Monday, June 02, 2008

Best Philosophical Writers

So in an effort to be a better writer I'm interested a list of those you consider the best philosophical writers. William Zinser, acclaimed book editor, says that there are several writers he will always read no matter the subject matter they write about. The idea is to identify those philosophers that you think are the model of philosophical writing--whether or not you agree with their position. It might be good to include a favorite article or chapter of theirs. But most important (at least for me) is why they deserve to be on the list. What is it about their writing that makes it exceptional? I'm still working on my list but at the risk of being too hasty, I'll list a few that I've concluded are philosophers that I will try to read anytime I see one of their articles even if the subject is out of my field of inquiry. My list is probably influenced by my personal writing vices. These people are who I am trying to emulate

In no particular order:

Christopher Shields (I tend to overcomplicate my writing. Shields to me is the paragon of simple direct claims, reasons, and conclusions. He even announces his claims by saying "claim"! His new summary of Aristotle is both philosphically astute and critical but upper level undergraduates could use it.

Etinne Gilson (A thomist who is clear, concise, and doesn't have an ax to grind with analytic philosophy. He is a model of the principle of charity without being soft on his opponents.) The Unity of Philosophical Experience is his best work. Although from Aristotle to Darwin and Back Again is good as well.

Ken Greenawalt A philosopher who writes like a lawyer and a lawyer who thinks like a philosopher. As a lawyer he doesn't fill his law review articles with thousands of cases but rather can summarize complicated concepts into a few short paragraphs with clarity. Above all his prose is interesting. ) Check out his Speech, Crime, and the Uses of Language.

Harry Frankfurt I can't put my finger on it yet, but the importance of what we care about reads so nicely.

That's all for now. More as I think through this. Look forward to your own list


  1. I want to agree with your choice of Harry Frankfurt. I also want to add:

    Derek Parfit: Mostly, his short, terse sentences make it easier, I think, to interpret precisely what he means. Also, it's a pretty unique style that reads quickly.

    Robert Nozick: He may very well be on the top-10 list of writers for any subject, anywhere. His prose is beautiful, and he shares his own worries and objections with us. "Here's my view. Here's a devestating objection to my view that I can't seem to think my way out of. Perhaps someone will pick up the thread and construct a response to the devastating objection." I really love that kind of disclosure, and I really dislike philosophers who write like lawyers. "Here is my case. I am right for reason one, two, three. Here is an objection. Notice how this objection is stupid for reasons one, two, three. Here is another objection, it is also stupid. There you are, QED, and all that. I have set down the truth forever and ever amen."

    Look back 30 or 40 years. Read someone who writes like Nozick, and then read a lawyer-philosopher. Don't lawyer-philosophers look dumb? They sure do. We laugh at what they thought they "knew," and the laughter is all the sweeter for all the absolute certainty they express. But Nozick? He doesn't pretend like he's got hold of the unvarnished, unchangeable, certain and indubitable truth. He doesn't shy away from telling us things that he doesn't know, things he's uncertain of, and objections to his own views that he can't respond to. Beautiful.

    That's all for now.

  2. I hate to admit it, but Parfit's genius reads as a jumble to me. There are so many good things in his writing that I can't track them all without notes, and different colored string, and thumbtacks.

    I'm reading John Hardwig's Is There A Duty to Die and it's some very, very clear writing about a difficult topic, but he doesn't shy away from the difficulty of talking about death. I'm impressed with the work at the moment. If you're interested in suicide and euthanasia, it's a good read.

  3. I would add David Schmidtz. The prose in his "Elements of Justice" is some of the clearest and concise, I have ever read.

  4. I agree with you about Schmidtz. His strength is his use of thought experiments and colorful examples. Now that I think about it, the same goes for Nozick. Something that philosophers could use more of.

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  7. Albert Camus should be in the list as well.