Quora Answer: What are some examples of great thinkers or intellectual relatively unknown?

Oct 18 2014

The Western Tradition even though it has taken over the world and studied foreign cultures remains relatively isolated in itself in as much as it only takes itself seriously. Thus thinkers from other traditions are not well integrated into our overall understanding of intellectual history. Therefore not only are there thinkers not well known because they are not part of our cannon who are from within our tradition, there are many thinkers from other cultures that were colonized who are even more obscure.

So for instance someone from within the tradition that is not known well but should be is Michael Henry who wrote The Essence of Manifestation which is a Critique of Heidegger based on the work of Meister Eckhart. This is just one example. There are myriad lesser lights who did not make the Canon in the Western Tradition that are important.

Someone on the other hand from outside the Western Tradition is Mipham who lived in Tibet in the 1700s I believe who in my opinion is probably the greatest intellectual of all time. He wrote commentaries because he was ordered to by his teacher, but his commentaries are some of the best work done in the Tibetan Tradition. Only now is his work coming to light and being translated by Tibetan scholars. Important in this tradition is Dzong Ka Pa who was probably the ultimate analytical philosopher of enlightenment. Mipham was answering his work and attempting to establish again the true basis of DzogChen from the Nyingma point of view. Tibetan Buddhism is the natural extension of Buddhism as a living tradition which was reabsorb into Hinduism in India. And as the continued living tradition of Buddhism it reached even more amazing heights than were achieved in India and China, but of course had its degenerations as well. But this is an intellectual tradition to be reckoned with because it combined meditation practices leading to higher realms of consciousness with philosophical sophistication.

Another person in the Chinese Buddhist tradition of great import is Fa Tsang who was the greatest of the intellectuals in the Hua Yen tradition. To my mind this tradition is the most sophisticated intellectual tradition on earth ever and their work became the standard interpretation that lay behind Zen Buddhism. In Soto Zen there is Dogen Kaigen who is an important intellectual who wrote the Shobogenzo. important in the formation of Buddhism is of course Nagarjuna who established that Emptiness was part of logic. My favorite Chinese poet who combined the Zen and Taoist traditions is StoneHouse, one of the great masters of the later period of the development of the Chinese Tradition.

In China apart from Buddhism my favorite is Lo Chen Shun who wrote Knowledge Painfully Acquired. He was trying to recover the essence of the original Chinese tradition before the onslaught of Buddhism.

A good book to see all these lesser known philosophers is The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change: Randall Collins: 9780674001879: Amazon.com: Books. Someone made a Visio diagram of the entire tradition mentioned in that book which sought to display precursors and teachers and the chains of influence all over the world and it was really long and intricate and it was amazing to see it when it was printed out, because it has many of those lesser known or unknown characters who played an important role in the development of the world-wide intellectual tradition which due to our insularity are unknown to us.

But I must say that when I look at the Western Cannon the amazing thing is that for the most part within it are those works that should be there, and the good thing about the Western intellectual tradition that many are forgotten or do not make the canon but they are still for the most part available to be read if one so chooses, and the causes of many of these lesser lights get taken up by scholars and their works are translated into English in many cases, but of course so many writers from other languages even in the western tradition are not translated and so their influence on English scholars are then less than they would be otherwise. Since for the most part we are not multi-lingual in our tradition now at least in America much of the richness of the tradition is lost due to the fact that not everything has been translated that would be good to have translated. But things are getting better and more and more important things are being translated into English and because English has become the common language many works are first written in English these days so that they can have wider impact within the overall tradition that is now forming around English as the universal language (for better or worse as the case may be).

My own view which is limited by being only a reader of English is that it is difficult to exhaust what is available in English, but of course I wish I had the facility with language that used to be the standard in European education. But this is a great time to be a scholar such as myself who is limited to English because so many of the works that are important in Europe are being translated into English if not written in English in the first place. And so we are seeing more of the tradition than used to be the case from the vantage point of English. So we are indebted to those scholars who spend their time in the painstaking work of translating important works into English.

Be that as it may, the key is that one can get a pretty wide view of other traditions or the western tradition itself from the vantage point of what is in English now. And so if we are diligent in seeking out these other works in other traditions we can have a much wider view of the intellectual tradition than was available even 50 years ago. And so it is a good thing to do to explore these other resources and not to limit ourselves just to the Western Canon but to explore the lesser lights in our own tradition, but I think more importantly to explore the other traditions that are now available in English and to become as much as possible familiar with the wider intellectual history of humanity which is the context for the Western tradition. When you do that you find that the Western tradition is fairly limited, and is not necessarily the height of human achievement that it believes it is.

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