Think About It: The Greatest Philosophers Lists

As an introduction to my two new meta-lists of The Greatest Philosophers of All Time, I have one story and one list.

THE STORY: Almost 40 years ago, in my senior year of high school and the summer following, I had the same conversation over and over with multiple adults – mostly my relatives and my parents’ friends. It went something like this:

“Where are you going to college?”
“Oberlin.” If they recognized the name, they’d say something.  Some thought it was exclusively a music school, and I’d have to disabuse them of that idea. “It’s a small liberal arts school, about 30 miles from Cleveland – about 3,000 students. Only 500 of them are in the music conservatory.”‘
“What are you going to study?”
This is where I would get the skeptical looks, and inevitably, the question, “What are you going to DO with that?”
“I’m going to rent office space in a Manhattan skyscraper and hang a shingle on my door that says, ‘John M. Becker, Philosopher’.  And if someone needs me to do any thinking for them, I’ll charge by the hour.”
Just before I went off to college, a couple that were friends with my parents, the Frazzas, came to the house to visit.  They had a package for me.  We all sat in the kitchen while I opened it.  This is what was inside:
philosopher plaque

THE LIST:  Here is a list of some of the things I learned from majoring in philosophy:

(1) If you get to pick your premises, you can prove pretty much anything.
(2) It is much easier to find flaws in someone else’s theory than to come up with your own.
(3) Free will may be an illusion, but we have to act as if we have it.
(4) Inductive reasoning is an illusion, but somehow it still works.
(5) We don’t really know anything.
(6) Although the materialist view that only physical matter and energy exist is appealing, no philosopher has yet come up with an airtight materialist explanation for human consciousness.

Here, then, are the two new lists:

The Greatest Philosophers of All Time – Ranked
The Greatest Philosophers of All Time – Chronological

The first list is for folks who want to know which philosophers are considered the greatest of the great.  The second list is for folks who want to follow the history of philosophy from ancient times to the present.

3 thoughts on “Think About It: The Greatest Philosophers Lists

  1. Tim Murphy

    I love that story … and that plaque. It reminds me of a less-than-proud moment of mine. A couple of decades ago, I was talking with a neighbor and her college-age son. Hoping to engage the young man in conversation, I asked him what he was majoring in. He answered (of course) “Philosophy.” Without any conscious thinking on my part, the following words came spilling out of my mouth: “So you’re going to be a philosopher?” As the words were spilling out, regrets immediately sprang up within me. I asked myself: Why am I gratuitously teasing a young adult? Will he ever want to talk with me again? He handled the question, eh, stoically … while his mother laughed and exclaimed “That’s what his father always asks!” So the philosophy major learned that his father was not the only adult male jerk in the world.

  2. Kenny

    Who are your favorite 19th & 20th century philosophers? What are your thoughts on Friedrich Nietzsche?

    1. beckchris

      I like Nietzsche quite a bit – I particularly like his ideas about religion and the origins of our morality. My favorite philosophers tend to be the analytic folks: Bertrand Russell, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Gilbert Ryle, A.J. Ayer, John Searle, Daniel Dennett, Thomas Nagel, Donald Davidson. I don’t always understand everything they’re saying, but I feel like I get smarter by reading them.


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