Underrated Philosophers VI: Jorge Luis Borges

And this is where I jump the shark. Dante’s understandable—he at least wrote a couple of philosophical treatises, he gets an entry in the Cambridge Companion to Medieval Philosophy—but Borges? The whacked-out Argentinian surrealist writer of trippy short stories with a weird obsession with tigers and labyrinths? The man who never wrote anything over fifteen pages? The man who said that metaphysics is really just a branch of the literature of fantasy? Seriously? Seriously?

Nicolás Menza, El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan (The Garden of Forking Paths), 2000.

First, his poetry’s awesome, so shuddup. Second, you have to read his essays to really make sense of his short stories and poetry (assuming you’d actually want to, rather than just enjoying the Weird). Third, his essay on Ramon Llull is both the inspiration for this underrated philosophers series and why I’m not doing one on Llull, much as I’d like to; it wouldn’t be as good as the one that already exists. Fourth, there are lots of philosophers who love Borges, some of whom even organize traveling art exhibits based on his work.*

But, as a philosopher…well, he may be the only absolute idealist worth reading. Granted, there aren’t a lot of absolute idealists (Borges, Berkley, and…um…uhh…), and Berkley’s bad crazy, but that’s beside the point (kinda). What isn’t beside the point is what happens when an absolute idealist goes blind and starts writing fiction. Continue reading

Exile, Occupation, Persecution: The Birth of Philosophers

Bertrand Russell, Typical Philosopher

Time to pick up where I left off last time—why so many of The Greats come from less-than-ideal circumstances. While today’s philosopher is stereotyped as a rather comfortable man in his armchair complete with tweed, pipe, and beard, it seems that most philosophers, especially before Kant, spent some time on the run, hungry, alone, forsaken, and with the law at their heels. For a few of them, there was a jail cell and executioner rather than departmental office and publisher.

I’m all about historical narratives around here, so let’s whip up another one—how philosophers found themselves on the wrong end of The Man: Continue reading

Underrated Philosophers V: Dante

Yes, as I’ve said before, that Dante. Great philosopher, decent poet.

Why is he great? Don’t let anyone lead you into thinking that separation of church and state is a modern idea and that the Middle Ages were a time filled with torture chambers, witch trials, the Spanish Inquisition, and kings in bed with the Pope. That was the supposedly enlightened Renaissance, when kings and popes actually had enough power to get away with those sorts of nasty things. No, the middle ages were filled with conflicts between church and state, with nobody more eager to see the two separated than our friend Dante. Continue reading

Underrated Philosophers IV: John Duns Scotus

General Note: there will eventually be something other than this series again. I might even get back to talking about publishing, for those who like that—possibly even the next post! Just not yet.

17542vScotus, like Machiavelli, is another philosopher who might get certain people going after me with pikes for calling him “underrated.” After all, he’s probably the second most studied Scholastic philosopher after Aquinas, so how underrated or unappreciated  can he be?

Well, Christopher Marlowe is the second most namedropped Elizabethan playright in high school English classes, yet I’d never read Edward II until after I’d specifically told my English tutor I wanted to read no Shakespeare at all in my Elizabethan drama tutorials. Just because people mention him as the also ran and occasionally make their students read the (very short) Doctor Faustus doesn’t mean he actually gets real attention. He’s still “not Shakespeare,” rather than ever becoming “Christopher Marlowe.”

Similarly, Scotus, along with Bonaventure, Ockham, and every other Scholastic, remains “not Aquinas.” Fat Tommy remains the default (and usually right) opinion, with everyone else judged correct by how much they agree with the Angelicus. Never mind that some of his positions were entirely unique (meaning everybody else ever must be wrong), some were condemned, and some get used as “it’s not a straw man if you can cite it!” canon fodder by every later author. Continue reading

Underappreciated Philosophers II: Machiavelli

Seriously? Niccolo Machiavelli, one of the most studied, influential, and reviled philosophers ever, underappreciated? Really? Really?

Yup, really. Or, perhaps, misunderstood. If you ask me, you should never take anything in The Prince at face value. It’s not a treatise on government; no, if you’ve read your Plato and your Boethius, you’ll see it for exactly what it is: a sarcastic warning to anyone who might want to become entangled in the affairs of courts and princes. Continue reading

Underappreciated Philosophers: Marsilius of Padua

Sometimes, the cool people don’t get the attention they deserve. Marsilius is definitely one of these people.

Now, long-term readers have probably noticed me throwing this  name around quite a bit, usually as an example of a really brilliant philosopher who fits nobody’s tradition. I’ll probably keep doing this, of course, but it’s long past time for me to explain why he’s so awesome. Continue reading