Those interested in philosophy might wonder: Who are the favorite philosophers of someone (like me) who has a very low opinion of philosophy?

Well, ask no longer. Here are some of my favorite philosophers:


  • Eliezer Yudkowsky (independent) only does philosophy because he needs to solve philosophical problems to build Friendly AI. As a philosophy outsider, he has managed – mostly on his own – to solve a great many philosophical problems correctly. There is, simply put, no philosopher with whom I agree more often. My one major complaint is that he does not write academic-style articles, citing the relevant research and speaking the same language as others and so on. On the other hand, this is partly why he has made so much fast progress. Academic papers are clear and crisp and well-footnoted and thus generous to their readers, but as a result they take a lot of effort to write. If I could fuse the minds of Yudkowsky and Bostrom, that person would be an even better philosopher. Luckily, those two minds seem to be slowly fusing on their own. (Yudkowsky is tugging Bostrom his way, and Bostrom is tugging Yudkowsky his way.)
  • Nick Bostrom (Oxford) is one of today’s most important philosophers. This is not due to Kripkean superintelligence or Einsteinian revolutionary insights – though, Bostrom is no slouch in intellect or insight – but because he has devoted himself to working on the most important problems. Oddly enough, these were problems that (at the time) nobody else was working on very seriously: existential risks to humanity.
  • Noam Chomsky (MIT) is an interdisciplinary genius. The most important linguist of the 20th century, he is also one of the founders of cognitive science, a major geopolitical theorist, a philosopher, and one of the most productive social activists in history. He embodies his philosophy more successfully than any other philosopher I know. Though he holds different philosophical positions than I do, in many ways his views are like mine but with an extra dose of skepticism about everything.
  • Stephen Stich (Rutgers) is one of the “guardians” of good philosophy, arguing against unproductive analytic practices like heavy appeal to intuition, and working so vigorously at the border of science and philosophy that he played a founding role in the rise of experimental philosophy. He has also done a great job of mentoring younger philosophers, preparing them to go to war for productive, scientific philosophy in a land where most philosophers are still doing the pre-Quinean kind of philosophy.
  • Hilary Kornblith (Massachusetts, Amherst) is a leading proponent of naturalized epistemology. He is also a leading critic of conceptual analysis, and thus another “guardian.”
  • Eric Schwitzgebel (UC Riverside) is another guardian of good philosophy, and spends much of his time chastising those philosophers who have way more faith in their powers of intuition and introspection than contemporary cognitive science should allow.
  • Michael Bishop (Florida State) is another guardian, and was a student of Stitch. He doesn’t just chastise philosophers for continuing to use failed methods, but offers a productive alternative grounded in the latest cognitive science and experimental psychology: what he calls “strategic reliabilism.” For him, epistemology shouldn’t be concerned with a conceptual analysis of knowledge terms, but with getting at true belief. Unfortunately, this isn’t yet obvious to most of the rest of his profession.



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I'm a bit surprised not to see Daniel Dennett on the list. Were you trying to highlight lesser-known people, or are there actually issues you have with Dennett?

Also, Michael Bishop is at Florida State, not Florida.

Now, to business:

As soon as I read this, I winced in the knowledge that all of the comments were going to be about Chomsky.

Chomsky's name appears to be something of a boo light here on Less Wrong. I attribute this to two things:

(1) Chomsky is well known for writing about politics, which we all know is the mind-killer. This is a probably a good reason to be suspicious of him. I have never really bothered to look into the details of his political theories, due to a lack of interest, but I suspect that he may not be wrong so much as not even wrong: political analysis as usually understood is unlikely to be the appropriate level on which to look at the world for the purpose of formulating theories that have a chance of being true. However, the fact remains that while Chomsky is perhaps best popularly known for his political advocacy, it has nothing to do with his place in intellectual history, which rests on his work in linguistics. (It should also be remembered that leftist politics -- particularly of a radical variety -- serve specific signaling functions in academic circles in contemporary America.)

(2) Misunderstanding of his linguistic and psychological theories and their context -- in particular, a notion that Chomsky is "anti-empirical" or some such. This is simply wrong. I suspect this impression mostly results from hearing about Chomsky's ideas second- and third-hand via less sophisticated commentators. I don't know to what extent Chomsky's various technical ideas in linguistics will ultimately prove correct, but I tend to be unimpressed by his critics -- it's as if they haven't reached the third-level and are stuck on the first.

Ironically (in view of his "anti-empirical" boo-light status), he played a crucial role in establishing some of the most important ideas that we take for granted here regarding the biological nature of our minds and the limitations of introspection, among other things. Behaviorist psychology was wrong, and Chomsky was responsible for its demise. And he's a critic of postmodernism.

For a general overview of his ideas from the man himself, I recommend this excellent TV interview from the 1970s, which puts them in a philosophical context. (This is just one of a whole series of interviews with various philosophers and historians of philosophy, which can serve as an extremely useful crash course in the subject; here's Quine, for example.) Some of the things he says are clearly wrong (such as the idea that there's no hope for using scientific knowledge to improve our brains), but others just as clearly refute certain uninformed misunderstandings of his positions.

Even basic familiarity with Chomsky's linguistics will confirm that: (a) his linguistics does not involve any empirical data or empirical research and his approach to linguistics is based on expert intuitive judgement of the grammatical correctness of artificial sentences; and (b) he is openly hostile to the role of biological and evolutionary explanations. I think people rush to defend him because he's a nativist and because he's widely supposed to have caused the demise of behaviourism. It is, however, possible to be both a nativist and a critic of behaviourism and be wrong about almost everything else.

Let me put it as simply as possible: Chomsky makes a series of claims about language but Chomsky has never done any empirical research, does not rely on empirical data and does not cite empirical research to support his theses. I've read much of his published work on the subject and am not using second or third hand sources for these claims. If you can supply counter-evidence I would be interested to see it. It would surely not be difficult to find an example of him using empirical research to back up his claims if that was something he was open to. (Chomsky is fond of biological and scientific analogies, as you can see in the video posted, but that's another matter entirely.) Failing that, what, exactly, sets him apart from the philosophers who rely on intuition and thought experiments and have no time for empirical results that are widely (and rightly) criticised on Less Wrong?

Fixed the Michael Bishop thing, thanks.

If you could make people read one book or up to three shorter papers from each of these people, what would you pick?

Chomsky? He is something of a bellwether for specious reasoning, which is a contribution of sorts. The obviously inconsistent logic of the various beliefs he holds makes his philosophy, such as it is, seem disjointed and arbitrary.

As a philosopher, he plays a "crazy uncle" character.

I've often wondered whether he was worth my time to investigate further, since on one hand I regularly hear him cited as a remarkable and inspiring figure, and on the other, I've never read an argument of his that I found enlightening or unusually well formulated.

Yes, I too once wondered this so I read Chomsky on Anarchism (I think just because it sounded like an interesting topic), and came away with the conclusion that Chomsky's intuition was that people were primarily motivated by something like 'solidarity' than was consistent with my intuitions (and generally along worker/non-worker lines). He does also have a habit of being intellectually rude by switching topics frequently and saying things which he should know are false.

Chomsky's beliefs include the following: that empirical research has no place in linguistics, that linguistic problems should be solved by expert intuition, that biology is inapplicable to linguistics and psychology, and that language did not evolve. All this and more can be found in his collection of papers "New Horizons in the Study of Language and Mind." I don't think people realise how far his work is from the cognitive revolution he is credited with having founded.

Chomsky's beliefs include the following: that empirical research has no place in linguistics, that linguistic problems should be solved by expert intuition, that biology is inapplicable to linguistics and psychology, and that language did not evolve.

Not knowing the actual context, I see plausible and true interpretations (that can be characterized by a pragmatic character) of all of these. You'd need to do better.

Chomsky: The most important linguist of the 20th century

Yes, but perhaps in the same sense that Freud was the most important psychologist of the 20th century. Sending your field of study on a wild goose chase for half a century certainly qualifies as important but maybe not ultimately productive.

But I suppose the jury is still out on how many geese this particular expedition managed to hunt down.

Yes. I think it hunted down a few geese, but fewer than initially expected.

Alain Badiou? He would have my vote.

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