Philosophy means “the love of wisdom,” and nothing has been more true for those who lead their lives as philosophers. This thirst for knowledge and understanding of the universe has led many philosophers to create books, lessons and other ways of conveying their understandings to others. Students of these famous philosophers take their knowledge and build on it, forming even more in-depth wisdom that they can share with later generations.
Interestingly enough, many of the original philosophers were scientists. They used rational thought to come up with the scientific knowledge that we now use experiments to prove or duplicate. Listed below are the most famous philosophers in history.
List of Famous Philosophers
Often considered the father of philosophy, he was the first to write systems to understand and explore everything from politics to religion to logic to ethics. He argued that there are four causes, or qualities, of anything in existence: the material cause (what it is made of), the formal cause (how it is arranged), the effective cause (who created it) and the final cause (which is its purpose). He also argued that there is a hierarchy of the universe, and that nothing was created without a purpose.
He founded the Academy of Athens in early 400 BC, which was the first institution of higher learning in the western world. He had numerous political theories, including “the forms,” which focused on the question of whether immaterial abstractions were actually more realistic than our own physical reality. He argued against democracy because he believed that a democratic system had led to the death of his teacher, Socrates.
This Greek philosopher served as a teacher to like-minded youth in the 400’s BC. His teachings were written down by students such as Plato and Xenophon, and is renowned for his discussion of ethics and of the Socratic method of research. Though he was a master stonecutter, he saw philosophy as his most important occupation. His questioning of religion and other matters led to his trial and death – and even though he could have escaped, he chose to follow the letter of the law, and participated in his own execution by drinking hemlock.
Living around 100 AD, he was born a slave in Rome and lived there for most of his life, and died in Greece. He believed that all external events are governed by fate, and that we must stoically accept our fates. He also believed in personal responsibility, and that we are all responsible for our actions, and opinion is the only thing we truly own. One famous quote of his is "When you are offended at any man's fault, turn to yourself and study your own failings. Then you will forget your anger."
Being one of the famous philosophers, he's known as the father of modern philosophy, and created analytical geometry, based on the Cartesian coordinate system – and we are all taught this today in schools across the world. He discovered many scientific points, such as refraction and reflection, and espoused dualism, which is the power of the mind over the body, or “mind over matter.” His most famous quote is “I think, therefore, I am.” This French philosopher died in 1650.
Possibly the most important philosopher in eastern history, Master Kong Qiu pushed specific principles of ethics and politics, including the principles of democracy. Since he said that around 500 BC, he was well ahead of his time. He advocated for honest emperors who had limits on their powers, and encouraged everyone to live by a version of the Golden Rule: “What one does not wish for oneself, one ought not to do to anyone else; what one recognizes as desirable for oneself, one ought to be willing to grant to others.”
He was the person who famously argued the “first cause” – that there had to be a God, because the universe had to be created from something, and had to have a beginning and an end. He based all of his teaching on the Bible, which makes some believe that he was not truly a philosopher, as they were not original ideas. He made five major arguments on the existence of God, all of which are still hotly debated today. One of his most influential accomplishments was a simple four-part instruction on the cardinal virtues: “justice, courage, prudence and temperance.” He died in 1274, and is now considered a saint in the Catholic Church.
Focused on politics for most of his life, John Locke’s words wound up in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. “Government with consent of the governed” is one of his most important points, and so are the three natural rights: “life, liberty, and estate.” He was born in England in 1632, and disagreed with the idea that land was passed through lineage, as so much was at the time. That is one of the reasons why there was no nobility in America from the very start. Thomas Jefferson paid close attention to this famous philosopher, and it shows through the crafting of the earliest American political documents. He died in 1704.
Born in Prussia (now Russia) in 1724, he was an advocate of human rights, and is best known for his views of transcendental philosophy, as well as the numerous texts he authored to set forth his ideas. He assigned a great deal of importance to human cognition, and determined that the answers to the universe were not in the world itself, but within the minds of those who reside in it. He passed away in 1804.
Trained in classical philosophy, this Prussian-born philosopher often found himself embroiled in controversy and at odds with his colleagues over his views. He produced many writings, many of which are taught in colleges across the world today. He explored areas of philosophy that had not yet been covered, such as the philosophy of food. He also composed and played piano, both of which found their way into his views. He passed away at a young age in 1900.
Born in France in 1905, Sartre focused on three ways of being: being in itself, or the unconscious being; being for itself, with each part having independent thoughts about being alive; and being for others, which means that in order to grasp the reality of others, we must first grasp the reality of ourselves. He frankly stated the “man is in anguish” because of his responsibilities to himself and fellow man. Sartre was a modern philosopher who died in 1980.
Many people would argue against Karl Marx being one of the famous philosophers. Born in 1818, this German philosopher was one of the most controversial and divisive writers of his time. His works, such as Manifesto of the Communist Party, were often considered handbooks of the Nazi Party, thus furthering his controversial stance. He formulated the idea of surplus value, as well as historical materialism. Though he offered a great deal to the world of philosophy, when he died in 1883 there were no more than a dozen people at the funeral.