Steve Turnbull
March 2017.

Who is the most brilliant philosopher of all time?

5 answers

There are some philosophers I really love to read, such as David Hume or Bertrand Russell. There are others who capture the romantic ideal of the philosopher, and I could name Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Albert Camus. Still more I find enthralling simply because they offer very different ways of seeing the world from their predecessors: innovators such as Søren Kierkegaard or Ludwig Wittgenstein. However, if it’s a question of simply who is the greatest, most brilliant philosopher of all time, it is really hard to look beyond Aristotle.

I don’t see how anyone following could possibly match the size of his contribution to philosophical advancement. Yet he did this all 2,500 years ago, with virtually no resources by modern standards. He simply thought it all through.

Aristotle’s philosophical achievements are hard to overstate. It sometimes boggles my mind to think of how much he accomplished, given what he was building upon. What is so stunning is how much he got right. His work, I am sure, represents the greatest leap forward – the biggest addition to philosophical understanding – that we have ever had. I don’t see how anyone following could possibly match the size of his contribution to philosophical advancement. Yet he did this all 2,500 years ago, with virtually no resources by modern standards. He simply thought it all through.

As far as we know, based on the surviving fragments, his predecessors offered philosophical thinking of a rather different kind. It was poetic and unsystematic, as we find even in Plato’s dialogues. Plato did not attempt a consistent account of everything. He wrote different characters developing different ideas, with new presentations of the theory of forms from dialogue to dialogue. 

I do love to read Plato, while Aristotle’s surviving work has fewer literary merits. But Aristotle added systematicity with an approach we find recognizably analytic. He covered so much: almost everything we now count as a branch of Western philosophy is to be found somewhere in his work. And, what is equally remarkable is how much truth he uncovered. 

Of course, it’s never easy to say with certainty that philosophical ideas are correct, but, as I’ve found confirmed in the contemporary commentaries, Aristotle’s work stands the test of time. Many of his ideas are still viable. It remains worthwhile to look at his work such as the Physics, Metaphysics, Ethics, Politics, On the Soul, Generation and Corruption, Rhetoric, Categories, Prior and Posterior Analytics, and so on.

Naturally, some philosophers have made progress since Aristotle. His logic was shown to have only limited application, for instance, given that it was restricted to syllogistic arguments: those with strictly two premises and a conclusion, where each is from one of only four possible forms. We now know that there can be many more arguments than those. 

But even in this field, he has useful things to say. It is in metaphysics and philosophy of mind that I find him most inspirational, however. My own work can be placed in the Aristotelian tradition as I think that British empiricism involved many wrong turns. Even if you don’t agree with that, I think everyone has to acknowledge that the precision and subtlety of argument in Aristotle is something to which we should all aspire.

For more on Aristotle, see his Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry. 

Comment answer

What an interesting question! It invites us to wonder what constitutes brilliance in this regard. For me, philosophical brilliance comes down to a certain kind of audacity, to a philosopher’s daring to know. To dare to know is to challenge the philosophic tradition, and with it the common thought of one’s own time, including one’s own.

On this conception there have been some brilliant philosophers, for example Simone de Beauvoir. But for me the one with the strongest claim to the ‘most brilliant’ is Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951). 

Wittgenstein has been spoken of as a genius, as “the most perfect example I have ever known of genius as traditionally conceived; passionate, profound, intense, and dominating” (Bertrand Russell). Indeed the words ‘passionate’ and ‘profound’ seem apt ways of talking about Wittgenstein.

As a man he was remarkably daring. He lived with his lover Francis Skinner despite the criminalisation of homosexuality. He rejected the privileges of wealth, giving away his fortune. He taught for many years at the University of Cambridge, though at times found it a difficult place to be. He is buried in Cambridge. I sometimes call by, and there are always tributes at his grave

But enough biography! The details of a life, however remarkable, don’t establish a person’s brilliance as a philosopher (If Wittgenstein's life interests, there's an excellent biography by Ray Monk.)

Wittgenstein the philosopher was, as Russell said, “passionate and profound”. If he was a genius, he was also a revolutionary. He came to critique all of traditional philosophy, including his own earlier work. His principal works are Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921) and Philosophical Investigations (1953). To give you a glimpse into his philosophy, I shall now briefly discuss his late work on language, and how we can engage with it.

Using language is an integral part of the human condition. Wittgenstein saw that we live out our lives amid a world of language, in which we use words to do things. Ordinarily we don’t notice this; that we are doing this with words. We just get on with it. But the way we use language affects how we live and who we can be. We are as if bewitched by the practices of saying that constitute our ways of going on in the world. So, if we want to know how things are, then we need to know about the way we use words.

Wittgenstein thought that by our everyday language games we entrap ourselves, and moreover we fail to see how we are doing this.

Wittgenstein set about trying to show how ‘words are deeds’, that is, that we do something every time we use a word. And he also emphasized that what we do with words, we do with others, that ‘the “speaking” of language is part of an activity, or form of life’ (Philosophical Investigations). By our distinctively human language games, played with and among others, we make and remake the world for what it is.

Wittgenstein thought that by our everyday language games we entrap ourselves, and moreover we fail to see how we are doing this. So he undertook an intense sort of self-scrutiny, looking keenly at the ways we use language to do mundane things, things like telling the time, doing sums, or hoping that someone will come and visit. He also remarked how resistant we can be to recognizing things for what they are.

In the darkness of these times, the brilliance of Wittgenstein challenges us to look to what we are doing in the language games we play. He painstakingly shows how the basis for what we use as language is provided by shifting patterns of communal activity. This means that language is contingent and provisional, so language-games can’t but be open to change. So if we want to change how things are, we might change the way we use words. 

But can language games set us free? There are no ready answers.. Let’s consider an example. Wittgenstein wonders what, if anything, changes when you change the way you look at something. He gives us a little thought experiment, thus:

This is the famous duck-rabbit from Philosophical Investigations. Look at the picture, and you can see it as a duck. Look again, and you can see it as a rabbit. Language games are games played by humans. This means we are able to notice what is going on when we choose to see things as this, or as that, and to say that they are this, or that.

A contemporary example is the controversy over all-male speaker events. You can look at the line-up and say ‘a panel of experts’, or you can say ‘panel’ (this is a word used to designate a male-only speaker panel, a phenomenon that is unfortunately still all too common). But is it only a manel if you choose to see it that way? Indeed Wittgenstein had an eye for this kind of thing himself, once saying ‘I was looking at a picture of the British Cabinet and I thought to myself, “a lot of wealthy old men”’.

The manel example invites us to question what we take to be given in everyday uses of language. And it asks us to wonder what changes when we call out a manel? It is not just to see it differently, but to say it differently, an act which changes how it is, for oneself at any rate. It is not a ‘panel’; it is a ‘manel’. This is to resist how things are, and to open up the possibilities of change.

So in my view Wittgenstein was both a brilliant philosopher, and one whose brilliance speaks to us with passion and profundity in these dark times.

Sandy Grant is a philosopher at the University of Cambridge. She tweets at @TheSandyGrant. For a more in-depth discussion of Wittgenstein's conception of 'language games' see her article How playing Wittgensteinian language-games can set us free

The duck/rabbit is always taken in the wrong way as are most Wittgenstein ideas.
It's strange therefore why he should be considered as the brightest, though he is. 
Comment answer

Who is the most brilliant philosopher of all time?

It’s a question that forces us to try to answer what can’t be answered. This can be a healthy exercise if we look beyond the unhealthy part—ranking everything, which is so popular today. Still, we can begin with what makes a philosopher brilliant: his or her capacity to think. This is what makes me see, notice, and become aware of things that I can only perceive with their help. Their brilliance lies in the fact that the only true form of creation is the act of thinking. Those closest to my mind, I find, are Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, but, without doubt, the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze is the one I have found to be the most brilliant. He is original in an extremely creative, yet compassionate and caring way. He is ethical without being normative—which I’ll get back to later.

Unlike most thinkers in the French post-World War II period, he didn’t return to Heidegger but, instead, dealt with Hume and Bergson, as well as Nietzsche and Spinoza. However, what makes him most interesting, among other things, is that he operates within a metaphysic of change or becoming, whereby he avoids the question of being that typically breaks the flow of our thoughts. Becoming is liberating since it resists the existing ideals and norms—or, at least, it doesn’t stop with them—and it is liberating because it dares to imagine another future. Deleuze resists this quagmire because he challenges how we tend to see thing, including challenging the history of philosophy. He even reads Nietzsche and the novelist Proust in a new way.

Deleuze is also ethical because of his utopian philosophy, in which utopia isn’t a good place that is inexistent but rather a now-here place. By paying attention to what happens now, he can decide what to actualize, that is, what to pass on to the next generation. He never settles, which to some can seem stressful and strenuous, but the point is that he can go on thinking. He frees what is kept imprisoned, for example, rigid identities or ideologies and ways of assuming how things are. In his book on Nietzsche, Deleuze writes, “The world is neither true nor real but living.” He then goes on to say that the living world is the will to power, which he translates into a will to create, that is, a will to evaluate, decipher, explicate, and, in short, to think.

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