Over at Object-Oriented Philosophy Graham has an interesting post up raising the question of who might be the most overrated philosopher of all time. There are three rules to the game: First, the overrated philosopher must be recent. Sorry, if you don’t like Hegel that’s not grounds for claiming he’s overrated. He’s earned his place through his influence on subsequent philosophy. Second, the philosopher must be rated by many as being one of the greatest philosophers of all time. Note, this criterion need not imply consensus. It can refer to how fan clubs rate philosophers. And finally third, the most overrated philosopher will probably not be completely worthless. That is, he or she will have made some genuine contributions.
Graham hasn’t stated who his choices are and doesn’t plan to, but some of his readers have suggested Sartre, McDowell, Derrida, Sellars, Kripke, and Russell. I don’t think Sartre fits the bill because first off, there are hardly any Sartreans about these days, and second I do think the Sartre of Being and Nothingness and The Critique of Dialectical Reason gets a bum rap. Sartre somewhat got clothes-lined by the existentialist movement (which he partially brought on himself with essays like “Existentialism is a Humanism”), but he is, in my view, a much richer philosopher than people give him credit for. The time is ripe for a re-evaluation of Sartre’s thought. I just don’t know enough about McDowell to say one way or another (I have Mind and World, but have never read it). Derrida definitely fits the bill of overrated philosopher in my book. I actually wrote my masters thesis on Derrida and desperately wanted to find something groundbreaking in his thought, but I could never escape the impression that Derrida is a one trick pony that created three or four concepts (differance, supplementarity, and trace) that he then monotonously repackaged with different terms in text after text from there on out. I’ve just never gotten the obsession some have with Derrida, even if I do think his deconstruction of metaphysics is valuable. I don’t know that anyone has ever characterized Sellars, Kripke, or Russell as “greatest philosophers”, so the issue strikes me as moot with them. These are modest thinkers, rather, that each created a handful of concepts and lines of arguments that were extremely important, but not much beyond that. In other words, they’re not what I would call comprehensive philosophers, but by and large were restricted to very specific problems and questions. By a comprehensive philosopher I have in mind a philosopher that develops not only an epistemology and metaphysics, but also a moral, political, and aesthetic philosophy. Think Kant or Sartre.
My vote for overrated philosopher actually kills me because he’s been such an influence on my own thought and I encountered him at exactly the time I needed to encounter him: Badiou. When I first picked up Badiou’s Ethics and Being and Event both texts hit me like a gust of fresh air. At the time I was in a general malaise, feeling as if philosophy was dead and had been reduced to semiotic analysis of texts and armchair sociological meditations. Badiou dared to do philosophy again and opened a whole new field of thought for me. However, when you get into the nuts and bolts of his thought I somewhat feel that there just isn’t a whole lot of “there there”. Badiou certainly fits the bill of being a “comprehensive philosopher”, but I just don’t get the sense that his concepts are a fecund source of inspiration for generating new research and thought in other philosophers and people in other disciplines outside of philosophy.
One of the ways in which I measure the greatness of a philosophy is not by the content of the philosopher’s work itself, but rather by what a philosophy is able to engender in the work of others. Thus, for example, if Husserl is a great yet underrated philosopher, this isn’t necessarily because of his own work. Let’s face it, Husserl’s own work is often monotonous, repetitive, and obsessional in character (the grounding of the ground that needs to be grounded through yet another reduction that will be more rigorous than the last). The greatness of Husserl lies in broaching an entirely new style of philosophy that engendered research for hundreds of thinkers spiraling out in thousands of different directions: Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Sartre, Levinas, Marion, Henry just to name a few. I don’t get the sense that Badiou’s thought has this sort of generative power. Rather, we seem to get a repetitive schema that endlessly repeats being as multiplicity, event, truth-procedures, subject without broaching entirely new fields of thought or research. By this criteria, I would probably rate Derrida higher than Badiou just because of the impact Derrida has had on so many other research orientations, and often in ways far more interesting than Derrida’s own work. But who knows, perhaps I just need to return to Badiou and read him again with fresh eyes.