Underrated Minds

10 posts

William Thomson (Lord Kelvin) - (b. 1824, Scottish) his achievements underlie all of 19th and therefore 20th century science. Many (most?) of the component ideas of Clerk Maxwell are due to Kelvin (who drew from Faraday), especially the idea that a Faraday field can store energy, the expression for the energy stored in the magnetic field of an inductor E = (1/2) LI^2 - his general expression for it is in the form of a three dimensional volume integral (and so bringing him very close to Maxwell's notion of distributed energy in a field). He only failed to reach the very last step, and in fact rejected any kind of "displacement current" (that enabled the symmetrical structure of Maxwell's equations).

It was often said (rightly) that Thomson was the most powerful reasoner in physics, and he also consciously exploited the importance of analogies between larger and larger regions of the results (not the more straightforward resemblances). There are also his innumerable and remarkable little inventions, like his mechanical integrator.

He is, however, generally known now for a few comments made in old age (say the impossibility of airplanes). The dispute about the age of the Earth was also problematic, although in his formulation of the argument, he also anticipated the way it could be (eventually was) refuted, viz. the discovery of radioactivity.

One is directed to the stupendous study, Energy and Empire .


Charles Sanders Peirce (b. 1839, American). An underrated polymath in some ways [ Edit: he is overrated in other respects, however. While a very *beneficial* thinker to read (much like Schopenhauer or Schumpeter), he cannot be considered both "broad and deep" since his entire technical apparatus is limited to the analysis of inference itself. It is a concentrated analysis of a single point.] See also his Wikipedia page.

Nowadays, Peirce's contemporary relevance mostly lies largely in some undeveloped graphical formalisms, and advances made in the close analysis of general signs and how they can be used to facilitate "communication" (a kind of generalized linguistics, and cognitive science). These lead to what is called "biosemiotics" by Millikan and others, except that they seem hardly to ever cite him. This is either a case of the most massive plagiarism in history, or else his leading ideas were actually not so original. (I assume the first, for circumstantial reasons.)

He was also (like Kant, most notably) engaged in "systematic" philosophy. What that meant was roughly that individual questions that arise (say in logical methodology, or what way of reasoning can avoid circle-logic), inevitably involves other questions, of how logic is related to reality, and these require some systematic classification and actual literal architecture. And on this count, early observers assumed he was supposed to have failed utterly, by the fact that no final treatise was in fact published. That is, however, not quite true -- or at least he was at least as successful as any other "system builder".

His mode of procedure seems to be the following: first, to develop component ideas that seem to be contradictory in some (not all or most) respects (this was how his early theory of signs, as well as ampliative inference and "induction" seemed, by the 1870s at least), and then gradually "reconcile" everything until all of the seemingly irreconcilable viewpoints, that seemed to be irreconcilable, are actually fully satisfied. It wasn't that new discoveries in logic suddenly threw his system into disorder, as was the thesis of Murray G Murphey's early book, but he was actually aware of all the problems right from the start. In any case, by the 1890s at the latest he had everything in place . (The best two sources are The Continuity of Peirce's Thought and Peirce's Theory of Signs . The second one is fully available online, if you just search for a bit…)

Heidegger spent the last few months of his life intensively reading the (translated into German) "Collected Papers" of Peirce (this source for this information escapes me, however, but I read it in some collection of articles in Peirceana). Oddly enough: Peirce even drew admiration from extreme nominalists like Hintikka (IF logic, reductions, his "proof of [the possibility of] nominalism", the "redundancy" of first-order axiomatic set theory and higher order logic), and Richard R. M. Martin (even more extreme than Hintikka - see his review of the latter's Models for Modalities ). Also see Arthur N. Prior's discussion of Peirce in his Formal Logic .

Funny: report of a lecture that Peirce gave to the Harvard Philosophy Club on 21 May 1879 extracted from a letter written by Thomas Davidson:


Finally there are a few that I think should be read not only by technical specialists, researchers, but even "men of action" who aren't concerned with the truth as such, merely the relevance of it to bringing out certain ends. They are: Joseph Schumpeter, Max Weber, Machiavelli, Vilfredo Pareto, Ortega y Gasset . They explode and debunk myths about "democracy" etc. in an extremely effective way - and they are the best kind of antidote to diseases (e.g., Marxism). IIRC, James Burnham also wrote an decent book on the Machiavellians. They are almost as underrated as Marx is overrated.

(Add your own list of "underrated minds".)
Bob Dylan Roof

Good post idea. The category 'underrated' is a bit vague here as Lord Kelvin and Peirce are well-known in their respective fields and the impact of Weber, Machiavelli, and Pareto is undeniable. Perhaps some of these individuals are underrated in comparison to others in their fields. For example, I have read that the accolades afforded to Frege for his Begriffsschrift are perhaps disproportionate given Peirce's own innovations in formalizing the predicate calculus.

I'm having trouble thinking of minds to add to the list. You mentioned AN Prior, from whom I learned a great deal about deontic logic, but I don't know if he measures up to greats like Peirce.

Others that deserve a nod are Kenneth Arrow and Mancur Olson.


It was actually Kelvin who prompted me to write this thread since he's hardly remembered by most physics students anymore. Kelvin is a very clear case. Most people I know just remember him as the guy who claimed (very late in his life) that aeroplanes were impossible - or someone who resisted Maxwell's ideas. In the periodic polls in journals for the "greatest physicist", Kelvin is hardly nominated. There is hardly any object named after him except the Kelvin scale, and few remember the dependence of everything (including Maxwell) on his results. There is I believe an obscure book on how his name faded away ( Degrees Kelvin ), although I can't vouch for its accuracy.

Now, the reason why Peirce may be difficult to assess is because of the context of time. In the 1960s, he was definitely underrated, and barely known except for some hostile reviews… if you look up Braithwaite's original review of Peirce's Collected Papers on JSTOR, I think that expresses the sort of incomprehension that "semiotic" originally generated - and continued to generate, I think, until the publication of the recent book by T. L. Short. Peirce is still not taught in any undergraduate curriculum, and he is not mentioned in Charles Murray's book Human Accomplishment . There is still, I think, a dearth of secondary materials on him until recently (although looking at the general quality of the "secondary literature" on Wittgenstein, maybe this is a good thing).

Of course, we have to specific on who is exactly doing the underrating. IIRC, Burnham noted that while the "Machiavellians" were very well known in continental Europe, they are not well known in the USA and England. On that note, Lorenzen, Kamlah and the Erlangen school (an offshoot of Hilbert, Husserl and Weyl) is barely known outside of Germany. On the other hand, there is hardly anything in English that is not known in German.

BTW, I mentioned Schumpeter - in his massive History of Economic Analysis that celebrates "underrated thinkers" (like Cantillon), he somehow misses Ibn Khaldun , who was one of the greatest polymathic minds of Islamic Spain. (He only discovered Ibn Khaldun before a bit before his death - but it required him to completely revise the high place that he gave to the scholastics.)

Ibn Khaldun

There is a continuous spectrum between Peirce's situation and that of, say, Hintikka and others.. which is why it may be difficult. Consider Prior: you might say that he ought to be as well-known as Kripke or Wilfrid Sellars, and so underrated in that way. But in turn, you might not say that he should be as well-known as Aristotle (since the latter is far broader, and his relevance provides instruction, at a least, for matters seemingly remote from philosophy). They may all be of equally decisive importance, even of one of them is greater in terms of scale.

How about this: everything breaks down into whether a general class of people is doing the underrating, and whether it is a relevant class of people. For e.g., Elie Cartan is virtually unknown among the general public, but he is extremely well known among virtually all mathematicians and even physicists. Peirce is not known - definitely not properly grappled with - among certain kinds of philosophers (e.g., in the philosophy of mathematics) and is actually misunderstood among many others, as opposed to some other classes of people that do and always have acknowledged his influence (in inductive and ampliative inference - especially people like Isaac Levi, L. Jonathan Cohen), and he is not known among "historians of science" who would benefit thereby, and I think even some laymen would benefit from reading the history of thought (if they don't have time/energy for technical philosophy). Now, Chomsky was someone who did benefit (although he is coy about it), and another person in these same mold is Terrence W. Deacon, in The Symbolic Species and Incomplete Nature , both necessary reading.


Roland has already pointed out that many of these guys are anything but underrated.

Pareto is one of those figures whose name is still cited in textbooks but few actually read. I'd agree he's underrated in that sense.

Schumpeter's name is well-known in the field of economics, particularly economic history. Reason Magazine and other libertarian types constantly make reference to "creative destruction." Hyman Minsky, one of his students, has recently undergone a deserved revival of interest.

Therein lies the problem. Obscurity is to some extent relative, and evaluations change over time. Rather than fret over such matters, perhaps we should just treat this as a "thinkers who deserve more attention" thread.

Anyway, here are some more:

Ugo Spirito
Spirito was, IMO, Italian Fascism's most accomplished philosopher in the strict sense of that term. Gentile gets more attention, and Spirito was a disciple of his, but Spirito's version of Actualism is less prone to Hegelian abstractions than Gentile's. He was the most articulate proponent of fascist corporatism, his Critica della democrazia parallels criticisms made by Pareto and Ortega, and after a brief flirtation with Marxism post-WWII, he dealt extensively with the crisis facing Western values.

Julien Freund
It is a grave injustice that none of Freund's major works have found their way into English yet, thus preventing him from receiving his due. Roland should especially take interest, because Freund's thought was shaped greatly by Carl Schmitt, and the two men even struck up an acquaintance. Freund's other influences include Aristotle, Machiavelli, Weber, and Pareto, which make him particularly germane to the OP. The philosopher Jean Hyppolite chose to recuse himself during Freund's doctoral thesis (which was later published as L’Essence du politique ) because the Schmittian friend/enemy distinction, which Freund emphasized, threatened to shatter Hyppolite's pacifist worldview.

Ángel Ganivet
Ganivet was part of the agnostic/atheist revolt against rationalism and progress that gained momentum in Europe after the events of 1871, though he accepted Catholicism as an integral part of Spanish culture and called for a spiritual rebirth in his writings. He is sometimes called a Spanish Nietzsche, but this is superficial and there is only scant evidence that Ganivet knew of Nietzsche. He influenced the Generation of '98 and, along with Marcelino Menéndez y Pelayo, was one of the key intellectual precursors of the Falange's National Catholicism.

Pierre Boutang
This is another example of a pupil surpassing the teacher, in this case Charles Maurras, as I think Boutang was a more rigorous philosopher than Maurras, who got lazier as the years passed and was content to dabble in literary criticism. Boutang, on the other hand, kept abreast of the intellectual developments around him in addition to his engagement with the classics. L'Ontologie du secret , written in the form of a voyage, is a highly original work.

Eugenio d'Ors
Though he was a talented essayist and an art critic by trade, d'Ors was also an idiosyncratic political thinker who imported anti-democratic Sorelian syndicalist currents into Spain. His style is precious at times, but his Glosas contain fascinating reflections on a wide variety of topics -- aesthetics, science, politics, culture. His support for the Franco regime damaged his reputation among the bien-pensants, and the dearth of translations again doesn't help matters.
Bob Dylan Roof
I've read a couple of Freund's papers on Schmitt, but none of his own original work. He struck me as a more orthodox Weberian than Schmitt, though he does a good job of elucidating Schmitt's core ideas and providing clarifying examples, like the Lysenko Affair as an example of science escalating into a Political conflict.

That's a good anecdote about Hyppolite; wasn't he Foucault's advisor in school?

Here's an interesting photograph featuring Freund, Juenger, and Schmitt, among others: