Top 10 Philosophers in History

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This list attempts to explore the most important philosophers in history. If you disagree with who is and is not on the list, or about placement, please comment below. Philosophy is first and foremost an exploration of ideas.

  • Place 10
    Jeremy Bentham
    Bentham is the founder of Utilitarianism. Utilitarianism is an ethical philosophy which focuses on the effects of an action on happiness and suffering. For Bentham, something was moral only if it increased happiness or decreased suffering. Bentham challenged the traditional morality of his day, and was an early advocate of abolition of slavery, equal rights for women, animal rights, and much more. Although he is an admired figure, his work is pretty limited to this one subject. Though he was influential on ethical thought, his lack of a larger body of work in philosophy keeps him lower on this list.
  • Place 9
    Rene Descartes
    Descartes is often called the father of modern philosophy, and is one of the main exponents of the school of thought called Rationalism. Descartes argued that our senses are limited and unreliable, thus any information taken in by them is untrustworthy. For Descartes, the only thing we can know for sure is that we exist, because we must be able to exist in order to think about our existence. From here Descartes argues we can only gain true knowledge from rational thought. Descartes' influence on the modern world has declined heavily. No active philosophers today consider themselves Rationalists, and many arguments have been created to counter his old claims. Even so, his influence in philosophical history is unquestionable.
  • Place 8
    Zeno of Citium
    Zeno is the founder of Stoicism, which is one of the most influential schools of thought in Late Antiquity. Zeno believed that our thoughts shaped our experiences, and the key to living a good quality of life was to have your thoughts in harmony with the "natural order" of things. If we are unhappy, it is a result of our thinking, which we can control, and not the world around us, which is often beyond our control. Though Stoicism as a school is not practiced in the modern world. Zeno's general ideas still seem popular, in part because of their practical application.

  • Place 7
    Epicurus believed happiness is the goal of our lives, and that happiness comes from "ataraxia" (meaning tranquility) and "aponia" ( meaning freedom from pain). Essentially the most pleasure we can experience in life comes from proper care of the body and the mind. The importance placed on happiness as the ultimate moral good had a big impact on Jeremy Bentham and Utilitarianism. Like Zeno, Epicurus maintains popularity do to the practical application of his ideas, even though it no longer exists as an active school of thought.
  • Place 6
    John Locke
    Locke is the founder of Empiricism. He claims that at birth we are a "Tabula Rasa" or blank slate, and that all of our knowledge and behavior comes from learned experiences. This led to the famous statement that all men are created equal, and his claim that a proper government protects the collective interests of everyone under it. Locke claimed that those collective interests are "Life, Liberty, and Estate." Locke had a major impact on the founding fathers of the United States, and many future political thinkers. Locke is not higher on this list because of a very weak concept he came up with for metaphysics, as well as personal hypocrisy in his life.
  • Place 5
    David Hume
    Hume is another Empiricist whose work was very impactful. Hume claimed their were two types of knowledge called "relations-of-ideas" and "matters-of-fact." Hume pointed out limitations in both of these forms. Relations-of-ideas, which are concepts created by people like mathematics, are limited in that although they are true, they are limited in how much knowledge we can actually obtain from them. Matters-of-fact are observable truths we can study, like science. The problem with this though is that the human ability to observe is limited, so knowledge gained from this method may not be absolutely true, but only likely true. Hume also formulated the "Is-Ought" problem, claiming morality is largely attempting to determine how things should be from what they are. Hume argues this is entirely subjective, and their is no grounds for a logical ethical system. Hume's work impacted academics in various fields, even today.

  • Place 4
    Friedrich Nietzsche
    Nietzsche was a precursor to Existentialism and Post-Structuralism, as well as a former German Idealist. Nietzsche's philosophy emphasized a radical individualism that was unprecedented for the time. He claimed that "God is dead,", meaning that the belief in God was no longer a viable belief to live by and that people only continued to believe in it as an escapist fantasy for how hard life can be. Nietzsche believed popular morality was also illogical, claiming ideas of right and wrong are determined by those in power, who continued to do as they please while others remained in submission. He would call this "Master-Slave Morality." Nietzsche believed we needed to move beyond this "herd" mentality to reach a level beyond human. He referred to such a true individual as an "Ubermensch." Nietzsche's work is widely read and influences many thinkers even today.
  • Place 3
    Plato was the student of Socrates and teacher of Aristotle. Plato's central belief was called the Theory of Forms, which suggests that the world we live in is only what our minds perceive it to be, and not what it is. Plato believed true knowledge was something beyond human comprehension, and that the only way to know the real world was devoted contemplation of the divine. Plato also believed the human soul has three parts, thought, emotion, and desire, and that which ever part was dominant determined what your station in life should be. If you are dominated by thoughts, then you should govern, if your are dominated by emotions, you should be in the military, and if you were dominated by desire, you should be part of the productive/economic class. Plato's ideas had a wide range impact on Western spirituality, philosophy, and metaphysics.
  • Place 2
    Aristotle claimed there were four causes that make things what they are. The material cause, which is the physical substance of something, formal cause, which is its shape, efficient cause, which is forces acting upon the object, and end cause, which is its purpose. Aristotle also advocated the "Golden Mean" as an ethical principle, claiming virtue is often a moderation found between two vices. Aristotle also claimed there are three kind of souls since there are three types of life. Rational souls for humans, sensitive souls for animals, and vegetative souls for plants. Aristotle is also the father of rhetoric, claiming there exists only three types of arguments. The emotional, the ethical, and the logical. Aristotle's study of the natural world laid the groundwork for science itself, and even though much of his work is dated, many concepts, such as his ethics and rhetorical methods, remain relevant in the modern world.
  • Place 1
    Immanuel Kant
    Kant largely resolved the conflict between Empiricism and Rationalism, paving the way for German Idealism. Kant argued that the world we experience (phenomena) and the world as it really is (noumena) are not the same. Though we cannot know anything about the world as it really is, we can know the world we experience as it exists largely in our own minds.He argued that true knowledge is actually both rational and empirical. An example of this would be the claim that everything is always caused. This statement can be arrived at both logically and through direct experience. This is known as a "Synthetic A priori." Kant also established the "universal maxim," claiming that the best way to determine if something is ethical is to see what it's effects would be if everyone did it. Kant's work has touched almost every branch of modern philosophy, including phenomenology, existentialism, post-structuralism, German Idealism, and so on. Even those that don't agree with Kant, such as Analytic philosophy and Pragmatism, emerged largely as responses to his work.

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1433 days ago