Warp, Weft, and Way

A Group Blog of Chinese and Comparative Philosophy

Confucius makes the "Top Ten"

A fun bit of frivolity: Brian Leiter has been running various “top philosopher” polls among his blogizens. Surprise! Confucius somehow got voted into the top ten among “Most Important Philosophers of the Pre-modern Era.” I was surprised because the (very large) blogizenship of Brian’s site, which consists of mostly professional philosophers, probably knows far, far less about Confucius than any of the other philosophers on the poll list. My guess is that most were voting on reputation. There’s currently a “Most Important Philosophers of All Time” poll running, so go cast your vote if you have time to burn (if you’re blogsurfing, you at least have some time to burn… ).


May 10, 2009 - Posted by | Chinese philosophy, Confucius


  1. Ah; finally done grading for the year. Someone mentioned to me that it was odd, or typical, to see only Confucius on the final results of this poll. I’ll take the liberty of pasting the whole thing ( from the poll robot that Leiter uses: http://www.cs.cornell.edu/w8/~andru/cgi-perl/civs/results.pl?id=E_8369e4308c523b8c ):

    1. Plato (Condorcet winner: wins contests with all other choices)
    2. Aristotle loses to Plato by 231–229
    3. Socrates loses to Plato by 366–81, loses to Aristotle by 356–122
    4. Aquinas loses to Plato by 447–37, loses to Socrates by 328–130
    5. Augustine loses to Plato by 458–22, loses to Aquinas by 279–115
    6. Epicurus loses to Plato by 458–15, loses to Augustine by 291–106
    7. Paremenides loses to Plato by 453–16, loses to Epicurus by 170–162
    8. Heraclitus loses to Plato by 447–21, loses to Paremenides by 179–114
    9. Confucius loses to Plato by 417–20, loses to Heraclitus by 152–150
    10. Ockham loses to Plato by 462–9, loses to Confucius by 158–156
    11. Anselm loses to Plato by 452–10, loses to Ockham by 162–150
    12. Pythagoras loses to Plato by 457–12, loses to Anselm by 161–152
    13. Duns Scotus loses to Plato by 436–11, loses to Pythagoras by 151–145
    14. Machiavelli loses to Plato by 459–9, loses to Duns Scotus by 156–153
    15. Democritus loses to Plato by 453–13, loses to Machiavelli by 166–151
    16. Zeno loses to Plato by 458–10, loses to Machiavelli by 172–146
    17. Plotinus loses to Plato by 441–7, loses to Zeno by 154–118
    18. Avicenna loses to Plato by 426–8, loses to Plotinus by 134–114
    19. Cicero loses to Plato by 450–6, loses to Avicenna by 140–134
    20. Sextus Empiricus loses to Plato by 437–8, loses to Cicero by 142–134
    21. Epictetus loses to Plato by 435–7, loses to Sextus Empiricus by 130–119
    22. Maimonides loses to Plato by 430–6, loses to Epictetus by 125–116
    23. Thales loses to Plato by 448–8, loses to Maimonides by 133–117
    24. Protagoras loses to Plato by 443–8, loses to Thales by 124–105
    25. Boethius loses to Plato by 431–6, loses to Protagoras by 128–106
    26. Abelard loses to Plato by 423–5, loses to Boethius by 110–91
    27. Al-Farabi loses to Plato by 400–7, loses to Abelard by 103–78
    28. Marcus Aurelius loses to Plato by 438–7, loses to Al-Farabi by 97–91
    29. Phyrrho loses to Plato by 430–5, loses to Marcus Aurelius by 107–104
    30. Empedocles loses to Plato by 432–6, loses to Phyrrho by 106–94
    31. Erasmus loses to Plato by 431–5, loses to Empedocles by 106–82
    32. Mencius loses to Plato by 395–8, loses to Erasmus by 103–67
    33. Porphyry loses to Plato by 412–4, loses to Mencius by 76–75
    34. Diogenes Laertius loses to Plato by 426–5, loses to Porphyry by 74–71
    35. Al-Kindi loses to Plato by 389–6, loses to Diogenes Laertius by 72–69
    36. Buridan loses to Plato by 413–4, loses to Al-Kindi by 78–68
    37. Meister Eckhart loses to Plato by 414–6, loses to Buridan by 81–70

    Really only Confucius and Mencius appear from the non-Western side, unless you include Islamic Aristotelians and Platonists as non-Western (which I’m not really inclined to do). I would have included Laozi (even if he’s fictional), Nagarjuna, and Zhuxi … others?

    Even as a bit of frivolity, the poll is revealing about the lack of general knowledge of non-Western thought. Among other things, there’s no way to account in such a poll for movements/schools, such as the Indian darsanas, since they are not generally identified through a particular philosopher. There’s also the question of how to understand “importance” — “To whom?” one might ask. Maybe that’s all too obvious.

    Any thoughts you all have?

    Comment by Manyul Im | May 11, 2009 | Reply

  2. Given the readership of that site, I can only infer that Confucius is being measured according to a different kind of “importance” than are the Western philosophers. If most of the respondents are professional philosophers, then they certainly can be expected to have rich opinions and interesting disagreements on who belongs in the top-20 list of their tradition. But, except for some debatable points of contact among Enlightenment-era thinkers, Confucius has no place in that tradition. Why was he included to begin with? First hypothesis: the contributions of each Western philosopher to the Western tradition are being compared against the contribution of a single iconic name to all of East Asian culture. I suppose that “all of East Asian culture” might indeed be more important than all but eight pre-modern Westerners. But in what terms? Not the terms of the Western philosophical tradition.

    Comment by Stephen C. Walker | May 11, 2009 | Reply

  3. Am I alone in thinking such polls, even as a bit of frivolity, may be somewhat pernicious or simply an utter waste of time? I admit to voting in an earlier poll of this type to give recognition to a few philosophers I thought might be slighted, but I’ve since refused to vote thinking the enterprise not worth the attention it is accorded. And yet here I am complaining about the lists and the results (taking it too seriously?)! The exclusion of Averroes (Ibn Rushd) is appalling. And not surprisingly, Islamic mystics who were at the same time brilliant philosophers, like Muhammad b. ‘Ali Ibn ‘Arabi, are also conspicuous by their absence.

    Re: Even as a bit of frivolity, the poll is revealing about the lack of general knowledge of non-Western thought. Among other things, there’s no way to account in such a poll for movements/schools, such as the Indian darsanas, since they are not generally identified through a particular philosopher. There’s also the question of how to understand “importance” — “To whom?” one might ask. Maybe that’s all too obvious.

    Alas, I don’t think in some sense it is “all too obvious.” And I do think that at least some Indian darsanas as well as Buddhism that can be fairly identified with or represented by (a not unwieldy group of) particular philosophers, for example (and I’ve not listed all of them, i.e., neither the schools nor the philosophers):

    Advaita Vedanta: Sankara, Vacaspati, and Sri Harsa [diacritics unavailable]

    Nyaya: Gautama, Udayana, and Gangesa

    Mimamsa: Kumarila Bhatta

    Yoga: Patanjali

    Buddhist: Vasubandhu, Dinnaga, Dharmakirti, Nagarjuna, Candrakirti, Tsongkhapa

    For a host of reasons, some inexcusable, Western philosophical tribalism, parochialism and provincialism perseveres.

    Rankings, polls, etc.: I’ve grown rather weary of such things and am beginning to wonder if, in the end, they do more harm than good.

    Comment by Patrick S. O'Donnell | May 11, 2009 | Reply

  4. When I took the “Most Important of All Time” poll a few days ago, you could see a running tally of the results when you finished, and Confucius was at a more predictable–and of course more outrageous– 37th place out of 40.

    It sounds like we need to have a survey of the most important non-Western philosophers. Anyone know how to work the poll-bot?

    P.S. This post is the first hit on google for “blogizenship”!

    Comment by Tim | May 12, 2009 | Reply

  5. Hi Tim,

    I’m not inclined to run any polls–not this sort of ranking of philosophers anyway; however the poll-bots are usually pretty easy to use (wordpress, for example, has a poll-bot that can easily be run on this site), so maybe other sorts of polls among our blogizenry might be fun, and maybe even useful. Any ideas out there?

    (Upon review of the post, I think I misused ‘blogizenship’–it should have been ‘blogizenry’ there too.)

    Comment by Manyul Im | May 13, 2009 | Reply

  6. Any ideas out there?

    A few random thoughts. A “good” poll, IMO, does some of the following. It coaxes people to take a position on a controversial issue. It’s worded with a certain amount of ambiguity, which allows people to explain in the comments section of the blog why they chose they way the did, and how they interpreted the question. It also shouldn’t be taken too seriously.

    With that in mind, perhaps a few good polls might be:

    Which text is more significant?
    A. Schwartz’s World of Thought in Ancient China
    B. Graham’s Disputers of the Tao

    This is opened ended such that for whom it is significant is up for multiple readings, and I imagine would encourage discussion below.

    Another series of possibilities:

    Confucian Ethics is a:
    A) Virtue Ethics
    B) Role Ethics
    C) None of the above

    Best translation of li 理:
    A) Principle
    B) Coherence
    C) Neither (alternative suggestions?)
    D) Best left untranslated

    Best philosopher to have a beer with on a Friday afternoon:
    A) Zhuangzi
    B) Wang Yangming
    C) Vimalakirti (yes, he’s fictional, but he throws good parties)
    D) None of the above

    Comment by Agui | May 13, 2009 | Reply

  7. Patrick: Amen. It’s hard for me to see the point of this kind of poll (maybe an extension of our own vanity to historical philosophers ?). Should I take it that Aquinas is more relevant to my philosophical questions than Confucius or Pyrrho because he ranks higher on such a list? What can we take away from such an exercise at all other than “these are the philosophers people like the best or who think were the most relevant, smartest, original, etc.”? Which, of course, says nothing about their philosophical worth. None of these philosophers would have even been considered for a list like this if at least contemporary philosophers didn’t think their work was important.

    Maybe, I thought at first, such a list can give us an indication of which philosophers had the most influence on contemporary philosophers–but then I realized it can’t even tell us that. I imagine many who took this poll, for example, were inclined to place Plato and Aristotle next to the top, even if they neither agree with nor are very influenced by the ancients (as much as one can avoid being so within philosophy departments), but just based on what they perceive to be the “importance” of these philosophers in the field as a whole.

    Maybe it’s just to create controversy for entertainment’s sake (like gossip, or reality shows)? We philosophers tend to be pretty good at creation ex nihilo of argument about nothing. 🙂

    I hearby call for a moratorium on philosophical polls, until we can figure out why we insist on making them…

    Comment by Alexus McLeod | May 15, 2009 | Reply

  8. From what I was able to gather from the comments section, it was more about “influence” than “importance,” and even then it was about “influence among Leiter-reader philosophers” (I smell Analytic people).

    I don’t see that interpretation making sense on any level upon consideration of the sheer vastness of influence of Confucian philosophy on the global population, on laymen and philosophers alike, compared to that of Platonism or Aristotelianism.

    Comment by Joshua Harwood | May 15, 2009 | Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s