In response to a similar list posted on a blog by Brian Leiter which I found to be disturbingly skewed from the perspective of the analytic tradition in philosophy, I have decided to make my own list of the top 20 most important philosophers of the modern era. I’ll give a brief reason as to why they’re included and ranked as-is after their listing:
1. Immanuel Kant: My listing here doesn’t deviate at all with the list posted by Leiter. I don’t think there’s any reason to debate Kant’s place at #1 on any list.
2. Martin Heidegger: Heidegger is the only philosopher in the modern era who comes close to having as comprehensive a philosophical system as Kant. This is the first and possibly most substantial deviation I have from Leiter’s list. Notice Heidegger doesn’t even make that list. Unbelievable!
3. Edmund Husserl: The father of phenomenology is also not mentioned on Leiter’s list. That list isn’t even trying to hide its incredulous analytic bias. Phenomenology is kind of an important movement in the modern philosophical era– and without it, it’s probably doubtful you have a Heidegger.
4. Isaac Newton: One of the most influential thinkers and natural philosophers in history, let alone the modern era. Since he isn’t classically taught as a philosopher, per se, I can’t fault Leiter’s list for perhaps not even putting him up for consideration. I can only assume that’s the reason Newton wasn’t included.
5. David Hume: The most important and advanced of the British Empiricists, impossible to ignore his influence on anglophone philosophy, let alone on the #1 philosopher on this list, Kant (it’s also no surprise he gets placed #2 on Leiter’s posted list– so this isn’t a controversial ranking). Hume also gets points for essentially defining what it means to be intellectually honest (this is entirely my own categorization).
6. Karl Popper: Totally underappreciated. Philosopher with incredible scope, from philosophy of science to political philosophy. I’d say that he was the most important philosopher of the 20th century aside from Heidegger (Husserl lived most of his life in the 19th century). He’s essentially the uber-Hume. I think history will rank him much higher in influence and import than the credit he seems to get today (I imagine most people’s lists would not include him there). Also not mentioned on Leiter’s list.
7. Søren Kierkegaard: “The father of existentialism” is a fair label– though I think you could include Nietzsche in on the label too. His influence as a precursor for postmodern thought shouldn’t be understated either. Made Leiter’s list at #15– far too low.
8. Ludwig Wittgenstein: I struggle with how to rank Wittgenstein. I think his personal journey through philosophy essentially amounts to getting it totally wrong and then ultimately crawling his way back to square one. His genius is unquestioned and his work has been an unmatched catalysis for creative thought in the 20th century. I list him more for his later work than his earlier stuff; I’m certain that Leiter, who ranks him at #4, prefers him for the early work.
9. John Locke: Locke’s influence is pretty undeniable. As the first British Empiricist, he influenced Hume and Berkeley. His notions of the social contract and the self influenced everyone from Rousseau to Kant. Leiter’s list had him at #5, undoubtedly for most of these reasons. I’m fine with throwing him in wherever.
10. Friedrich Nietzsche: Like Kierkegaard, big early influence in existentialism and postmodernism, critical thought, etc. His influence as a cult-like figure is also worth noting. Leiter ranked him at #13, so not a big difference.
11. Jean-Paul Sartre: Sartre didn’t make Leiter’s list either. It’s a joke to me that someone like Kripke makes Leiter’s list, but not Sartre. Sartre’s influence in philosophy is well-established and he should also be noted as a cult-like figure. He basically defined existentialism (insofar as he coined the term, I mean). He loses some points because the vast majority of his major work is just a derivative of Heidegger’s– which Heidegger essentially took for rubbish. I disagree with Heidegger though: Sartre is a personal favorite. So he prominently makes the list!
12. Rene Descartes: I wouldn’t mind if someone wished to rank Descartes higher. His importance in the modern era is paramount– most historians mark Descartes as the “Father of Modern Philosophy”. So he probably at least deserves mention in the top 5, right? I ranked him lower because I think you could as easily paint Descartes as the villain of the modern era as anything else. His influence was more for the sake of rebuttal. Thus, it’s unfortunate that he is often the starting point for discussion of philosophical issues in the modern era, since in my opinion his thought lacks sophistication. Leiter ranked Descartes more predictably at #3, though.
13. Karl Marx: I don’t think it’s uncalled for to consider Marx the most important political and social philosopher of the modern era. You might make a strong case for Rousseau, Hobbes or maybe if you stretch it, Mill or Rawls too. Though Marx’s thought seems to have moved history in a way that still can’t be measured. Leiter put him at #14, so no big difference there.
14. Baruch Spinoza: Evoked by Wittgenstein, revered by Hegel and highly regarded by Nietzsche, Spinoza’s place on this list could be much higher. He might be the modern era’s most important early rationalist. Leiter placed him at #11.
15. Maurice Merleau-Ponty: Appreciation for his philosophical contributions are growing rapidly; and this is a personal favorite. Not really surprising that he’s not included on Leiter’s list.
16. Arthur Schopenhauer: One of the biggest influences on a number of names already mentioned– like Nietzsche and Wittgenstein. The quintessential pessimist, Schopenhauer is also one of the widest ranged systematic thinkers on this list– his philosophy is relevant to everything from psychology to politics, art and sex. Somehow he also avoided mention on Leiter’s list.
17. G.W.F. Hegel: I really, really dislike Hegel. But as one of the creators of German idealism, he’s been remarkably influential. I’m definitely with his detractors (Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Peirce, etc), but here he is anyway, at #17.
18. Charles Sanders Peirce: The founder of pragmatism. Difficult not to list the influence of pragmatism in the 20th century, especially in American thought.
19. Thomas Hobbes & Jean Jacques Rousseau: Yes, I’m ranking them both at 19. I don’t know which to choose. Both monumentally influential with political philosophy, but also with notions of human psychology and motivation.
20. Michel Foucault: I feel like I should include a deconstructionist somewhere on this list, and I don’t have the heart to include Derrida. Foucault is a personal favorite, particularly for his critical studies of the human sciences, and psychiatry in particular. I think he’ll be lent a lot of influence when history looks back.
The first things to clarify are the names not included on this list, but which were included on Leiter’s list: Frege, Mill, Leibniz, Russell, Berkeley, Quine, Kripke and Rawls.
First of all, Frege ranked #6 on Leiter’s list. I don’t think he belongs anywhere in the top 50. That one is the biggest joke on his list. If anything, that name at #6 is the best evidence of the list’s supreme analytic bias. As for Leibniz and Berkeley, I find most of their philosophical contributions to be patently absurd, so they don’t belong there.
I like Mill, but a top 30 list would be better fitting for him. Rawls is too specialized, only really being a political philosopher. But he’d probably make a top 30 list too.
Quine and Kripke are analytic/academic favorites, but I hardly suspect they will have enough influence to be seriously remembered with these other names as history unfolds.
That leaves an explanation for leaving off Russell: Let’s face it, Russell was more of a popularizer of philosophy than anything. In considering him, I felt more like his inclusion would be like including Carl Sagan as one of the greatest physicists of the modern era. As a logician, put him in the top 5. But logic isn’t philosophy. To Russell’s credit, he at least tried to connect the two enterprises– albeit in vain. He talked a lot about just about every other topic too, though he was hardly a system builder for any of it.
So there you have it; there’s my list. How would your list be different?