Canons are historically situated; but let us grasp the full implications. We cannot invoke as a foil a reservoir of "deserving" but unknown thinkers in the shadows throughout history, just as "creative" as the ones whose names were trumpeted, as if there were some trans-historical realm in which their achievement is measured. Ideas are creative because they hold the interest of other people. The very concept of creativity implies the judgment of one generation upon another. Shall we say that we are studying not creativity but reputation? The distinction arises from our tendency to heroize, to reify the individual apart from the context. Although it seems to violate our sense that causes ought to be antecedent to what we are explaining, the "creativity" of a particular philosopher is not established until several generations have passed, because it literally is a matter of how sharp a focus that individual's ideas become in the long-term structure of the networks which transmit ideas. (58)
Intellectual greatness is precisely one's effect on the course of intellectual history, influencing generations downstream from one's own.
In my rankings, greatness is based on the degree to which a philosopher remains of interest to other thinkers across long periods of time. Canons do change, but only among those figures who have entered into the long-term chain of reputation in the first place. The first threshold is reputation that carries down beyond one or two generations. For this reason, the level of structural creativity is not easy to discern among one's own contemporaries. (59)
The dose of realism provided by the long-term view is a salutary (if unwelcome) antidote to our personal egotism, and to that projected egotism which we attach to our hero-ideals, the rare "genius" of generations past whom we pattern ourselves upon in our inner imagination. Intellectuals make their breakthroughs, changing the course of the flow of ideas, because of what they do with the cultural capital and emotional energy flowing down to them from their own pasts, restructured by the network of tensions among their contemporaries. The merit of their contributions, its "intrinsic worth" as well as "social impact," is a mater of how the structure develops after our own deaths. We intellectuals are true eddies in the river of time---perhaps more so than other humans, because it is our business to attend to this connectedness across the generations. (60)He points out that the "minimal unit of intellectual change is a generation, approximately 33 years" (60), and another generation for that change to have its impact. We cannot judge our own generation because we are too close, and things are still shaking out. And we may be in an epoch of little real change. Still, there are some parlor games we can play with this idea.
If we exclude the current generation -- meaning anyone who created their major work(s) since, say, 1980 -- and take as given Collins' calculations of 1 major intellectual per generation, 2 secondary intellectuals per generation, and 7 minor intellectuals per generation within a given field (he is writing about philosophy, but is applies to all intellectual networks), we would have 3 generations of intellectuals between 1880-1980.
What are the major, secondary, and minor economists of that period?
What are the major, secondary, and minor poets of that period?
What are the major, secondary, and minor novelists of that period?
What are the major, secondary, and minor playwrights of that period?
And, to really cause trouble: who in each category are on the radar now?
Let the comments war begin!