Major Philosophers and Their Ideas: Past and Future Wisdom

Major Philosophers and Their Ideas: Past and Future Wisdom
Imed Bouchrika, Phd by Imed Bouchrika, Phd
Chief Data Scientist & Head of Content

Philosophy, or “love of wisdom”, is defined as a specific discipline that deals with the “rational, abstract, and methodical consideration of reality as a whole or of fundamental dimensions of human existence and experience “ (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2020).

In simpler words, philosophy studies the logic, ethics, and core ideas of a particular school of thought and how they affect society, civilization, and humankind. Throughout humanity’s history, philosophy has played a major role in shaping our thoughts and destiny.

Is philosophy just an esoteric pursuit only for philosophers or philosophy majors? Is it just a bunch of historical ideas, most of which belong to their specific time, and are otherwise obsolete or outdated? And is it not just a source of disagreement and arguments that lead to nothing productive? These and other misconceptions about philosophy affect people’s perceptions of its significance in the modern world.

Major Philosophers and Their Ideas Table of Contents

  1. Democritus: Atoms and Empty Spac
  2. Pythagoras: More Than Triangles in Math Class
  3. Voltaire: Only Uncertainty Is Certain
  4. Descartes: But There Is Certainty After Doubt
  5. Socrates: Ask Questions Not to Get Answers, But to Identify Wrong Assumptions
  6. Immanuel Kant: The Limits of What We Can (and Can’t) Know
  7. Karl Marx: Mankind’s Class Struggles over Limited Resources
  8. Sun Tzu: War is Art–To Prepare For War Is of Prime Importance to the Nation-State
  9. Niccolo Machiavelli: The End Justifies the Means
  10. Martin Luther: Religious Authoritarianism Is Flawed
  11. David Hume: The Sun Always Rises, But Experience Is My Reality
  12. Francis Bacon: Knowledge is Power
  13. Hannah Arendt: The Banality of Evil; The (Ordinary) Evil Monster

On the contrary, philosophy is essential in defining medical conditions and in deciding on medical interventions. One example is the case of euthanasia, different from assisted patient death. Euthanasia is the deliberate and direct causation of death by a physician (Goligher, et al, 2017). It is legal in some countries but illegal – and widely condemned – in others.

A recent study stated that “A dichotomy between favorable views and contrary to euthanasia was obtained. This discussion is surrounded by modern moral, ethical, and philosophical values that conflict with postmodernism. Euthanasia within a modern concept cannot be contemplated with the dominant values of Christian morality. This moral is incorporated by the norms of health accepted by the majority of health professionals” (Westphal, et al, 2019).

Numerous philosophers have many different ideas, so this article will discuss only a select few and focus more on the ideas than on the specific philosopher.

physician's perception of assisted suicide

Democritus: Atoms and Empty Space

Did you know that our understanding of matter and chemistry essentially owes its basic premise to Democritus (460 BCE) (Duignan, 2021)?

Democritus contended that everything that exists is just atoms and empty space and that all else is opinion. He did not believe in supernatural causes of physical phenomena – his ideas divorced the notion of a god or gods from natural phenomena, the starting point for the scientific method and modern atomic theory, and John Dalton’s atomic model (1805).

Pythagoras: More Than Triangles in Math Class

Pythagoras (C.570–495 BCE) for which the famous Pythagorean theorem is named, stated that mathematics explains the structure of the universe, and posited that math constants and ratios are universal and true throughout the universe. Therefore, irrespective of ideas, math in itself is the purest form of philosophy for him.

Math truly is universal. Show an equation to someone who does not speak your language, and he/she will understand. Pythagoras’ thoughts are still widely accepted in the scientific community. Think about this – if we were to have first contact with an alien civilization of much superior intellect and technology, the first language of choice would be math – in the form of patterns and symbols we can figure out and communicate in.

Voltaire: Only Uncertainty Is Certain

Voltaire’s (1694-1778) main ideas were based on the fact that human knowledge and theories have been continuously revised at some point in history, and that every idea can be challenged and tested – even religious beliefs. (Pomeau, 2022)

He was a proponent of doubt or skepticism that leads to thorough testing and findings that can be universally applied. He believed that certainty is “absurd “– meaning that our truth today may be upstaged or even replaced by newer truths based on newer and more solid evidence, which is exactly how the scientific method works.

Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, science found better evidence for drug and vaccine treatments for COVID-19, and one just needs to comb through news articles to see how we have been getting more and more evidence behind the virus’ infectivity, virulence, and control through numerous studies and clinical trials. The scientific method of testing and validation was clear for the world to see in how we have quickly developed treatments based on continuing experiments and analysis of current scientific data.

Descartes: But There Is Certainty After Doubt

Rene Descartes (1596-1650) practiced what is known as “methodic doubt”, a method that systematically examines various ideas and discards those that are not supported by empirical or other evidence. The concept is that by doing this, we are left with only those ideas that are “indubitably true”, or true beyond doubt – we can state that they are true, regardless of the conditions.

His famous quote, “I think, therefore, I am (cogito, ergo sum)” (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2013), was the result of this method – he found it true that he existed BECAUSE he was the one doing the doubting. Thus, it means “I am doubting now, so I must exist because I doubt.”

This process of constant skepticism and doubt does reveal some essential truths that have proven useful to humankind, especially in philosophical thought and the sciences.

Socrates

The Death of Socrates painting by Jacques-Louis David

Socrates: Ask Questions Not to Get Answers, But to Identify Wrong Assumptions

Socrates (469-499 BCE) introduced what is now known as the Socratic Method, which consists of asking questions and presenting scenarios to probe the validity of a premise, the truthfulness of each part of a compound statement, or to clarify the limitations of certain ideas or proposals (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2018).

The Socratic Method has been used in courtrooms, scientific institutions, policy analysis, and even in military interrogations to ascertain truth, but more importantly, to determine if an assertion is valid or not.

For example, if society’s definition of “the greater good” means the greatest number of individuals benefiting, would five people waiting for organ transplants have the right to demand one person to donate his organs to each of them? One can see all the ethical and moral questions arising from the flawed definition of “the greater good” So, how would we define what is the “greater good” for humanity? Not as easy as it seems, right?

Immanuel Kant: The Limits of What We Can (and Can’t) Know

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) is known for his synthesis of the idea that knowledge originates from experience (empiricism) and the idea that knowledge originates from reasoning (rationality). Naturally, since we can only experience life and reality through sensory input and experiences and the way we understand things, there are limits to what we can know that are external to us. So he contends that there is a limit to knowledge and what we can know because of our own minds’ and senses’ limitations (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2021).

Extending this reasoning, Kant also studied metaphysics and argued that human morality is justified, grounded in reason and that there is a universal moral law that all humans innately recognize and follow.

Certainly, there are limits to what we can know of science and the universe, but we can see this as just a temporary wall – with technological advances in classical physics, quantum physics, engineering, and other fields, we will have newer and better platforms of data gathering and knowledge generation in the future. After all, we have always pushed the boundaries of knowledge.

Karl Marx: Mankind’s Class Struggles over Limited Resources

“From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.” – Karl Marx (1818-1883)

The Marxist brand of communism states that property and resources should be divided equitably among the people. Equitably – not equally, as obviously, it would be difficult to do that with real estate and abstract resources. But mankind has always had its working class and ruling class centered on property ownership and ownership of the means of production.

The proletariat (working class) overthrows the ruling bourgeois class in cycles repeated throughout history. But the sad reality is that new ruling and working classes are created, ensuring the cycle’s repetition.

In practice, however, the involvement of the state in the means of production of goods and services is the most inefficient and corruption-prone way of running an economy. As evidenced in the collapse of communist ideology worldwide during the Glasnost and Perestroika days of Mikhail Gorbachev (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2021), openness, freedom, and democracy are better foundations for socio-economic growth.

Karl Marx

Karl Marx

Sun Tzu: War is Art–To Prepare For War Is of Prime Importance to the Nation-State

Philosopher Sun Tzu lived during China’s Warring States period (475–221 BC) and his book “The Art of War” is a classic treatise on a nation-state’s security and success, valued by military strategists and governments. It is not just about war, but more importantly, it is about tactics and strategy that would ensure the survival of a nation, whether in or out of war (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2021).

Some major ideas include knowing when and when not to fight, the presence of opportunity amid chaos, how victorious warriors know they will win even before going to war, and how all warfare is based on deception. These and many more ideas have become part of standard military doctrine and government planning and operations.

These have also been the foundation of modern business strategy, and even in the areas of relationship management and modern conflict resolution.

Niccolo Machiavelli: The End Justifies the Means

Niccolo Machiavelli (1469–1527) believed, like all rulers, that the success of the state is most important. He also believed that securing the ruler’s glory is necessary for the state’s success, and therefore, rulers cannot – and should not – be bound by “moral laws”. The end result is more important than how it is achieved, summed up as “the end justifies the means” (Mansfield, 2022).

This concept is a slippery slope, though. Many wars have been fought with this idea in mind. Hitler’s plan for the Aryan race also followed this template, and he was known to keep a copy of Machiavelli’s book “The Prince” by his bedside. (History.com editors, 2020) Nonetheless, Machiavelli is an important philosopher who influenced many leaders throughout history, regardless of whether they were evil or not.

Niccolo Machiavelli

Niccolo Machiavelli

Martin Luther: Religious Authoritarianism Is Flawed

Martin Luther (1483-1546) triggered the Reformation, the single greatest upheaval that challenged the authority and influence of the Roman Catholic Church which, instead of drawing people to God, had heaped upon them layers of bureaucracy in the form of monetary payment (indulgences) (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2021) for special “access” to God and eternal life.

In exile after being excommunicated, he translated the Bible into German, making it more accessible, and bypassing the Catholic Church’s hierarchical structure to bring the Word of God to the common person. Luther firmly believed in salvation by faith alone, not by works, as a gift from God, and not resulting from man’s acts and goodness. The Reformation brought about sweeping changes in religion, government policies, and the way people spoke truth to power (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2021).

David Hume: The Sun Always Rises, But Experience Is My Reality

David Hume (1711–1776) contended that all knowledge is just due to experience and that no knowledge can be ascertained as true aside from experience (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2021).

His example was that of the rising sun – yes we know it rises every morning in the past, and we can reasonably assume that it will do so in the future, too. But we have no assurance that it will rise tomorrow, aside from the fact that we have always known it to rise in the mornings. This implies that we have no absolute knowledge or reasoning apart from only experience.

Experience = reality.

As his quote “custom, not reason, is the great guide of life” implies, we base all human knowledge on experience, and anything else like rationality is not directly provable (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2021).

Certain economists have used this idea to explain economic or political phenomena called ‘black swans’, events that we have never experienced before, but in hindsight, appear probable. They are also unpredictable. The Asian financial crisis of 1997 and the current coronavirus pandemic are examples of black swan phenomena.

Francis Bacon: Knowledge is Power

Francis Bacon (1561-1626) contended that knowledge ultimately comes from sensory experience (Urbach, et al, 2022). He emphasized a more scientific approach to the obtainment of knowledge in terms of cumulative discoveries, which leads to the discovery of new laws and new inventions. His maxim “knowledge is power” directly reflects the meaning of mankind’s achievements in science. People in many fields have also borrowed this maxim, especially in business and politics.

Hannah Arendt: The Banality of Evil; The (Ordinary) Evil Monster

The question of what makes a man evil has always been the question for the ages. We picture such men as monsters, with evil dripping from their pores. Adolf Hitler comes to mind. But one of the Holocaust’s architects, perhaps the man of purest evil in the Nazi regime, was Adolph Eichmann, responsible for the arrest, transport, and genocide of millions of Jews in Europe during World War 2.

A relatively modern philosopher, Hannah Arendt actually saw and spoke with Eichmann at The Nuremberg Trials and found that he was a very ordinary and typical white male. He didn’t strike her as a monster, but she emphasized that what he did was wrong and deserving of his punishment (he was later hanged for his war crimes) (White, n.d.). She called this the banality of evil because it is so easy to fall into its trap as evidenced by how many common men in Nazi Germany committed atrocities in the name of the Fatherland.

Adolf Eichmann, 1942, author of the Nazis' Final Solution to the Jewish Question

Adolf Eichmann, 1942, author of the Nazis’ Final Solution to the Jewish Question

She contended that someone like Eichmann who was only following orders while committing genocide was not inherently a monster, but was someone who failed to recognize and reflect on the enormity and implications of what he was doing (Britannica, 2021). Of course, much criticism flew about the implication of a lack of inherent evil in Eichmann, but she did show that this inherent evil need not be grandiose and could be as simple as just following orders and that not thinking deeply about one’s actions and its consequences is enough to make someone evil.

Michel Foucault: Ideas Are Dated–Genealogy of Human Ideas

Michel Foucault (1926-1984) had many ideas about humanity’s experiences, but his focus wasn’t on his answers to the traditional questions of the essence of being human. Rather, he examined the answers that philosophers have given at specific periods in the past, believing that human thought changes and evolves over time. Our current reality and knowledge is not directly comparable to those of older times, and he contends that concepts are time and generation-specific, influenced by their realities in their own time (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2022).

Do you remember the time when race was exclusively used to determine a person’s social and economic status? When women were deemed not important enough to be educated? To vote? To do men’s jobs? For LGBTQA people to be discriminated against? In modern times, these would be grounds for legal action, and civil liberties have truly come a long way. But the point is that there is a traceable genealogy that explains how and why certain ideas and philosophies took root in certain time periods. And that in itself is an important insight into comparative philosophy.

Philosophy in 2099

But of course, we need to apply these knowledge and principles to practical situations. Give the following questions a try.

  •  An AI program you developed is implanted into a synthetic brain matrix of a “female” robot. You are quite attached to it and grow fond of “her” over many years of her helping you with tasks, cooking, cleaning, research, etc. She suddenly becomes sentient. What would your relationship be to “her /it” and what would you do?
  • Since it is now possible to make digital copies of almost everything, there is an increasing interest in uploading our consciousness into the Cloud to live in a virtual simulation. Are these digital copies unique individuals with their inalienable rights? What ethical issues will arise from this new technology? How would you, as a government policy maker, handle these issues?
  • AI used to power self-driving cars is not perfect and will encounter situations when it would need to choose the lesser evil. How would you program this AI when the brakes have failed? Would you let it maneuver the car to crash into one old person crossing the road, or into ten children crossing the road from the opposite side?

As we can see, we need philosophy to deal with new ideas and implications that new technology always brings. Researchers also choose methodologies based on their philosophical underpinnings

To close, let us look at illness which eventually affects us all. “Illness forces the ill person to face her own death in a most concrete way. Illness is a strict philosophical instructor forcing the ill person to confront death in its most immediate. This can be seen as a fuller, more existentially salient form of philosophizing. Indeed, for Heidegger, authentically facing death demands precisely this kind of first-person engagement with one’s mortality (Carel, 2016).”

Philosophy is not boring. It is essential for all types of higher education degrees.


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