Why would we want to call people “great thinkers” and cite harassers? A response to Julian Baggini

If you have ever been at a rock or pop concert, you might recognise the following phenomenon: The band on the stage begins playing an intro. Pulsing synths and roaring drums build up to a yet unrecognisable tune. Then the band breaks into the well-known chorus of their greatest hit and the audience applauds frenetically. People become enthusiastic if they recognise something. Thus, part of the “greatness” is owing to the act of recognising it. There is nothing wrong with that. It’s just that people celebrate their own recognition at least as much as the tune performed. I think much the same is true of our talk of “great thinkers”. We applaud recognised patterns. But only applauding the right kinds of patterns and thinkers secures our belonging to the ingroup. Since academic applause signals and regulates who belongs to a group, such applause has a moral dimension, especially in educational institutions. Yes, you guess right, I want to argue that we need to rethink whom and what we call great.

When we admire someone’s smartness or argument, an enormous part of our admiration is owing to our recognition of preferred patterns. This is why calling someone a “great thinker” is to a large extent self-congratulatory. It signals and reinforces canonical status. What’s important is that this works in three directions: it affirms that status of the figure, it affirms it for me, and it signals this affirmation to others. Thus, it signals where I (want to) belong and demonstrates which nuances of style and content are of the right sort. The more power I have, the more I might be able to reinforce such status. People speaking with the backing of an educational institution can help building canonical continuity. Now the word “great” is conveniently vague. But should we applaud bigots?

“Admiring the great thinkers of the past has become morally hazardous.” Thus opens Julian Baggini’s piece on “Why sexist and racist philosophers might still be admirable”. Baggini’s essay is quite thoughtful and I advise you to read it. That said, I fear it contains a rather problematic inconsistency. Arguing in favour of excusing Hume for his racism, Baggini makes an important point: “Our thinking is shaped by our environment in profound ways that we often aren’t even aware of. Those who refuse to accept that they are as much limited by these forces as anyone else have delusions of intellectual grandeur.” – I agree that our thinking is indeed very much shaped by our (social) surroundings. But while Baggini makes this point to exculpate Hume,* he clearly forgets all about it when he returns to calling Hume one of the “greatest minds”. If Hume’s racism can be excused by his embeddedness in a racist social environment, then surely much of his philosophical “genius” cannot be exempt from being explained through this embeddedness either. In other words, if Hume is not (wholly) responsible for his racism, then he cannot be (wholly) responsible for his philosophy either. So why call only him the “great mind”?

Now Baggini has a second argument for leaving Hume’s grandeur untouched. Moral outrage is wasted on the dead because, unlike the living, they can neither “face justice” nor “show remorse”. While it’s true that the dead cannot face justice, it doesn’t automatically follow that we should not “blame individuals for things they did in less enlightened times using the standards of today”. I guess we do the latter all the time. Even some court systems punish past crimes. Past Nazi crimes are still put on trial, even if the system under which they were committed had different standards and is a thing of a past (or so we hope). Moreover, even if the dead cannot face justice themselves, it does make a difference how we remember and relate to the dead. Let me make two observations that I find crucial in this respect:

(1) Sometimes we uncover “unduly neglected” figures. Thomas Hobbes, for instance, has been pushed to the side as an atheist for a long time. Margaret Cavendish is another case of a thinker whose work has been unduly neglected. When we start reading such figures again and begin to affirm their status, we declare that we see them as part of our ingroup and ancestry. Accordingly, we try and amend an intellectual injustice. Someone has been wronged by not having been recognised. And although we cannot literally change the past, in reclaiming such figures we change our intellectual past, insofar as we change the patterns that our ingroup is willing to recognise. Now if we can decide to help changing our past in that way, moral concerns apply. It seems we have a duty to recognise figures that have been shunned, unduly by our standards.**

(2) Conversely, if we do not acknowledge what we find wrong in past thinkers, we are in danger of becoming complicit in endorsing and amplifying the impact of certain wrongs or ideologies. But we have the choice of changing our past in these cases, too. This becomes even more pressing in cases where there is an institutional continuity between us and the bigots of the past. As Markus Wild points out in his post, Heidegger’s influence continues to haunt us, if those exposing his Nazism are attacked. Leaving this unacknowledged in the context of university teaching might mean becoming complicit in amplifying the pertinent ideology. That said, the fact that we do research on such figures or discuss their doctrines does not automatically mean that we endorse their views. As Charlotte Knowles makes clear, it is important how we relate or appropriate the doctrines of others. It’s one thing to appropriate someone’s ideas; it’s another thing to call that person “great” or a “genius”.

Now, how do these considerations fare with regard to current authors? Should we adjust, for instance, our citation practices in the light of cases of harassment or crimes? – I find this question rather difficult and think we should be open to all sorts of considerations.*** However, I want to make two points:

Firstly, if someone’s work has shaped a certain field, it would be both scholarly and morally wrong to lie about this fact. But the crucial question, in this case, is not whether we should shun someone’s work. The question we have to ask is rather why our community recurrently endorses people who abuse their power. If Baggini has a point, then the moral wrongs that are committed in our academic culture are most likely not just the wrongs of individual scapegoats who happen to be found out. So if we want to change that, it’s not sufficient to change our citation practice. I guess the place to start is to stop endowing individuals with the status of “great thinkers” and begin to acknowledge that thinking is embedded in social practices and requires many kinds of recognition.

Secondly, trying to take the perspective of a victim, I would feel betrayed if representatives of educational institutions would simply continue to endorse such voices and thus enlarge the impact of perpetrators who have harmed others in that institution. And victimhood doesn’t just mean “victim of overt harassment”. As I said earlier, there are intellectual victims of trends or systems that shun voices for various reasons, only to be slowly recovered by later generations who wish to amend the canon and change their past accordingly.

So the question to ask is not only whether we should change our citation practices. Rather we should wonder how many thinkers have not yet been heard because our ingroup keeps applauding one and the same “great mind”.


* Please note, however, that Hume’s racism was already criticised by Adam Smith and James Beattie, as Eric Schliesser notes in his intriguing discussion of Baggini’s historicism (from 26 November 2018).

** Barnaby Hutchins provides a more elaborate discussion of this issue: “The point is that a neutral approach to doing history of philosophy doesn’t seem to be a possibility, at least not if we care about, e.g., historical accuracy or innovation. Our approaches need to be responsive to the structural biases that pervade our practices; they need to be responsive to the constant threat of falling into this chauvinism. So it’s risky, at best, to take an indiscriminately positive approach towards canonical and non-canonical alike. We have an ethical duty (broadly construed) to apply a corrective generosity to the interpretation of non-canonical figures. And we also have an ethical duty to apply a corrective scepticism to the canon. Precisely because the structures of philosophy are always implicitly pulling us in favour of canonical philosophers, we need to be, at least to some extent, deliberately antagonistic towards them.”

In the light of these considerations, I now doubt my earlier conclusion that “attempts at diversifying our teaching should not be supported by arguments from supposedly different moral status”.

*** See Peter Furlong’s post for some recent discussion.

4 thoughts on “Why would we want to call people “great thinkers” and cite harassers? A response to Julian Baggini

  1. From the fact that our thinking is embedded in our society, Baggini argues that we should excuse people in the past who have racist beliefs.

    You argue that if this is true, then we also can not attribute and should not give praise for philosophical ideas.

    However, we recognize these people as greats because their philosophical ideas were new and NOT common or embedded in society in their time, unlike their racist ideas.


    1. Thanks for your comment! Yes, I’ve been thinking about this issue on and off. And I agree that we often call people great because we assume that their ideas were new. However, whether their ideas were *really* new and mainly owing to *their own thinking* is often an open historical question. – I think that novelty emerges in a dialogical process that involves a lot of people (not least later interpreters). If this is correct, being a “genius” or a “great thinker”, at least as the title is used today, is more of a social status, reflecting strong recognition of stylistic and argumentative patterns (rather than novel ideas). (Amongst other things, this title often immunises its bearer against (moral) criticism and, in turn, legitimises objectionable behaviour.)
      So while there might be a fair share of novel ideas in Hume, I’m not sure that this is the reason why we call him great. That said, you’re right that we don’t use the title “great” to recognise racism.


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