Skip to main content

British Philosophers Since 1066

Image result for Norman Conquest

Assuming you, dear reader, were asked to prepare a list of the 10 greatest philosophers produced by the British isles since the Norman Conquest.

Who would have to be on the list? We think of certain philosophers in clusters. For example, we think of the triad of Locke, Berkeley, and Hume at the heart of empiricism. But you may not want ALL of them on the list. There's so much ground to cover. If only one of them: which one?

Likewise, we think of Duns Scotus and Ockham as a pair, representing realism and nominalism respectively. But you might have to pick only one of them.

Or the great analytical philosophers of the early 20th century: they, too, come as a cluster. If you think of Moore, you also think of Russell. If you think of Russell, you also think of Whitehead. But ... only one?

The two great apologia for free speech in British history were those penned by Milton and Mill. Should we accordingly include both of those names? or only one? or neither?

I've just named ten names, all of men, and you might think I've surreptitiously created by top ten list already. But you'd be wrong. I've been talking about clusters. And I haven't mentioned women because the women one might put on such a list don't cluster. I think of Margaret Cavendish, Ada Lovelace, Philippa Foot, Iris Murdoch....

Many more names beg for inclusion. But so I won't be thought a tease, here is a defensible list of ten names, in chronological order:

St Anselm, Duns Scotus, Edward Coke, Thomas Hobbes, John Milton, Margaret Cavendish, George Berkeley, G.E. Moore, Philippa Foot, Galen Strawson.


  1. Christopher, are you being deliberately perverse in your list? Milton’s apologia for free speech doesn’t make him a philosopher. Mill would have been one of the greatest even without his apologia for free speech. Berkeley over Hume? Moore over Russell? There’s no contest in either case. I’ve never before heard Coke called a philosopher. Jeremy Bentham certainly belongs on the list. You seem to have forgotten both John Austins, and Gilbert Ryle. Finally, you can omit Wittgenstein because he was Austrian and wrote in German, but because he taught at Cambridge and because his impact has been huge in the English-speaking world, I would have included him.

    1. I should have said that Wittgenstein was originally Austrian. He took British citizenship after the Anschluss.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Well ... deliberately provocative, yes. Perverse, no. (The line can be a fine one.) To take your points in reverse order:

    1. I was very tempted to include Wittgenstein, but excused myself with the thought that I might some day give Austrians, or German-language natives, their own list.

    2. Austin(s) and Ryle. Really? I'm confused as to why you might include Austin -- the legal positivist -- but seem so inhospitable to the inclusion of Edward Coke -- surely the greater thinker in the jurisprudential line! But I'll get back to that. As to the other Austin, and Ryle, I'll just stick with "Really?" as above.

    3. I thought about it but couldn't put Jeremy Bentham on the list. Indeed, if you admire John Stuart Mill, you might recognize why. Even despite their similarities (and the fact that Mill grew up in Bentham's shadow intellectually), Mill recognized the fatal superficiality and naiveté of Bentham's mind.

    4. Coke! Yes indeed. Among legal and political philosophers, he is remembered as a great spokesman for the legitimacy of judge-made law, and for relating judge-made law to the idea that law is reason, a fact of nature. Law, for Coke, was emphatically not a matter of merely reading and applying edicts of a King or Acts of Parliament (as it is for Austin). Law, rather, is something that develops over centuries as precedents add on to other precedents and principles of reason emerge from them. Neither King nor Parliament nor both together can make reason unreasonable.

    5. Yes, Moore over Russell, or even Whitehead (though excluding Whitehead was the harder call). What I prize in Moore is not his self-defined role as a champion of "common sense," or his jabs at James and pragmatism. BUT Moore was great as an ethicist.

    He was a teleologist, like Bentham and Mill, but at the same time a pluralist. He didn't try to define a unitary inherent good and call it pleasure, or happiness, or anything else. He said that the joy of "personal affection" is an inherent good, and the joy of "what is beautiful in Art or Nature" is likewise. Given the disjunction in the latter statement, this may give us a total of three rather than two inherent goods. It logically follows that there can be no unidimensional scale. Also, I think Moore is very solid where ethics overlaps with epistemology, in the frankly intuitionist nature of his ethical views.

    6. Yes, Berkeley over Hume. Not just for the idea encapsulated in the famous limerick, but for a whole constellation of boldly conceived ideas. An extreme psychological nominalism, an innovative theory of vision, a fine understanding of the untenability of Locke's effort to separate primary from secondary attributes, even a surprising critique of the foundations of calculus -- all together require GB's presence on this list.

    7. Mill? Meh. In epistemology, his great contribution was a codification of Berkeley. It was Mill who called matter "the permanent possibility of sensation." So we're back to the tree in the Quad. And I've already included Berkeley, so I don't need the codifier. His role within the history of utilitarianism was chiefly as an in-house critic, which I've already mentioned. It is important, but it isn't enough to elevate him over ...

    8. Milton? JM's philosophical significance goes far beyond his Areopagitica. His works as Cromwell's Latin Secretary, a hack propagandist role in an extraordinary moment, produced the classic case for the permissibility of tyrannicide. And you'll have to resort to it yourself if you're ever stuck in Jurassic Park. (bada bing.)


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

A Story About Coleridge

This is a quote from a memoir by Dorothy Wordsworth, reflecting on a trip she took with two famous poets, her brother, William Wordsworth, and their similarly gifted companion, Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

We sat upon a bench, placed for the sake of one of these views, whence we looked down upon the waterfall, and over the open country ... A lady and gentleman, more expeditious tourists than ourselves, came to the spot; they left us at the seat, and we found them again at another station above the Falls. Coleridge, who is always good-natured enough to enter into conversation with anybody whom he meets in his way, began to talk with the gentleman, who observed that it was a majestic waterfall. Coleridge was delighted with the accuracy of the epithet, particularly as he had been settling in his own mind the precise meaning of the words grand, majestic, sublime, etc., and had discussed the subject with William at some length the day before. “Yes, sir,” says Coleridge, “it is a majestic wate…

Cancer Breakthrough

Hopeful news in recent days about an old and dear desideratum: a cure for cancer. Or at least for a cancer, and a nasty one at that.

The news comes about because investors in GlaxoSmithKline are greedy for profits, and has already inspired a bit of deregulation to boot. 

The FDA has paved the road for a speedy review of a new BCMA drug for multiple myeloma, essentially cancer of the bone marrow. This means that the US govt has removed some of the hurdles that would otherwise (by decision of the same govt) face a company trying to proceed with these trials expeditiously. 

This has been done because the Phase I clinical trial results have been very promising. The report I've seen indicates that details of these results will be shared with the world on Dec. 11 at the annual meeting of the American Society of Hematology. 

The European Medicines Agency has also given priority treatment to the drug in question. 

GSK's website identifies the drug at issue as "GSK2857916," althou…

Hume's Cutlery

David Hume is renowned for two pieces of cutlery, the guillotine and the fork.

Hume's guillotine is the sharp cut he makes between "is" statements and "ought" statements, to make the point that the former never ground the latter.

His "fork" is the division between what later came to be called "analytic" and "synthetic" statements, with the ominous observation that any books containing statements that cannot be assigned to one or the other prong should be burnt.

Actually, I should acknowledge that there is some dispute as to how well or poorly the dichotomy Hume outlines really maps onto the analytic/synthetic dichotomy. Some writers maintain that Hume meant something quite different and has been hijacked. Personally, I've never seen the alleged difference however hard they've worked to point it out to me.

The guillotine makes for a more dramatic graphic than a mere fork, hence the bit of clip art above.

I'm curious whe…