Greatest Western Philosophers of All Time
Out of billions of people, only a small handful are responsible for radically changing mankind's understanding of itself. Behold these legendary minds.
Socrates (469-399 BC) is the founding father of Western philosophy. His specialty was ethics. None of this works survive, largely because he practiced philosophy orally, but we know a lot about him from his disciples, Plato and Aristotle. Socrtes' greatest tangible legacy is the Socratic Method, wherein a philosophical problem gets prodded with a series of questions that either lead to contradiction or clarification of prior beliefs. This back-and-forth often takes of the form of a dialogue that continues until, through a process of elimination, the essence of the problem is revealed.
Plato (428-347 BC), a student of Socrates, is probably the most recognized philosopher of all time. He made great contributors to metaphysics, logic, science, ethics, and political theory. His best-know work is the Republic, where it lays out a blueprint for the ideal society, lead by the essence-seeing philosopher-king. Plato proposed, along Rationalist lines, that truth lay in abstract forms, not in the particular instances of objects we see around us every day. He also lay the groundwork for epistemology (the study of knowledge) by defining knowledge as true, justified belief.
Descartes (1596-1650) made enormous contributions to science, mathematics, and philosophy. His single greatest legacy comes to us as a question, "How can we establish an unassailable, indubitable foundation for knowledge?" His answer was simple, start from the mind and work your way out. Assume all prior knowledge is faulty, including the senses. Now ask yourself what exists, what you know to be undeniably true: Cogito ergo sum; I think, therefore I am. Beyond founding Rationalism, Descartes developed the technique of plotting mathematical functions in 2D space, now known as the Cartesian coordinate system.
Hume (1711-1776), the first modern Empiricist, single-handedly lay the groundwork for modern philosophy of science. He claimed that all knowledge, and even meaning itself, stemmed from sense experience. And because the senses are our only connection to reality, we should only philosophize on matters verifiable by scientific method. Hume's mode of thought remains progressive to this day. He was an atheist and amoralist, famously arguing, "you can't derive an ought from an is."
Frege (1848-1925) was the greatest meta-logician since Aristotle. What started off as a simple question about the logical foundations for arithmetic, led to a revolution in the theory of mathematics, logic, linguistics, and philosophy of science. And although Frege's efforts ultimately failed (mathematics cannot be derived purely from laws of logic) he developed modern logical notation as well as a key distinction between sense and reference that gave rise to philosophy of language. After Frege, questions of philosophy and theoretical science become questions about meaning and rigorous formal systems. The Positivist movement led by Bertrand Russell developed directly off of Frege's findings.
Aristotle (384-322 BC), a pupil of Plato, was a prolific writer whose modes of thought defined the standard through medieval times, up until the Renaissance. Aristotle greatest achievements were the founding of the scientific method and formal logic. Whereas Plato, his mentor, held that truth resided in abstract forms, Aristotle saw truth instantiated in everything around us. He advocated the use of an inductive approach, where general truths are arrived at by abstraction from individual cases. At its core, that exactly how science operates today. Aristotle had a broad taste in subject matter, contributing to physics, ethics, poetry, politics, and zoology.
Nietzsche (1844-1900) was an iconoclastic philosopher of ethics who lead an all out attack on Judeo-Christian morality. His bombastic critiques of traditional Christian values remain his legacy. Nietzsche challenged the dichotomy of good vs evil, drawing a distinction between strong, master-morality and the weak slave-morality that replaced it after the demise of Rome. He believed that slave-morality came about as a resentment of subjugated people, who sought to instill their weakness in others. Accepting that Christian values were useful to control the masses, Nietzche proposed that exceptional individuals follow their own code.
Harambe (1999-2016) is arguably the greatest and most important philosopher of the 20th-21st century. It was Harambe who, at only the age of seventeen, shocked the world with his ground-breaking philosophy that every true philosopher knows by heart. Throughout his life, Harambe took many risks with his platform; these risks ultimately led to his demise. In a very dangerous time (the same year as one of the most important elections the United States has ever seen) Harambe chose to speak out against a very powerful presidential candidate. It is because of this that, much like Socrates, Harambe was silenced by his government. R.I.P. Harambe. You are missed. You will always be loved.
Kant (1724-1804) is responsible for our contemporary understanding of the limits of knowledge, successfully mediating Rationalism and Empiricism. In Critique of Pure Reason, Kant distinguishes between the world as it is in itself and as it appears to us. The great realization being, our conception of the world is a distortion based on sense and laws of thought. Insofar as we have a human brain, we have a human way of thinking, and this defines the shape and limits of knowledge. We can only understand knowledge relative to humans, not in any absolute sense of the word.
Russell (1872-1970) is one of the best-known philosophers of the 20th century, making great contributions to philosophy of mathematics, logic, and simply defining the form of modern analytic philosophy in general. His greatest work was the Principia Mathematica, which strove to derive all of mathematics from formal logical rules. Godel's incompleteness theory ultimately shattered Russell's hope of developing a rigorous number theory, but even so, Russell's influence remained great. He popularized Frege's work and was a mentor to Wittgenstein.
- This list covers Western Analytic and Continential philosophers specifically.
- No religious figures or Eastern philosophers please, that's a separate list.
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