Over the past 2,000 years 8 philosophers in the Latin west would rise to become the most influential in history. Each of the philosophers on the following list have profoundly impacted the way in which modern society runs. As such their impact can be felt by billions of people around the world.
In order to end up on this list a philosopher would have had to have been born in Europe or North America and write in either Latin, Slavic, Greek, or Germanic based languages. Further, the impact of the influential philosopher needs to be felt by billions of people worldwide. Once you apply this ranking criteria to history these are the 8 most influential philosophers that remain.
- Immanuel Kant
- Karl Marx
- Friedrich Nietzsche
- John Locke
- Michel Foucault
Below I go into detail on the reason why each philosopher has ended up on this list of the most influential philosophers of western history. Within each philosopher section there is further reading if you would like to see the philosopher’s impact in more depth.
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Without further ado, here are the absolute 9 most influential western philosophers in history.
|Famous Quote||“Opinion is the medium between knowledge and ignorance”|
|Known For||Founding the first university, creating the modern education system|
|Region of World||Athens/Greece, 3rd century BC|
|Further Reading||Plato’s 3 Greatest Contributions To Education|
Plato remains one of the most influential western philosophers in history. Being born into the 4th century BC in Athens Plato was around during the golden-age of Athens ancient history.
Plato would study under the incredibly famous Aristotle. This profoundly impacted his view on the importance of education towards the benefit of the state. As such Plato would create a philosophy that placed education as a primary focus of any nation.
We remember Plato’s philosophy today for 3 major reasons. First, within Plato’s Republic we can see how Plato structures a perfect society. Second, Plato built the world’s first modern university. Third, Plato was the first philosopher in history to study epistemology.
First, Plato positioned education as the most important thing for a state to provide for its citizen base. Our primary source for this philosophy comes from Plato’s most cited text Republic. Today this has impacted billions of people through the need to pursue a higher education to give back to society.
Second, Plato built the world’s first modern university. Since education was so important to Plato’s society he created the first university called Academy. Today the reason we have institutions of higher learning is because of Plato.
Third, the highest influence of Plato was his study of the field of epistemology or how the human brain learns. This remains Plato’s highest influence in history as it set the stage for all other Philosophers on this list. Today, this influence has impacted billions of people worldwide.
Because of these 3 major influences Plato is remembered as one the greatest western philosophers in history. Today his influence can be felt by almost everyone on the earth.
2.) Immanuel Kant
|Born||22nd of April, 1724|
|Died||12 of February, 1804|
|Famous Quote||“To be is to do”|
|Known For||German philosopher and enlightenment thinker|
|Region of World||Germany, 18th century|
|Further Reading||How Immanuel Kant Changed History Forever|
Immanuel Kant remains one of the world’s most influential western philosophers throughout history. Today his influence is felt by billions of people around the world.
Being born into the 18th century Kant would see the height of the Age of Reason. The 18th century time period is also called the Age of Enlightenment due to advancements in humanistic thought.
The reason why we remember Kant as one of the most influential western philosophers throughout history was because of his radical philosophy on the nature of human thought.
Before Immanuel Kant time most philosophers believed in the empiricist model of human thought. This model stated that human beings naturally started out in life with a blank mind. That all knowledge gained by a person is through their interaction with the world.
During Kant’s time however a new form of epistemological thought was emerging, the rationalism model. This model differed from empiricism in one major way. The rationalists believed that humans were born with certain innate ideas such as consciousness, time, and self preservation.
Immanuel Kant would take the best from both schools of thought and combine them. The reason his philosophy and influence is so important to history is because of the precedent it set.
Immanuel Kant demonstrated that people could be born with certain innate ideas. This lead to the concept of liberty and democracy throughout the world. According to Kant’s philosophy people were born with the ideas of their own will.
As a result, the influence of Immanuel Kant today has impacted billions of people worldwide. Due to this he firmly lands on this list of the absolute 8 most influential western philosophers of history.
|Famous Quote||“We suffer more in imagination than in reality.”|
|Know For||Famous stoic, tutoring the emperor Nero, writing foundational texts on concept of happiness|
|Region of World||Italy/Rome, 1st century AD|
|Further Reading||How Seneca Tied Reason And The Conception of Happiness Together|
Seneca easily lands on this list of the absolute 8 most influential western philosophers in history due to one major reason. This was demonstrating that the role of reason and not emotion is what created someone happiness in life.
Seneca would live a very hard life. Being born into the early Roman Empire Seneca would grow up in a hostile world where philosophers were attacked for their views. He would be exiled by the Roman Emperor Caligula and executed by the Emperor Nero. However, in spite of this harsh life Seneca gives us his most influential philosophy on the nature of happiness.
For Seneca the philosophy of happiness comes from recognizing that one’s life is inherently short. Furthermore, nobody can predict the future so there is no need to worry about it. Normally, this would create nihilism but Seneca provides a cure for this as well.
The reason that we remember Seneca today as one of the most influential philosophers of history is because he demonstrates that it is through reason and not emotion that a person can find true happiness.
To do this Seneca instructs people to focus on their purpose in life. It is through this work that people will become happy as they are fulfilling their ambitions. Once people are happy in reason then they can stop worrying about the future, bringing true happiness.
Seneca’s philosophy profoundly impacted the history of western thought. From the Renaissance up through modern day we can see Seneca in the concept of taking pride in one’s work. In North American history alone this can be seen as the Puritan Work Ethic.
Today Seneca’s influence can be felt by billions of people worldwide. As a result he firmly lands on this list of the absolute 8 most influential western philosophers in history.
4.) Karl Marx
|Born||5th of May, 1818|
|Died||14th of March, 1883|
|Famous Quote||“History repeats itself, first as a tragedy, second as farce.”|
|Known For||Publishing controversial political philosophy|
|Region of World||England/Germany, 19th century|
|Further Reading||How Karl Marx Created Modern Economic History|
One of the most influential philosophers of the modern era it should surprise few that Karl Marx lands on this list of the absolute 8 most influential western philosophers in history.
The reason Karl Marx lands on this list is because he created the modern field of economic history. How he did this was by combining economic data with historical theory. Out of this came a new philosophy.
Today Karl Marx is remembered for his radical stance on government, however it is philosophy on the nature of human economic history that remains the most influential.
The philosophy of Karl Marx is that humans behaved the same at any point throughout history. He presented a theory on the progression of human history through the study of what he called human class warfare.
Karl Marx believed that humans throughout history were always separated into two classes based around their economic status. The first class of people had access to the means to generate economic resources but needed laborers to do so, this was the capital holding class. The second class of people held no capital but could provide labor in return for a share of the resources, this was the laboring class.
This philosophy was highly influential in academic circles. Here Marx’s philosophy on the nature of human society and history demonstrated that by looking at how humans interacted with capital we could see the power structure of a society.
Needless to say, this profoundly impacted billions of people around the world. The philosophy of Karl Marx would kickstart several reforms of governments after his death in the 20th century.
As a result of the influence upon billions of people worldwide Karl Marx easily ends up on this list of the absolute 8 most influential western philosophers in history.
|Born||January 3rd, 106 BC|
|Died||December 7th, 43 BC|
|Famous Quote||“In times of war, the law falls silent.”-Pro Milone|
|Reason For Fame||Pioneered natural law, liberty, free market, and the three branch system of government.|
|Area Of Influence||Europe, Rome, North America|
|Further Reading||The 3 Ways Cicero Influenced The Development Of The United States|
Cicero lived during the height of the late Roman Republic and stands as one of the most influential philosophers of all time. Almost nobody alive today has not been impacted by Cicero’s philosophy on the nature of government and law.
Living during the height of the late Roman Republic Cicero himself was a lawyer, philosopher, and statesman. While he excelled at many things in life it is his philosophy on laws and government that lands him on this list of the absolute 8 most influential western philosophers in history.
Cicero was the world’s first philosopher to fuse the concept of natural law and government together. Simply put, Cicero’s philosophy stated that governments reflect human nature and that a government can’t fault a human for acting in accord to this.
From this we get concepts of liberty, freedom of speech, self preservation, pursuit of happiness, and the division of powers across government. In essence the modern government and legal system.
An example of this can be seen when Cicero was defending his friend, Milo, in court for killing a man in self defense. Cicero states “In times of war, the law falls silent” indicating to the jury that his friend did kill the man, but in self defense. Further, that the government which comprised people could not find Cicero’s friend guilty as they would have done the same thing.
This is a prime example of the fusing of natural law and government. The nature of all modern governments follow this fusing of natural law into government.
Today Cicero’s influence is felt in every single nation across the world. As a result Cicero easily lands on this list of the absolute 8 most influential western philosophers in history.
6.) Friedrich Nietzsche
|Born||15th of October, 1844|
|Died||25th of August, 1900|
|Famous Quote||“It is not a lack of love, but a lack of friendship that makes unhappy marriages.”|
|Known For||19th century philosopher, cultural critic, establishing will to power as innate virtue of man|
|Region of World||Germany, 19th century|
|Further Reading||The 3 Reasons Nietzsche Never Married|
Those who study history of the 20th century will find it no surprise that Friedrich Nietzsche has landed on this list of the absolute 8 most influential western philosophers in history.
Nietzsche himself was writing his philosophy during the 18th century while he was traveling around Europe. Nietzsche lived during a time of profound change in the power structure of western society.
All of Nietzsche’s philosophies are based around the concept of power within society. Nietzsche would spend his entire life studying how societies throughout history looked at powerful people and how those powerful people came to power.
From this Nietzsche presented several highly influential viewpoints. In his book On the Genealogy of Morality Nietzsche comes to the conclusion that society inherently attempts to restrict people in an effort to provide comfort, safety, and social security to the masses.
Those who are ambitious break away from this social security at great risk to themselves to pursue more power. The only way they can do this however is by having a superior will then the rest of the group to seek increased power.
This forms the foundation for Nietzsche’s theory of power relations. This philosophy today is called Will to Power, or the ability to transform one’s will into power within a society.
Nietzsche wrote about his philosophies during the 18th century. His philosophies advocated for making society a better place for all by recognizing power relations. This can be seen through the ending of his book Thus Spoke Zarathustra where the main character departs life having helped all aspects of society. However, shortly after his death much of his philosophies would be reworded to justify the authoritarian regimes of the 20th century.
As a result of this Nietzsche’s impacted the lives of billions of people since the end of the 19th century. This firmly lands him on this list of the absolute 8 most influential western philosophers in history.
7.) John Locke
|Born||29th of August, 1632|
|Died||28th of October, 1704|
|Famous Quote||“To love truth for truth’s sake is the principle part of human perfection in this world, and the seed-plot of all other virtues.”|
|Known For||Significant philosopher of liberty, self governance, and shaper of modern education|
|Region of World||England, 17th century|
|Further Reading||John Locke 3 Ways his Philosophy Changed Modern Education|
The 7th philosopher on this list is John Lock due to his impact upon the development of democratic nations worldwide.
John Locke was one of the first empiricist philosophers who wrote about the concept of innate human values such as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These values Locke argued were present in every single human ever born.
Locke was writing in the 17th century out of England during a time of absolute monarchy where people held little to no rights. During John Locke’s life he would see one of the most brutal conflicts in England called the English Civil War.
Out of this came much of his foundational thought regarding the innate ideas of liberty in every single human. From this he wrote one of his most influential philosophical works, Two Treatises of Government (1689).
From this philosophical text Locke would set the precedent for what would come to be known as modern democracy. That human beings have inherent concepts that in of itself build government. That government is built to serve the needs of the people, not the other way around.
This held a profound influence upon later governments around the world. Over the next century governments such as the United States would come to be. As a result of this John Locke has influenced the lives of billions of people worldwide who live in democratic governments today.
As a result of this John Locke lands firmly on this list of the absolute 8 most influential western philosophers in history.
8.) Michel Foucault
|Born||15th of October, 1926|
|Died||25 of June, 1984|
|Famous Quote||“In its function, the power to punish is not essentially different from that of curing or educating.”|
|Known For||Famous philosopher studying how power and knowledge intersect|
|Region of World||France/Europe, 20th century|
|Further Reading||Michel Foucault: 3 Tricks To Easily Read And Understand Him and The 3 Reasons Friedrich Nietzsche Never Married|
Finally the last of the absolute 8 most influential western philosophers in history is Michel Foucault.
The reason Foucault lands on this list is due to his improvement of Nietzsche’s will to power theory. Foucault would read Nietzsche’s work while in Italy on a vacation with his boyfriend and become profoundly impacted by the nature of power relations within a society.
However Foucault wanted to take the study of power relations a step further by looking at how knowledge imparted power across a society. When doing this Foucault discovered a very important thing, that the nature of knowledge generation within society was inherently flawed.
Most people think that today people are better off than in the past. Foucault demonstrates that is not true, modern man just thinks so because he does not have the necessary knowledge to know otherwise.
Here Foucault’s foundational theory is called Will to Knowledge after Nietzsche’s Will to Power.
When Foucault looked at past societies throughout time he came to the conclusion that those who held considerably more knowledge over others also held power. That the entirety of society was built around controlling the flow of knowledge from one person to another. That in order to gain power in society one must gain knowledge. This is why Foucault called his theory Will to Knowledge.
From his publications Foucault radically changed the way that people look at power relations throughout society. Foucault wanted to demonstrate to people that knowledge production is inherently flawed and to question all power dynamics within a society.
He remains today one of the most influential philosophers of all time because of his stance on society and power dynamics. Although he died in 1984 his work has been often cited by leaders, generals, philosophers, and revolutionaries worldwide. As time progresses Foucault might become one of the top 5 most influential philosophers of history.
As a result of his influence already impacting billions of people worldwide Foucault lands on this list of the absolute 8 most influential philosophers of history.
There you have it; an entire article dedicated to the absolute 8 most influential western philosophers in history.
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