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Famous Philosophers in History

Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, former middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson we will learn about famous philosophers throughout history. We will highlight their main contributions and analyze their role in the history of ideas.

Classical Greek Philosophers

Ancient Greece was a remarkable civilization. Sometimes we take for granted the contributions of the Greeks. Democracy, architecture, advances in science, the Olympics... these are all contributions of the Ancient Greeks.

Another critical contribution of the Greeks was philosophy. Sure, since the beginning of time, man has questioned issues surrounding reality and existence, but the Greeks were really the first to apply principles of logic to philosophy. Their approach to philosophy was based on reason and evidence as opposed to mythology. In this way, we can consider modern philosophy as having its root in the Ancient Greek philosophers.

Let's look at some of the key Greek philosophers and their ideas. Socrates (470/469 - 399 B.C.) was born in Athens in the 5th century B.C. Athens during this time was a cultural center, and in this rich intellectual climate Socrates emerged as a well-known philosopher. As one of the most influential philosophers in history, Socrates is best known for developing the Socratic Method, which is a dialectical dialogue in which one person poses a question, and another person seeks to answer it. This process involves inquiry and fosters critical thinking. Socrates' philosophy was mainly concerned with human activity, as opposed to the material world. Unfortunately, Socrates' genius was not appreciated by all. He was accused of corrupting youth by ''espousing atheism'' and was condemned to death. Socrates calmly accepted his death sentence when he was made to drink poison hemlock juice.

Plato and Socrates are depicted in this medieval art piece.
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Plato (420s-340s B.C) is arguably the most influential philosopher of all time. It has been said that all of Western philosophy consists of footnotes to Plato. Plato was a pupil of Socrates, and Plato's approach toward philosophy dealt more with metaphysics,or the study of reality and existence. Plato was concerned with the nature of reality. He is known best for his Theory of Forms, in which he postulates that the true essence of any object, or thing, exists in a perfect ''form'' in another non-material realm, and for the Republic, a work that presents his vision of an ideal society led by a philosopher king.

Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) was a pupil of Plato. Aristotle's approach consisted of drawing conclusions about reality by starting with specifics and moving from there to universals. Whereas Plato separated objects between their true ''form'' and their physical space, Aristotle held that the essence of objects lies in their space. The concept of matter was central to Aristotle, and his philosophy was highly scientific for its time.

Modern Philosophers

The Romans borrowed many concepts from Greek philosophy, but after the fall of Rome around A.D. 500, some of these ideas fell into decline. During the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church held strict control over intellectual development, stifling philosophical advancement. However, during the Renaissance (between the 14th-17th century) Greek philosophy was rediscovered, and new ideas about the meaning of humanity and human existence emerged. The Scientific Revolution (between the mid-16th-17th century) brought about an entirely new view of the universe, and with it came the blossoming of modern philosophy.

The Enlightenment, or Age of Enlightenment, refers to the 18th-century European intellectual movement emphasizing reason, scientific thinking, skepticism, and a rebellion against traditional authorities (such as the Church or state). The Enlightenment produced some of the most famous modern philosophers. René Descartes (1596-1650) was French rationalist philosopher who is often regarded as the ''Father of Western Philosophy.'' He was concerned with what could be known, a branch of philosophy called epistemology. Descartes is famous for the statement, ''I think, therefore, I am.'' Basically, he began his approach by doubting everything (even his own existence), and from there, rationally constructed a system by which reality could be understood.

French rationalist, Rene Descartes.
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