The greatest thinker of our time?
September 3, 2002 2:15 PM   Subscribe

The greatest thinker of our time? Will Self thinks so in this interview with Philosopher John Gray. Not everyone agrees, which suggests a question. Who are the really great thinkers of our time? Suggestions ....?.
posted by grahamwell (46 comments total)
Will Self is a prep school wannabe, ad hominem/heroin fallacy aside. And while Mishima and Foucalt have solid ideas, and can't seem to stop thinking Lou Reed's Sister Ray is the greatest work of the 20th century. . .
posted by plexi at 2:30 PM on September 3, 2002

Kurt Cobain? Seriously, Donald Davidson deserves a nod. He's a more "pure" philosopher; relying more on logical predilection than supposition of contraries, as Gray does. As philosophers go, Davidson participates in the dialectic, Gray makes fun of it.

My favorite quote from the article:

But the supposition that humans are like other animals is just that - a supposition. Gray, like so many before him, has surreptitiously elevated it to a metaphysical truth. Science has been transformed into mythology.

On kinda a meta-note, isn't this post a little too much like a "what's your favorite ice-cream" type thingy? That having been said, I'm still glad it was posted.
posted by Wulfgar! at 2:34 PM on September 3, 2002

Secularism is like chastity, a condition defined by what it denies.

Much the same could be said of John Gray's philosophy. Stuart Hampshire comes to mind as a good 'un.
posted by liam at 2:40 PM on September 3, 2002

Certainly not me, judging from the extreme disapproval for my stupid post. Sorry about that. Great thinker? I don't know, maybe John Searle.
Remember, you can make a computer if you have enough beer cans.
posted by caustic at 2:46 PM on September 3, 2002

Wendell Berry.
posted by ceiriog at 2:55 PM on September 3, 2002

A Beautiful Mind aside, John Nash did a whole lot to change the way most everything having to do with quantitative decision-making is done. What makes someone great, though? Their influence, or purely their thought capacity? How do you compare Faulkner and Wittgenstein? Not that you'd even try to rank them; before you talk about who are the great minds, what are the criteria?
posted by risenc at 2:57 PM on September 3, 2002

I'll nominate Dan Dennett. I have to confess I'm biased - he was my prof back in the day...

He's an amazingly flexible, innovative thinker, branching out from traditional philosophy to Darwinism, cog. sci., AI, and just about anything else that catches his attention. Darwin's Dangerous Idea is a terrific book, as is the influential The Intentional Stance and several others.

In a world where philosophers were pop stars, he'd probably be Prince; entertaining and versatile but with an unmistakably unique groove.
posted by adameft at 3:18 PM on September 3, 2002

Wait. Isn't John Gray that Men are from Mars Women are from Venus and intelligent people who don't lump everyone into gender are from Uranus? Or something? I wouldn't call that dude's grey matter great. Grade A choice beef maybe. wif a lotta fat innit.

Great thinkers of our time? What does our time mean? Alive? Or just those within the past century or so? I'd have to go with Mark Twain, Will Rogers, Groucho Marx, Dr. William Cosby, George Carlin, Lenny Bruce, Steve Allen, Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Buddy Hacket, Woody Allen... Okay. maybe not Buddy Hacket.

and Henry David Thoreau.

Hmm... no women in my list. Ack! I'm a sexist pig from Mars! Somebody shoot me!
posted by ZachsMind at 3:19 PM on September 3, 2002

posted by Wulfgar! at 3:23 PM on September 3, 2002

I sort of like the subtle thinking of Pres. Bush...his irony masks what many take as silly or simplistic....he is very deep.
posted by Postroad at 3:34 PM on September 3, 2002

*turns gun on Postroad*

posted by Wulfgar! at 3:37 PM on September 3, 2002

Gene Ray.
posted by homunculus at 3:55 PM on September 3, 2002

Buckminister Fuller
Bertrand Russell
Noam Chomsky(*)
Richard Dawkins

(*) -- I don't care if you don't like his politics, his linguistic research alone qualifies him.
posted by RavinDave at 4:26 PM on September 3, 2002

I'm reading Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy by Michael Polanyi. It's meaty stuff.
posted by tbc at 4:26 PM on September 3, 2002

Douglas Hofstadter. Of Godel, Escher, Bach fame.

I wish Philosophers were like rock stars, or better yet, sports stars. Maybe I would have stayed in college. I always wanted to be the first philosopher sponsored by Nike. Just Think It.

I could wear little Jesus shoes with a swoosh on them.
posted by jopreacher at 4:38 PM on September 3, 2002

I like Bill Hicks myself. Self described as "Chomsky with dick jokes" (in reference to his politics).
posted by the biscuit man at 4:39 PM on September 3, 2002

chomskykanna hat company....slowly i turned....step by step....
posted by clavdivs at 4:45 PM on September 3, 2002

Edward O Wilson.
posted by brookish at 5:09 PM on September 3, 2002

I would second the nominations of Daniel C Dennett and Douglas Hofstadter and vote for either one on a given day.
posted by BoatMeme at 5:12 PM on September 3, 2002

See, I was going to say Hofstadter of GEB and Metamagical Themas fame, but I've been beaten to the punch. Twice, even, by the time I get to press the Preview button.
posted by majick at 5:13 PM on September 3, 2002

Ooh, can I change my vote? jopreacher's right. Hofstadter. All. The. Way. GEB will be read for centuries to come.
posted by risenc at 5:26 PM on September 3, 2002

Stephen Wolfram
posted by Coop at 5:30 PM on September 3, 2002

Noam Chomsky? Sure, if our brains really were made of silicon...and Marxism was viable.

Wendell Berry? Great novelist, but do you really yearn to be a Jeffersonian small farmer?

Donald Davidson? I question the very idea that anyone reads him. (that's a joke, by the way...)

Dan Dennett? Sure, if a cinematic conception of mind was more than a metaphor.

Bertrand Russell? Even the pedant Wittgenstein outgrew him.

From Dennett's Philosophical Lexicon:
foucault, n. A howler, an insane mistake. "I'm afraid I've committed an egregious foucault."
My choice: Ken Wilber.

Also: Heidegger, Einstein, Gandhi, Aurobindo, Freud, Rilke, McLuhan, Fuller, Robert Wright (some of which are scientists or poets with philosophical significance--they should count.)

[Note: I have yet to read Hofstadter]
posted by goethean at 5:44 PM on September 3, 2002

what has hofstadter done? written a book popularising an idea that was brilliant, but by someone else, and some artificial intelligence work that he thinks should be better respected. if that's the work of the greatest mind alive, it's a bit of a bummer. not that i can think of a good answer myself - i'd prefer dennett to hofstadter, but is he really even the best philosopher, never mind the "best mind"? quine, maybe, but he just died. how about some microbologist that i've never heard of? or, for an outside shot (albeit one with a greater claim to the spirit of godel than hofstadter), how about chaitin? i think chomsky gets my vote, reluctantly.

(on preview - i have the impression that wolfram seems to think he should get the nomination. i hope that excludes him.)
posted by andrew cooke at 5:46 PM on September 3, 2002

I'm a little surprised no one has mentioned BillG. After all, as Gray points out we are in an age where money is everything. Accordingly, the smartest/best thinker would go after the $$$. No one has done so more successfully than BillG and he has done so by creating real products (even if he didn't invent them, he got the job done).

One might say that adjust for inflation, WarrenB (BillG's best friend, BTW) is the winner of this race but he was a financial engineer and I'm discounting that on principle.

Why would the best thinker of our age be a philospher or even an author?
posted by billsaysthis at 6:05 PM on September 3, 2002

i'm going to go with Jon Stewart on this one. Or perhaps Eddie Izzard.
Such brilliance.

On a slightly more serious note, what about Stephen Hawking? That dude seems pretty smart.
posted by quin at 6:36 PM on September 3, 2002

Robert Anton Wilson, Richard Feynman, Bill Hicks, Bucky Fuller, and Rudy Rucker make my short list.

quin: Hawking is unarguably a very, very, very smart guy, but as far as physicists go, he's not sitting in Caesars box at the colliseum. His fame is due more to his condition than his talents.
posted by bunnytricks at 7:23 PM on September 3, 2002

Not to diss anyone's choices at all, but I've got to say that I once listened to Wilson spout Mondo 2000/Jaron Lanier-style cliches for an hour or so about the coming information apocalypse. Everything in the world was information, he said, and each year the total amount of information increased and one of these days (ripping off Vernor Vinge's notion of the singularity or maybe Teilhard de Chardin's vision of the noosphere) all this information would wake up and discover itself. Afterwards I asked Wilson how and in what unit he was measuring all this information in and he just waved his hand and said something like "Another non-believer, eh!" Wilson's another Tim Leary--a great showman and populizer but I have a hard time seeing him as an especially great mind.

I'm pretty sure there isn't a greatest mind because minds work in so many different ways. But offhand a few of my candidates for great minds might be Alasdair MacIntyre, Amartya Sen, Martha Nussbaum, or Linus Pauling--if he were still alive.

Re: Gray: The stoicism of educated, well-off, first world authors in the face of someone else's catastrophe doesn't impress me. But I am amused that not even one of Thatcher's cheerleaders particularly wanted to live in her country if he could help it.
posted by octobersurprise at 8:38 PM on September 3, 2002

Douglas Adams.

Comedy. Satire. Political and social commentary. Philosphy.

One of the greatest minds *ever*.
posted by jaded at 8:42 PM on September 3, 2002

Donald Davidson? I question the very idea that anyone reads him. (that's a joke, by the way...)

Heh, well somebody did, hhmmmmm?
posted by Wulfgar! at 9:36 PM on September 3, 2002

OK, since you asked (not), the joke is that the title of the essay that made Davidson famous is: "On the very idea of a conceptual scheme".
posted by goethean at 10:22 PM on September 3, 2002

William McDonough. Expand your mind and listen to an interview with him next week.
posted by euphorb at 10:28 PM on September 3, 2002

I'm more of an overall impact and influence on the general public kind of guy. I find little use for philosophies the common man cannot grasp.

It's going to sound juvenile, but Bill Watterson is my hero.

Great thinker? No, but he made a lot of kids like me actually think for the first time. That's worth something, isn't it? I wrote a 15 page paper about the philosophy and interpretation of selected Calvin and Hobbes strips for an Honors Philosophy course, and I was pleasantly surprised to have it well received. The professor was pretty sick of reading stacks and stacks of useless philosophical drivel. He found my conclusions charming.

Enough about me, just wanted to give more credit to the non-academia thinkers.
posted by Stan Chin at 10:42 PM on September 3, 2002

Oh, allow me to add Howard Bloom to my list of greatest thinkers of our time. I've no idea how I overlooked him.
posted by bunnytricks at 10:47 PM on September 3, 2002

T. Pynchon.
posted by davidgentle at 11:08 PM on September 3, 2002

I don't know about "greatest" in general, but Richard Rorty (or here) would have to be among the ones that have had the greatest (direct, observable) impact on my own thinking. and he tops my list of people I wish had a wider influence on thinking in general.
posted by wheat at 4:43 AM on September 4, 2002

Stuart Kauffman. Of course, it will probably be decades before his speculations are proven right, but that just means that now is a good time to get my bets down.
posted by fuzz at 4:46 AM on September 4, 2002

Greatest thinker? I tend to tune into my own thoughts rather than anyone elses.
posted by SpaceCadet at 4:58 AM on September 4, 2002

SapceCadet, what on earth does that mean? You saying that you just sat down one day and wrote your website and it happened to work? Or you learnt from somewhere else? Presumably the latter. Doesn't mean that site doesn't reflect you. Doesn't mean that site isn't original. So what you going to do when you're faced with a difficult (for example) moral problem? Just sit down and decide something? WTF? You spend time and effort learning a lot of background to produce excellent work on the 'net, but when it comes to making moral decisions you'll just rely on your native wit? What makes philosophy such a low priority for you? You think you can dash of the best minds of the last few millenia by scratching your head between a couple of beers? How come your work gets so much respect, but your life is left to muddle it's way along?

There's three different attitudes:
1 - hard problems are hard. Build on the work of others.
2 - hard problems are gard. Copy others.
3 - screw the hard problems, I'm an individual.

Suggesting candidates for great thinkers can be either 1 or 2. I presume most people here are 1. Are you taking a shot at 2? 'Cos it sounds like you missed and hit 3...
posted by andrew cooke at 5:12 AM on September 4, 2002

yeah, howard bloom :) he emailed me onetime!

now i'm like thinking of some subset of the disinfo dossier and edge thinkers...

just sat down one day and wrote your website and it happened to work

or like ted nelson or donald knuth for computer science...

or andrew wiles or whoever proves the riemann hypothesis or something (like figuring out a replacement for the standard model :) i dunno... that changes everything!

my money's on tsallis tho :) or artur yo!
posted by kliuless at 6:51 AM on September 4, 2002

OR! why would it have to even be human to qualify?

earth simulator: 42 :)
posted by kliuless at 7:02 AM on September 4, 2002

Were I looking for great thinkers, I'd certainly consider options beyond Self.
posted by aladfar at 7:34 AM on September 4, 2002

Howard Bloom, absolutely. And just to shake it up and get a woman's name up here - Camille Paglia - before the media seduced her.
posted by rainbaby at 8:39 AM on September 4, 2002

Robert Anton Wilson, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Hans Urs von Balthazar, Roger Scruton, Ken Iverson, Alexandr Men, Brand Blanshard, Mortimer Adler...
posted by arisbe at 1:31 PM on September 4, 2002

Don Cherry
posted by Coop at 6:59 PM on September 4, 2002

GK Chesterton.
posted by walrus at 5:26 AM on September 6, 2002

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