Philosophy in its traditional sense and in a layman’s term can be put as nothing but science. Renowned philosophers like Aristotle used rationality to come to scientific knowledge of the world around us. It is not until relatively modern times that philosophy was considered separate from modern sciences and treated as a study (not necessarily scientific) of the fundamental and general nature of reality, existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind and language. Throughout centuries the world has witnessed several renowned and significant philosophers who continue to influence and appeal to the intellectuality of thinkers. Today we check out some of such greatest philosophers that the world has witnessed so far:
10. Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902)
Man-making is my mission
A true gentleman, brimming with youthful vibes, deep and true understanding of Hindu philosophy – all these aspects aptly describe Narendranath Dutta, who went on to become one of the most famous and significant philosophers of India, Swami Vivekananda.
Vivekananda was born and raised into an elite Bengali family in Kolkata, amidst a sound cultural and educational environment. He went on to become one of the chief disciples of Sri Ramkrishna Paramhansa, the 19th century mystic from Bengal, marking his journey on the path of philosophy. He remains a key figure of the growing nationalism of 19th and 20th century. He is credited for being a youth leader bringing forth a new wave of teachings and philosophy which revolves around religion yet remains rational. In his views, religion is more of a realization of the best and strongest powers within oneself than mere doctrine or a theory. A firm believer in individual development Vivekananda heavily stressed on the significance of will power. He gave the example of Britishers in this context that it is the will power only of the 40 million British people that have enabled them to rule over 3,000 million Indians. Being the receiver of education from different distinctive sources Vivekananda saw education as not only facts that are being infused into brains which eventually creates a “riot” but an assimilation of ideas that defines the individual and his/her life.
Known best for his speech beginning with “sisters and brothers of America… ” at the Parliament of World’s Religions in Chicago, 1893, he is credited for introducing Hinduism to the West. Rejecting all the norms that discriminate human from his fellow human being, such as caste system, or gender difference, Swami Vivekananda conducted hundreds of public and private lectures disseminating the essence of Hindu philosophy in its true self in England, United States and Europe. Regarded as a Patriotic Saint in India today, his birthday is celebrated as National Youth Day in India. He is also credited with raising interfaith awareness and revival of Hinduism, bringing it up as one of the major religions of the world.
9. John Locke (1632-1704)
Referred to as Father of Liberalism, John Locke is a renowned English philosopher. He is known for penning the phrase “government with the consent of the governed”, which is at par with his firm belief in equal rights under the law. He never consented to the European idea of nobility enabling only a few to acquire land through lineage while the majority remained poor. He also offered the theory of mind to the world where he states that knowledge is something you are not born with, but learn and experience.
In his most important work, the Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Locke offers an analysis of human mind and its acquisition of knowledge. The mind examines, compares and combines the ideas in numerous different ways that it gains through experiences. Locke’s this emphasis on the philosophical examination of the human mind as a preliminary to the philosophical investigation of the world and its contents represented a new approach to philosophy, which, needless to say, quickly gained great number of followers, especially in Great Britain. In addition to all these, he is also known for providing powerful arguments in favor of religious toleration.
8. John Calvin (1509-1564)
A key name during the Protestant Reformation in France, John Calvin was an influential French theologian and philosopher. He is known for the development in the system of Christian theology which was later called as Calvinism, that include the doctrine of predestination and absolute sovereignty of God in salvation of the human soul from eternal damnation.
Calvin was tremendously popular in the Protestant world. He is also credited with being the spiritual father of Presbyterianism and Reformed churches. As is reflected in many of his works, he considered philosophy as the history of human wisdom’s attempt to search out answers to the questions of human existence. In his views, the thoughts of philosophers act as aids in the training of the mind, and therefore, pastors or doctors of church should not be ignorant of philosophy.
7. Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679)
Best known for his work Leviathan (1651), Thomas Hobbes was an English philosopher of 17th century. He is also known for his strong political views on society and on how humans could thrive in harmony despite being living amidst the perils and fear of societal conflicts.
In most of his writings he never definitively points out what exact form of government he prefers, yet he makes it quite clear in Leviathan that monarchy is the only right form of government. In his views governments were created to protect people from their own selfish reasons and evils. Therefore, the best government was the one with great deal of power in its hand, like a king. Hobbes believed in the authority and rule of a king as he felt a country needs an authoritative figure, a leader to provide and guide the direction of its people.
6. Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778)
The world of reality has its limits; the world of imagination is boundless.
Rousseau remains an important and significant figure not only because of his contributions in the field of philosophy but because he influenced a lot of thinkers in the later period. He is known for his contributions to moral and political philosophy. To find a way of preserving human freedom in a world where humans are increasingly dependent on one another for satisfaction of their needs, is what dominates as an idea in his philosophical theory. His belief of achieving the co-existence of human beings in relations of equality and freedom is what gets majorly reflected in all of his works.
In addition to his contributions to philosophy Rousseau was also known to be an active composer, and a music theorist, a novelist and a botanist. His love for and appreciation of nature’s wanders made him an important influence on and anticipator of Romantic Movement. Further, his stress on the importance of emotion and feeling was greatly reflected on the works of Romantics, especially the first generation of them like William Wordsworth.
The Social Contract (1762), his most important political treatise was a political matrix and a symbol of wider shift in ideas about the nature of reality, the self and the politics in Western society. The decade that followed marked a transition from Classical or “neoclassical” and Christian ethos to a new, different and cautiously rebellious movement what came to be known as Romantic Movement, initially fuelled by Rousseau’s political ideas about democracy.
5. Nagarjuna (150 AD-250 AD)
One of the most significant Buddhist philosophers after Gautama Buddha, Nagarjuna was a Buddhits monk credited to be the founder of Madhyamika school of Mahayana Buddhism. There is also unanimous agreement to the fact that Nagarjuna is the most original and influential thinkers in the history of Indian philosophy.
The great Prajnparamita sutras are also being credited to Nagarjuna having them recovered from the Nagas or the snake-people. He is also believed to have written several treatises on rasayana as he served his term as Head in Nalanda, the ancient and prestigious educational seat of India.
With the spread of Buddhism to China, Tibet, Japan and other Asian countries Nagarjuna became an indispensible point of reference in philosophical enquires. Much of the accounts of Nagarjuna’s life and philosophies today exist in Chinese and Tibetian language that makes it difficult to extract precise details about his birth or life in general. Though there must have been several texts written by Nagarjuna, there remain several controversies about their authenticity. Despite this, there is only one work that all scholars agree to be of Nagarjuna’s which is Mulmadhyamakakarika or the Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way, containing essentials of his thoughts in 27 chapters.
Nagarjuna’s major thematic focus was the concept of sunyata or emptiness which brings together other key Buddhist doctrines. Further, he was also instrumental in the development of two truths doctrine that says that there are two levels of truth in Buddhist teachings: paramartha satya or the ultimate truth and samvrti satya or superficial or conventionally truth.
4. Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)
Immanuel Kant was a German philosopher and is known to be one of the most influential philosophers in the history of Western philosophy. He is also being considered as a central figure of modern philosophy. He is best known for his argument that human mind structure the human experiences, and that reason is the source of morality. His main point of argument was “what can we know” to which he responds by saying that the world “in-itself” is unknowable and time and space are nothing but forms of our understanding itself.
Further, Kant aimed at resolving disputes between empirical and rationalist approaches. He argued that using reason without applying it to experience only leads to theoretical illusions. His theories and ideas influenced many thinkers in Germany and across the globe. He is credited for moving philosophy beyond the debate between rationalist and empiricists. One of his major works in this context is the Critique of Pure Reason (1781) through which he is considered to have synthesized the two early modern traditions in his thought.
3. Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900)
A German philosopher of late 19th century, Friedrich Nietzsche remains one of the most influential philosophers of all time. Nietzsche started his career as classical philologist and went on to became the youngest occupant of the Chair of Classical Philology at the University of Basel, 1869, when he was only 24 years old.
Nietzsche is being often referred to as one of the first existentialist, along with Soren Kierkeggard (1813-1855), and is best known for challenging the foundations of Christianity and traditional morality. He was keenly interested in the enhancement of individual and cultural health, creativity, power and the realities of life rather than what lies beyond it. The idea of “life affirmation” remains central to his philosophy where he questions all the doctrines that, as he believes, though socially crucial but actually drains life of all its expansive energies.
A rather popular image of Nietzsche as a philosopher was being reflected greatly during 20th century, especially in Continental Europe. His thought was particularly attractive to the artists of relatively new but strongly emerging avant-garde genre. Nietzsche became immensely popular in French philosophical circles during the late 20th century with his “God is dead” declaration and his emphasis on the power as the real motivator behind people’s actions, which, in turn attracted a lot of social criticism. In the last years of his life he became a helpless victim of extreme physical pain as his overall health deteriorated. Yet, the fact that he continued to write and express his philosophical takes on life and society proves his spectacular mental capacities and willpower, with which he continues to influence all.
2. Plato (428/427 or 424/423 BC-348/347 BC)
Founder of Academy of Athens, Plato was a Greek philosopher who lived from c. 428 to c. 348 BC. A renowned philosopher influencing the present world as well, Plato was a student of Socrates. Most of the ideas and preaching of Western philosophy can be traced back to Socrates, who never penned down anything. Plato, along with Xenophon, and Aristophanes, recounted a lot of Socrates’s teaching thus enlightening the world with bright and brimming rays of philosophy.
until philosophers rule as kings or those who are now called kings and leading men genuinely and adequately philosophize, that is, until political power and philosophy entirely coincide, while the many natures who at present pursue either one exclusively are forcibly prevented from doing so, cities will have no rest from evils… nor, I think, will the human race.
One of the most famous quotes of Plato, he makes it clear through it that any person in charge of a state or any leader must be wise, else they are ineffectual rulers. It is only through philosophy that the world can be free of evils.
1. Socrates (470/469 BC-399 BC)
True knowledge exists in knowing that you know nothing.
One of the founders of Western philosophy Socrates has always remained THE most influential philosophers of all time. Born in 470/469 BCE, Athens, Socrates has almost no documentation of his theories and ideas. What we know about his philosophy is only through the documented versions of some of his chief students including Plato, Xenophon, Antisthenis and Aristippus.
Among all of his students, it is Plato to a great extent who has successfully documented his words keeping their essence intact. That is why if Socrates has to be properly understood then one has to turn to the works of Plato that voices Socrates’ theories to a great extent. This works by Plato are known as Socratic dialogues and are known to be most informative source about Socrates’ life and philosophy.
Over the time Socrates has become renowned for his contribution to the field of ethics and epistemology. Platonic Socrates, as he is also known as, is widely used as a theoretical tool where conversations and discussions take place to encourage fundamental insight to any issue at hand and draw answers from such intellectually enriching discussions. A strong critique of democracy, especially the then Athenian democracy which was more of hegemony and experienced a defeat at the hands of Sparta, the trial and eventual death of Socrates is often perceived as an expression of political fighting in order to achieve perhaps a better form of democracy.
His major contribution to philosophy is perhaps the dialectic method of inquiry, i.e., to solve a problem it shall be broken down to a series of questions, the answers to which gradually distil the answer that one seeks. The method is also known as Socratic method or method of “elenchus” which is greatly significant in present day as well, especially in the scientific methods in which hypothesis is the first stage.
So in the end it can be surely said that philosophy is one of the oldest disciplines in history that initiated the love of wisdom in mankind. The list of greatest philosophers can surely never be restricted to the above mentioned list. There remains many others such as Francis Bacon (1561-1626), Confucius (551-479 BC), et al. who have always and continue to contribute to the world through their most important theories about human nature and other ponderings of the world. The works of these great men always reminds us that humanity, equality and perpetual peace should always stand on the forefront and are above everything else.