I sometimes hear the question, “where are today’s great philosophers?” posed as a critique of contemporary philosophy. Yet of the explanations for the belief that “compared to the past, philosophy today lacks great thinkers,” the most plausible possibilities are compatible with philosophy being in better shape than ever.
- Time. The filter of history has yet to distinguish which of today’s philosophers will be remembered as the era’s greats.
- Naiveté. What the filter of history has selected for is not greatness, but some combination of quality and luck (accidents, biases, etc.), so the lack of identifiable greats today isn’t an indication of a relative lack of great philosophers compared to the past.
- Ignorance. Significant philosophical achievements of today may take place in much more specialized and advanced areas of inquiry compared to significant philosophical achievements of the past, areas about which those who are issuing grand critiques of philosophy or philosophers today are likely to be largely ignorant.
- Improvement. Philosophers in general are more informed (philosophically and otherwise) and better trained than those in past eras, making it more difficult for individual philosophers to stand out as noticeably from their peers.
In 2020 there are more philosophers, and more kinds of philosophers, taking up more kinds of questions in more kinds of ways than in any previous era in human history, and doing so with more knowledge of various kinds to make use of.
To criticize philosophy today by comparing it with a supposedly glorious past is to think that philosophy was somehow better when fewer people, and fewer types of people, were taking up fewer kinds of questions with fewer kinds of methods, on the basis of less knowledge about the world. That seems highly implausible.
This post is an excerpt from a longer one originally published at Daily Nous.