Guide to the World’s Philosophers
Philosophy is said to be the mother of all disciplines. It is the oldest of all disciplines and gave rise to modern science as we know it today as both social and natural sciences have their roots in philosophy. Modern sciences either directly emerged from philosophy or are very closely related to philosophical questions. Understanding philosophy and of course, the way problems are addressed by philosophers is therefore the key to understanding of science as we know it today.
Ancient Greek and Roman Philosophers
The “love for wisdom” (English translation of the Greek word philosophia) dates back to the ancient times in both the East and West. Although the fundamental questions of philosophy have been dealt with very early, the history of the Western philosophy begins with the ancient Greek philosophers in Asia Minor in the 6th century BC. Thales of Miletus who is regarded as the first ancient Greek philosopher had profoundly influenced other Greek thinkers, encouraging them to search for the answers in nature rather than supernatural world. The next centuries saw the rise of philosophical schools throughout Greece and emergence of some of the greatest thinkers of Western philosophy including Heraclitus, Socrates, Plato and of course, Aristotle.
Ancient Greek philosophy continued to flourish in the Western world throughout the Roman period in the form of Hellenistic and then Greco-Roman philosophy that was dominated by Greco-Roman philosophers of Cicero, Seneca, Plutarch and Plotinus, to mention only a few. The late Roman period, however, also saw the rise of Early Christian philosophers such as Augustine of Hippo (also known as St. Augustine) who profoundly influenced medieval philosophy that was completely dominated by theological questions.
The fall of the Western Roman Empire marked the end of the Greco-Roman philosophy and many of the greatest philosophical works have been lost. But in contrary to the common misconception, medieval philosophers were not only dealing with questions such as how many angels can stand on the head of a pin nor completely ignored the works of Greco-Roman philosophers. At the same time, the works that have been lost in the West after the fall of Rome found their way back to Europe through Muslim conquests and later the Crusades. Medieval philosophers, although preoccupied with theological questions, did not reject the Greco-Roman philosophy but worked on how to reconcile it with the Christian reasoning, especially the Aristotle’s logic. This was finally achieved by St. Thomas Aquinas who is considered one of the most important medieval philosophers.
The Late Middle Ages and Early Modern period were marked by an increased interest in ancient philosophy independently from the Christian Church and scholasticism that dominated the medieval thought. Renaissance movement that would eventually spread throughout Europe emphasised rationalism and empiricism which in turn gave rise to the Age of Reason and modern philosophy. Erasmus, Niccolo Machiavelli, Galileo Galilei and Francis Bacon marked the beginning of departure from the medieval approach to fundamental philosophical questions which was furthered by the 17th century philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes, Blaise Pascal, Rene Descartes, Baruch Spinoza, John Locke and George Berkeley, to mention only a few of the greatest names of the 17th century philosophy.
The works of the 17th century philosophers have profoundly influenced the next generation of thinkers such as Voltaire, Diderot, Rousseau, Montesquieu, Immanuel Kant, David Hume, Thomas Pain and Adam Smith who laid the foundation to the so-called Enlightenment, while many also played an important role in the far-reaching political changes that took place in the 18th century including the American Revolution and the French Revolution.
The 19th century philosophers, although greatly influenced by the Enlightenment ideas, introduced a number of new concepts including idealism (the German schools), utilitarianism (Britain), Marxism, existentialism, pragmatism and positivism. Some of the greatest names of the 19th century philosophy include Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, John Stuart Mill, Jeremy Bentham, Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Friedrich Nietzsche and Auguste Comte who is also regarded as the founder of the modern discipline of sociology.
Contemporary philosophy refers to period from the beginning of the 20th century until the present-day. The 20th century saw the professionalisation of the discipline but it also saw the rise of new schools which, however, would split philosophers between “analytic” and “continental” although some contemporary philosophers regard themselves as the bridge between the two traditions. Some of the most prominent philosophers of the 20th and 21st centuries are Bertrand Russell, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Jean-Paul Sartre, Claude Levi-Strauss, Albert Camus, Richard Rorty, Noam Chomsky and Slavoj Žižek.
Eastern philosophy which encompasses Chinese, Japanese, Indian and other Far Eastern philosophies as well as Jewish and Islamic philosophies (although the latter two are sometimes also considered as a part of Western philosophy) developed independently from Western philosophy. Generally, Eastern philosophers were not as occupied with questions relating to the nature of God although both Jewish and Islamic philosophers were just as focused on reconciling new ideas with Judaism and Islam as their western colleagues. Far Eastern philosophers mostly dealt with the questions of ethics, morality, justice, etc. rather than religious truths. But some such as Confucius and Tao for instance, gave rise to religions and state ideologies.