Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968)
Martin Luther King Jr. was the most important voice of the American civil rights movement, which worked for equal rights for all. He was famous for using nonviolent resistance to overcome injustice, and he never got tired of trying to end segregation laws (laws that prevented blacks from entering certain places, such as restaurants, hotels, and public schools). He also did all he could to make people realize that “all men are created equal.”
Because of his great work, in 1964 King received the Nobel Peace Prize — the youngest person ever to receive this high honor. King was also a Baptist minister. He was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, when he was just 39 years old. His birthday is now observed as a national holiday on the third Monday in January.
John Rawls (1921-2002)
John Rawls was a 20th Century American philosopher who worked chiefly in the fields of ethics, political philosophy and philosophy of law. Rawls is considered by many to be the most important political philosopher of the 20th Century and his landmark book, A Theory of Justice, is praised for having attempted to unite a lot of competing political theories that many had judged incompatible.
In the 19th century, political philosophy had split between the radical egalitarianism of Karl Marx and the concepts of personal liberty and freedom endorsed by John Stuart Mill. Rawls rejected both Marx’s Communism and Mill’s Utilitarianism to return to the social contract model of the early Modern period and draw influence from Locke, Rousseau, Hume and Kant to form his own version of the theory.
Robert Nozick (1938-2002)
A philosopher at Harvard known for his unique writing style and stunning good looks. He worked in many fields, including ethics, epistemology, and metaphysics. He is perhaps most famous for his single venture into political philosophy: Anarchy, State, and Utopia, which argues for a minimalist state and against both anarcho-capitalism and socialism.
In that book he also devised two enduring arguments against utilitarianism, the virtual reality argument and the utility monster problem. His book Philosophical Explanations examines ideas of knowledge and critiques the method of basing large systems of thought on a few axioms- comparing it to building a house by piling bricks directly on top of one another.
John Dewey (1859-1952)
John Dewey was a leading scholar in the American philosophical school of pragmatism. This isn’t the same pragmatism spoken of by politicians, but is instead a rejection of the notion that thought is meant mainly to describe or mirror reality. It could be described as a realist point of view — essentially, it claims that most philosophical topics should be viewed in terms of their usefulness, as opposed to purely on their representative accuracy.
Although he made contributions to philosophy and psychology, perhaps Dewey’s greatest impact was as an educational reformer. In Dewey’s view, it’s vital that classroom activities focus on meaningful activity in place of rote learning. Students should be invested in what they are learning and the curriculum should seem relevant to their lives. He viewed learning by doing to be an important factor missing from American education.
Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)
The greatest of the Transcendentalist philosophers, though he is often considered as much an author as a philosopher. Emerson began his career as a minister, but left the pulpit after the death of his wife. His writings cover many topics, including education, self-improvement, nature, and the dignity of the ordinary. A pantheist, he held that the divine was manifest in all of us, and that we therefore had a divine duty to be ourselves.
He gave woodlands he owned to his friend and fellow thinker Henry David Thoreau, who used the land to build the cabin where he wrote Walden. Nietzsche claimed his as an influence. An overview of his ideas can be watched here. He was also the godfather to our next entry.
Thomas Paine (1737-1809)
He was a philosopher, poor excuse for a solder, and author of one of the most widely read documents in American history. Thomas Paine was one of the more radical members of the intellectuals behind the American revolution, calling for independence in Common Sense long before anyone else was by using enlightenment notions of the rights of the ruled.
After the American revolution he moved to France, where he served in the national convention and helped to draft the first constitution of the French Republic-despite not speaking French. He published the book Agrarian Justice, which re-introduced the idea of the basic income to western thought. He also defended the French Revolution against Burke in the book The Rights of Man, in which he also proposed a state funded old age pension.
Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758)
Jonathan Edwards was one of the greatest influences on American protestant theology. Born in Connecticut in 1703, Edwards was one of the leaders of the Puritan movement, which seeked to distance Protestantism from Catholicism. Puritans believed that the Bible itself should be the final word on what we should do, and disliked the Catholic traditions that didn’t come from the Bible directly.
Because of this focus on the Bible, education and literacy was emphasized. Edwards himself attended Yale University at age 13, and would go on to write extensively on religious topics ranging from metaphysics to ethics. Perhaps Edwards’ most influential idea was his defense of theological determinism, within which he stated that God is the ultimate and final cause of everything that happens. This has had both positive and negative effects — if people believe God is the ultimate cause, then they will believe it vital to do what God has ordained. This could vary from something as noble as feeding poor children to something as stupid as “witch” burning. So, for both good & ill, Edwards had a huge impact on American religion and, by extension, society.
Cornel West is one of the most publicly known philosophers today, and perhaps the most well known African American philosopher. While West has taught at Harvard, Princeton and Yale, he is also a very active social commentator and political activist. His writings tend to deal with relevant real world issues — in his books, he has analyzed wide ranging social problems having to do with race, class and justice.
Many of his main beliefs stem from his Christian background, which he mixes with his belief in democratic socialism, a somewhat rare combination. Growing up he was influenced largely by the church his family attended, but also by the Black Panther Party and the writings of Karl Marx. West has sometimes come into conflict with administrators because of his activism, which eventually led to his resignation at Harvard.
William James (1842 – 1910)
A physician, psychologist, and philosopher of the Pragmatic school, James’ work covers topics stretching from education and epistemology to metaphysics and mysticism.
His book The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature, foreshadowed his pragmatic philosophy. In it, he argues that religious experiences are human experiences and discusses the possible causes of mystical events. His long-outdated text Principles of Psychology was immensely popular and influential in shaping early American psychology. When measuring by citations, James was one of the most influential psychologists of the 20th century.
Thomas Jefferson (1743 – 1826)
Thomas Jefferson is of course best known for being one of the founding fathers of the United States. He wrote much of the Declaration of Independence and served as the third President. He was a politician, but his political actions and beliefs were greatly influenced by his basic philosophical beliefs. In fact, Jefferson was a member and, for a time, the president of the American Philosophical Association.
Much of his writing described abstract principles as opposed to concrete political doctrines. Jefferson was a defender of democracy, and he argued for a will of the people. But he also realized that the majority could abuse those not in agreement with them, and so he was one of the first defenders of civil rights in America. Unfortunately, his belief that “all men are created equal” didn’t extend to non-white men, as he was a slave owner all his life. Despite this hypocrisy, his philosophical arguments for freedom put forth in the Declaration were eventually used by others in various human rights movements that extended civil rights farther than they had ever been.