Over at his blog Leiter Reports, UC Chicago professor of philosophy Brian Leiter is currently conducting a very interesting poll, asking his readers to rank the 25 philosophers of “the modern era” (the last 200 years) who “have had the most pernicious influence on philosophy.” The pool of candidates comes from an earlier survey of influential philosophers, and Leiter has imposed some conditions on his respondents, asking that they only rank philosophers they have read, and only include “serious philosophers”–“no charlatans like Derrida or amateurs like Rand.” While I personally wince at Leiter’s Derrida jab (and cheer his exclusion of Rand), I think his question may be a little too academic, his field perhaps too narrow.
But the polemical idea is so compelling that I felt it worth adopting for a broader informal survey: contra Leiter, I’ve ranked five philosophers who I think have had a most pernicious influence on the world at large. I’m limiting my own choices to Western philosophers, with which I’m most familiar, though obviously by my first choice, you can tell I’ve expanded the temporal parameters. And in sporting listicle fashion, I’ve not only made a ranking, but I’ve blurbed each of my choices, inspired by this fun Neatorama post, “9 Bad Boys of Philosophy.”
While that list uses “bad” in the Michael Jackson sense, I mean it in the sense of Leiter’s “pernicious.” And though I would also include the proviso that only “serious” thinkers warrant inclusion, I don’t think this necessarily rules out anyone on the basis of academic canons of taste. One might as well include C.S. Lewis as Jean Baudrillard, both of whom tend to get dismissed in most philosophy departments. My own list surely reveals my anti-authoritarian biases, just as some others may rail at fuzzy thinking with a list of postmodernists, or socialism with a list of Marxists. This is as it should be. Defining the “bad,” after all, is bound to be a highly subjective exercise, and one about which we can and should disagree, civilly but vigorously. So with no more ado, here are my five choices for “Most Pernicious Western Philosophers.” I invite—nay urge you—to make your own lists in the comments, with explanations terse or prolix as you see fit.
The Dominican friar and author of the near-unreadably dense Summa Theologica made it his life’s work to harmonize logical Aristotelian thought and mystical Christian theology, to the detriment of both. While for Aquinas and his medieval contemporaries, natural theology represents an early attempt at empiricism, the emphasis on the “theology” meant that the West has endured centuries of spurious “proofs” of God’s existence and completely incomprehensible rationalizations of the Trinity, the virgin birth, and other miraculous tales that have no analogue in observable phenomena.
Like many church fathers before him, Thomas’s employment as a kind of Grand Inquisitor of heretics and a codifier of dogma makes me all the more averse to his thought, though much of it is admittedly of great historical import.
2. Carl Schmitt
Schmitt was a Nazi, which—as in the case of Martin Heidegger—strangely hasn’t disqualified his thought from serious appraisal across the political spectrum. But some of Schmitt’s ideas—or at least their application—are particularly troubling even when fully divorced from his personal politics. Schmitt theorized that sovereign rulers, or dictators, emerge in a “state of exception”—a security crisis with which a democratic society cannot seem to cope, but which is ripe for exploitation by domineering individuals. These “states” can legitimately appear at any time, or can be ginned up by unscrupulous rulers. The crucial insight has inspired such leftist thinkers as Walter Benjamin and theorists on the right like Leo Strauss. Its political effects are something altogether different. Writes Scott Horton in Harper’s:
It was Schmitt who, as the crown jurist of the new Nazi regime, provided the essential road map for Gleichschaltung – the leveling of opposition within Germany’s vast bureaucracy – and it was he who provided the legal tools used to transform the Weimar democracy into the Nazi nightmare that followed it.
This same road map—many have alleged—guided the unilateral suspensions of constitutional protections and human rights protocols machinated by Bush and Cheney’s Neoconservative legal advisors after 9/11, who read Schmitt thoroughly. (I intend here no direct comparison whatever between these two regimes, Godwin willing.)
3. John Locke
Though he wrote copiously on epistemology, religious toleration, education, and all sorts of other important topics, Locke is often remembered as everyone’s favorite liberal political philosopher. His anonymously published Two Treatises of Government has had an outsized influence on most modern democratic constitutions, and given his primary antagonist in the first part of that work—Sir Robert Filmer, staunch defender of the divine right of kings and natural hierarchies—Locke seems positively progressive, what with his defense of a civil society based on respect for labor and private property against the unwarranted power and abuse of the aristocracy.
But Locke’s Filmer works as something of a straw man. Examined critically, Locke is no democratic champion but an apologist for the petty tyranny of landowners who gradually eroded the commons, displaced the commoners, and seized greater and greater tracts of land in England and the colonies under the Lockean justification that a man is entitled to as much property as he can make use of. Of course, in Locke’s time, and in our own, proprietors and landowners seize and “make use of” the resources and labor of others—slaves, indigenous people, and exploited, landless workers—in order to make their extravagant claims to private property. This kind of appropriation is also enabled by Locke’s thought, since property only justly belongs to the “industrious and the rational”— characteristics that tend to get defined against their opposites (“lazy and stupid”) in any way that suits those in power.
Another darling of Enlightenment tradition, Descartes gets all the credit for founding a philosophy on radical doubt, and thereby doing away with the presuppositional theological baggage imposed on thought by scholastics like Aquinas. And yet, like Locke, Descartes gets too easy a pass for reducing his method to terms that are by no means unequivocal or universally meaningful, though he pretends that they are.
Descartes explains his method as a means of eliminating from his mind all conceptual clutter but those ideas that seem to him “clear and distinct.” Oddly the two bedrock concepts he’s left with are an unshakeable faith in his own individual ego—or soul—and the existence of a monotheistic creator-God. Thus, Descartes’ method of radical doubt leads him to reaffirm the two most core concepts of classical Western philosophy, concepts he more or less assumes on the basis of intuition—or perhaps unexamined ideological commitments.
This is a tough one, because I actually adore Kierkegaard, but I love him as a writer, not as a philosopher. His critiques of Hegel are scathing and hilarious, his takedowns of the self-satisfied Danish petit-bourgeoisie are epic, and the tonal range and ironic deftness of his numerous literary voices—personae as diverse as desert saints and scheming seducers—are unequalled.
But I recoil from the ethical philosophy of Søren Kierkegaard, as so many people recoil from Nietzsche’s brinksmanship with traditional Christian morality. Kierkegaard’s reduction of the human experience to a false choice paradigm—“Either/Or”—, his ethics of blind irrationalism couched as a justifiable leap of faith, exemplified by his glorification of Abraham’s willingness to kill his son Isaac… these things I can’t help but find abhorrent, and if I’ve ever been tempted to read them as ironic expressions of the author’s many masks, further study has robbed me of this balm. Kierkegaard the writer offers us a great deal; Kierkegaard the moral philosopher, not so much.
So there you have my list—riddled, to be sure, with inaccuracies, prejudice, and superficial misreadings, but an honest attempt nonetheless, given my inadequate philosophical training. Again I’ll say that the inclusion of any of these five names in a list of philosophers, pernicious or no, means that I believe they are all thinkers worth reading and taking seriously to some degree, even if one violently disagrees with them or finds glaring and grievous error in the midst of seas of brilliance.
Now that you’ve read my “Five Most Pernicious Philosophers,” please tell us readers, who are yours, and why? Your griping explanations can be as short or long as you see fit, and feel free to violently disagree with my hasty judgments above. Ad hominem attacks aside, it’s all within the spirit of the enterprise.