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Karl Marx takes lead in BBC poll of philosophers

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HIS influence may have waned on the global political stage, but Karl Marx seems certain to be voted the world’s greatest philosopher in a new poll.


June 19, 2005

Sunday Times

Richard Brooks, Arts Editor

HIS influence may have waned on the global political stage, but Karl Marx seems certain to be voted the world’s greatest philosopher in a new poll.

He is racing ahead of rivals two weeks before  voting ends in the poll of listeners to

the BBC Radio 4 discussion programme In Our Time.


Ludwig Wittgenstein, the British philosopher who was born in Austria, is lying second after almost a fortnight of voting.

David Hume, the Scottish radical sceptic, is third, followed by Plato and Immanuel Kant.

The last three places on the 20-strong all-male shortlist, whittled down from a much wider field, go to Martin Heidegger, the 20th-century German, Epicurus, the ancient Greek, and, in last place, Thomas Hobbes, an Englishman.

The only other English-born philosopher on the list is John Stuart Mill, who championed the liberty of the individual against "the tyranny of the majority".


A win for Marx, who wrote The Communist Manifesto, would delight Francis Wheen, the author of a recent biography of the German-born thinker.


Wheen said: "He’s far more wide-ranging than the others on the list. He was not just a philosopher but was also very much involved in politics, economics and history. Marxism is also still a continuing argument, so that helps to give him credibility and relevance."


Many critics disagree, arguing that communism has largely been discredited. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellites and with China now embracing the free market, only a handful of countries, including Cuba and North Korea, still try to stick to Marx’s ideology.


"Actually, Marx himself was rather buried, as it were, by communist leaders such as Stalin and Kim Il-sung during much of the 20th century," said Wheen. "It is they who discredited communism, but Marx’s own ideas are still very viable and influential."


Others maintain that Marx, who died in 1883 and was buried in Highgate cemetery, north London, cannot even be called a philosopher.


"He’s simply not one," said Ann Widdecombe, the Tory MP, who is one of the "celebrity" advocates on Radio 4’s Greatest Philosopher website. She is supporting Aristotle, whom she studied at Birmingham University.

Another sceptic is Lisa Jardine, professor of renaissance studies at Queen Mary, University of London. "People are just voting for him because he’s an old man with a white beard and this is how they think of philosophers," she said. She is backing Hobbes.


Simon Blackburn, professor of philosophy at Cambridge University, said: "Marx certainly had large-scale views on life but I’m not sure about ‘greatest philosopher’."


He, too, backs Hobbes, who wrote Leviathan, often seen as the manual of absolutist governments. He is wary of media-inspired polls but accepts that the contest will "raise the profile of philosophy".

Even Melvyn Bragg, presenter of In Our Time, is puzzled by Marx’s lead.

He said he would vote for Kant, an 18th-century German who is championed in the poll by A C Grayling, reader in philosophy at Birkbeck College, University of London.


"Kant is the philosopher’s philosopher," said Grayling. "He’s indispensable to world thinking."

Created by keza
Last modified 2005-07-17 12:24 AM

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