A list of the greatest philosophers who have made original contributions to the field of philosophy.
Pythagoras (c. 570 BC – c 495 BC) Greek philosopher, spiritual leader and mathematician. Pythagoras is believed to be one of the first Western men to describe himself as a philosopher ‘lover of wisdom’ His philosophy was based on the mystic traditions of Egypt and Greece, including a seeking for the soul.
Laozi (Lao Tsu) (c 571 BC – ) Chinese poet and philosopher. Laozi was the author of the Tao Te Ching and the founder of philosophical Taoism. His philosopher tries to seek an underlying unity and order in the universe – despite seeming contrasts.
Confucius (551 – 479 BC) Chinese philosopher, political writer, reformer and author of The Analects. Confucius was a conservative philosopher, stressing family loyalty, duty, the importance of family and tradition. He also emphasised the well known maxim. “Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself”
Socrates (469 – 399 BC) Athenian philosopher, famous for Socratic method of questioning every preconception. He sought to draw his followers into thinking about questions of life through a series of question. His philosophy was spread by his pupil Plato and recorded in Plato’s Republic.
Plato (424 – 348 BC) – Greek philosopher. A student of Socrates, Plato founded the Academy in Athens – one of the earliest seats of learning. His writings, such as ‘The Republic’ form a basis of early Western philosophy. He also wrote on religion, politics and mathematics.
Aristotle (384 BC – 322 BC) – Greek philosopher and polymath. A student of Plato, Aristotle examined a diverse range of scientific and philosophical concepts, working on a branch of his own ethics.
Marcus Aurelius (121 – 180) – Roman Emperor and philosopher. Famous for his book ‘Meditations‘ which offer short aphorisms of wisdom and advice.
Adi Shankara (9th Century AD) Shankaracharya was a spiritual teacher and philosopher. He advocated and spread a philosophy of Advaita Vedanta, which stresses the underlying unity of creation.
Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274) Italian friar and influential Roman Catholic priest, philosopher and theologian. Aquinas attempted to synthesize attempted to synthesize Aristotle’s philosophy with the principles of Christianity. Aquinas also developed a theory of natural theology – proving existence of God, through reason.
Francis Bacon (1561 – 1626) English philosopher, statesman, orator and scientist. Bacon is considered the ‘father of empiricism’ for his advocacy of scientific methodical scientific inquiry in investigating scientific phenomena. Bacon’s approach was important both philosophically and practically.
Rene Descartes (1596 – 1650) French philosopher and mathematician. Dubbed the father of modern philosophy, Descartes was influential in a new rationalist movement. Descartes set a precedent for examining issues and trying to avoid any presumption. Descartes offered one of most famous philosophic statements ‘Cogito ergo sum’ – “I think, therefore I am”
Baruch Spinoza (1632 – 1677) Spinoza was a Jewish-Dutch philosopher. He was an influential rationalist, who saw the 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. In his work ‘Ethics’ he opposed the mind-body dualism of Descartes. Contributed to Ethics, Epistemology, Metaphysics.
John Locke (1632 – 1704) Locke was a leading philosopher and political theorist, who had a profound impact on liberal political thought. 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.
Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz (1646 -1716) German mathematician, innovator and philosopher. In philosophy he was a leading advocate of rationalism. He was also noted for his optimism about the universe. – the Universe being the best God could have created.
Voltaire (1694 – 1778) – French philosopher and critic. Best known for his work Candide (1762) which epitomises his satire and criticisms of social convention.
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 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.
“Man is born free, but everywhere in chains” – Social Contract (1762)
Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804) Immanuel Kant was an influential German philosopher whose ‘Critique of Pure Reason’ (Kritik der reinen Vernunft, 1781) 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 Schopenauer. A central concept of Kant’s philosophy was the ‘Categorical imperative’ – evaluating motivations for action.
Tom Paine (1737- 1809) English-American author, philosopher and social activist. Wrote ‘Common Sense‘ (1776) and the Rights of Man (1791). Important tracts supporting principles of American and French revolutions.
Thomas Hobbes (1588 – 1679) English Political philosopher. His book Leviathan (1651) expounded the idea of a ‘social contract’ – limiting power of those ruling society. This had a big bearing on Western political thought.
David Hume (1711 – 1776) – Scottish enlightenment philosopher. Hume was an important empiricist and sceptic. He argued against innate ideas, but stressed the importance of experience.
Thomas Jefferson (1743- 1826) American statesman and philosopher. Third president of the US, and principle author of the Declaration of Independence, which stressed the innate rights of man.
Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) British philosopher. Bentham is credited with being the founding father of Utilitarianism. The philosophy that actions should be evaluated on the extent to which they increase happiness for the maximum number of people. He was also a leading social critic, advocating universal suffrage, animal rights, the abolition of slavery and penal reform.
Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) – English Author and early advocate of women’s rights. Her work, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) is one of earliest works which argues women have right to make full participation in society.
John Stuart Mill (1806 – 1873) – English political-philosopher. J.S. Mill wrote a famous treatise – ‘On Liberty’ which defined the limits of state involvement in human liberty. He was also a utilitarian philosopher and advocate of women’s rights.
Karl Marx (1818 – 1883) German Marxist philosopher. Author of Das Kapital and The Communist Manifesto (with F.Engels) Marx argued that a Communist revolution to overthrow Capitalist society was an inevitable consequence of historical progress.
Sri Aurobindo (1872 – 1950 ) Spiritual teacher, philosopher and poet. His great works – The Life Divine and Savitri – describe man’s spiritual evolution from a limited ego to the Supramental consciousness
Bertrand Russell (1872 – 1970) English Mathematician and logician, Russell was one of the founders of analytical philosophy. Russell was also a pacifist and peace campaigner.
Citation: Pettinger, Tejvan “Famous philosophers”, Oxford, www.biographyonline.net, 23rd Feb, 2013.
Writers / authors – Famous authors. J.R.R. Tolkien, William Shakespeare, Leo Tolstoy, John Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway.
People who shaped democracy – Ancient Greeks such as Cleisthenes and Colon, and modern promoters of democracy – John Locke, William Penn and Rousseau