"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

The top-five-philosophers meme

In response to a request from Al Kimel, the Pontificator, Dr. Scott Carson has listed his "five top philosophers" and given a reassuringly academic explanation for his selection. Taking that as the occasion to start a meme chain, Al has done the same on his own account, though without the sort of qualifications one can only expect, after all, from a professional philosopher. Since I'm one of the people he's memed, I hereby take up the challenge.

I assume that "top" means "best," at least in one's own opinion. Given as much, my list is the same as Scott's, save for his last entry: Kant. Although Kant is definitely A-list, I came away from my wrestle with him in graduate school feeling intensely disappointed and frustrated. He tries to salvage knowledge from Humean skepticism, but without reconstituting anything recognizable as realism, which means he's lost the game from the start. And many centuries after Judaism and Christianity became generally known in the world, he argued that one can demarcate something called "religion within the limits of reason alone," which turns out to be too thin a gruel to sustain anybody but a German Pietist, which he was. As far as I know, the only Pietists left today are Methodists, few of whom are German and most of whom couldn't tell you what Pietism is.

For Kant, I would substitute Hegel. Some who know me may be shocked by that, and I used to be shocked by it myself. Hegel is voluminous, pretentious, obscure, and the consummate Idealist to boot, which is almost the worst thing one can be in the cosmology of us realists. But I was moved to start reading him in the 1970s as a Columbia undergraduate by two of my professors: Robert Cumming and Sidney Morgenbesser, both of whom thought Hegel absolutely hateful but indispensable for understanding the course of all subsequent philosophy. They were right. To understand Communism, which has had a huge role in recent history, you need to understand Marx; to understand Marx, you need to understand Feuerbach; to understand either, you need to understand Hegel, against whom they were reacting even as they adopted quite substantial elements of his methodology. Moreover, Hegelian Idealism gave rise to British Idealism, against which the movements of "analytical"philosophy and logical positivism were also reactions. Those movements remain the chief influences in Anglo-American philosophy departments, though their hold has weakened somewhat over the last few generations, starting with the later Wittgenstein.

And then there's the religious angle. Hegel thought that all of reality is constituted by the dynamic triad: Divine Idea, Nature, and Absolute Spirit. The first expresses itself, and thus constitutes itself, by giving rise to the second, whose dialectical development will eventually culminate in the third. That sounded enough like the Trinity to fascinate me. Even Hegelian dialectic, which seems to be the very opposite of the perichoresis of the divine Persons, functions very much as an immanentization of the Incarnation, Passion, and Resurrection of the cosmic Christ, which in turn reveal God to us. Thus in Hegel's scheme, all negations are "antitheses" of the original "thesis", but without their cancelling each other out. Rather, what is of value in the thesis gets "sublated" by the antithesis in such a way as to re-emerge at a higher level, the "synthesis." Indeed. Life, especially the Christian life which recapitulates Christ's, is very much like that.

I often wondered why no theologian had done anything with that scheme, filtering out what's heterodox and retaining what illuminates. Actually, there was such a theologian, writing even as I was reading: Hans Urs von Balthasar. That's one of the main reasons why he's one of my favorite theologians. But that is another meme.
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