Sick of being the person (but surely not the only person) in the room who doesn’t get why everyone is laughing at a reference to someone in the room ‘indulging in Pascal’s wager’? Wondering why your father in law calls himself a follower of Marcus Aurelius? Do you want to impress your friends and families by referring to people with complicated but recognisable German names? Do you just want to know a little but more about where the ideas that are fundamental to our culture come from?
Read on to learn about 15 of the most important philosophers of all time and what they have contributed to the witty repartee that we think we are having after a few drinks.
Philosophers mentioned in this article are:
It can be easy to forget that some Eastern scholars lived long before the Greek greats. Confucius lived from 551 to 479 BC, and during his time, Confucianism rivalled Buddhism as the major belief system in China. His approach to the world was rule based, with a focus on justice, sincerity and respect for family. He suggested that it was possible to achieve ethical harmony through following the rules of the state (sounds like he would be at home in modern day China).
Another Chinese philosopher, Lao-Tzu lived sometimes between the 6th and the 4th centuries BC and founded Taoism. Taoism is based on the Tao Te Ching. It describes the Dao as the source of all existence and the ideal to which all should aspire. The book aims to guide people to abandon unnatural ways of living, and return to a natural life that will put them in harmony with the Dao. To do this it is suggested that people need to be free from desires. It is little surprise that some people suggest that Lao-Tzu was a mentor to the Buddha, who isn’t on the list as he is more god than philosopher.
This 5th century BC philosopher is the first of the Greek triumvirate of important philosophers (see below). He actually never wrote anything down, and his thoughts are only reported after his death in the writings of his students. Therefore, it is difficult to know which ideas belong to Socrates, and which were credited to him by his students to reinforce their own ideas. Socrates is most famous for the Socratic method, which is an argumentative debate based on asking and answering questions in order to stimulate critical thinking and ensure that underlying presuppositions are examined.
This 5th and 4th century BC Greek philosopher created the first centre for higher learning in the Western World in Athens, which brought many Greek philosophers under his influence. He is also on the of the students of Socrates, responsible for putting many words in his master’s mouth. He established the idea of epistemology, which is that knowledge is innate, something that we have before we are born, and therefore can only be discovered within ourselves. We never learn anything, we simply recall things that we have forgotten.
A student of Plato, living in the 4th century BC Greece, Aristotle is often called the father of Western Philosophy. He wrote about pretty much everything including metaphysics, ethics and the scientific method. Later Greek philosophers, whether fans or detractors, could hardly say anything without referencing Aristotle and his work. Aristotle differed from his teacher in that he thought knowledge could be formed by observing what happened in the real world. In this way he developed a kind of scientific method based on observation.
Marcus Aurelius was a second century AD Roman Emperor and also a stoic philosopher, famous for writing his Meditations. Stoicism – which should be more closely associated with Zeno of Citum or Epictetus, but Aurelius was a Roman emperor so… – teaches the development of self-control and fortitude as a means of overcoming destructive emotions.
Saint Thomas Aquinas
Living in 13th century Italy, Thomas Aquinas, as a Catholic theologian, developed the theory that the existence of god can be verified through reason and rational explanation, and need not depend on faith alone (blasphemy!). He also dedicated himself to reconciling the ideas of earlier Greek, Roman and Jewish philosopher with Christian principles, bringing them into modern philosophical thinking and teaching.
Writing in the early 16th century, Machiavelli’s name has become a by-word for self-interest and doing monstrous things to get what you want. He is seen by many as the father of political science as in his most famous work he describes the parameters of effective rulership – which happen to be pretty Machiavellian.
Writing in the first half of the 17th century, this French philosopher coined the statement ‘I think therefore I am’, and how this allows us to verify our own existence. He also wrote heavily on free will. Descartes approach may appeal to any modern students. He said that he would write his philosophies as if no one has discussed them before. Was he trying to be a free thinker, or just avoid those pesky references?
Writing in he 17th century, Pascal is famous for Pascals wager, which suggests that it is better to believe in god than to be an atheist – just in case, what do you have to lose? But that is probably one of the least interesting things said by the philosopher. He also made significant contributions to the philosophy of mathematics and the physical sciences.
This early 18th century Scottish philosopher tried to create a total naturalistic science of man that examined the psychological basis of human nature. He suggested that it is passion, rather than reason, that governs human ideas – something we all know to be true after a ridiculous fight when we can’t even remember why it started. He also argued against the idea of innate human knowledge, suggesting that all knowledge is gained solely from human experience.
The 18th century German philosopher Immanuel Kant suggested that we cannot know what the world is really like, we can only ever know our perception of the world. Things in themselves exist, but their nature is unknowable by us. Therefore, he basically wrote the premise for The Matrix.
This 18th century Genevan philosopher was also a writer and composer who had a huge influence on the French Revolution. He wrote extensively about inequality and the place of the individual in society. He posed that man is born free, and that those who try to enslave other men and the least free of all. He suggested that rulership must be agreed by social contract. Rosseau’s autobiography, which was published posthumously, also started the modern trend of autobiographies.
The 19th century German economist, political-theorist and philosopher Karl Marx is considered the father of socialism. Expelled from Germany, he lived in England, and there with fellow German Fredrich Engels wrote about the inequalities and violence inherent to capitalism, which he predicted would ultimately lead to its collapse. He advocated a classless society where wealth is shared equally among all. Some countries, such as Soviet Russia and Red China, adopted some of his ideas, but created a new beast called Communism that was missing some of its fundamental principles. We are still waiting for the collapse of Capitalism, but Marx’s assessment does not seem unbelievable.
Yet another German philosopher, Nietzsche lived in the second half of the 19th century and rivalled Aristotle for his prolific writing on many subjects. He developed the influential concept of the Ubermensch, or superman. Nietzsche sets this up as an ideal, and a goal for humanity to set for itself. These supermen create meaning here in life on earth, and does not need to wait for some other worldly reward.
Living in the first half of the 20th century, this Austrian aristocrat published only one slim book of 75 pages on philosophy during his life, but his extensive collection of works, covering more than 20,000 pages, was published after his death. Nevertheless, he was highly respected during his lifetime and taught at the University of Cambridge. Among his many ideas, Wittgenstein suggests that every fact is contingent, and therefore there is no absolute truth. He also argues that language is not separate from reality.