Thinkers Forever Remembered

Thinkers Forever Remembered

by Collin Wynter

Below is a sample of my upcoming ebook: An Overview of Western Philosophers Become a paid subscriber & receive 10% off the upcoming ebook. Become a founding member & get all ebooks published for free!

Any attempt to distill the history of philosophy into anything but a lifetime of study would but to not do it justice. There must always be a starting point into this enquiry, though. Information must be disseminated in a manner that is accessible and desirable. There are many doors that may be opened to the depths of wisdom. One such key is examining persons who have contributed to the cannon of philosophical thought. Volumes have been written on this, rightly so. For an introduction, a brief handshake, twelve philosophers stemming from the “western” tradition have been listed below (with a bonus!), including a description of who they are and the ideas they contributed. Recommended readings are suggested to get one familiarized with their work and the overall project that is philosophy.  

“The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato. I do not mean the systematic scheme of thought which scholars have doubtfully extracted from his writings. I allude to the wealth of general ideas scattered through them.”

-Alfred North Whitehead

Plato (428*–347 BC) *birth date is unclear

“Everything that deceives may be said to enchant.” –The Republic

Plato is a, if not the, foundational philosopher of the western philosophical canon. He was a student of Socrates, whom he immortalized as the leading antagonist in his Dialogues. The Socratic method, which is demonstrated in Plato’s work, is a form of philosophical enquiry using dialogue, is named after him. The Academy in Athens (387-83 BC) is a school Plato founded to disseminate his teachings.

Plato’s philosophy was founded in his concept of idealism and rationalism. This is a theory that there exists a universal abstract, or the ideal, that the world is but a shadow of. This is applied both to material objects, such as a chair; a system of organization, like a city; and to aesthetic and ethical concerns: what the “good” or what is “justice”? He wrote on a wide variety of other topics: politics, theology, cosmology and more. All of Plato’s work should be read. Recommended readings to begin:

The Apology (399 BC)

The Republic (375 BC)

Aristotle (384-322)

“Man is by nature a political animal.” –Politics

Aristotle may be the sole contender to Plato’s position as the founder of western philosophy. He was, after all, a student of Plato’s. His seminal works in empirical biology, the teleology of living things, and motion, influenced Christian  Scholasticism and medieval Islamic philosophy; where he was bequeathed with titles, “The First teacher” and “The Philosopher”. Aristotle founded the Lyceum, a school, in 355 BC. He was also a teacher to Alexander the Great.

Aristotle’s metaphysics envisioned a first mover, a separate and unchaining being that caused the inverse into existence. Teleology refers to the potential desire of living this to become what they are meant to be. Ethically, he argued for individuals to seek a state of virtue, the middle path between over indulgence and weakness. He also formulated a system of logic, still taught in university today. His writing is structured in an essay style, the first time this is seen in use. Most of Aristotle’s writings should be read. Recommended readings to begin:

Politics (350 BC)

Nicomachean Ethics (340 BC)

Poetics (335 BC)

Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527)

“The first method for estimating the intelligence of a ruler is to look at the men he has around him.” –The Prince

Machiavelli was a medieval statesman and an advisor to Italian princes. His political philosophy was grounded in practicality to achieve one’s goals. He could be said to have a cynical view on life. The term “Machiavellian” was coined to refer to a person’s lack of scruples in their actions. His philosophy may appear to have a narrow focus, but is is considered to be the father of modern political philosophy. Several of his works are worthy to read. Recommended reading:

The Prince (1532)

Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679)

“No arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death: and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”-The Leviathan

Hobbes was an English philosopher best known for his political philosophy. In his seminal work, Leviathan, he perceives citizens as being the embodiment of the state, subsumed to it. He was an absolutist in this matter, as this is the only relationship that will protect the people from the harsh reality of nature. This was his “social contract theory”. Metaphysically, he was a materialist, believing the foundation of reality is best understood mechanistically. He met Galileo, a prominent scientist and historical figure, where he discussed the nature of motion. It should be noted that he wrote in old English. It is recommended to read his work in the original.

Recommended reading:

The Leviathan (1651)

Rene Descarte (1596–1650)

Cogito, ergo sum (I think, therefore I am) –Discourse on Method

Descartes was a French mathematician, scientist, and philosopher, whose metaphysical

grounding was in rationalism and is considered the founder of modern western philosophy. Using doubt as a method to logically rationalize existence, he was able to conclude, one must exist to be able to doubt existence. He founded analytical geometry, used empirical methods in his scientific endeavours, and has the Cartesian plane named after him. His metaphysics was grounded in dualism, that there is a distinct difference is the origin of the mind from that of matter. He believed that it was through the pineal gland, that the mind and body were connected in humans. He also made arguments for the existence of God. Many of his works should be read. Recommended reading to begin:

Meditations on First Philosophy (1641)

John Locke (1632-1704)

“Wherever Law ends, Tyranny begins.” –Second Treatise of Government

Locke was an English philosopher and political theorist. He is known for ascribing to a tabula rasa theory of mind for the individual: persons are born into the world as blank slates and learn everything; all knowledge comes from experience. Locke is considered to be the the father of British empiricism because of this. He also put forth liberal political ideals, such as the concept of natural rights, “life, liberty and property” and that government should be limited. This is a contradiction to the Hobbesian view. Recommended readings:

An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689)

Letter Concerning Toleration (1689)

Two Treatises of Government (1690)

David Hume (1711–1776)

“Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” –A Treatise on Human Nature

Hume as a Scottish philosopher, historian, economist, and essayist known especially for his philosophical empiricism and skepticism. Hume’s philosophy was conceived as being inductive and experimental in regards to human nature. He was influenced in thought by Isaac Newton, a physicists and perhaps the brightest mind ever to have lived. Locke also impressed upon Hume the necessity of experience to understand reality. Hume attempted to explain how the mind acquires knowledge and concluded that there is nothing beyond experience. A theory of morals was also a chief endeavour of his. This is known as the is/ought divide. Just because things are the way they are, does that mean that is the way things should be? Hume has a great influence on Immanuel Kant, who referred to Hume as having awoken him a “dogmatic slumber”. Recommended readings:

A Treatise of Human Nature (1740)

An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1751) 

An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1758)

Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (posthumously published in 1779)

Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778)

“Man was born free, but he is everywhere in chains.” -The Social Contract

Rousseau was a Swiss political and educational philosopher. He argued the social contract required the individual to be subordinate to the “general will” for the common good. His perception of the laws and government of his time (and that can be applied to today’s age), is that inequalities are perpetuated by the ruling class. Rousseau believed the state of nature was a more natural way to live. He encouraged the education of children to be moralistic, not simply informational. Recommended readings:

A Discourse on the Origins of Inequality (1755)

The Social Contract (1762)

Émile; or, On Education (1762)

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)

“Morality is not really the doctrine of how to make ourselves happy but of how we are to be worthy of happiness.” –Critique of Practical Reason

Kant was a German philosopher who wrote across a wide variety of topics. His major focus included the areas of epistemology, ethics and aesthetics. He melded Descartes’s rationalism with Hume’s empiricism, inaugurating a new era of philosophical enquiry. Kant formulated an argument that propositions about mathematics and physics are “synthetic a prior.” This means that prior to experiencing these types of objects, the mind has a preconceived notion of them. Thus, in knowing, it is not the mind that conforms to things but instead things that conform to the mind. His ethics are formulated around a maxim: “Act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” This is known as the “categorical imperative.” If there but three philosophers to read, it would be Plato, Aristotle and Kant. All of Kant’s works should be read. Recommended readings to begin:

Critique of Pure Reason (1787)

Critique of Practical Reason (1788)

Critique of Judgment (1790)

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831)

“What experience and history teach is this—that people and governments never have learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it.” –Philosophy of History

Hegel was a German philosopher whose main philosophical enquiry was the dialectic. This framework involved: thesis (the argument), antithesis (against the argument), then synthesis (a melding of the arguments. He perceived history to evolve teleologically through this method towards an “Absolute Spirit”. He is considered to be the last great systems builder of philosophical thought. Recommended readings:

Phenomenology of Spirit (1807) 

Science of Logic, part 1 and 2 (1812 and 1816) 

Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences (1817)

Philosophy of Right (1821)

John Stuart Mill (1806-1873)

“If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.” -On Liberty

Mill was an English philosopher, economist, utilitarian and liberal rights activist. He was considered to be a prodigy, educated primarily by his father, James Mill, who was a philosopher in his own right. Utilitarianism, to which he prescribed, refers to the actions of maximizing well being. Mill wrote extensively on free speech and the requirement for open dialogue to maintain a functional society. With his wife Harriet Taylor Mill, he wrote the treatise The Subjugation of Women to further women’s rights. Recommended readings:

On Liberty (1859)

Utilitarianism (1863)

The Subjection of Women (1869)

Karl Marx (1818-1883) and Frederich Engels (1820-1895)

“A specter is haunting Europe—the specter of Communism.” –The Communist Manifesto

Marx is known as being the progenitor of the major tenets of socialism that are subsumed under the name: Marxism. However, considering he wrote the works below with his collaborator, Engels, both are included in this entry. They were German social theorists who critiqued capitalism and joined an underground movement for which they wrote: The Communist Manifesto. An action plan on how to overturn society from the grips of the bourgeoisie. Their concepts focused on the capitalist obtaining surplus revenue from that of the worker. They believed this revenue should be returned to the worker. The way to accomplish this was to abolish private ownership. Recommended reading:

The Communist Manifesto (1848)

Das Kapital (1867)

Bonus philosopher!

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900)

“God is dead: but considering the state Man is in, there will perhaps be caves, for ages yet, in which his shadow will be shown.” –The Gay Science

Nietzsche was a philosopher, a romanticist and an existentialist are possible descriptors, and considered himself to be a psychologist. He studied philology, which is an examination of language use through history, its structure and relationships. He wrote fiction and more narrative treatise on the condition of man. He attempted to pierce the veil between man’s actions and their motivations. He saw the malaise of mankind as being a sign of its weakening. Although his works have been associated with Naziism, this would be a mischaracterization of his overall endeavour. The misappropriation of his works have been laid at the feet of his sister. Nietzsche was interested in the values of life and critiqued human failings. All of Nietzsche’s works should be read. Recommended readings to begin:

Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883)

Beyond Good and Evil (1886)

On the Genealogy of Morality (1887)

The Will to Power (1901)

Published by Collin Wynter

Exploring rights of our freedom of expression and justice

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