Socrates (c. 469-399 BC)
Socrates is one of the few individuals whom one could say has so-shaped the cultural and intellectual development of the world that, without him, history would be profoundly different. He is best known for his association with the Socratic method of question and answer, his claim that he was ignorant (or aware of his own absence of knowledge), and his claim that the unexamined life is not worth living, for human beings.
He was the inspiration for Plato, the thinker widely held to be the founder of the Western philosophical tradition. Plato in turn served as the teacher of Aristotle, thus establishing the famous triad of ancient philosophers: Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.
Unlike other philosophers of his time and ours, Socrates never wrote anything down but was committed to living simply and to interrogating the everyday views and popular opinions of those in his home city of Athens. At the age of 70, he was put to death at the hands of his fellow citizens on charges of impiety and corruption of the youth. His trial, along with the social and political context in which occurred, has warranted as much treatment from historians and classicists as his arguments and methods have from philosophers.
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.
Plato (c. 428-348 BC)
Plato is one of the world’s best known and most widely read and studied philosophers. He was the student of Socrates and the teacher of Aristotle, and he wrote in the middle of the 4th century B.C.E. in ancient Greece.
Plato’s middle to later works, including his most famous work, the Republic, are generally regarded as providing Plato’s own philosophy, where the main character in effect speaks for Plato himself. These works blend ethics, political philosophy, moral psychology, epistemology, and metaphysics into an interconnected and systematic philosophy. It is most of all from Plato that we get the theory of Forms, according to which the world we know through the senses is only an imitation of the pure, eternal, and unchanging world of the Forms.
Plato’s works also contain the origins of the familiar complaint that the arts work by inflaming the passions, and are mere illusions. We also are introduced to the ideal of “Platonic love:” Plato saw love as motivated by a longing for the highest Form of beauty—The Beautiful Itself, and love as the motivational power through which the highest of achievements are possible
Confucius (551-479 BC)
Better known in China as “Master Kong”, Confucius was a fifth-century BCE Chinese thinker whose influence upon East Asian intellectual and social history is immeasurable. Confucius is one of the few leaders who based their philosophy on the virtues that are required for the day-to-day living.
His philosophy centered on personal and governmental morality, correctness of social relationships, justice and sincerity. He taught people how to cultivate the value of modesty, planning, respect, moral behavior, honesty and sincerity, apart from common sense. He preached that adopting these values was the only way a human being could lead a good life. Confucius was of the opinion that true happiness would only be brought from well-planned actions and helping of the fellow men.
Karl Marx (1818-1883)
Karl Marx was a 19th century philosopher, political economist and revolutionary, who gave socialism a scientific foundation. Marx was devoted to the study of philosophy and history from a young age and was about to become an assistant professor in philosophy before his life took a different direction and he became a revolutionary. From a very young age, he started participating in a number of political activities and addressed a wide variety of social concerns. He is known for, among other things, his analysis of history and his arguments for a logical understanding of socioeconomic amendment through radical action.
While Marx was a relatively undistinguished figure in his lifetime, his philosophies, which later came to be known as ‘Marxism’, began to wield a major impact on workers’ movements shortly after his death. The revolution which he instigated reached its apex when the Marxist Bolsheviks emerged victorious during the Russian October Revolution and soon different theoretical variants of communism began branching out from ‘Marxism’ such as Stalinism, Trotskyism and Leninism. Some of his most famous works like ‘The Communist Manifesto’ and ‘Das Kapital’ had great influence on political leaders like Vladimir Lenin, Mao Zedong and Leon Trotsky.
Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)
Immanuel Kant was a German philosopher during the Enlightenment era of the late 18th century. He synthesized early modern rationalism and empiricism; set the terms for much of nineteenth and twentieth century philosophy, and continues to exercise a significant influence today in metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, political philosophy, aesthetics, and other fields.
At the foundation of Kant’s system is the doctrine of “transcendental idealism,” which emphasizes a distinction between what we can experience (the natural, observable world) and what we cannot (“supersensible” objects such as God and the soul). Kant argued that we can only have knowledge of things we can experience. Accordingly, in answer to the question, “What can I know?” Kant replies that we can know the natural, observable world, but we cannot, however, have answers to many of the deepest questions of metaphysics.
Towards the end of his most influential work, Critique of Pure Reason(1781/1787), Kant argues that all philosophy ultimately aims at answering these three questions: “What can I know? What should I do? What may I hope?” The book appeared at the beginning of the most productive period of his career, and by the end of his life Kant had worked out systematic, revolutionary, and often profound answers to these questions.
John Stuart Mill (1806-1873)
John Stuart Mill was a 19th Century English philosopher who was instrumental in the development of the moral theory of Utilitarianism and a political theory that’s goal was to maximize the personal liberty of all citizens. He was able to inspire a number of social reforms in England during his lifetime after the industrial revolution had causes huge gaps between the rich and the poor, rampant child labor and horrible health conditions.
His “Utilitarianism” of 1861 remains the classic defence of the Utilitarian view that we should aim at maximizing the welfare (or happiness) of all sentient creatures. However, he was keen to develop Utilitarianism into a more humanitarian doctrine. One of Mill’s major contributions to Utilitarianism was his argument for the qualitative separation of pleasures, his insistence that happiness should be assessed not merely by quantity but by quality and, more specifically, that intellectual and moral pleasures are superior to more physical forms of pleasure.
He went so far as to say that he would rather be a dissatisfied human being than a satisfied pig. He also turned away from Bentham’s external standard of goodness to something more subjective, arguing that altruism was as important as self-interest in deciding what ought to be done.
Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910)
Born Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy on his aristocratic family’s Russian estate in September 1828, Leo Tolstoy is widely considered one of the greatest authors of all time. A celebrated writer, a recognized moralist and a distinguished social reformer – Leo Tolstoy needs no introduction of sorts. He is regarded as the greatest Russian literary giant, who gave the world some of the most remarkable piece of writings. A master of realistic fiction, Tolstoy’s novels are even today considered amongst the finest literary works. Through his works, Tolstoy not just became one of the greatest writers ever known, but a living symbol of someone in search of life’s meaning.
After achieving widespread success with epic works including “War and Peace” and “Anna Karenina,” Tolstoy abandoned many of the trappings of his privileged youth; instead focusing on spiritual matters and espousing a moral philosophy, steeped in simple living and pacifism, which inspired thousands of followers, including Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.
Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951)
Ludwig Wittgenstein was an Austrian philosopher who inspired two great philosophical movements of the 20th century — logical positivism and ordinary language philosophy. Though born in one of the richest families in Vienna, he was deeply influenced by philosophy and pursued a career in the same, going against his father’s wish, who wanted Wittgenstein to join family business.
Greatly influenced by famous philosophers like Bertrand Russell and by Gottlob Frege, Wittgenstein applied modern logic to metaphysics, providing new definition to the relations between world, thought and language, thereby explaining the nature of philosophy. He was a highly sensitive and nervous person who often got annoyed and disturbed by things around him.
Beyond doubt, he was a great philosopher of 20th century and continues to influence current philosophical thoughts in many areas like logic and language, perception and intention, ethics and religion, aesthetics and culture and such more. Read on to learn more about the life and career of this legend.
Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274)
Thomas Aquinas was an Italian Dominican theologian hailed as the father of the Thomistic school of theology. A Catholic priest, he was also a prominent philosopher, and jurist in the tradition of scholasticism. Originally named Tommaso d’Aquino, he is hailed as the most influential Western medieval legal scholar and theologist, and was instrumental in the development of several concepts in modern philosophy.
He himself was greatly inspired by the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle and attempted to integrate Aristotelian philosophy with the principles of Christianity. He was considered an authority of the Roman Catholic Church for his ability to effortlessly combine the theological principles of faith with the philosophical principles of reason. He was born as the youngest child in a large family of lower nobility in Italy. It is said that when his mother was pregnant with him, a holy hermit told her that her son would one day become a great learner and achieve unequaled sanctity.
He decided to embark on a religious career as a young man despite vehement opposition from his family. He went on to earn his doctorate in theology and became a much respected scholar. He devoted much of his life to traveling, writing, teaching, public speaking and preaching. A prolific writer, he penned several commentaries on the Bible and discussions of Aristotle’s writings on natural philosophy
Rene Descartes (1596-1650)
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.
Aristotle (384–322 BC)
Aristotle was a Greek philosopher and scientist, better known as the teacher of Alexander the Great. He was a student of Plato and is considered an important figure in Western Philosophy. Famous for his writings on physics, metaphysics, poetry, theater, music, logic, rhetoric, linguistics, politics, government, ethics, biology, and zoology, he is considered much ahead of his time.
His writings constitute the first comprehensive system of Western philosophy which includes views about morality and aesthetics, logic and science, politics and metaphysics. This system became the supporting pillar of both Islamic and Christian scholastic thought. It is even said that he was perhaps the last man who had the knowledge of all the known fields at that time.
His intellectual knowledge ranged from every known field of science and arts of that era. His writing includes work in physics, chemistry, biology, zoology, botany, psychology, political theory, logic, metaphysics, history, literary theory and rhetoric. One of his greatest achievements was formulating a finished system also known as Aristotelian syllogistic.
Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900)
Friedrich Nietzsche was a famous 19th century German philosopher and philologist known for his critical texts on religion, morality, contemporary culture, philosophy and science. He was widely known for his ideas like death of God, perspectivism, the Ubermensch, the eternal recurrence, and the will to power. He started his career as a classical philologist and at the age of 24 years was the youngest individual to hold the Chair of Classical Philology at the University of Basel.
His writings mostly remained controversial and were often criticized for their anti-Christian faith. His work was later recognized and considered as carrying great personality development elements. It was said that German soldiers used to get a copy of Thus Spoke Zarathustra during World War I for inspiring themselves. Famous political leaders like Theodore Roosevelt, Adolf Hitler, Mussolini, Charles de Gaulle and Richard Nixon read his writings and were influenced by his ideas. His writings also influenced many profound thinkers of 20th century including Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, Leo Strauss, Albert Camus, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Gilles Deleuze.
Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980)
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 and value individual freedom of a human being.
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.