Most Underrated?

Speculum Criticum wrote in with a comment:

But the really interesting question, i.m.o., would be, Who is the most *under*-rated philosopher?  The Over-rated question is just an invitation to polemic. The Under-rated question could bring all sorts of interesting neglected figures to light, & possibly be quite fruitful.

Such begins the split-off from the original question Harman raised about the most overrated philosophers. I was thinking of this question when he asked about the most overrated, but I’m not even sure how to begin answering the questions. (1) You could name the most slandered philosophers who is clearly influential and for good reason. Hegel comes to mind, since for so long he was treated as proto-totalitarian (he thought of a System and you know where that goes…), but is crucial to understanding any of the main figures of the past one hundred years in Continental; or (2) there’s the philosopher whom no one except you and your reading group over at the Rotary Club have heard of, who would change the intellectual landscape if anyone but you was reading him or her.

More interesting would be the most underrated books, and this is where there’s a good pedagogic moment for all of us is available: what work has really changed the way you look at philosophy, yet few people pick it up to read it?


  1. Most underrated book. That’s a good call. Books are really a better form for this discussion than philosophers anyway.

    I had thought of most underrated philosopher, but that game didn’t appeal to me. Most underrated book, well that’s a fun game.

  2. My vote for most underrated philosopher: Santayana. Actually I think a lot of American pragmatism is underrated. People just don’t read it as devotedly as, say Hegel or Heidegger.

    Most underrated book: “Critique of Dialectical Reason”, partly as a side-effect of Sartre’s odd combination of being both overrated (past) and underrated (present).

    As far as these types of fun parlor games go, the game that I would like to see get started would be which figures who are not normally thought of as philosophers SHOULD be treated as philosophers. There are a number of people who, for example, want to re-categorize Nietzsche as definitely not a philosopher, but he has been firmly positioned in the canon and is many people’s favorite or favorite introduction. He is also important enough that any majorly successful continental philosopher is eventually expected to engage Nietzsche or show how their thought inherits something from Nietzsche or can shed new light on Nietzsche. But we can still easily imagine a different history of philosophy in which Nietzsche is viewed as an odd and inspired man of letters but only a few classes are taught on him in philosophy departments.

    I think that there are a ton of odd and inspired thinkers who never made the cut but should have.

    I could imagine a different history of philosophy where Emerson is treated the way Nietzsche is today. Classes would routinely be dedicated to him, each year there would be a certain crop of newly minted PhDs who would have written their thesis on him.

    Which people from literature should be treated as philosophers? Dostoevsky doesn’t seem to be a controversial choice. Tolstoy would be more controversial but I think we should make the case.

    But the main person who I think should be treated like a major philosopher but just isn’t is Gandhi. He fits the bill more closely when compared to ancient philosophers than contemporary ones. There is certainly no shortage of ink spent on Gandhi but I would like to see an increased about of theory. Just about every major social and ethical movement today can trace its linage back to Gandhi, yet he is ignored by theorists. Even Zizek can write a whole book about violence with only passing references to Gandhi instead of a real sustained investigation. I would love to see a Lacanian interpretation of the salt march or the Shanti Sena.

    If I had my way Gandhi would have a legacy of theory as great as Marx’s. He would be a necessary reference point for anyone dealing with economics, the environment, animals, ethics, religion, etc from a philosophical point of view. When certain thinkers get big enough we should expect them to all write a book about Gandhi. People should have asked, ‘why hasn’t Derrida really settled the score between deconstruction and Gandhi’ the way that they asked about his avoidance of Marx until ‘Specters’ came out.

    1. I responded to Scu before seeing this on Sartre’s Critique, so I guess there’s someone else thinking of him. I think there’s a good third category here: those who are read often but not treated like philosophers. Santayana is also interesting, since he’s reduced to the one cliche about history. And I should say, Dostoevsky is a good choice, at least as far as teaching goes: there are few philosophers that get my students thinking as much as he does, and I only recently began teaching him–to my regret.

  3. I’m not even sure if I have one. Maybe Sartre’s Critique? I would have said that two years ago, but there’s been a boomlet of some readers of his work. Also, Sartre’s early work on the imagination is really just a great work of phenomenology. Some people love Schopenauer in my department and I can see why–though he’s rarely read now, and I can see how a lot of contemporary work is really World as Will and Representation without the vitalism. I’m sure there’s a good list that I’m going to be unhappy I didn’t come up with right away…

  4. I agree wholeheartedly with Thomas about Santayana, who I put at the very top. Next would probably be John William Miller, who for some reason I left off my own list when I blogged on this.

    I understand that some consider Etienne Souriau the most underrated philosopher; I have read exactly one article on his work that was about more than his theory of literature or film.

    Most underrated book, though…. that’s hard. My vote would be “Mirror to the Light,” by Lewis Thompson, a spiritual classic up there with I and Thou and Simone Weil.

    Also, for figures who are not counted as philosophers but who might be, my vote goes to Laura (Riding) Jackson.

  5. Thought I’d a slight twist on your new category, ‘most important book that people agree is important but no one actually reads’.

    It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of Robert Brandom, and think that he’s a very important systematic thinker. He does get referenced quite a bit these days, even if a lot of the references are negative, but this at least indicates he has a high profile. However, I can name at least 7 members of my department (not all analytic) that have a copy of his masterwork ‘Making It Explicit’ on their shelf but who haven’t read more than a chapter or two. I know this doesn’t count as not reading at all, but you’d be surprised how easy it is to find people who know a little about Brandom, but how hard it is to find people who actually have a good grasp of his work. It’s quite a stark contrast.

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