One of my long-held convictions is that the formation of our canon of philosophers, both more generally and of early modern philosophers in particular, involved enough enshrinement of silly prejudice to ensure that it should not be trusted as a guide to who was actually important and who wasn’t. Naturally, this conviction leads me to wonder occasionally about how one might identify the unjustly neglected philosophers of the past.
I won’t proffer a full account of what it means to be an important philosopher. No doubt one key criterion, perhaps the most important one, is the quality of their philosophical work. But it comes with some difficulties. First, directly determining the quality of some philosopher or other is hard work. A quick read may suffice to weed out the obviously third-rate, but I think serious engagement with a philosopher’s thought is required once we’re dealing with serious candidates. It’s not at all clear to me, for example, that I would have judged Aristotle’s work to be of top quality on a first read if I didn’t already know his reputation. But if serious engagement is required to determine the quality of work, then this criterion is impractical if one is trying to compare large numbers of philosophers. Second, I would expect a lot of disagreement about judgements of overall quality. I would expect more convergence if evaluating more specific qualities that help comprise the overall judgement, but how to balance those specific qualities? Even if we all agree that Aquinas is really good at clearly and concisely setting out his arguments and that Nietzsche is really good at being creative and provocative, I expect there will be plenty of disagreement about who’s the better philosopher. So for present purposes I’m going to set this criterion to the side, at least as a direct test.
Another criterion is influence. I think the very fact that a philosopher was or is very influential gives them at least some importance. But presumably influence is also an indicator, albeit a fallible one, of philosophical quality. Thinking about this criterion, I started wondering if there would be some way to get a sense for philosophers’ influence without investing the time to read the Western corpus and seeing whose ideas are discussed most often.
Might one be able to make use of the fact that massive amounts of books have now been digitized? If a philosopher’s name shows up in a lot of books, that’s presumably some indication of influence. Playing with the Google Books NGram Viewer is addictively fun, so I started there. But serious limitations quickly became obvious. Here’s a graph of the appearances of ‘Suarez’ and ‘Descartes’ between 1600 and 1900 from the English One Million corpus which has approximately 6000 books for each year:
Judging by this graph, it looks like Suarez has the edge on Descartes until the end of the 18th century, when the latter’s popularity takes off. But wait a minute: Descartes’s popularity only took off at the end of the 18th century? No. Rather, it’s a story of the medial ‘s’ losing popularity. Google Books’ software reads a medial ‘s’ as an ‘f’. Adding ‘Defcartes’ to the graph tells a more accurate story:
Now Descartes has the edge in the English corpus from the end of the 17th century, which is a good deal more plausible. But this isn’t the end of it. Let’s add a variant form of Descartes’s name that was common earlier on, Des Cartes:
And that’s not the end of alternative forms of Descartes’s name. Suarez’s name also comes in multiple forms. Not to mention that the Suarez I’m interested in, the Jesuit philosopher who wrote the Disputationes metaphysicae, was not the only Suarez writing books in the early modern period. And then there are the limitations with Google’s NGram Viewer. The results for non-English languages prior to 1800 are dubious, there is no combined corpus that includes all the languages, and, worst of all, there is no Latin corpus. So, fun and easy to use as the NGram Viewer may be, I think its limitations leave it of little value for present purposes.
My thoughts then turned to library catalogues. They don’t allow one to search for appearances of a term in a text, but, I thought, the number of editions a work goes through presumably is some indication of its influence. And library catalogues have the great virtue of providing uniform names and titles, at least for items that have been properly catalogued. So why not search a good union catalogue, i.e., a catalogue combining records from multiple libraries, and count the number of distinct editions of a work to be found? As its name indicates, Worldcat attempts to be a global union catalogue. As a matter of fact, however, it is biased towards English-speaking countries in general and to libraries in the USA in particular. Of course, since libraries in all English-speaking countries other than the UK failed to amass large collections back in the 17th and 18th centuries, they have collections that tend to reflect recent assumptions about which philosophical figures and traditions are important and which ones aren’t. Gabriel Vazquez’s commentary on Aquinas’s Summa theologiae was a big deal in the seventeenth-century and one can still find plenty of copies of it in European libraries, but copies are scarce in American libraries. Since I’m precisely trying to escape recent judgements about who is important, this is a problem. The problem is mitigated, however, by the fact that Worldcat does incorporate records from at least some of the European libraries and by the fact that for counting editions it doesn’t matter whether the libraries hold a hundred copies of a given edition or merely one copy.
[UPDATED] Here are some results:
- 19 – Wolff, Vernünftige Gedanken von Gott (wolff, gott, 1719-1768)
- 18 – Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy (descartes, meditationes, 1640-1689)
- 17 – Malebranche, Search after Truth (malebranche, recherche, 1674-1723)
- 16 – Pufendorf, On the Law of Nature and of Nations (pufendorf, gentium, 1672-1721)
- 15 – Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (locke, understanding, 1690-1739)
- 11 – Leibniz, Theodicy (leibniz, theodicee, 1710-1759)
- 11 – Suarez, Disputationes metaphysicae (suarez, disputationes, 1597-1646)
- 8 – Arriaga, Cursus philosophicus (arriaga, cursus, 1632-1681)
- 8 – Hobbes, Leviathan (hobbes, leviathan, 1651-1700)
- 7 – Spinoza, Tractatus theologico-politicus (spinoza, tractatus, 1670-1719)
- 6 – Rubio, Logica mexicana (rubio, logica, 1605-1654)
- 6 – Sanderson, Logicae artis compendium (Stewart Duncan)
- 5 – Gassendi, Exercitationes paradoxicae adversus aristoteleos (gassendi, exercitationes, 1624-1673)
- 4 – Mastri de Meldola and Belluto, Philosophiae ad mentem Scoti cursus integer (mastri, integer, 1678-1727)
- 4 – More, Antidote against Atheism (Stewart Duncan)
- 4 – Wolff, Psychologia rationalis (wolff, psychologia, 1734-1783)
- 3 – Oviedo, Integer cursus philosophicus (oviedo, integer, 1640-1689)
- 2 – Conway, The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy (conway, principles, 1690-1739)
- 1 – Cavendish, Observations Upon Experimental Philosophy (cavendish, observations, 1668-1717)
- 1 – Cudworth, True Intellectual System (Stewart Duncan)
- 1 – Spinoza, Ethics (spinoza, ethica, 1677-1726)
[UPDATED] The number at the beginning of each line indicates the number of editions found. In brackets you’ll either find the search terms and year range I used or the name of the person who provided me with the number. It’s of course the case that issues of methodological variation are more likely to creep in if the data is not collected by the same person.
The methodology is quite simple. I use the advanced search page to enter a title term, an author term, and a 50-year date range starting with the year of the first edition of the work. I then go through the results, discarding irrelevant and duplicate records. While not a perfectly accurate way to individuate editions, I counted any distinct publishing city and year pair as a distinct edition. The list of works is obviously far from comprehensive. Basically, I selected, in an entirely unsystematic fashion, some canonical works, some works that I expected to show pitfalls of the method, and some less well-known works of which I knew and which I thought had some possibility of being more influential than one might have expected.
So what are the limitations of this method? Here are some that I can think of:
1. Persecuted and otherwise marginalized figures don’t get their due. Spinoza and Cavendish are two examples.
2. All else being equal, an author with two books that went through ten editions likely had more influence than an author with one book that went through ten editions. Counting editions of a single work rather than editions of all an author’s works fails to capture this. On the other hand, counting the editions of all an author’s works would be even more misleading (think of a prolific author none of whose works ever go into a second edition because no one cares to read any of the works). Not to mention that this would be a good deal more time-consuming. Malebranche and Suarez are two people about whom this limitation might cause worry.
3. This method fails to capture influence that doesn’t come via published books. Socrates would do very badly by this test. In our period, Leibniz fails to get his due.
4. Influence via textbooks inspired by but not written by an author is not captured. For example, some of Suarez’s influence came via Protestant textbooks that were in large part inspired by him but left out the unpalatable Catholic bits.
5. The influence of schools that had many members but no clear dominant figure is underestimated. For example, it is clear that Suarez is the dominant figure for Jesuits. I’m not sure there is any comparable figure for the Scotists. Mastri da Meldola and Belluto’s Philosophiae ad mentem Scoti cursus integer is as prominent a Scotist work as I can think of, but I think its four editions fail to show the influence of Scotist, give the sheer number of works ad mentem Scoti that you can dig up in rare book libraries.
6. I’m not sure how to compare academic versus more popular influence. That is, how do you compare massive works with a forbidding professional vocabulary published only in Latin to much shorter, more accessible works translated into a variety of vernacular languages? The latter tend to get more editions, but is that a good indication of greater influence? I’m not sure how to think about this.
7. I’m also not sure how to deal with abridged editions. In Locke’s case, for example, the number of editions would nearly double if I counted abridged editions.
Those are some worries I have about this method of counting editions in library catalogues. I’d be curious to hear any other concerns that people have with these results. I’d also be interested in hearing suggestions about other ways of getting a quick and dirty sense of an author’s influence that’s not beholden to currently prevalent historical narratives. Finally, if there is some work that you’d really like to see added to my list, let me know. I’m happy to add some more data.
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