Rene Descartes said “Cogito ergo sum” – I think therefore I am. Everyone thinks and everyone thinks all the time. Nothing is as commonplace and ubiquitous as thinking, so why some philosophers are called great thinkers?
Philosophers think differently; by thinking they seek what is true and beautiful, and when they are enlightened by an insight they convey it to the humankind by expressing it in a logical, coherent, and persuasive manner. Here is a list of 10 great thinkers who inspired humankind and their philosophies are considered seminal and influential.
Buddha found that misery is pervasive in all the life’s humdrum. Suffering is the very substance of life and it is ineluctable. He observed that pain and pleasure are two facets of the same coin and even moments of gratification are shrouded with the unavoidable and all-pervading misery.
After years of rigorous meditation Buddha found that a state of mind is attainable where the mind becomes unperturbed by the pains and uncertainties of life and stops craving for pleasure.
The meditating Buddha
Aristotle was the most prolific and versatile philosopher of all time. He touched every branch of knowledge and his work encompasses almost all the sciences and arts. His treatise on argumentation founded the discipline of logic.
Aristotle was born in 384 B.C in Greece. He was the guru of Alexander and disciple of Plato. Aristotle may be attributed as the first great intellectual who laid rationality as the foundation of all scientific thinking. All his predecessors (including Plato) believed in an aspect of reality inaccessible to human reason and distinct from materialism.
Avicenna was born in AD 980 in present day Uzbekistan. Avicenna studied works of great western philosophers and combined them with the Muslim theology. It is said that he read Aristotle’s ‘Metaphysics’ again and again until he totally memorized it and understood it completely.
Avicenna also studied medicine and became a doctor. Being a master doctor and a highly knowledgeable philosopher he became an influential intellectual at a young age. Once the king of Bukhara got very ill and Avicenna was summoned to treat him. He cured the king after which his name spread to distant places. His ‘Book of Healing’ and ‘Canon of Medicine’ are his most famous works.
4. Rene Descartes
Apart from being a philosopher Descartes was a great mathematician. He contributed to the development of Co-ordinate Geometry – a branch of mathematics in which geometrical curves and their algebraic interpretations are studied.
Descartes was born in 1596 in France. He grappled with the greatest philosophical questions about existence and consciousness. He suggested that the pineal gland located at the center of the brain is the ‘seat of the soul’. He thought that consciousness is ‘formed’ in the pineal gland. Unlike modern scientists and rationalists Descartes was a dualist who believed that soul, and the substance of which the brain is composed of, are distinct and independent of each other.
Voltaire was born in Paris in 1694. He observed that the society was fettered and people lived a subjugated life under social inequality and religious dogma. Voltaire was a prominent liberal who wrote polemically against the social and political evils. He is considered as the dominant literary figure of the ‘Age of Enlightenment’.
In France Voltaire is honored as a rebel who diligently fought for liberty and denounced social prejudice and religious dogma. He advocated for civil rights: freedom of speech, right to fair trial, and freedom of religion. The then social and political framework of France was structured in favor of the bourgeois and the clergy whom Voltaire regarded as parasites.
6. Immanuel Kant
The Einstein of Philosophy. Kant (1724-1804) asserted that the shortcoming of philosophy in explaining the mind and the world is a result of the philosophers’ attitude in approaching the problem. Rather than speculating on the nature of reality, it would be more effective in making sense of the world by focusing on the processes that our mental faculties use to shape the world.
Kant stated that both the empiricist and the rationalist approach to understand reality are limited. Many of the things we know to be true are shaped more by our ‘intuition’ (a priori knowledge) than our experiences, for instance, we know “parallel lines never meet” and we don’t have to traverse infinitely along the lines to know this axiom is true. But the rational approach he thinks is limited too, because understanding such axiomatic truth through reason it requires that concepts such as space, time, and numbers need to be hardwired in our brains beforehand. But here determining the truth about the constitution of reality becomes impossible: if the world is shaped by our mental faculties that use concepts which are hardwired in our mind and independent of the outside reality, how can we know the true nature of reality. Thus our knowledge of reality is limited, Kant argues.
7. Friedrich Nietzsche
Nietzsche (1844–1900) was a German philosopher whose philosophy was as enigmatic as his mysterious life and personality. His works challenged the predominant moral and philosophical views upon which human societies are based.
Nietzsche’s philosophy is tortuous and open to multiple interpretations. He stressed that Philosophy – which he thought had been confined to exist as an esoteric academic discipline – ought to be used as a guiding tool for individual growth. He defined a “higher individual” who stops following the “herd morality”, who is not afraid of suffering but rather learns from it and by finding purpose in it uses it as a tool for personal growth.
Nietzsche is famous for his quote “God is dead”. It is wrongly perceived by many as something derogatory about god, whereas Nietzsche’s words express a foreboding that the absence of a higher moral authority would turn the world into a nihilistic place.
Gervais - When Hitler misinterpreted Nietzsche
8. Jean-Paul Sartre
Sartre (1905-1980) refused to accept the Nobel Prize for Literature. He believed that when a writer accepts some honour, he exposes his readers and followers to the danger of being subjected to the imposition of that institution which awards that honour.
Sartre’s philosophy is condensed in three words: “Existence precedes essence”. Essence of something is its characteristics and functionality. A human is different from an object such as a knife because its (human’s) existence defines its essence unlike the knife whose existence is defined by its functionality.
Humans are not like objects because they have not been created by a creator. There is no such entity as God who has created humans with a purpose in mind. Humans are free to act and their existence is appreciated by the manner in which they choose to act.
Introduction to existentialism
9. Bertrand Russell
Russell (1872-1970) was one of the greatest thinkers of all time. He was a great mathematician, social critic, philosopher, pacifist, and atheist.
Russell is one of the founders of Analytic Philosophy. Analytic Philosophy emphasizes the use of logic to answer philosophical questions.
Russell is also famous for his “teapot”: it is an analogy that expresses that the obligation to prove (burden of proof) a claim lies on the claimant and it does not become true (or an unsolved mystery) if others can’t disprove it. If someone claims that there is an almost impossible to observe teapot in distant space then the burden of proof lies solely on the claimant to prove such a teapot does exist. Russell was an atheist and by his analogy he argued that proving god’s existence lies solely on the believers.
10. Daniel Dennett
Daniel Dennett (born 1942) is one of the greatest living thinkers. In his book “Consciousness Explained”, Dennett has proposed a physicalist model of consciousness called “Multiple drafts model” attempting to explain how the brain creates the world and the illusion of self.
Philosophers have expressed different points of view about the same subject; some were right, some were wrong, some saw the world with metaphysical eyes, some weighed it logically. However different their approaches and opinions might have been, they all were great thinkers who taught the world to think in a novel way and influenced the people with their wonderful insights and persuasive arguments.
Jaka on April 16, 2018:
Interesting, can you elaborate on their assumptions about political system and society plz.
Prabhat Parimal (author) from India on October 23, 2015:
I am glad you liked it. Thank You HSchneider
Howard Schneider from Parsippany, New Jersey on October 23, 2015:
Very interesting and detailed list of the greater thinkers in our world history. It is amazing to see how philosophical and critical thought has built on itself over the centuries through these great thinkers. Excellent Hub, Parimalpolymath.