My Favorite Philosophers

by Luke Muehlhauser on April 6, 2011 in General Philosophy

Updated April 6th, 2011.

On this page, I honor a few of my favorite philosophers.

You’ll notice that none of them are old dead guys who spoke in poetic generalizations. My favorite philosophers are all alive and productive, and highly informed of the very latest science (and often, producing some of it).

Some favorite philosophers of mine:

  • Eliezer Yudkowsky (independent) only does philosophy because he needs to solve philosophical problems to build Friendly AI. As a philosophy outsider, he has managed – mostly on his own – to solve a great many philosophical problems correctly. There is, simply put, no philosopher with whom I agree more often. My one major complaint is that he does not write academic articles, citing the relevant research and speaking the same language as others and so on. (But, this is partly why he has made so much fast progress. Academic papers are clear and crisp and well-footnoted and thus kind to their readers, but they take a long time to write.) If I could fuse the minds of Yudkowsky and Bostrom, that person would be an even better philosopher. Luckily, those two minds seem to be slowly fusing on their own. (Yudkowsky is tugging Bostrom his way, and Bostrom is tugging Yudkowsky his way.)
  • Nick Bostrom (Oxford) is one of today’s most important philosophers. This is not due to Kripkean superintelligence or Einsteinian revolutionary insights – though, Bostrom is no slouch in intellect or insight – but because he has devoted himself to working on the most important problems. Oddly enough, these were problems that (at the time) nobody else was working on very seriously: existential risks to humanity.
  • Noam Chomsky (MIT) is an interdisciplinary genius. The most important linguist of the 20th century, he is also one of the founders of cognitive science, a major geopolitical theorist, a philosopher, and one of the most productive social activists. He embodies his philosophy more successfully than any other philosopher I know. Though he holds different philosophical positions than I do, in many ways his views are like mine but with an extra dose of skepticism about everything.
  • Stephen Stitch (Rutgers) is one of the “guardians” of good philosophy, arguing against unproductive analytic practices like heavy appeal to intuition, and working so vigorously at the border of science and philosophy that he played a founding role in the rise of experimental philosophy. He has also done a great job of mentoring younger philosophers, preparing them to go to war for productive, scientific philosophy in a land where most philosophers are still doing the pre-Quinean kind of philosophy.
  • Hilary Kornblith (Massachusetts, Amherst) is a leading proponent of naturalized epistemology. He is also a leading critic of conceptual analysis, and thus another “guardian.”
  • Eric Schwitzgebel (UC Riverside) is another guardian of good philosophy, and spends much of his time chastising those philosophers who have way more faith in their powers of intuition and introspection than contemporary cognitive science should allow.
  • Michael Bishop (Florida) is another guardian, and was a student of Stitch. He doesn’t just chastise philosophers for continuing to use failed methods, but offers a productive alternative grounded in the latest cognitive science and experimental psychology: what he calls “strategic reliabilism.” For him, epistemology shouldn’t be concerned with a conceptual analysis of knowledge terms, but with getting at true belief. Unfortunately, this isn’t yet obvious to most of the rest of his profession.

I’m sure I’ll think of others, later.

Who are some of your favorite philosophers?

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{ 43 comments… read them below or add one }

Kevin March 2, 2011 at 4:08 am

Regarding Stephen Stitch’s entry, what is the difference between “experimental philosophy” and science? It seems like he’s advocating that philosophers should do science…

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Alex March 2, 2011 at 4:26 am

I second your choice of Nick Bostrom (his PhD/book on anthropic reasoning is extremely good, as is much else of his stuff), and might do the same for Michael Bishop if I were more familiar with him (so far I’ve only read his and Trout’s “The Pathologies of Standard Analytic Epistemology” and parts of their book, and was quite shocked/impressed).

Others are Elliott Sober (I’m surprised that your list doesn’t include him) and Paul Churchland.

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Louis March 2, 2011 at 5:03 am

Not saying I like or dislike him but I was reminded of http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Julian_Savulescu
when you mentioned Nick. Also a guy I’ve had very positive experience of in person is Anders Sandberg not sure if he can be considered a philosopher though.

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Ryan March 2, 2011 at 5:06 am

I find it interesting that you did not include Daniel Dennett. You probably have a reason.

I still have to question your anti-intuitionism. While it may be true that most intuitions are false, I get the feeling that the only things we can refer back to that aren’t intuitions are going to have to be algorithms, and I don’t think we can have algorithms do everything. Reality is too complex, and anywhere we can start, could not really be deductively proven I wouldn’t think.(we have to start with the frameworks we already have, right? This is usually not as deductively clear as we like to pretend, ergo, we start off with a good bit more intuition than we intend) So, while I agree with you that a lot of philosophical invocation of intuitions wouldn’t work on most issues, I’d think that this would partially go back to our intuitions on truth-tracking and historical reliability issues. I am still caught-up in your idea of starting in a sea of knowledge, and then figuring out what to consider true, based upon what works, I just don’t see this as rigidly anti-intuition.

I dunno, I would guess that you oppose individuals like Kuhn and Michael Polanyi on their scientific claims, while I tend to support them, and not see this as a problem in being cynical to a lot of philosophical uses of intuition.

In any case, here’s a list:
Dan Dennett
Friedrich Nietzsche
Thomas Kuhn
Michael Polanyi
Richard Posner
Susan Haack
Friedrich Hayek

Probably more… but whatever.

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BenSix March 2, 2011 at 5:27 am

Nick Bostrom owes me a job.

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EEH March 2, 2011 at 5:35 am

Yes, it would be interesting to know why Dan Dennett is not on the list. I know he’s had a huge influence on my thinking, as well as many others.

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Joel March 2, 2011 at 6:05 am

Luke,

You have been criticizing philosophy’s overreliance on intuition lately – it has become quite the trend. I sympathize, though I do think that intuitions, or rather, introspection, do play their part in attaining knowledge.

Introspection is merely self-observation. It is obviously useful in telling me 1) Inner sensations likes pleasure or pain, 2) the desires I have, 3) the beliefs I hold, 4) the thought processes I go through, and so on. It tells me about the state of my mind and the
state of certain aspects of my body.

Obviously, introspection is fallible in that it can tell us false things (false according to empirical findings), especially regarding our own value judgements c.f. studies on human beauty. Nonetheless, we can apply the scientific method to our intuitions as well, and posit theories to explain our inner states of consciousness. So the real existence of my mind explains my experiencing (the cogito, basically); electrocution explains the extreme pain coursing through my body after being hit by a stun gun; so my not having food for a whole explains my gnawing hunger. Introspection as evidence forms a continuum with science in this respect

You seem to be criticizing the use of intuition and introspection in areas where there is no strong causal connection between the real objects of the world (e.g. existence of God, existence of objective value).

Perhaps it would be useful if you delineated clearly, in a post what you consider the vaild use of intuition to obtain knowledge.

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mojo.rhythm March 2, 2011 at 6:19 am

Will definitely have to second your view on Chomsky Luke. What a treasure trove of knowledge he is! He is one of the few real “free-floating” intellectuals of our time (he has something substantial to say on a wide range of topics). In fact, Chomsky was the person whom really got me interested in anarchism, economics and politics in general. I am doubly impressed by the fact that he almost single handedly kicked started the neuro-cognitive revolution with his theory of universal grammar!

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Thomas March 2, 2011 at 6:31 am

…preparing them to go to war for productive, scientific philosophy in a land where most philosophers are still doing the pre-Quinean kind of philosophy.

Fortunately there are very many good philosophers (far better than Stich IMO) who are fighting against Quinean scientism and defending philosophy qua philosophy. At least Laurence BonJour, Susan Haack, E.J. Lowe, Jaegwon Kim, Hilary Putnam and Peter van Inwagen comes to my mind.

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Ajay March 2, 2011 at 6:36 am

Hmm, I wonder if Hilary Kornblith was named after Hilary Putnam. Maybe he was destined to be a philosopher!

I see your point about old dead guys, Luke, but since you enjoy criticizing philosophy on linguistic grounds Wittgenstein probably deserves a nod in your list.

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AH March 2, 2011 at 6:53 am

@Ryan: Why do you think intuitions aren’t also algorithms? They’re just hidden, running in the background and you can’t access them easily (so you can find out how they produced the answer).

Yeah, I’m also wondering why Dennett isn’t on the list.

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Steven R. March 2, 2011 at 9:03 am

>UC Riverside

Damn, I had the opportunity to apply there but never did because I heard it was quite undistinguished and not as good as other UC’s. Guess that maybe that wasn’t completely correct.

As for a philosopher I like…from what little I’ve read about, it has got to be David Hume.

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Jaden March 2, 2011 at 10:15 am

Shaun Nichols, Jesse Prinz, Joshua Greene and Joshua Knobe are great experimental philosophers/empirically informed philosophers.

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Rob March 2, 2011 at 10:18 am

Way off topic, but the debate between Chomsky and Buckley is the most epic pwnage ever. It’s on YouTube.

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Justin March 2, 2011 at 10:28 am

Peter Singer – Easily ties Chomsky in terms of living his philosophy and expressing it even under some severe pressure. I don’t agree with everything he argues, but he’s reasonable and honest.

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Bill Maher March 2, 2011 at 10:31 am

I am a big big fan of those who write on shit that matters, such as Phillip Kitcher, Elliot Sober, and JD Trout. I sorely miss is Richard Taylor. Not only was he a great advocate of virtue ethics, but he was a top notch beekeeper.

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Luke Muehlhauser March 2, 2011 at 11:15 am

Rob,

Yeah, that one’s a classic!

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MarkD March 2, 2011 at 11:25 am

I second Sober. Beginning with Simplicity and straight through the complexities of “multilevel selection” with David Sloan Wilson, Sober has brought scientific topics in for philosophical scrutiny in a non-trivial manner. I’m fond of Donald Campbell for the same reasons.

I’m less sanguine about Chomsky. It’s not clear to me that he has contributed significantly to linguistics, science or philosophy beyond demonstrating the broad limitations of Behaviorism. Transformational Grammar with the core hierarchy (CFGs, etc.) and the mappings to computability theory was a profound realization, so that perhaps stands on its own, but everything else up through Minimalism has had almost no impact on automating language understanding, which is the obvious logical procedure that we expect to emerge from this work. Academic linguistics is also very divided as to the merits of TG and Minimalism.

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antiplastic March 2, 2011 at 12:19 pm

1) Hume
2) Nietzsche
3) Hume
4) Wittgenstein
5) Rorty
6) Blackburn
7) Rorty
8) Hume
9) Dennett

Also, what is the deal with all of the recent trashing of conceptual analysis? There are certainly many valid reasons to be dubious of its utility, but if analyzing a target vocabulary’s constituent truth conditions in terms of implicitly referenced propositional attitudes isn’t an example of conceptual analysis, then I don’t know what is.

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Jacopo March 2, 2011 at 1:19 pm

I’m surprised not to see Graham Oppy or Gregory Dawes there.

Oppy is one of the tiny number of atheistic philosophers whom I would say could, given enough time, come up with a good response to the work of literally any leading theistic philosopher. He’s one of those people who are exceptionally astute, insightful and intelligent, even for an academic. I’ve yet to see a good theistic response to the core arguments in Arguing About Gods – and I’ve read what Craig has to say about it.

Anyhow, for me, in no order: Hume, Nietzsche, Singer, Dennett, Oppy, Haack, Nussbaum, Merleau-Ponty, Sartre *blushes*, Quentin Smith, Nick Bostrom, Horwich, Aristotle, Descartes *blushes again*, Lakatos and, h/t to you Luke, Yudkowsky.

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mojo.rhythm March 2, 2011 at 3:04 pm

Jacopo,

Don’t think Luke is so hot on philosophy of religion anymore. I can see why too.

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Ex Hypothesi March 2, 2011 at 3:41 pm

“For him, epistemology shouldn’t be concerned with a conceptual analysis of knowledge terms, but with getting at true belief. Unfortunately, this isn’t yet obvious to the rest of his profession.”

Right, and so he should probably give good non-question begging arguments for his position.

Oh, wait, there are none.

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Jugglable March 2, 2011 at 5:06 pm

Luke,

You love italics.

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Danaddon March 2, 2011 at 5:55 pm

Hey Luke! I hope you get to read this.

I haven’t thoroughly looked through your website, so perhaps I am wrong, but I appreciate the respectful way in which you write. Again, perhaps I missed some of your articles in which you may have argued inappropriately, but it doesn’t seem that way.

I am a Christian with a similar background as you. I too lost my faith at one moment in my life (I’m two years younger than you), but regained it soon after. But I just want to say that I appreciate the fact that you do not conform to a large majority of atheist’s tactics: “Stupid dumb@@@ creationists!!! When will they fu%#ing learn???” To me, that solves nothing.

And I also respect the fact that you don’t base your beliefs (or lack thereof) on a very naive line of reasoning like many people do. I’m glad to see that, though you are an atheist, you don’t base your system of beliefs on a single objection that, if you had done the research, you would have found is easily countered.

Just my two cents,
Danaddon

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Michael March 2, 2011 at 6:29 pm

Good list but I’m also interested why not Dennett? Especially since he fulfils all the criteria you mentioned in the post (informed of the latest science, against analytic philosophy’s tradition of intuition and other self-indulgent hangups, working on real problems and not just problems that rest on semantics etc) — at least to me!

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Colin March 2, 2011 at 7:06 pm

Does it bother you that Noam Chomsky is also a raving anti-American asshole? Is that what you have in mind by “productive social activist”?

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Luke Muehlhauser March 2, 2011 at 7:09 pm

antiplastic,

Have you listened to the last few episodes of ‘Morality in the Real World’ about propositional attitudes? We repeatedly address the difference between what we’re doing and what conceptual analysis does.

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Luke Muehlhauser March 2, 2011 at 7:15 pm

Jugglable,

I am curious how that looks to other people. I write like I talk, and I talk with a large dynamic range – lots of ‘italics.’

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Luke Muehlhauser March 2, 2011 at 7:16 pm

Thanks Danaddon!

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Tshepang Lekhonkhobe March 3, 2011 at 2:21 am

Was it a conscious decision that all of them had to be alive at the time of writing?

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Leo March 3, 2011 at 8:35 am

1. Thomas Aquinas
2. Aristotle
3. Plato
4. John Finnis
5. Augustine
6. Alexander Pruss
7. Richard Swinburne
8. Alvin Plantinga

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Scott March 3, 2011 at 11:10 am

It’s posts like this one that are my favorites here. Learning about the history of philosophy is interesting and worthwhile, but also easy – read a few histories and you’re good. You may not understand everything, but not all of it is worth understanding, considering just how much of it is at best modified, and at worst flat-out wrong. This post reminds me of both how far we’ve come intellectually, and how little I actually know.

I admit, I know little about 20th-C philosophy. I know the general fields of interst in both the analytic & phenomonological schools, but have very little experience in deeply reading either. The more recent the philosopher, the less I know about it, and the less I know about how to know about it. What exactly is “the pre-Quinean kind of philosophy” you mentioned? What’s the easiest way to catch up on the past 100 years of philosophy?

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AlephNeil March 3, 2011 at 6:28 pm

Like a lot of the other commenters, I’m an incorrigible Dennett fan. In some ways, admitting to liking Dennett is equivalent to pinning a badge to one’s chest saying “most of the contemporary debates in the philosophy of mind are utterly stupid and pointless”. The Dennett fan tends to make themselves unpopular with philosophers. Yet I can’t overlook the fact that Dennett is correct – zombies are inconceivable, qualia are illusory, Paul Durham could never have ‘picked himself out of the dust’ etc. (Dennett’s never commented on Permutation City, but I think my previous statement follows from his ideas.)

I can’t see any excuse not to include Hilary Putnam on a list of one’s favourite philosophers. He’s a profoundly original thinker, who’s made contributions all over philosophy and even in logic and mathematics. I suppose he’s best known for semantic externalism – the idea that “meaning ain’t in the head” – which he illustrates with thought experiments such as “Twin Earth”.

Also, Karl Popper is (or rather was) truly legendary. Everything he writes is clear, ‘intense’, provocative and persuasively argued. Just pick up one of his books or essays and see for yourself.

I also have a soft spot for Lakatos, who I see as being a clever fellow, working in the philosophy of science, who had the privilege to stand on the shoulders of a true genius (Popper) and see a little bit further than he did. Lakatos’ elaborate notion of a “research programme” is enormously helpful in thinking about the nature of science and scientific progress.

In the philosophy of mathematics, I’m a fan of Penelope Maddy, who converted me away from what she calls “Robust realism” towards what she calls “Thin realism”.

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mojo.rhythm March 4, 2011 at 10:55 pm

Colin,

Over here in Australia, if a social activist or public intellectual started harshly criticizing the foreign and domestic policy of the federal government, even saying that they ought to be eventually dismantled for Australia to be a more free society, in most cases that person wouldn’t be lambasted as “anti-Australian”. In fact most Australians are so fed up with politics and politicians at the moment (our parliament has been reduced to a bunch of alpha male monkeys waving their pricks, throwing crap at each other and trying to constantly out-do the opposing party in empty rhetoric and showmanship) that the criticisms are cheered on. Think about it. If you care about the people of the United States of America, and the facts objectively point to a history of exploitation and dominance of those very people by a cadre of governmental and corporate interests, is it not your duty to criticize such a regime?

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Michael April 6, 2011 at 5:04 pm

Well Luke, you and Bostrom are probably two of my favorite philosophers. ^_^

Excellent point though about how someone can do important work without being especially brilliant but by simply choosing to work on important problems.

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Trev April 6, 2011 at 5:30 pm

Richard Dawkins, but I don’t know if you consider him a philosopher..

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gradstu.pid April 6, 2011 at 5:51 pm

“. . . 95% of philosophers who have way more faith in their powers of intuition and introspection than contemporary cognitive science should allow.”

Try to work harder at making less assertions you can only get away with on blogs. Not only have you not read nearly enough philosophers or cognitive scientists to have an informed view on this estimate, you also haven’t read enough to know it is most likely false.

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Luke Muehlhauser April 6, 2011 at 8:09 pm

Michael,

Yes. That is my strategy.

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Luke Muehlhauser April 6, 2011 at 8:11 pm

gradstu.pid,

True. Fixed.

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Reginald Selkirk April 7, 2011 at 6:38 am

Jesus Christ didn’t make your list?

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Samuel Bell April 7, 2011 at 7:53 pm

Even though he’s definitely an “old school” philosopher, I’m partial to A.J. Ayer, probably most of all because I was able to audit two classes that he taught at Bard College in the fall of ’87 on “Moore and Russell” and “Ryle and Austin” (as far as I’ve been able to tell, they may have been the last classes he ever taught). He obviously very consciously made an effort to live up to being the most famous living British philosopher, and shared his first-hand knowledge of Russell, Wittgenstein, and others. He was an old-school skeptic- he once said, “Nietzsche disliked Christianity because he thought it was too meek and mild, but I think Christianity is a savage religion.” He was also really funny- he joked that the production of his volume in the “Library of Living Philosophers” was going so slowly that it would be the first one to be published posthumously (a prediction that turned out to be true).

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Stevengm April 8, 2011 at 1:39 am

Why isn’t Derek Parfit on this list? Or even Oppy or Sobel? Although I agree with Bostrom,
great philosopher.

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Zeshan Rizvi November 16, 2011 at 6:43 pm

Not in this particular ranking order but i would have to say Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas (although i only find his arguments for God to be slightly convincing, most of the theological stuff i think is questionable),Renes Descartes, Sun Tzu, Eiji Yoshikawa, Louis Pojman, Ali ibn Abu Talib, Hussain ibn Ali, and John Stuart Mill to name a few

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