For thousands of years, philosophy has helped to shape the way we think and how we act. through the ages, ideas and philosophies have been passed down from some of the greatest thinkers that the world has ever seen, these great thinkers are philosophers. Names like Aristotle and Plato are some examples that might come to mind first, but they are not the only philosophers who have had a profound impact on our world. In this blog, we are going to take a closer look at some of the greatest philosophers that have ever walked this earth.
Before we jump into our list, let’s take a look at what we actually mean by ‘philosopher’. The name ‘philosophy’ comes from the ancient Greek for ‘love wisdom’. Put simply, philosophy is the search for fundamental truths about one’s self, the world, and the connection between the two. As an extension of that, a philosopher, or a student of philosophy is someone seeking to gain an understanding of these fundamental truths and explore their meanings.
So, without further delay, let’s take a look at some of the prominent names in the field of philosophy.
Socrates is one of the few people that we can safely say has changed the course of history meaning that without him, the world would be a very different place today. Born in Athens in the year 496 B.C.E. to a midwife and a stonemason, Socrates grew up to be well educated both in the classroom and at home by his father. Unfortunately, the exact philosophical identity of Socrates is hard to see in any detail given that he rarely wrote anything down. Much of what we do know of him and his ideas we get from the accounts of his followers and disciples like Xenophon and Plato. When he was in his 70’s Socrates was put on trial and put to death on charges of impiety and corruption of the youth, but his legacy lived on.
Born in Athens to a wealthy and politically influential family, Plato’s story is believed to have begun around the year 428 B.C.E. Having lived such a long time ago, the validity and accuracy of what we know can be a little questionable, but studies of the works that have survived have earned him the reputation of being one of the greatest philosophers to date. Being a student of Socrates, a lot of his earlier works revolve around him and his ideas but his later works (considered to be some of his best) are created of his own way of thinking with his own ideas. These works blend ethics, political philosophy, moral psychology, and a whole host of other interwoven elements to create philosophies that have great thinkers ever since.
As a student of Plato, Aristotle fervently rejected his teacher's famous ‘Theory of Forms’ and went on to form of logic - Aristotelian Logic. This new way of thinking recognised that the validity of any argument, no matter the subject, was awarded merit based on its structure rather than its content. This way of thinking was upheld in Western culture for another 2000 years until the rise of propositional and predicate logic. As well as being well-educated and well-respected, some of Aristotle’s notoriety may be attributed to his connection to Alexander the Great from when he acted as Alexander’s tutor while under the employ of his father - Philip of Macedon. Aristotle’s works influenced culture and politics for millenniums and are likely to be observed and debated for years to come.
Born in 1724, Immanuel Kant based his philosophies on the doctrine of ‘Transcendental Idealism’, which identifies the distinction between what we can experience and what we cannot. This means that we as humans can only know to be true the things that we can experience, like the physical objects and processes, yet we cannot know for certain things we cannot see or experience like a God or the human soul. Kant believed that all ‘rational creatures’ adhere to the notion of ‘categorical imperative’. On this, Kant said that everyone was bound by the same moral laws that require the belief in free will, God, and the immortality of the soul.
Known for philosophical works like On the Genealogy of Morality and Beyond Good and Evil, Friedrich Nietzsche was a German philosopher, essayist, and cultural critic born in 1844, known for his profound and controversial ideas. Nietzsche believed in the importance of rejecting traditional values and the merits of creating one’s own moral code. He was also famed for his critiques of morality and religion after he talked of ‘the death of God’ and foresaw the dissolution of traditional religion. His work has come under scrutiny by some critics, with multiple interpretations being drawn from it - for example, some believe he embraced nihilism, whereas others think that he tried to counteract a predicted rise in nihilism. After working as a professor at the University of Basel, he grew tired of his work and colleagues, so he moved to the Swiss Alps where he continued to write, producing titles like The Gay Science, Human, All Too Human, The Antichrist, and more. All of his later works addressed subjects like language, aesthetics, truth, history, cultural theory, consciousness, and the meaning of existence.
And that concludes our list of the 5 greatest philosophers to have ever lived. From Aristotle’s philosophy on logic that formed the basis for Western thinking for 2000 years to Nietzsche’s ideas of a faithless humanity and the rejection of traditional values, we hope we have managed to shine a little more light on the philosophers that we think, deserve the title of mankind’s greatest thinkers. These people have had an undeniable impact on humanity and philosophers just like them will no doubt, continue to develop and challenge humanity for centuries to come. Who do you think is the greatest philosopher to have ever lived? Let us know what you think.
Of course, these five great minds are not the only philosophers that have had an impact on our world, here are some honourable mentions:
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