Philosophy, which literally means “the love of wisdom,” is one of the oldest disciplines in history. There are many ideas about philosophers and what they do. Some have even considered the field to be a science that deals with logic and reason. Either way, many famous philosophers have made their contributions known to the world through their writings and their students. Below is a list of the greatest thinkers of all time along with their most important theories about human nature and other ponderings of the world.
| Karl Marx (1818-1883)
Famous For: The Communist Manifesto, co-founder and father of Socialism & Communism
Karl Marx is better known as the “father of socialism and communism,” one follows the other. Marx has been labeled as a “revolutionary socialist” for his belief in what has been called dictatorship of the proletariat. In addition to espousing his own philosophies, he was also a sociologist, economist, journalist, and historian.
| Voltaire (1694-1778)
Famous For: his philosophical wit
French philosopher François-Marie Arouet was a well known during the 18th century. He is better known under his pseudonym, Voltaire. Voltaire was an advocate of some of the most basic freedoms, he believed in the freedom of expression, religion and voiced this through his witty writing. One of his favorite targets was the Catholic church.
| Socrates (c. 469-399 BC)
Famous For: the Socratic Method of logic and a founder of Western philosophy
His story began in his hometown of Athens, Greece but unfolded through the writings of his students and fellow philosophers. The field of ethics was the specialty of Socrates and introduced a concept that has been dubbed as elenchus, or the Socratic method. He contributed much to the field of logic and epistimology.
| Plato (c. 428-348 BC)
Famous For: Platonic idealism & the theory of forms
Athenian native Plato, and his role in western philosophy can be traced back to when he was student of Socrates. He also excelled in mathematics, logic, ethics, rhetoric, and religion. He founded the Academy in Athens.
| John Locke (1632-1704)
Famous For: theory of mind & Father of Classical Liberalism
The effect of English philosopher John Locke has on the world reverberates to this day. His part on the idea of the social contract theory was one he shared with Sir Francis Bacon. The likes of Rousseau, Voltaire, even American revolutionaries have been influenced by his writings. He also offered the theory of mind wherein he states that knowledge is something you are not born with, but learn and experience.
| Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986)
Famous For: existential feminism & ethics of ambiguity
Simone de Beauvoir is viewed as a philosopher, but she saw herself more as a political activist, intellectual, and a writer. She authored numerous books which include The Second Sex, The Mandarins, and She Came to Stay.
| Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778)
Famous For: General Will and the moral simplicity of humanity
The political philosophy of Rousseau became the basis of the French Revolution. His ideas not only influenced nations, his work is reflected in the modern thinking in regards to education, political, and sociological matters. Two of his books, Discourse on the Origin of Inequality and On the Social Contract have had its effect on social and political thinking.
| Adam Smith (1723-1790)
Famous For: father of modern economics
Best remembered for his writing of An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations and The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Scottish philosopher Adam Smith was a pioneer in the field of political economy. His ideas in the areas of moral philosophy and economics have been studied throughout the years, and still is.
| Aristotle (384–322 BC)
Famous For: Aristotelian logic & theory of soul
The third member who has greatly influenced western philosophy, Aristotle provided ideas in the areas of aesthetics, ethics, logic, metaphysics, politics, and science. He was a student of Plato and teacher to Alexander the great. Nicomachean Ethics is one of the treatises that Aristotle wrote. He believed that ethics should be applied practically, not merely theorizing it.
| Francis Bacon (1561-1626)
Famous For: the “Baconian” method of scientific investigation and creator of empiricism
The English Renaissance and Scientific Revolution benefitted from the work and ideas of Sir Francis Bacon. In addition to being a philosopher, Bacon was likewise an author, jurist, statesman, orator, and scientist. He was instrumental in advocating the use of the “inductive” method when it came to scientific matters, this scientific method was also called “Baconian method”.
| Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716)
Famous For: Law of Continuity, Monads, and the Transcendental Law of Homogeneity
Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz holds a special place in the annals of philosophy and mathematics. As a mathematician, he refined the use of infinitesimal calculus. As a philosopher, he is best remembered for his “optimism” and as an advocate of rationalism along with Descartes and Spinoza. He also presented the Law of Continuity.
| Confucius (551-479 BC)
Famous For: The Golden Rule and Confucianism
Born during the Spring & Autumn era in Chinese history, Confucius and his ideas on social and personal relationships became a school of thought that many Chinese embraced. He was a voracious writer for which includes the Five Classics in Chinese literature. He believed that proper moral behavior is best practiced, than morality being made a rule.
| René Descartes (1596-1650)
Famous For: being the Father of Modern Philosophy, “Cartesian” coordinate system & “I think, therefore I am”
Rene’ Descartes influence on the world of philosophy is evident at today’s universities. His book Meditations of First Philosophy is still being used. Perhaps this statement attributed to Descartes will ring a bell, “I think, therefore I am.”
| Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)
Famous For: transcendental idealism & metaphysics
This 18th century German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, contends that “reason is the source of morality.” His ideas continue to resonate in the halls of academic philosophy. The influence of these ideas is evident in present day thinking on the subject of ethics, epistemology, aesthetics, politics, and metaphysics. In his publication of Critique of Pure Reason, this was his attempt to combine reason with experience to prove failures of “traditional philosophy.”
| Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900)
Famous For: life-affirmation & statement “God is dead”
German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and his ideas covered a lot ground and as a result, people began to raise questions they normally would not. The main crux of Nietzsche’s work was the idea of life-affirmation, but he also presented ideas such as Will to power, perspectivism, master-slave morality, and the Apollonian/Dionysian dichotomy.
| Albert Camus (1913-1960)
Famous For: absurdism & 1957 Nobel Prize for literature
Albert Camus received a Nobel Prize for literature in 1957. The award was given in recognition for his attempt to create awareness of the plight of “the human conscience”. Camus is associated with the tenet known as “absurdism.” This French-Algeria born philosopher was also an author and journalist.
| C. S. Lewis (1898-1963)
Famous For: The Chronicles of Narnia, “Screwtape Letters” & “Mere Christianity”
C.S. Lewis was an academic scholar and Christian apologist. Some of his works are well known, these include,The Chronicles of Narnia, The Screwtape Letters and The Problem of Pain. He and J.R.R. Tolkien were friends and part of the English department at Oxford.
| Hannah Arendt (1906-1975)
Famous For: being a political theorist & concept of “Homo faber”
Hannah Arendt refused to be labeled as a philosopher on the basis that her work revolved around “men, not man.” Philosophy deals with man in the singular, solo, which is different to what she was, a political theorist, dealing with men and the world around them. Hanna’s passion involved work in the fields of authority, democracy, the nature of power, politics, and totalitarianism.
| Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679)
Famous For: absolutism for the soveriegn & political philosophy
Thomas Hobbes is dubbed as the founder of the “social contract” tradition. This English philosopher wrote in the mid 17th century, Leviathan, which laid the groundwork for the introduction of the social contract theory. He also was an advocate of liberal thought and “absolutism for the sovereign.”
| Bertrand Russell (1872-1970)
Famous For: being one of the founders of analytic philosophy
Bertrand Arthur William Russell is remembered in the field of philosophy as a proponent of analytic philosophy. One of his essays has been labeled as the ideal of philosophy, the essay is entitled On Denoting. The British wanted to go against idealism, Russell was their leader.
| Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980)
Famous For: the philosophy of existentialism
Jean Paul Sartre believed that “existence precedes essence.” Sartre did not shy from being linked to the ideal of existentialism. He applied his ideals on other areas of his life.
| Blaise Pascal (1623-1662)
Famous For: Pascal’s law in mathematics & Pascal’s wager in philosophy
The name of Blaise Pascal is frequently associated with mathematics. As a philosopher, he proposed what we know as Pascal’s wager, in which people, in general, will bet their life on the existence or non existence of God.
| Michel Foucault (1926-1984)
Famous For: Structuralism and Genealogy
What does it take to make another man do your bidding? This was the goal of Michel Foucault. Most of his theories touched on the topic of the “nature of power” and its purpose. His writings revolved around the social institutions and “human science”. His published works, The Birth of the Clinic and The Order of Things helped highlight his views on “structuralism.”
| Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965)
Famous For: the idea of the Reverence for Life
Albert Schweitzer was a man with many facets. His goal and philosophy of life was to have a “Reverence for Life”. He believed that civilization had cast aside its foundation in ethics.
| David Hume (1711-1776)
Famous For: problem of causation & his book A Treatise of Human Nature
One of the pillars of the Scottish Enlightenment, philosopher David Hume is credited with the “founding document of cognitive science” in his book A Treatise of Human Nature. Hume made every attempt to establish a naturalistic approach in understanding “man”. One of his arguments, “Reason is, and ought only to be slave of the passions,” is a longstanding idea that says, “allow desires to dictate reason.”
| Origen (c. 185-253)
Famous For: one of the early Church Fathers and theologian
Origen has been cited by scholars over the centuries, by academics, pastors, priests, and students. He wrote several treatises that covered philosophical theology, exegesis of the bible and textual criticism. He was influenced in his thinking by both Plato and Aristotle. In his discussions and writings, he always alluded to scripture, which he believed is divinely inspired by God.
| Thomas Paine (1737-1809)
Famous For: writing Common Sense during the American Revolution
As a political activist, Thomas Paine is regarded who helped two revolutionary wars. A pamphlet he wrote in 1776, entitled Common Sense was instrumental in igniting the fires of freedom and a reason to revolt during the American Revolution. Years later, he wrote Rights of Man that justified the French Revolution.
| Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)
Famous For: his books Walden & Civil Disobedience
The book Walden was Thoreau’s attempt to express a desire towards living a simple life in nature. Because of another book he wrote, Civil Disobedience, he had been viewed as an anarchist. Thoreau’s idea of giving up illusory ideals in exchange for the true needs of life was something he advocated throughout his life.
| John Dewey (1859-1952)
Famous For: for his ideas on pragmatism & educational progressivism
One of the first men to present the idea of pragmatism as a philosophical concept, Dewey also espoused Reflective Thinking. He believed in the philosophy of education, in which he views education as a “social continuity of life.” This is why he championed Educational Progressivism.
| John Stuart Mill (1806-1873)
Famous For: being the “most influential English speaking philosopher of the 19th century”
John Stuart is regarded as “the most influential English speaking philosopher of the 19th century”. Mainly, he was a defender of political philosophy and he comes from the school of utilitarianism. As a member of the British parliament, he played a role highlighting “liberal political philosophy.”
| William James (1842-1910)
Famous For: the philosophy of religion and theory of emotion
William James was part of the philosophical school of pragmatism. More importantly was his application of that school of thought on the philosophy of religion. He also attempted to explain why, if we see a snake, we fear the snake and run. In his theory of emotion, James contends that we see a snake, we run; therefore, we fear the snake.
| Erich Fromm (1900-1980)
Famous For: orientation of character
As a humanistic philosopher, Erich Fromm has been linked to the school of critical theory. Some of his exemplary ideas include “being and having modes of existence.” Escape from Freedom is one of Fromm’s books which tries to explaing man’s changing view of freedom.
| Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527)
Famous For: Machiavellianism & The Prince
Italian Renaissance philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli is considered the founder of political science and an expert in political ethics. His main cointributions include political philosophy and realism. His book, The Prince has been viewed as a masterpiece that deals with political philosophy.
| John Calvin (1509-1564)
Famous For: Calvinism & Doctine of Predestination
Calvin developed a point of reference in Christianity the has been known as Calvinism. His attempt to explain the “doctrine of predestination” as it pertains to God and salvation continues to be debated to this day. The Congregational, Presbyterian, and Reformed church base their tenets on the teaching of John Calvin.
| Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855)
Famous For: father of existentialism
The philosophy of religion and the idea of existentialism are two schools of thought that has been linked to Kierkegaard. Most of his ideas revolve on the issue on how a person lives as an individual.
| Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910)
Famous For: War and Peace and Anna Karenina
As a social reformer and moral thinker, Leo Tolstoy is known for his novels, War and Peace and Anna Karenina. He helped shape the idea of Christian anarchist thinking and even pushed the idea of anarcho pacifism.
| Parmenides (c. 515-450 BC)
Famous For: Eleatic school of philosophy
Parmenides founded the Eleatic school of philosophy sometime in the 5th century BC. He presents us with two views of reality, “what is” and “the way of opinion.” A quote from him is telling on how he affected western philosophy, “Thought and being are the same.”
| Mozi (c. 470-391 BC)
Famous For: Mohism
Chinese philosopher Mozi was the moving force in the establishment of the school of Mohism. Mozi was a proponent of moral philosophy and ethics. His teaching encouraged self-reflection and being real, not just obedience and ceremony.
| Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274)
Famous For: Thomism and Summa Theologica
Even though he was a priest, Thomas Aquinas and his philosophy have influenced modern philosophy. He was the father of Thomism, he believed that the truth is true regardless of the source. His work in Summa Theologica and Summa con Gentiles are important sources of discourse that continue to be used today.
| Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797)
Famous For: Feminist philosophy & A Vinidication of the Rights of Woman
Mary Wollstonecraft believed that women should be treated equally the same way and that the social order should be based on reason. She is considered as the earliest of feminist philosophers. Her book A Vinidication of the Rights of Woman speaks of women not being inferior to men.
| Auguste Comte (1798-1857)
Famous For: Altruism & positivism
Comte was one of the founders of sociology and the principle of positivism, better known as the positive philosophy. Historians view him as the first of the scientific philosophers. He also conceived the word altruism, a doctrine that says people have an obligation to help or serve others.
| Avicenna (c. 980-1037)
Famous For: The Book of Healing
Persian philosopher Avicenna was a proponent of Islamic philosophy on which the Avicennian philosophy is based. The Book of Healing is his most famous work that has become an encyclopedia on philosophy and science. In that book he discusses the philosophy of science.
| Emma Goldman (1869-1940)
Famous For: anarchist political philosophy
Goldman comes from the philosophical school of of anarchism.She was a vocal supporter of womens rights and other social issues. The school of anarchism believes a state is harmful, unnecessary, and undesirable, making Goldman, anti-state.
| Epicurus (341-270 BC)
Famous For: Epicurianism & Materialism
Epicurus’s philosophy is centered on two things, “peace and freedom from fear” known as ataraxia and “the absence of pain”, aponia. In his view, pain and pleasure are barometers of good and evil. This school of thought is known as Epicurianism.
| Saint Augustine of Hippo (354-430)
Famous For: Catholic Church & City of God
The idea of the “Catholic Church” comes from the work of Saint Augustine. His writings, City of God and Confessions have influenced western philosophy and are still read today. He believed that man is the unity of soul and body, a perfect combination.
| Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951)
Famous For: Philosophical Investigations & fideism
Wittgenstein was a man who buried himself in the philosophy of language, philosophy of mathematics, and philosophy of mind. Two of his published works, Philosophical Investigations and Tractatus are reflective of these beliefs he held. His ideas include the “picture theory of language” and “logical necessity” to name a few.