Sunday, December 17, 2006

Influential Americans

The current issue of The Atlantic has a list of the 100 most influential Americans of all-time. The top three are Lincoln, Washington, and Jefferson. Here's where some American philosophers (other than Jefferson) stack up:

19. Thomas Paine
30. Elizabeth Cady Stanton
33. Ralph Waldo Emerson
40. John Dewey
43. W.E.B. DuBois
47. Frederick Douglass
51. Margaret Sanger
53. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.
62. William James
64. Jane Addams
65. Henry David Thoreau
89. Walter Lippmann

I don't know if Lippmann, Sanger, or Holmes should be called "philosophers" but I think their writings are philosophically interesting and important for understanding American thought, so I listed them.

The list is biased toward dead people, but perhaps that's fair given that influence ebbs after one's death. It's also biased toward people who had a good influence.

Who's missing from this list? I didn't see Robert Ingersoll, Malcolm X, Vannevar Bush, and I'm probably missing some others.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Stuhr on American Philosophers

I've been reading John Stuhr's Pragmatism, Postmodernism and the Future of Philosophy, thinking about assigning it for a class. So far it's an interesting read.

One passage early on grabbed my attention, and struck a nerve. Stuhr writes:

At this point you know the routine, I know the routine, we all know the routine. You do know the routine: A writer steeped in pragmatism calls attention to, and bemoans, current educational problems [or, I'd add, philosophical problems]; trots out favorite, familiar quotations; refers to favorite pragmatist authors as resources for dealing with these problems; concludes by urging that we make use of these resources, apply pragmatic theory to practice, render practice more intelligent and meaningful; and everybody (with a home) goes home, happy that another chapter is done. (10)
I'm certainly guilty of doing that; in fact, I'm guilty of doing it last week. That's why this passage struck a nerve.

Stuhr really has a point. Those of us who are fans of American Philosophy, and of the great American philosophers, aren't necessarily doing this tradition a favor by trotting out the same story lines. Then it just becomes a self-congratulatory echo-chamber, and that doesn't do philosophy, American philosophy, or those who might benefit from philosophy, much good.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Translation: Ancient French

I've been reading Book I of Plato's Republic, which I'm assigning in my Critical Thinking class. The translation is a good one -- very readable -- I think, but there's also this:

Socrates: "And isn't it the case that the raison d'ĂȘtre of a branch of expertise is to consider the welfare and interest of each party and then procure it?

Something about that jarred me: it seems weird for Socrates to be dropping some French into his conversation.

Of course the whole book is in translation, and I have no trouble suspending my disbelief and reading it as if Socrates is speaking English. But there was something about him also speaking French that just didn't seem right: almost as if instead of talking about "horsemanship" the translation had him talking about "auto repair." Or if at some point he said, "Jesus Christ! Thrasymachus do you know what you're saying?"

Dropping a French phrase into the conversation somehow seems anachronistic. It's not as if Socrates' point is lost, but it does make the translation less fluid. Especially since I think you could use the English word "purpose" in the above translation and it would mean the same.