophy itself, and I suspect this is because Popper gives scientists profound and straightforward answers about what they’re engaged in. It lets them be proud practitioners of falsification and warriors against pseudoscience. Nonetheless, there’s much his ideas can’t deal with, and they were never as original as Popper made them out to be. We can and should do better.
So, there’s my thoughts on the matter. Best get to bed.