Rene Descartes was an eminent French Mathematician, philosopher and writer, who has been popularly referred to as ‘Father of Modern Philosophy’. Descartes was the foremost amongst all to highlight the importance of reason for the growth of natural sciences. He regarded philosophy as a belief system that contained immense knowledge. To this day, his work on philosophy “ Meditations on First Philosophy” is taught as a standard text in many universities.
His philosophical statement “Cogito ergo sum” meaning “I think, therefore I am”, mentioned in his book ‘Discourse on the Method’ took him to fame. In his natural philosophy he refuted the ‘analysis of corporeal substance into matter and form’ and rejected any appeal to divine or natural ends in explaining natural phenomena. His contribution in mathematics was immense that he has been called the ‘father of analytical geometry’. Descartes was also proponent of continental rationalism along with Leibniz, Gottfried and Spinoza in the seventeenth century.
Francois Arouet, better known by his pen name Voltaire, was a literary genius whose brilliant writings often caused extreme controversy during his time. His prolific writings often attacked popular philosophical or religious beliefs. Many of his works were critical of political institutions resulting in his prosecution, including jail and exile. His works often evoked similar reactions from the masses who, on more than one occasion in more than one city, have burnt and destroyed his books. His extreme criticism earned him numerous enemies.
He criticized his government as being ineffective, the common people as ignorant, the church as static, and the aristocracy as corrupt and parasitic. He became personal enemies with the Roman Catholic Church, the French Government, the Bible and the general masses. Despite this, he was far ahead of the times in his crusade for civil rights. He proclaimed the importance of freedom of religion, the right to a fair trial, the separation of church and state, and the freedom of speech.
Jean Paul Sartre
Jean-Paul Sartre was a renowned French playwright, philosopher, as well as political activist, who also influenced disciplines such as sociology and literary studies. Being an important figure both in the philosophies of existentialism and phenomenology, he is regarded as an important figure of 20th century French philosophy. Though he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1964, Sartre declined it, saying that according to him, a writer should never become an institution.
The philosophy he promoted was based on his position that there is no creator and humans are “condemned to be free.” A lack of a creator, according to him, meant that there is no essence to human existence either. Being a Marxist, he was also an admirer of the Soviet Union. Though he had great enthusiasm for French political movements, he did not join the communist party. His hopes for communism were destroyed, however, when Soviet tanks entered Budapest. He not only did he condemn the act, but also criticized the French Communist Party for being like a puppet to the dictates of Moscow. Though he still believed that Marxism was the best philosophy for the present era, he said that it needed few changes, like learning to respect & value individual freedom of a human being.
Simone de Beauvoir
Simone de Beauvoir was an eminent French writer, intellectual, feminist, political activist, social theorist and an existentialist philosopher. Her diverse corpus includes novels, short stories, travel diaries, essays, philosophy, ethical writings, biographies, autobiographies, social issues and politics. She had major influence on feminism, feminist theory and feminist existentialism which is prominent from her revolutionary masterpiece ‘The Second Sex’ that deals with oppression of women. Her other notable writings include ‘She Came to Stay’, ‘The Ethics of Ambiguity’, ‘The Mandarins’ and ‘Pyrrhus et Cineas’.
Many of her writings speak strongly of her philosophical bent of mind which was influenced by idealisms and philosophy of Friedrich Engels, Karl Marx, Martin Heidegger and Descartes among others. Simone de Beauvoir had an open relationship with famous philosopher Jean Paul Sartre. Although most of her ideas were original and sometimes different from Sartre, many a times Simone de Beauvoir was unfairly tagged as a follower of Sartrean philosophy. Throughout her life she remained under close scrutiny of the public.
Michel Foucault was a prominent French philosopher and historian. He was also a controversial scholar, who shot to both fame and notoriety post-World War II, for his best-known work ‘The Order of Things’. He was widely associated with the structuralist and post-structuralist waves in Europe and had a sturdy effect in not only philosophy but over an extensive array of socio-scientific disciplines. His works can largely be categorized as metaphysical and historical research. He hoped to comprehend the philosophies that molded an individual’s present, not only in terms of antique functions but also by locating the vicissitudes in their utility through history.
One of his other known multi-volume works ‘The History of Sexuality’ is also considered extremely important though not a major work, due to the fact that it remained unfinished. Some of his other known works include ‘The Use of Pleasure’ and ‘The Care of the Self’. Foucault also lectured numerous times on topics pertaining to ‘sexual issues’ and proclaimed that it was more of a ‘necessary good’ albeit essential for reproduction. A sad twist in irony however, put an end to his career, after he died an untimely death from complications related to HIV.
Auguste Comte was a prominent French philosopher. He introduced a new discipline namely Sociology and divided this subject in two categories – “social statics”, which denotes the forces holding society together and “social dynamics”, which indicates the forces responsible for social change. He, for the first time, proposed the idea of positivism, a philosophy of science that gained wide recognition in the second half of the nineteenth century. Most of his works reflect the influence of the utopian socialist Henri Saint-Simon with whom he worked as a secretary.
He endeavoured to cure the social maladies of the French Revolution with the help of his newly developed positive philosophy. His law of three stages is an attempt to describe the historical sequence of human mind in three steps – theological, metaphysical and positive. Due to his development of specific philosophy for each discipline of science like mathematics, physics, chemistry and biology, he is regarded as the first philosopher of science in the modern sense. In an article written for “Le Censeur Europeen”, a journal of the liberal opposition of that era, he put his view against equal access to jobs in government sector. Apart from enriching the field of Sociology, his social theories provided the basis for the formation of “Religion of Humanity”.
Jean Jacques Rousseau
Jean-Jacques Rousseau was a noted Swiss-born philosopher, writer and composer of the 18th Century Having lost his mother shortly after his birth, he was brought up by his father in an artisans’ neighborhood up to the age of ten. After being abandoned by his father, he grew up under the care of his maternal uncle under humiliating conditions. At sixteen, a freak incident saw him move to Savoy, where he came in contact with the Baronnesse de Warens, under whose guidance he turned into a man of letters.
Later he traveled to Paris and took up writing as his career option. Although he gained recognition both as a writer and composer by his late thirties, it was his much later works, ‘Social Contract’ and ‘Emile’, which earned him his place in world literature. Prosecuted by the state for challenging the authorities, he spent his last days moving from place to place. Later, his works inspired generations of reformers to bring about changes in their own countries’ political systems.
Albert Schweitzer was a German born French theologian, organist, philosopher, physician, and medical missionary. His founded the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Lambarene, now in Gabon, west central Africa (then French Equatorial Africa). Schweitzer is also greatly known as a music scholar and organist who was a profound scholar of the music of German composer Johann Sebastian Bach. Many of his Bach recordings are currently available on CD.
He started and greatly influenced the Organ reform movement. Schweitzer was the founder of universal ethical philosophy and universal reality. He is best known for challenging the secular view of Jesus as depicted by historical-critical methodology present during his time in certain academic circles, as well as the traditional Christian view, depicting a Jesus Christ who saw himself as the world-saving Messiah. He won the 1952 Nobel Peace Prize for his philosophy of “Reverence for Life”.
Albert Camus was a French philosopher, author and journalist born in French Algeria who played a seminal role in the rise of philosophy known as ‘absurdism’. Born just before the onset of the First World War to semi-proletariat parents, he lost his father at infancy, and grew up in the house of his maternal grandmother in the working class suburbs of Algiers. At the local Ecole Communale, where he started his education, he was spotted by one of his teachers, who not only convinced his grandmother to allow him to study, but also made sure he got a scholarship. Thus he was able to get admission at the Lycee Bugeaud, where he was mentored by another teacher.
Soon he decided to become a teacher and a writer. Unfortunately, it was his recurring tuberculosis, which prevented him from fulfilling the first aim; but he accomplished his second wish early in life and by his mid-twenties, he was able to establish himself as an emerging author, journalist, and theatre professional. However, it took a few more years to become internationally known. He was one of the youngest recipients of the Nobel Prize for Literature, winning it at the age of 44. However, he did not live long after that and died in a road accident at the age of 46.
Blaise Pascal was a French mathematician and physicist who laid the foundation for the modern theory of probabilities. A multi-faceted personality, he was also a Christian philosopher, inventor, and writer. Born as the son of a talented mathematician, he received his primary education from his father, who through his unorthodox curriculum, wanted to ensure that his bright young son grew up in an intellectually stimulating environment. The boy started displaying signs of brilliance at an early age and was regarded as a child prodigy. He was just 16 when he wrote a significant treatise on the subject of projective geometry and started working on other serious mathematical concepts as well.
While still in his teens he began building calculating machines which later became known as Pascal’s calculators. The calculators, which he had developed with the aim of helping his father in calculating taxes, became Pascal’s first claim to fame. Over the next several years he researched and wrote extensively on mathematical theories and also experimented in physical sciences. Throughout his life he made numerous great contributions to the philosophy of mathematics and the physical sciences. As a Christian philosopher, his most influential theological work is considered to be the ‘Pensees’ which unfortunately he could not complete before illness claimed him at the relatively young age of 39.