Favourite philosophers

July 8, 2014

Philosophy Bites is a long-running podcast which features brief discussions with academic philosophers about particular topics: Roger Scruton, for instance, on “the sacred”, or Martha Nussbaum on “the humanities”, and so forth. I don’t listen to it regularly, mostly because I do not usually recognize the names of the interlocutors (and, when I do, it is sometimes a deterrent).

Trolling through their archive recently, I did find an interesting “special edition” of the podcast in which they asked a number of philosophy professors a simple question: “Who is your favourite philosopher, and why?” I did not count the number of respondents, but there must have been roughly 100, enough for a few patterns to emerge in the answers.

To my surprise, the name cited most frequently was David Hume; he was praised for being “a good writer” — rare enough among philosophers, it is true — and for being “just plain right” and even for being “a good cook”.  Second was Aristotle. In a lower tier, but still with quite a few admirers, were Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Mill, and Kant. Nobody picked a medieval philosopher, and I was astounded that only one person named Plato.

Now, almost all of those interviewed were from American and British universities, well inside the Anglosphere, where philosophy is dominated by the analytic tradition. That might partly account for the popularity of Wittgenstein. Both Hume and Aristotle are, in a sense, “naturalistic” philosophers, intent on close observation and modest speculation, both of which qualities suit the traditional orientation of analytic philosophy toward the sciences, so that might go some distance to accounting for their high standing.

But it would be even more interesting, in light of this informal poll, to see a parallel set of responses from philosophers working in Europe. My suspicion is that the responses would be quite different: less Hume, for instance, and more Plato. But I bet that both Nietzsche and Kant would survive the channel crossing.

As for my own favourite philosopher: I’m not really sure. As I discovered some years ago while reading Copleston’s big history of philosophy, I am basically out of sympathy with most modern philosophy, from Descartes on down. I would name Plato or Aristotle — or, since he is to some extent a synthesis of the two, Aquinas. But I am not sufficiently well-educated in philosophy to be able to name a favourite with confidence.

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2 Responses to “Favourite philosophers”


  1. When I was a college freshman I took some sort of intro-to-philosophy course and liked it. Even wondered if it might be a good thing to major in. Then I took a 2-semester historical survey of philosophy, and when we got to Hume (I think it was) asserting that we really couldn’t have any confidence in causality, just because one event (you push the book on your desk) immediately precedes another (the book moves). I thought, well, this is a dead end, and decided to major in English instead. I remember writing something on the final to the effect that I was leaving for “the greener pastures of the English department,” to which the prof replied merely “?”.He had a point about the color of the grass, though I still think it was the better choice.

  2. cburrell Says:

    My own lack of enthusiasm for modern philosophy has less to do with any particular doctrine of the modern philosophers — though I am largely out of sympathy with many of those too — as with the “ambience” of modern philosophy. It quite deliberately disrupted the continuity of the philosophical tradition, and the spirit in which philosophy was done seems to me to have changed. I am more attracted to “philosophy in an old key”.


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