Guide to Popular Philosophers

by David Weeks

SOCRATES (470-399 BC)

  • Ancient Greek philosopher, credited for the development of the foundations of the Western philosophical tradition.
  • He forced his students to question their beliefs and problems and develop their own solutions by using a dialectic method of inquiry. (later known as the Socratic Method)
  • His most famous student was Plato, although he resisted being called a teacher, and refused to take money for what he did.
  • He refused the label teacher, because he believed that he did not transmit knowledge to passive listeners. Instead, by asking questions that lead people to realize their own ignorance, he represented a new approach.

PLATO (427-347 BC)

  • In his early writings, Plato conveyed the spirit of Socrates’ teaching by presenting reports of his master’s conversational interactions, providing us with our only accounts of Socrates’ thought.
  • Explained the difference between Forms and Ideas. He argued that Ideas (e.g., justice or beauty) and Forms are different the many objects that we can observe that are called beautiful or just. This bifurcation made possible a distinction between body and soul.
  • Plato’s most famous work remains the Republic.
  • Here, Plato tries to construct the perfect city, based upon justice and successful in teaching the virtues to its citizens
  • Plato concludes that such a perfect city exists only in speech
  • Socrates speaks out against democracy, favoring aristocracy

ARISTOTLE (384-322 BC)

  • Student of Plato
  • Although the surviving works of Aristotle probably represent only a fragment of the whole, they include his investigations of an amazing range of subjects, from logic, philosophy, and ethics to physics, biology, psychology, politics, and rhetoric.
  • Argued that moral conduct contributes to the good life for humans, most famously in his Ethics. Shifts emphasis from justice.
  • Here, he discusses the natural desire to achieve happiness, describes the operation of human volition and moral deliberation, develops a theory of each virtue as the mean between radical extremes, discusses the value of three distinct kinds of friendship, and defends his conception of an ideal life of intellectual pursuit.
  • In his Politics, Aristotle contends that the lives of individual human beings are invariably linked together in a social context and attempts to find the best state.
  • Argues that politics is important for men but not the highest science-only if men were the highest beings would politics be the highest science. Instead, metaphysics is, for Aristotle, most important.
  • Rejects Plato’s claims in the Republic and argues that monarchy is the best system of government.

AUGUSTINE (354-430 AD)

  • Born as the Roman Empire was crumbling.
  • Converted to Christianity after studying with Ambrose.
  • Develops a refined system of linguistics, and reinterprets the concept of sign. Disagrees with Stoic semiotics
  • Argues against the Skeptic group of philosophers that genuine human knowledge can be established with certainty by saying, “If I am mistaken, I exist.”
  • In De Civitate Dei (The City of God), Augustine distinguishes religion and morality from politics.
  • Claims that everything that we call evil must be good on some level, or it could not exist at all. There is no pure manifestation of absolute evil. It is evil because its disorder and misdirection cause it to “fail to attain all the goodness appropriate to it.” Since no absolute evil exists, there must be different levels of order and disorder, and different degrees of happiness, justice, and culpability.

AQUINAS (1224-1274)

  • Joined the Dominican order while studying philosophy and theology at Naples.
  • Wrote extensive commentaries on Aristotle’s works.
  • Summa Theologica represents the most complete summation of his thought.
  • Encompasses thousands of pages of tightly-reasoned responses to a wide range of questions about church theology and doctrine.
  • Attempts to prove that theology is superior to philosophy as theology concerns itself with knowledge that has been revealed by God and that man must accept on faith, while philosophy is concerned with only the knowledge that man acquires through sensory experience and the use of the natural light of reason.
  • He elaborates this kind of “practical reason,” and claims that it is only possible if people are autonomous and exercise free choice.
  • Articulates the distinction between is and ought.
  • Delineates distributive and commutative justice.
  • Aquinas holds that people naturally seek knowledge of that which is their true goal and happiness, that is, the vision of God.

MACHIAVELLI (1469-1527)

  • Began as a politician in Florence.
  • Wrote The Prince in order to gain favor with the Medicis, the ruling family of Florence at the time. He writes The Discourses in solitude, so some suggest that The Discourses better reflect his actual beliefs.
  • The Prince is an intensely practical guide to the exercise of raw political power over a Renaissance principality.
  • Focuses on practical success by any means, even at the expense of traditional morals and values. For him, the highest goal of a leader is to earn a glorious legacy and to be judged well by history.
  • Argues that it is primarily the skill of the individual leader, rather than his character, that determines the success of any state. Here, he acknowledges that the common good of the state should be the immediate concern of leaders, and generally denounces those who mar social well-being.

HOBBES (1588-1679)

  • Devoted much of his life to the development and expression of a comprehensive philosophical vision of the mechanistic operation of nature.
  • Lived during the bloody English Civil War, during which he wrote the Leviathan as the most complete expression of his philosophy.
  • Is very suspicious of history because it is divisive. After all, historical claims of lineage fueled the English Civil War.
  • Begins with physics, claiming that the natural state of objects is disorder and chaos.
  • Transitions to a materialistic account of human nature and knowledge, a deterministic account of human volition, and a pessimistic vision of the consequently natural state of human beings in perpetual struggle against each other that results in a life that is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” In other words, people will fight over scarce resources, so the state of nature is a state of war.
  • In the state of nature, there is no justice because there is no common arbitrator. Justice only has meaning when there is a common adjudicator.
  • Because the state of nature is so terrible, people contract into a government. The government can do whatever it needs to maintain order. Your resistance against the state is never legitimate, unless it wishes to intentionally kill you.

LOCKE (1632-1704)

  • Adopted an empiricist approach by arguing that all of our ideas-simple or complex-are ultimately derived from experience.
  • Believed that proper application of our cognitive capacities is enough to guide man’s action in the practical conduct of life.
  • His Second Treatise of Government offers a systematic account of the foundations of political obligation.
  • Says that the state of nature is not that bad, but people are bad at being impartial when judging their own cases, so the state is necessary to mediate disputes.
  • Contends that all rights begin in the individual property interest created by an investment of labor. Our labor is an extension of our body, so the products of our labor (our property) must be protected.
  • The social structure or commonwealth depends on the express consent of those who are governed by its political powers for its formation and maintenance.
  • There are natural rights which no commonwealth may infringe upon, such as life, liberty, and property. These are god-given, so no mortal may violate them.
  • Dissatisfied citizens reserve a lasting right to revolution. Absolute or arbitrary power must always be rejected, because they re-create the original state of nature.

ROUSSEAU (1712-1778)

  • Decried the effects of modern civilization because he believed that the pursuit of the arts and sciences promoted idleness and that the resulting political inequality encouraged alienation.
  • Disagrees with Hobbes’s notion of human nature. Claims that pity and revulsion to suffering, rather than egoism and self-interest, are primary.
  • Maintained that every variety of injustice found in human society is an artificial result of the control exercised by defective political and intellectual influences over the healthy natural impulses of otherwise noble savages. The state of nature isn’t that bad, and his age, with its rampant appropriation and slavery, was worse.
  • Explicated an alternative in On the Social Contract as a civil society voluntarily formed by its citizens and wholly governed by the general will expressed in their unanimous consent to authority. Emphasizes active participation based upon a notion of positive freedom, rather than simple non-coercion.
  • Once the general will is decisive, people cannot legitimately resist it. Even goes farther than Hobbes, because the state can legitimately kill you if the general will says so.

KANT (1724-1804)

  • Developed the most comprehensive and influential philosophical program of the modern era.
  • His central thesis-that the possibility of human knowledge presupposes the active participation of the human mind-is deceptively simple, but the details of its application are quite complex.
  • The categorical imperative is the central philosophical concept of the moral philosophy of Kant, and of modern deontological ethics.
  • Morality can be summed up in one, ultimate commandment of reason, or imperative, from which all duties and obligations derive called the categorical imperative. The C.I. allows us to know an objective and pure morality, rather than a code of ethics that’s colored by emotion and passion. Claims that a pure moral paradigm is purely rational.
  • Describes the categorical imperative as an absolute, unconditional requirement that exerts its authority in all circumstances.
  • Best known in its first formulation: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” This is different from the golden rule because of “will“. For Kant, rational autonomy separates animals from humans. Rationality, as the unique human trait, is how we formulate our will. For him, everyone is equally capable of rationality, so everyone would arrive at the same moral conclusions, if only we could remove our personal passions from moral deliberation. The C.I. is his way of doing this. In this way, the C.I. differs from the golden rule, because the golden rule permits non-rational considerations.

MARX (1818-1883)

  • Above all else, Marx believed that philosophy ought to be employed in practice to change the world.
  • Argued that the conditions of modern industrial societies invariably result in the estrangement of workers from their own labor. Structural and institutional arrangements trump human agency and the individual.
  • Partnered with Friedrich Engels to write the Communist Manifesto with the hope of precipitating social revolution. His other writings are more academic. While Das Capital is his longest, the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 are more debate-friendly.
  • Describes the class struggle between proletariat and bourgeoisie, distinguishes communism from other socialist movements, proposes a list of specific social reforms, and urges all workers to unite in revolution against existing regimes that prop up the bourgeoisie.
  • Capitalism is undesirable, because, while more efficient, it alienates us on several levels. We are alienated from the things that we produce, our “species being” (our “human nature”), and from other people. Claims that taking pride in labor, rather than rationally deliberating, is the uniquely human feeling. Capitalism takes this away because capitalist production is very repetitive; we cannot choose to go be a fisherman if we all work in a factory for 14 hours a day.
  • Claimed that communism was the last stage of a long economic history. He says advanced industrial capitalism must happen before a communist revolution. The Mao, Lenin, and Stalin rejected Marx on this point.

NIETZSCHE (1844-1900)

  • Wrote critiques of religion, morality, contemporary culture, philosophy, and science.
  • Famously put forward the idea that “God is dead”, and this death may result in radical perspectivism or may lead one to confront the fact that humans have always regarded truth perspectivally. Basically he’s saying that we have to either embrace radical nihilism (or at least a gloomy relativism), or we must confront the fact that there is no absolute truth. He favors confronting the lack of absolute truth, and so Nietzsche is NOT A NIHILIST. He actually spends the first chapter of Will to Power talking about with European nihilism is bad.
  • Claims that knowledge is an invention, in the sense that pieces of knowledge, fact, or Truth are not objective or universally true. Knowledge is invented at a particular time, by particular people. For example, the Kantian notion that people are rational creatures is an invention inspired by Kant’s observations about the world around him. He says we should confront the lack of objective truth by examining the history of the invention of particular pieces of knowledge. He calls this genealogy.
  • Applies genealogy to moral philosophy. Distinguished between master and slave moralities, the former arising from a celebration of life, the latter the result of ressentiment* at those capable of the former. This distinction becomes in summary the difference between “good and bad” on the one hand, and “good and evil” on the other; importantly, the “good” man of the master morality equates to the “evil” man of the slave morality. In other words, slave morality claims that being weak is good, and that being strong is evil. In his genealogy of justice, he claims that justice describes the state’s violent repression of ressentiment. This makes him an opponent of social contract theory.
  • Examined the “will to power” and eternal recurrence theories, in which living things are not just driven by the mere need to stay alive, but in fact by a greater need to wield and use power, to grow, to expend their strength, and, possibly, to subsume other “wills” in the process. This will manifests itself in a desire to make one’s invented knowledge seem fixed, objective, and eternal.

*Ressentiment is not the same as resentment, because ressentiment expresses not only a dislike for the conditions that made one weak and vulnerable, but a self-hatred for being weak. Consequently, we can interpret slave morality as a way to cope with ressentiment. The weak need a way to feel better about themselves, so they call the strong evil and say that being weak is a voluntary act of goodness.

FOUCAULT (1926-1984)

  • Prominent historian and psychologist, but the political influence of his work cannot be underestimated. Famous structuralist (and later, post-structuralist).
  • Uses genealogy. Like Nietzsche, he tries to show that a given system of thought emerges from contingent historical circumstances, instead of some rationally inevitable historical formula.
  • Acknowledges that knowledge is an invention, but brings focus to how these inventions become accepted. Claims that power and knowledge are inextricably linked.
  • Unlike Nietzsche, Foucault avoids genealogy of concepts like morality and justice in the abstract. He prefers to examine practices and institutions like sexuality, the prison, and the mental clinic. His account of the nature of power derives from his analysis of prisons. Claims that prisons represent the way that modern government make us submit because they rely on using surveillance to change the way we behave. Just like a prison security camera, we are not certain that a guard is watching the screen at the other end, but the notion that someone could always be watching us transforms our behavior. We have internalized our subordination and exercise it on each other. Everyone is watching everyone else.
  • This differs profoundly from how pre-modern systems of power worked, wherein physical force and restraint motivate compliance. Modern systems rely on surveillance and behavior modification.

RAWLS (1921-2002)

  • Advocates a political liberalism under an egalitarian economic arrangement. Concerned with distributive justice.
  • Argues that the state must be stable and legitimate, which require that citizens are reasonable and that those affected by a policy can influence it.
  • A Theory of Justice is his most famous work, where he articulates justice as fairness, in that each citizen should have access to the same basic liberties. Any social inequities should be open to the conditions of equal opportunity, and must not be bad for society’s least well-off.
  • Uses the veil of ignorance. We can use the veil of ignorance to understand what’s unfair. To apply it, you would ask what you would like society to look like, assuming that you know nothing about race, ethnicity, gender, age, income, wealth, natural endowments, comprehensive doctrine, etc. of any of the citizens in society. In this situation, it would be safest to assume you’re least advantaged, so you would seek to raise the minimum social safety net. This principle of maximizing the minimum level of well-being (ie. Raising the minimum standard for one’s quality of life) is called maximin reasoning. Under the veil of ignorance, they do know basic facts about human society, such as resource scarcity and the fact there are multiple conceptions of the good life.
  • Values tolerance between society and says that toleration is the basis of international society. He says that human rights should be the limits of this toleration, and that liberal societies ought to reject ideologies and governments that malign human rights.

NOZICK (1938-2002)

  • Wrote Anarchy, State, and Utopia in response to Rawl’s A Theory of Justice. Nozick rejects Rawl’s defense of redistributing wealth and defends free-market liberalism.
  • Emphasizes the Kantian notion that people ought not be used as a means to another end. People are ends in themselves. As such, there are certain “side-constraints” on what the government may do. Side-constraints are absolute, so violating them is never morally acceptable. He also borrows from the Lockean idea of self-ownership. We own ourselves and the fruits of our labor, and taking our property is a violation of a side-constraint.
  • He applies the logic of self-ownership to conclude that the welfare state constitutes a kind of forced labor. He claims that you must labor to earn money, and that the amount of money forcibly taken from you in the form of taxes constitutes a kind of slave labor. Taxes that are used to redistribute wealth mean that every citizen is a partial owner of you, since they have a partial property right in part of you, ie. in your labor that earned the money that was taxed and later given to them.
  • He says the only morally justifiable state is a minimal state that only protects people with the police and military, from fraud, theft, and violence. The state should also have a court system. The state cannot legitimately regulate what people consume, read, or talk about. Public education, welfare systems, and healthcare systems are immoral.

LEVINAS (1906-1995)

  • Explores the meaning of intersubjectivity. Says he studies ethics, but he is really studying how we relate to other people on a core level. He is very interested with the “face-to-face” encounter with a stranger.
  • Says that when we feel a connection to people because we realize they’re like us. We feel a sense of commonality with the stranger we walk by along the street, even if we have not talked to each other. This sense of commonality and relatedness give us a natural aversion to human suffering. We feel the emergence of an obligation when we see raw human suffering. This is why we feel revulsion when we see the terrified Darfurian child or the hungry stranger.
  • Ethics begins with a responsibility to the Other. We feel this responsibility, regardless of whether or not a particular other ahs reciprocated this responsibility. The roots of ‘intersubjecivity’ lie in this immediate sense of connection to the Other. We feel a universal fraternity with the other that spawns an obligation. He finds the origins of language here, in the desire to respond to the other. Thus, “first philosophy” for Levinas, starts from an interpretative phenomenology and the face-to-face encounter with the other rather than God or the world.

LYOTARD (1924-1998)

  • French philosopher and literary theorist. His most famous work is The Post-Modern Condition
  • He claims that the post-modern era is characterized by a disbelief in metanarratives, or totalizing explanations of the way the world works. Liberalism, Marxism, etc. are totalizing ideologies in that they assert that certain principles are always true, such as the progress of history, the verifiability of everything by science, and the possibility of absolute freedom. He claims that we have stopped believing that these narratives can explain, represent, and contain us all. We now understand that there are different world paradigms, as so postmodernity is characterized by many micronarratives rather than metanarratives.
  • Uses the idea of “phrase regimens”, or communities of meaning and the separate systems in which those meanings are produced. It seems that ethics would be impossible if we did not subscribe to any metanarrative, since justice and injustice would only operate in terms of specific “phrase regimens”. In Le Différend, he develops a sense of post-modern justice, explaining that the most flagrant act of injustice would be to use the language rules from one phrase regimen and apply them to another. Ethics is about paying attention to things in their particularity and not enclosing them within arbitrary concepts.


DERRIDA (1930-2004)

  • Described as the “founder of deconstruction”
  • Claims that justice can never be completely achieved. It is a horizon towards which we aspire, but we never quite get there. Justice can never be equated with law.
  • Argues that every case is unique and there is no freedom in mindlessly applying rules, so justice can never be achieved because justice is recalculated constantly.
  • Justice is an analytic tool that we can use to critique the status quo and demand improvement. Rosa Parks acted illegally, and claimed that the law did not meet the demands and aspiration of justice.
  • We can never give someone “their due” because this would require knowing “the entire horizon of knowledge”.

David was a successful high school LD debater earning 2nd place at the 2006 TOC.  He is currently a senior at Swarthmore College.


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