A list of some famous thinkers of the past, and the great thinkers of today. These are people who offered some new ideas and thought to help improve the situation of the world. These thinkers come from a range of different areas from science and philosophy to human rights and politics.
Great thinkers of the Classical period
Homer (c. 8th Century B.C. ) Considered the greatest of the ancient Greek poets. Homer wrote two epic poems, The Iliad and The Odyssey. His work was hugely influential in shaping Greek culture and literature.
Pythagoras (c. 570 BC – 495 BC) Greek philosopher, spiritual leader and mathematician. Pythagoras was credited by Plato with many key ideas in maths, science, ethics and philosophy. As well as being credited with mathematical theorems, Pythagoras was a religious leader of a secret mystical school.
Confucius (551–479) BCE Chinese philosopher and author of The Analects. Confucius shaped Chinese culture – writing about family, loyalty, virtue and the respect of elders.
Aristotle (384 BC – 322 BC) – Greek philosopher and polymath. His scientific works dominated Western science until the Renaissance. His ethics and philosophy shaped Western Christian thought. He is widely regarded as one of the most influential persons who ever lived, offering insights into all aspects of human knowledge.
Euclid (300BC) Greek mathematician. Euclid is often referred to as the ‘father of modern geometry.’ His book ‘Elements’ provided the basis of mathematics into the Twentieth Century.
Cicero. Roman statesman, lawyer and political philosopher. Cicero wrote an influential account of individual liberty, republican government and the natural rights of man. His works were important to the Renaissance and Era of Revolutions.
Marcus Aurelius (121 – 180) – Roman Emperor and philosopher. Famous for his book ‘Meditations‘ which offer short aphorisms of wisdom and advice.
Al -Khwarizmi (780 – 850) Persian Mathematician. Al Khwarizmi produced a comprehensive guide to the ‘Arabic numbers’ using the ten digits we use today. He also developed algebra, a new branch of mathematics.
Adi Shankara (9th Century AD) Shankaracharya was a noted spiritual teacher and philosopher. He spread a philosophy of Advaita Vedanta, which stresses the underlying unity of creation – an important philosophical strand of Hinduism.
Leonardo Da Vinci (1452 – 1519) Artist and renaissance man. Da Vinci made many scientific discoveries. A supreme polymath, Da Vinci investigated anatomy, geology, mathematics. He was an artist, sculptor and is credited with having an unprecedented imagination and ability to invent new ideas.
William Shakespeare (1564- 1616) English poet and playwright. Famous works include Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, Merchant of Venice and Hamlet. Shakespeare’s writings have passed into the English language and have influenced the whole English speaking world.
Galileo (1564 – 1642) Creating one of the first modern telescopes, Galileo revolutionised our understanding of the world supporting the earlier work of Copernicus. His book Two New Sciences laid the groundwork for the science of Kinetics and strength of materials.
Rene Descartes (1596 – 1650) French philosopher and mathematician. Descartes was an early exponent of rationalism and reason, laying an important framework for the European enlightenment. His use of logic and reason to address questions relating to religion were groundbreaking. He also made significant discoveries in maths and calculus.
Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) Jewish-Dutch philosopher. Spinoza was an influential rationalist, who saw an underlying unity in the universe. He was critical of religious scriptures and promoted a view that the Divine was in all, and the Universe was ordered – despite its apparent contradictions.
John Locke (1632 – 1704) English political philosopher, Locke was a leading philosopher and political theorist, who had a profound impact on liberal political thought, around the time of the American and French revolutions. He is credited with ideas, such as the social contract – the idea government needs to be with the consent of the governed. Locke also argued for liberty, religious tolerance and rights to life and property.
Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1726) Newton made studies in mathematics, optics, physics, and astronomy. In his Principia Mathematica, published in 1687, he laid the foundations for classical mechanics, explaining the law of gravity and the Laws of Motion. Newtonian thought dominated the science of physics into the Twentieth Century.
Voltaire (1694 – 1778) – French philosopher and critic. Best known for his work Candide (1762) which epitomises his satire and criticisms of social convention. Voltaire was instrumental in promoting Republican ideas and satirised the excess of the absolute monarchy of France. An influential thinker behind the French Revolution and a key figure of the ‘Enlightenment Period.’
Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) American politician and scientist. Benjamin Franklin played a key role in promoting the idea of a United States. Franklin, a noted polymath, was an epitome of the ‘American Dream’ – rising from humble beginnings to a Founding Father of the Nation. He left a lasting legacy on American society.
Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712 – 1778) Rousseau was a Swiss-born French philosopher. He expanded on Hobbes notion of a social contract to state it should be more egalitarian. He was an influence behind changes in French society which culminated in the French Revolution. He was critical of some aspects of formal religion but believed in the inherent divinity of man’s soul. Rousseau sought to prevent the corruption of this natural man, through better civil government and promotion of virtue.
Adam Smith (1723-1790) was a Scottish social philosopher and pioneer of classical economics. He his best known for his work ‘The Wealth of Nations‘ (1776) which laid down a framework for the basis of free market economics. His work still plays an influential role in modern economics.
Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804) German philosopher. Kant’s ‘Critique of Pure Reason’ sought to unite reason with experience and move philosophy on from the debate between rationalists and empiricists. Kant’s philosophy was influential on future German idealists and philosophers, such as Shelling and Schopenhauer.
Thomas Paine (1737-1809) English-American writer and political activist. He was a strong advocate of American independence. Paine wrote many articles supporting the ideals of republicanism. This was an important influence on the American and French revolutions. Notable works include: Rights of Man (1791)
Thomas Jefferson (1743 – 1826) American Founding Father and the author of The Declaration of Independence (1776) In this declaration, Jefferson laid out the fundamental principles of America, calling for equality and liberty. He also founded the University of Virginia and passed the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom.
James Madison (1751-1836) The fourth president of the US (1809-1817) and responsible for drafting the United States Constitution and the United States Bill of Rights. In 1788, along with Hamilton and John Jay, he wrote the Federalist Papers, which strongly advocated support for the US constitution.
Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) – British author. Wollstonecraft was an early feminist. Her work, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) was a pioneering defence of women’s rights at a time of widespread inequality.
Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803 – 1882) American Transcendentalist poet and writer. Emerson explored a variety of themes from mysticism to individualism. Emerson’s essay ‘Nature’ expounded themes of the Transcendentalist movement, but he was never bound by fixed ideas, exploring the freedom of man.
Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) US President from 1861-1865. He led the US during the American civil war – fighting to maintain the union of American states. Lincoln led the north to victory and at the same time helping to end slavery. His speeches, such as the Gettysburg Address, have become key elements of what constitutes modern America.
Charles Darwin (1809 – 1882) British naturalist and geologist. Darwin developed a theory of evolution against a backdrop of disbelief and scepticism. He collected evidence over 20 years, and published his conclusions in On the Origin of Species (1859).
Margaret Fuller (1810 – 1850) American women’s rights advocate. Her book Women in the Nineteenth Century (1845) was influential in changing perceptions about men and women and was one of the most important early feminist works. She argued for equality and also for women to become more self-independent.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902) American social activist and leading figure in the early women’s rights movement. Stanton was a key figure in helping create the early women’s suffrage movements in the US. She was the principal author of ‘Declaration of Sentiments’ which was distributed at the first women’s rights convention in 1848.
Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906) Susan Anthony campaigned against slavery and for the promotion of women’s and workers rights. She began campaigning within the temperance movement, and this convinced her of the necessity for women to have the vote.
Leo Tolstoy (1828 – 1910) Russian writer and moral philosopher. Famous works include the epic novel War and Peace (1867) and Anna Karenina (1878). Tolstoy wrote against serfdom and became a leading advocate of non-violence and pacificism – influencing people, such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King.
George Bernard Shaw (1856 – 1950) Irish playwright and wit. Shaw was a socialist and independent thinker – challenging many conventions of the day. Famous works include: Pygmalion (1912), Man and Superman (1903) and Back to Methuselah (1921)
Rabindranath Tagore (1861 – 1941) Indian poet. Awarded Nobel Prize for Literature (1913) for Gitanjali. Tagore was a towering figure in the Indian renaissance advocating, through poetry and prose, a universalist and humanist approach to life.
Sri Aurobindo (1872 – 1950 ) Indian philosopher and poet. After retiring from politics and the Indian independence movement, Aurobindo turned to philosophy and became one of the leading spiritual figures and philosophers of the Twentieth Century. His great works include ‘The Life Divine’ (1939) and ‘Savitri’ (1940)
Bertrand Russell (1872 – 1970) Mathematician and logician, Russell was one of the founders of analytical philosophy. Russell was a leading pacifist and campaigner against nuclear weapons.
Albert Einstein. (1879 – 1955) Revolutionised modern physics with his general theory of relativity. Awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics (1921) for his discovery of the Photoelectric effect, which formed the basis of Quantum Theory. Also a noted peace advocate and humanitarian philosopher.
John Maynard Keynes (1883 – 1946) one of the most influential economists of the Twentieth Century. Keynes advocated a role for government to manage aggregate demand and overcome recessions. His General Theory (1936) laid the foundations of Keynesian economics and the new branch of macroeconomics.
George Orwell (1903 – 1950) – English author. Famous works include Animal Farm (1945), and 1984 (1949). Both were stark warnings about the dangers of totalitarian states. Orwell was a democratic Socialist criticising the inequality of the 1930s, but also warned about the dangers of the Soviet Union and other totalitarian regimes.
Alan Turing (1912 – 1954) – Computer scientist and code breaker. Turing had one of the greatest minds of the Twentieth Century. He helped crack the German Enigma code and became a leading developer in the emerging world of computer science.
A selection of great thinkers of the Twentieth and Twenty-First Century. More to come.
Rachel Carson (1907 – 1964) American conservationist. Rachel Carson was a pioneering environmentalist. Her work, Silent Spring (1962) highlighted the dangers of unregulated pesticide use. It played an important role in advancing the global environmental movement.
E.F. Schumacher (1911 – 1977) British economist. His work ‘Small is Beautiful’ a study of economics as if people mattered (1973) was influential in rethinking attitudes to economics and society. Schumacher was critical of materialist scientism and advocated giving greater importance to environment and decentralisation.
James Lovelock (1911 – 1977) English environmentalist. Lovelock is an independent scientist who proposed the Gaia theory that the world, humans and the environment are all interconnected. He made frequent warnings about the dangers of damaging the environment.
Noam Chomsky (born 1928) American linguist, philosopher, prolific writer and political activist. Chomsky is one of leading intellectual figures in US – campaigning on many issues such as against the Iraq War and supporting the Occupy movements.
Mikhail Gorbachev (1931 – ) Russian President during the end of the Cold War. Gorbachev initiated a policy of Glasnost and Perestroika. These policies of reform and openness led to the ending of Communist party rule in the Soviet Union, and the fall of the Berlin wall. In a short space of time, Eastern European countries attained freedom and democracy, allowing Eastern Europe to become part of the European Union.
Stephen Hawking (1942 – ) English theoretical physicist, cosmologist, and author on books polarising scientific theories. Hawking has been able to popularise and explain difficult scientific ideas to a wider population.
Ken Wilber (1949) American writer and philosopher. He has worked on an ‘Integral Theory’ drawing on ideas from a disparate background from Eastern to Western philosophy to include a more holistic view of life. He has sought to draw on ideas beyond the ‘hard sciences’ of five senses, such as mysticism.
Paul Krugman (1953 – ) American economist. Krugman is a Nobel Prize winning economist for his work on New Trade Theory. Krugman is also a leading polemist who rose to public prominence for his attacks on the Bush Presidency. Krugman was a noted critic of austerity and leading advocate for a resurgence in Keynesian economics.
Note: this list is not comprehensive of all the great thinkers. More will be added in due course.
Citation: Pettinger, Tejvan “Great Thinkers”, Oxford, UK. www.biographyonline.net, 11th April 2012. Last updated 11 March 2018.
Great Thinkers A-Z
Great Thinkers A-Z at Amazon
People who fought for human rights – People who campaigned for equality, civil rights and civil justice.
People of the Enlightenment (1650s to 1780s) People who contributed to growth of reason, science and education.
People who changed their minds – Including, the Buddha, Ashoka, Leo Tolstoy, Martin Niemoller