Paul P. Mealing

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Monday, 8 September 2008

Who is the best philosopher?

Once again this is a 'Question of the Month' (though last month) in Philosophy Now. You might have noticed that I haven't created a category or label for this because I haven't got one that really fits. I thought of 'historical' but it seemed a nonsense to create a label just for one post. (I changed my mind.)

As you can tell from my introduction I even question the question: is it really possible to evaluate the 'best philosopher'?

Below is my submission.

By what criteria does one judge this? The philosopher with the most influence over historical time? The philosopher who made the greatest contribution to ethics or to epistemology? The philosopher who provided the best answers to ‘all the big questions’? I’m not sure there is a ‘best philosopher’, because philosophy is not a competition like the Olympics. Instead, I will approach this by asking another question: who is my favourite philosopher? Even this is not easy, because there are three who immediately spring to mind, all living in the same century: Buddha, Confucius and Pythagoras. But I will settle with Pythagoras because I believe he really has had the biggest influence historically, and because he was a true polymath, even though all evidence of his teachings, his discoveries and his ‘school’ are second hand at best.

Pythagoras’s most outstanding discovery was not the right triangle proof that bears his name, but the realisation that musical pitch had a mathematical relationship. But the real legacy of Pythagoras’s philosophy was another, not unrelated, revelation. Mathematics had been used by various cultures well before Pythagoras, for the purposes of commerce and accounting, as well as measurements and geometry for construction projects, but it was Pythagoras who appreciated that mathematics was an inherent aspect of the natural world and could provide answers to questions concerning the mysteries of nature, including questions of astronomy. This is a paradigm that is still with us today, and, arguably, has driven science since the time of the Renaissance, 1,000 years after Pythagoras.

The connection is Plato, and consequently, Aristotle. According to Kitty Ferguson (author of The Music of Pythagoras), Plato actively sought out Pythagoras’s most accomplished student, Archytas of Terentum, and back in Athens, Plato set up his famous ‘Academy’ using a ‘Pythagorean curriculum’, that he adopted from Archytas, known as the ‘quadrivium of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music’. There is no doubt that Plato’s Pythagorean curriculum, and its influence on Aristotle, paved the way for the paradigm of mathematical scientific enquiry that eventually led us to Newton’s theory of gravity, Maxwell’s equations, thermodynamics, Einstein’s theories of relativity, quantum mechanics and chaos theory, with all the technological spin-offs of flight, space travel, computers and diverse engineering marvels that we embrace in the modern age. So I would argue that, historically, Pythagoras is the most important philosopher in the pantheon and that makes him eligible for the best.


Nate said...

I'd say Nietzche just because the average person loves to spout his nonsense. :D

Seriously however mathematics is such a crazy concept I love it, as so I can understand your submission!

Paul P. Mealing said...

Thanks Nate,

By the way, I rewrote my response to your comment on 'Theism as a humanism' because the original had too many errors and I felt I didn't explain myself very well.

Since had a comment from Larry Niven as well.

Regards, Paul.