Who Are the Most Pernicious Thinkers? A List of Five Bad Western Philosophers: Name Your Own

Aquinas

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.

1. Thomas Aquinas

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.

4. Rene Descartes

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.

5. Søren Kierkegaard

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.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.



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by | Permalink | Comments (30) |

  • Jason

    Derrida-phobia is a pathetic illness of ‘cool dudes’ like Leiter. Its better that leiter stick to philosophy of law and play with Nietzsche’s thoughts since that is all he can do. I am dead sure he has not read Derrida, and will not be able to understand him even if he does, since it is a bit difficult for his tiny brain. Leiter is a pathetic charlatan himself, a dismal moron craving to label Nietzsche as analytic.

  • Dean

    You probably expected some backlash by fanboys, so I’ll meet that expectation and say your reading of Kierkegaard is too reductionistic and it seems you’ve fallen for the joke of the pseudonyms. Reading some articles by K. commentator Edward F. Mooney might help to ease some of your fears.

  • Hal O’Brien

    I’ve met Derrida. “Charlatan” isn’t right; “satirist” comes closer to the mark. It became clear in our discussions that he was being very playful, and was genuinely bemused at the earnestness of his American hosts in taking him so seriously — much more so than he took himself or his writings. But if they were willing to pay for him to winter in Irvine, Calif., he was willing to put up with such earnestness, however misplaced he believed it to be.

  • Andrew Varnell

    Or just a list of my favorite thinkers in order…

  • avtar

    I’m not sure if I’m a fan of this list. Also, I’m sad that Ayn Rand isn’t at the top of the list.

  • Adrian Turcu

    John Locke?
    Not Marx, not Malthus?
    The revisionism is strong with this one.

  • Aidan Wright

    I am not much for the term “pernicious”. It is a bit too alarmist for my taste. I do agree with you, however, in that this is largely a subjective endeavor. In reality it is more of a listing of philosophers you dislike or disagree with rather than those who are “pernicious” the the world of philosophy. If “pernicious” is to be used, then I can’t imagine why you wouldn’t include Nietzsche. I very much enjoy reading Nietzsche but there is no doubt that his philosophy greatly influenced much of the 20th century dictatorial violence, and so his omission in this list is curious indeed. The list would be better if it focused on either “poor” philosophies of “pernicious” philosophies.

    In any case, keep posting things like this because they are very interesting!

    -AW

  • Shaun

    I agree with AW in the misreading of the title, these philosophers where more poor than pernicious, at least for what is obvious to me.

    Jean Jacque Rosseau for example was not much of a philosopher. He had a way with words and noble sentiments regarding what man should be. But a reading of his philosophy requires a slight suspension of logic. Nevertheless, how much good has he done! It may be incalculable. The number of freedom fighters and liberal academics he’s encouraged with his way of words must have little parallel in the world.

    Plato and Aristotle – how much evil has their philosophies encouraged? Their anti-englightenment ideas used by the church for millenia to keep a logic over experiment philosophy.

    Fichte and Nietzsche contributed to much of the Nazi way of thought. Even if Nietzsche was misinterpreted, he was undoubtedly pernicious.

    Interesting read though.

    PS One last thought. Without Kierkegaard, we would not have Sartre in the same way we do. That’s got to be worth his knights of faith!

  • Shaun

    PPS: Here’s a quote from Carl Sagan on Aristotle and Plato. “They were both comfortable in a slave society, they offered justifications for oppression, they served tyrants, they taught the alienation of the body from the mind…They separated thought from matter, they divorced the Earth from the heavens.”

  • sgtoox

    Apprently Sagan never read a word of Aristotle,as his entire philosophy revolves around proving that there is not true separation of body and mind, form and matter. His set himself up over and against Plato’s thought in that regard. But yes, lets listen to a popular intellectual from cosmology tell us about philosophical history….

  • Lev Lafayette

    I reject your assessment of Locke being “..an apologist for the petty tyranny of landowners who gradually eroded the commons”.

    On the contrary Locke established a very strong provisio that land could only be claimed homesteading could only be justified where “…at least where there is enough, and as good, left in common for others”.

    Now, he can certainly be blamed for not elaborating the economic consequences of such a ontological requirement. But you can see Locke’s thoughts on the matter through economists such as Smith, Ricardo, Mill and others, all who effectively demanded the abolition of landlordism.

  • HeroAdAbsurdum

    Hegel. I’d explain why, but nobody understands anything he ever said so what would be the point?

  • Gerald Sallier

    How are CS Lewis, Ayn Rand, and Sam Harris not on this list? Shouldn’t armchair philosophy trump controversial philosophy on a list of pernicious thinkers?

  • iŷē poppie

    And you say? obviously does not like “religious philosophers” of any stripe.makes it hard to take him to serious. And you say?

  • vorone

    Wittgenstein should be number 1, pathetic list by the way.

  • Idea

    Barf. What a small-minded article by a small-minded leftist.

  • Phyllis

    The pernicious ideas of Friedrich von Hayek top my list. Thatcher in a Cabinet meeting once slammed his “Road to Serfdom” down on the table, saying, “This is what we believe in!” … an ideological legacy that’s playing out now through the dismantling of the NHS and trebling of tuition fees costing the UK tax payer more than the system it replaced…

  • what?

    Really? Brian Leiter for making such a list.

  • lolipsist

    Sun Tzu. The language of war used to justify cutthroat capitalism — does it get more pernicious than that?

  • Josh Jones

    @Dean: I’ve always read K’s fideism as his most sincerely held position, against which he takes every ironic stance. I’ve never seen it as a joke, but I could certainly be entirely misreading him. I’ll check out Mooney.
    @Lev: Fair point, but I think that’s merely a rhetorical concession. Locke’s reasoning in “Of Property” seems to dictate that common land exists in a state of nature and is invariably seized through acts of war or privately appropriated through industry. He doesn’t seem to think that commons are sustainable. It seems to me that he makes magnanimous claims about enough land for all because he is a colonialist. He spends a good couple pages making calculations about how the European use of North American land is more profitable than the Native, and hence implicitly justifies the land’s appropriation.

    Locke seems mostly concerned that land use produce maximum profits (for the individual, and–he writes elsewhere–for the nation). Land that is not used for profit, or not used at all, he deems “waste” and “spoilage.” (See Barbara Arneil, James Tully, Ellen Meiskins Wood and Neal Wood, and Karl Widerquist on this point).

    To those who’ve contributed nothing but insults and rancor to the discussion, thanks for contributing less than nothing and completely ignoring the point of the exercise, which is clearly stated in the title: Don’t like my list? “Make your own” (or at least offer substantive critique).

  • Mr. Beer N. Hockey

    I vote for Jesus.

  • Rudolf Root

    Martin Luther (1483-1546).
    Aside from his attitude towards the oppressed (“Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants”, 1525 —”against the murderous and thieving hordes of peasants […] whoever can do, one should destroy them, strangle, prick, in secret or public, like batting to death a rabid dog”) his writings laid the foundation for christian antisemitism (“On the Jews and Their Lies”, 1543 — “[…] we are at fault in not slaying them”).

  • Andrea Ostrov Letania

    No Karl Marx whose ideas led to death of 70 millions?

    Carl Schmidt had no effect on intellectual history. The Nazis didn’t come to power with the force of ideas. But Marx did have an impact on ideas.

    I guess Jones doesn’t care about dead people if they were killed by leftism.

    He’s as sick as the Nazis.

  • Shaun

    Andrea, what a vile use of hyperbole.

    I don’t remember reading anything about starving ethnicities and disappearing people in Marx. Can you please reference the pages/works so that I can reread them and find what I missed?

    “The Nazis didn’t come to power through the force of ideas”. Yes, they did. In fact they were elected because of their Nationalistic sentiments and attitude to the economy.

    Please keep digging a hole below.

  • Shaun

    Also do this left vs right debacle:

    Josh Jones, as he has explained above, is anti-authority. Economic questions do not necessarily dictate an authoritarian or social liberalism. Please be clearer with your terms and understanding in future.

    If you disagree, make a list, demonstrate some wisdom instead of making a show of your limited philosophical knowledge and vocabulary by writing curse words from the safety of your parent’s basement.

  • Shaun

    *to

  • José Vidal

    Que abusivos estos… Claro: el más maldito de la historia de la Filosofía toda, Santo Tomás… Sabrán estos atarantados el daño que causa esparcir nociones tan descuidadamente absurdas? Renée Descartes (músico, matemático, físico – escritor sobre el alma: concepto que ofende a los ateos meta-eticos de la voluntad inservicial: pa’ matar) el número cuatro, seguido por Søren Kierkegaard en la quinta posición. Estos últimos superados en acidez corruptora solo por John Locke (objetivizador del valor de la ley que conduce al standard legar – por supuesto, imperdonable). El Nazi en segundo puesto; y es que Santo Tomás fue el más maldito de todos los tiempos…

  • Barley

    This is a fine list if the most pernicious threat to the world at this moment is perceived to be Christianity; I myself am not so sure. You are right to note that these types of lists are doomed to be guided by essentially prejudice or as you also say, ideological commitments.

    Nonetheless, good food for thought.

  • Sebastian

    Since I haven’t read much Thomas Aquinas, I cannot say too much about his warrant on the list. Having read some contemporary philosophers that are Thomists, I will say that this is wildly exaggerated. The only serious opponent in social/political philosophy the Thomist has is a Marxist, as both are the only ones who will criticize the liberal for not being a moral realist (at least this will go for more orthodox Marxists; also MacIntyre had at least 2 conversions, from Catholic to Marxist, and from Marxist to Thomist, strange bedfellows, but not so strange if you know somehting about their respective philosophies.)

    Locke is pernicious in a lot of ways, but I will say that the First Treatise is not straw-manning Filmer. When Locke picks apart the ridiculousness of the historiography that has to be true in order to trace current kings back to Adam is absurd beyond all standards of rational thinking.

    Descartes is widely underestimated, and I would seriously consider re-reading the Meditations if you really think that all that he’s up to is to justify a creator God (what kind of God he justifies is still a mystery to me, but the proof in Meditation 3 has structural similarities to what some analytic philosophers have to say about the necessary identity of natural kind terms and their physical constituents)

    I would probably say that the most pernicious philosophers are the non-philosophers that get themselves taken seriously as doing philosophy, as well as the ones that legitimize a certain way of doing philosophy that is beyond rational thinking. Thus, in no particular order, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Slavoj Zizek (love the guy, but boy does he misrepresent philosophy), Jacques Derrida (probably had something interesting to say, but I can’t make any sense of most Derrideans), Richard Rorty (really smart guy, but he probably just got fed up with the community of philosophers that he was raised in and said ‘screw it’, I’m gonna do something different)

  • jkop

    It occurs to me the most pernicious influence on philosophy comes from works which primarily satisfy a will to power.

    Al-Ghazali and Aquinas inhibited the progress of thought for centuries. In modern times clarity of thought was inhibited by Hegel and Heidegger while Marx, Nietzsche and Foucault replaced the truth of thought with power. Hence their popularity.

    But without true thoughts anything goes and nothing matters. Hence their deplorable effect on philosophy.

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