Who Can Be Called “The Greatest”?
ON MAKING CATEGORICAL AFFIRMATIONS
I have always been struck by how often some thinkers make apparently apodictic statements about others, declaring so-and-so to be “the greatest.” In order to make such categorical affirmations, the person doing so must be talking about a domain in which he is fully competent, and also be acquainted with the works of the “competitors” for this honor. This is no easy task.
The famous analytic philosopher Gilbert Ryle is eloquent in his praise of German philosopher Martin Heidegger: “I have nothing but admiration for his special undertaking…. He is a thinker of real importance.” The talented Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas does not hesitate to write, “For me Heidegger is the greatest philosopher of the [twentieth] century, perhaps one of the very great philosophers of the millennium.” This encomium is all the more amazing considering that Levinas knew that Heidegger was a committed Nazi. Can one’s philosophy be totally unrelated to one’s political views? Michael Wyschogrod, a respected Jewish theologian, has also called Heidegger the greatest philosopher of the twentieth century.
Is it possible for a contemporary philosopher to have adequate knowledge of all the thinkers of the twentieth century? Are not the figures and events of this century the most difficult to evaluate because we are so close to them? Philosophers often leave behind a literary bequest containing many unpublished manuscripts that may be very valuable; moreover, when a philosopher’s books are written in a foreign language they are not widely accessible until long after his death, unless they were adequately translated during his lifetime. For these reasons, it is risky to “canonize” an intellectual contemporary. History may one day declare: “Step down; others are more worthy of this honor.”
There are numerous great thinkers whose brilliance was discovered long after their demise. Jean Pierre de Caussade, S.J., is a case in point. His remarkable religious classic, Abandonment to Divine Providence, was published one hundred and ten years after his death and is now highly recommended by spiritual directors for the depth and sublimity of its religious insights. Another example is the German philosopher Adolf Reinach, who is much more appreciated today than when he died at the young age of 34, a victim of the First World War.
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