After Richard Rorty died, Raymond Geuss wrote some recollections of their encounters. In his reminiscence, Geuss mentions that Rorty projected teaching an undergraduate course called "An Alternate History of Modern Philosophy". The idea was that the course would teach philosophy from the Middle Ages to the early twentieth century without referring to the traditional canonical thinkers. It would be "without any reference to Descartes, Locke, Leibniz, Hume, or J. S. Mill."

The reminiscence mentions that Rorty would start the course with Petrus Ramus and end it with Dewey.

As a question to the community, I'd like to know if anyone in their formal or informal studies has come across a figure that they would like to share as an alternate, yet profound, thinker in the Western tradition. It would also be interesting if one could couple the nominee with the usual suspect normally prominent (e.g., Ramus as "replacement" for Descartes) stating briefly why.

Obviously, I'm not suggesting that Rorty's idea is a great one, but I do think it interesting and would like to see people's suggestions for nominations to an alternate history of Western philosophy that is no less plausible than the traditional one.

It would also be curious to see if this is even possible for some periods (I believe even Rorty could not dispose of Kant!).

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    To me this call for an alternative canon brings to mind some of Deleuze's "quirkier" sources -- in particular I might think of Simondon, Maimon, Ruyer, Masoch, Bergson, Marx, Husserl and Lacan -- that for one reason or another may not typically be thought of as "canon" (at least in the sense of Descartes, Hume, etc.)
    – Joseph Weissman
    Commented Mar 22, 2012 at 23:46
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    @Joseph: The fact you included Marx, Husserl, and Lacan in that list is evidence that my interests lie quite far outside what is apparently considered mainstream or "canonical" philosophical inquiry. Because Marx would be very near the top of my list of influential philosophers. Commented Mar 23, 2012 at 2:49
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    @CodyGray: I agree with you that Marx is (even if he wasn't at one point) mainstream. He is, however, usually not taught (in philosophy departments) as a leading figure in Western philosophy. Likewise with Lacan. I suppose there was just too much happening in academic philosophy during their respective lifetimes to sway the tradition. Also, I had assumed that my question would raise a few controversial points about which figures fit in "the canon". I'm curious to see how the landscape has shifted since I was an undergrad. Commented Mar 23, 2012 at 2:59
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    One oft-ignored writer of modern idealism that I find particularly fascinating is Friedrich Schelling. He builds upon Kant's works, so I doubt he could work as a direct "replacement" of Kant in an alternate canon, but his work is very interesting despite being much overlooked, so I'd nominate him as a name worthy of mention. Commented Mar 23, 2012 at 4:42
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    @Josh1billion: Schelling, yes, love it. I think with Schelling goes Fichte. I'd put forward both of them - perhaps the neoplatonic lineage would be worthwhile to trace for an alternate canon. Commented Mar 23, 2012 at 16:36

4 Answers 4


The canonical figures are who they are mainly in virtue of their extensive influence on the tradition, so an alternative canon can only be of minority interest.

It is a separate question whether there are any important figures in the history of philosophy which have been overlooked.

I think Wittgenstein, while certainly not overlooked, has been widely misunderstood. He is frequently interpreted as belonging to one of the comfortable and familiar categories of philosophy ('logical behaviourism', 'antirealism', 'assertion conditions semantics') while in fact his views are misrepresented by such labels and his philosophy is radical and visionary. I would like to see serious Wittgenstein scholarship back on the agenda and at the centre of the Western canon.

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    I agree that "the canon" exists for good reasons - I certainly wasn't attempting to contest that. Rather, I was hoping to pursue a thought experiment (that possibly was a practical one) of Rorty's, and see how the community here would respond. And I agree about Wittgenstein. Although there is usually an introductory course at the undergraduate level (or an "analytic philosophy" course featuring him), he tends to get... streamlined. Commented Mar 23, 2012 at 16:40
  • @gogolgadgets Yes I was criticizing Rorty really (a typically irascible suggestion from him), and I took it that you were just interested in suggestions.
    – adrianos
    Commented Mar 23, 2012 at 17:59

I think David Stove does qualify for twentieth century philosophy. This webpage has some of his writings freely accessible and a list of his publications. He certainly deserves a more prominent place in philosophy of science, compared to the undeserved preponderance philosophers like Popper, Kuhn or Feyerabend get.

EDIT: I was just thinking about a 19th century name which does not usually appear in the canon but nevertheless had a profound influence on 19th century canon thinkers like Marx or Nietzsche: Max Stirner.

  • I like the Stirner suggestion very much. Nice one! Commented Apr 16, 2012 at 1:29

A somewhat odd suggestion might be Böhme who had a major impact on many German philosophical figures, both in the counter-Enlightenment and some more canonical figures, e.g., Hegel and Heidegger.

Three other figures that occur to me have been covered by Isaiah Berlin, but do deserve some mention.

Hamann could be read in a way to import some elements of Humean skepticism while eschewing much of Hume. I've only read a little of what he's written, but

His student Herder is a much more obvious critic of the Enlightenment in general and reason in particular, and may actually go some way towards opening up the possibility of a history of western thought that by-passes Kant (though Jacobi is a much stronger candidate in this regard). (I'm not saying it's possible to construct a history of philosophy without Kant -- how would one account for basically all subsequent philosophy? -- merely that Herder and Jacobi can be read as figures that offer an alternative path-not-taken by western philosophy).

Vico, a fierce critic of Descartes, who constructed his own New Science as an explicit alternative to Cartesian philosophy, likewise deserves consideration.


You may have writers not usually considered "philosophers", but that have far more to say that many of the influential "philosophers", mostly some terrible-to-read from twentieth century.

I cite Mark Twain, Dostoievski and Henry David Thoreau as three great minds. After all, what is the value of philosophy if it gets stuck in theoretical systems but forgets about the practical values of life, nature and good humour?

But for, let's say, "profissional philosophers", I suggest Voltaire, Nietzsche and Bertrand Russell. Mostly because philosophy is also about denouncing false logics, and some of the most influential (or canonic) western philosophers were themselves defenders of false logics.

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