Home > Uncategorized > Who are the greatest philosophical stylists?

Who are the greatest philosophical stylists?

If we take the mark of a great philosophical or theological stylist to be the capacity to say as much in the form of communication as in its substance, or to fully integrate form and substance in philosophical presentation, who are history’s greatest philosophical stylists? The top ten, if I were to pick a list off the top of my head, would be (in chronological order):

* Socrates
* Plato
* Augustine
* Dionysius
* Eckhart
* Dante
* Hegel
* Kierkegaard
* Nietzsche
* Wittgenstein

Though I can see right away that this list is weighted towards ‘dialectical’ thinkers of one stripe or another, possibly because that’s an easier philosophical difference than some to convey formally. Or possibly because I just prefer them. Eckhart, though certainly a master stylist, might be a slightly arbitrary pick from among the late medieval mystics. Is he really a step above Marguerite Porete, Teresa of Avila, or John of the Cross?

It’s hard to come up with any truly great recent stylists. Derrida is good, but wouldn’t rank, I don’t think, with the figures above. I’ve wondered about Hélène Cixous, just because of the unbelievable range of genres with which she is apparently competent, but I’ve not actually read her work.

I’m distinguishing in my head between philosophical stylists as defined above and rhetorically effective philosophers, or philosophers who are especially enjoyable to read. Feel free to contest my definition.

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  1. Kevin P.M.
    September 3, 2010 at 2:02 pm

    Nice topic!
    I would like to put in a vote for Pascal. And, although it’s been several years since I’ve read him, I remember being delighted by Montaigne as an undergrad. Maybe something about French-Catholic scepticism lends itself to fun philosophical reading!

  2. Michael Anderson
    September 3, 2010 at 2:11 pm

    One non-dialectical philosopher/theologian I would put on the list would be John Duns Scotus. His highly analytical form wonderfully reflects his analytic thoughts, which, in their own right, are some of the best I have ever seen.

  3. September 3, 2010 at 2:31 pm

    What about Foucault? One example might be how his refusal to idealize the Cartesian subject is reflected in the form of his writing.

  4. September 3, 2010 at 2:47 pm

    Pascal, of course! I can’t believe I forgot about Pascal. Montaigne is a good choice, too, especially because there are no other essayists on the list. I’m less sure about Scotus, Michael A., since, though the style does match the thinking, I can’t see that he did anything unique with the style he was given (viz., mainly, disputed questions). So maybe this is another characteristic of ‘great philosophical stylists’: their form of presentation bears a specific philosophical weight vis-à-vis their contemporaries.

    I’m conflicted about Foucault, about whether the things that make his writing so recognizable are a matter of style in the way I mean it here—a matter of aesthetic form—or a matter, for lack of a better way to put it, of philosophical method. That’s a pretty tendentious way to put the distinction, I know, since those two are in almost every case inseparable; but some kind of distinction like that seems necessary, since Foucault never really departed literarily from standard issue philosophical writing or lecturing.

    I’m also thinking now that Rousseau really deserves to be on this list, probably more than Hegel does.

  5. Elizabeth
    September 3, 2010 at 2:51 pm

    Read _Laugh of the Medusa_ (in all your gobs of free time) and you might want to add Cixous.

    • September 3, 2010 at 6:15 pm

      I just looked it up, and read a few excerpts, and I think you might be right. Maybe Cathy would have us read this in the spring?

  6. jonpost
    September 3, 2010 at 4:27 pm

    Barth, Romans Commentary especially
    Schleiermacher deserves some credit for mixing it up with the speeches and Christmas Eve
    Mostly though I just want to second Kierkegaard, Kierkegaard, Kierkegaard

  7. September 3, 2010 at 4:37 pm

    Of contemporary theologians the hat must certainly go to the decidedly un-dialectic David Bentley Hart. His love of infinity, beauty and Bach shapes his words like modifications of a theme rather than a machine turning it’s arguments over on themselves.

    • September 4, 2010 at 12:31 am

      Here’s my question about Hart: is he a good stylist, or does he just write pretty? What I mean is, to put it in the terms of the post, does the form of his work bear any philosophical weight? The beauty of his prose matches the beauty book, obviously—but the same kind of prose runs throughout the theodicy book, as well as his short pieces on everything under the sun. It obviously matters to him that theological writing sound hymnic, and that counts for something; but I’m not sure it puts him on the same tier as the stylists I listed above.

      Again, this presumes a fragile distinction between a philosophical stylist and a philosopher who writes well, which you may contest.

      • September 5, 2010 at 12:05 am

        I’m not sure it puts him in the same tier as the majors either, but among contemporary theologians I think his prose style is indicative of his larger christian neo-platonism. He feels and shows that theological reflection is a participation in and seeking after the wisdom of God.

        Since then for him that is the case, then it makes sense that even when he talks about baseball, he can talk about it with the same fervor.

  8. Steven Demmler
    September 3, 2010 at 5:57 pm

    I’m unconvinced Socrates is not (Regarding his “form”) reducible to Plato, seeing as how Socrates himself wrote nothing down.

    Also, I second Barth’s Romans. Besides the minor objection spot-on list, I think.

    • September 4, 2010 at 12:02 am

      I think it’s pretty safe to say that Socrates’ style was completely different from Plato’s, for exactly the reason you mention: that Socrates wrote nothing down. The main reason for putting Socrates on the list is that he’s the only philosopher in living memory whose style was spoken rather than written. Not to mention, from all appearances his whole approach to philosophy—the public gadfly, even to death—was extremely different from Plato’s own, and something Plato struggled with explicitly.

      • Steven Demmler
        September 4, 2010 at 1:24 am

        I see your point, but I guess we must then hope for sincerity in plato’s writings of his teacher.

  9. Jeremy
    September 3, 2010 at 10:05 pm


    • September 4, 2010 at 12:08 am

      I’m open to it, but would have to see a rationale. What is it about Kant’s style that you find especially profound?

  10. September 4, 2010 at 12:00 am

    In terms of recent thinkers, I’d argue for Agamben. I’ve read most of the major translated works and he is a very adept stylist. I’m not sure where he’d rank historically, but my own views on ranking a list would probably be clouded by other judgments.

    I think I would put Derrida on the last, but he’s definitely one that is divisive. Some might even concede that he is a good stylist to the detriment of his philosophy (this same claim is made about Agamben).

    I agree with Steven that it’s pretty difficult to put Socrates on the list. The stylistic Socrates is a version of Plato. We get some description of a historical Socrates in Aristotle, but it’s just hard to place Socrates on the list when he has nothing to be judged by. I think, via Plato and even Kierkegaard, we can probably assume he was a master stylist, but he’s such a tough case to consider.

    Finally, I realize this might be a bizarre claim, but another contemporary thinker who is a good stylist is Philip Goodchild. This is especially true in Theology of Money, but since he’s not published as much as all of the dead people we are considering, it’s impossible to say much else.

    My top five in no order would be Plato, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Hegel, and Derrida.

    • September 4, 2010 at 12:20 am

      I thought of Agamben, but just haven’t read enough to make a judgment. Homo Sacer is enviably clear, wonderfully organized, etc., but I’m not sure the book’s form actually does any of its own work for him there. (Or if it does, I failed to notice it.) The Coming Community is the only other piece I’ve read, and there the form is doing an immense amount of work—but I have no idea what it means.

      I find it really interesting that you put Goodchild on the list. Care to say more? I really appreciated Theology of Money for its content, but found the writing style to be exceedingly opaque. The little vignettes throughout were interesting, and well written for sure, but I usually had trouble extracting a ‘point’ from them, or connecting them to the chapters they began.

      • September 4, 2010 at 1:32 am

        For Agamben, both The Open and The Man Without Content have some wonderful passages.

        As far as Goodchild, I don’t mean this to be conceding, but I think I know what you mean and I agree with you. I’m having trouble articulating how this can be so and also that I like his style. From what I remember, there are a handful of excellent passages early on in the book. But I also remember reading several passages many times in order to figure out what was going on.

        Maybe it’s similar to Derrida, who has both moments of greatness and moments that are exceedingly frustrating (in relation to style).

      • September 4, 2010 at 6:54 am

        The point of the little vignettes is precisely to be entirely enigmatic and ungraspable. Philip has written about the power of the Zen koan, and these seem to be in a similar light.

        Can I throw Adorno or Benjamin into the pot? As Schmitt (Nazi that he is) – his combination between coldly analytic and feverishly striking is brilliant.

      • September 4, 2010 at 9:58 am

        Thanks for that clarification on Goodchild’s vignettes. That makes sense.

        I like your last three suggestions, and would add Althusser in a similar vein as Schmitt—almost militantly clear usually, in a way that feels like a march, but with the occasional digression into these beautiful flights of metaphorical fancy…

  11. Daniel Kelly
    September 4, 2010 at 12:37 am

    I would have to say history’s greatest philosophical stylists would be Plato, Aristotle, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, hands down.

  12. Jeremy
    September 4, 2010 at 1:27 am

    I was joking about Kant. I find his style to be difficult to tolerate. I also think Derrida deserves to be on the list. His writing is incredibly beautiful and simultaneously playful. Some of his writing, e.g. Spectres of Marx is just spectacular. Dave, I’m going to have to agree with Brian on Goodchild’s style. I found Theology of Money incredibly difficult to read. Not to take away from the profound brilliance of Goodchild, but I’ve never found his prose to be especially exemplary. However, you are definitely on the money regarding Agamben.

    • September 4, 2010 at 6:57 am

      I actually like Kant’s style – the coolness of it, the confidence, is wonderful.

      I like Agamben, but once you’ve read enough you realise that it is rather repetitive – as Benjamin Noys points out there is a certain way the style is ripe for parody – particularly on the point that every term must be reversible, sometimes irritatingly so.

  13. Michael Westmoreland-White
    September 4, 2010 at 2:09 pm

    I’ll second Pascal as a philosophical stylist. I’d want to put in a plea for Cornel West, too. His “prophetic pragmatism” is displayed in the kinds of books he writes–and even in the Hip Hop CD he made.

    What of Camus’ choice of the novel?

    • September 4, 2010 at 8:37 pm

      Cornel West is a fantastic example—it really gets at what I’m thinking of with the ‘philosophical stylist’ moniker. To write mostly short, popular books; to release a spoken word CD; to ‘do’ most of his ‘work’ in the classroom or from the pulpit… these forms of communication are philosophically necessary for him to say what he’s trying to say.

  14. Michael Westmoreland-White
    September 4, 2010 at 9:45 pm

    Well, West has written longer books, too, but I agree that his forms (preferring the essay, the speech, the sermon, the hip-hop) are tied to his message. He sees himself as a “jazz freedom fighter for radical democracy.”

    What of Camus’s use of the novel?

    • September 4, 2010 at 11:59 pm

      Camus is probably a good example, too, though I just don’t know enough about him to say much. Do you think the novel bears some specific philosophical weight for him?

  1. September 18, 2010 at 6:21 pm

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