Avicenna (Ibn Sina) was a Persian physician and philosopher who profoundly influenced medieval Islamic philosophy, while his synthesis of ancient Greek and theology also had a major influence on the Western thought, especially that of the medieval Christian philosophers. Avicenna worked during the so-called Islamic Golden Age that was marked by advanced knowledge which surpassed that in the West. The territorial expansion of the Arab Abbasid Caliphate during that time gave the Muslim scholars access to vast knowledge including that of ancient Greco-Roman, Byzantine, Indian, Egyptian and Persian civilisations which became accessible to the Western scholars only in the later Middle Ages and Early Modern Period.
Avicenna’s philosophy dealt with some of the most fundamental questions including the origin of the cosmos, the role of God in the human existence and the universe, and divine interaction with humans and other “created” beings. He wrote extensively on logic, metaphysics and ethics, while his greatest contribution to the development of both later Muslim and Western thought was his attempt to reconcile the ancient Greek philosophy and God as the creator of all existence. Over the following centuries, Avicenna came to be regarded as the leading authority of the Islamic philosophy, while his synthesis of Greek philosophy and theology was later to some extent also adopted by the medieval Christian philosophers including Thomas Aquinas.
Avicenna is thought to create over 400 works on a variety of topics but only about 250 have survived. Of the surviving works, over 100 address philosophical questions, while about 40 deal with medicine. Some of his best known works include:
~Book of Salvation ~The Canon of Medicine ~Book of Healing ~Divine Wisdom ~Book of Sum and Substance ~Philosophy for the Prosodist ~Book of Virtue and Sin Although Avicenna’s native language was Persian, most of his works were written in Arabic which was the language of the science in the Middle East in his time.
Lucius Annaeus Seneca, better known as Seneca the Younger (4 BC – 65 AD) was a Roman philosopher, writer and statesman who is probably best known for being a tutor and advisor to emperor Nero. By the mid-1st century CE, he established himself as one of the most influential people of the Roman world but his influence turned out to contribute to his premature death. In year 65, Nero forced him to commit suicide for his alleged involvement in the Pisonian conspiracy to assassinate the emperor. Whether he was really conspiring against the last Roman emperor of the Julio-Claudian dynasty remains uncertain.
Seneca created his best works in the last three years of his life although he was highly productive throughout his life. His most significant works include tragedies and philosophical dialogues but he was also interested in natural sciences. In 62, he wrote a scientific book titled Naturales quaestiones but other than discussing various theories, he didn’t offer any original solutions.
The surviving works by Seneca include: Tragedies (10 in total): ~Hercules Furens (The Madness of Hercules) ~Hercules Oetaeus (Hercules on Oeta) ~Phaedra ~Oedipus ~Agamemnon ~Thyestes ~Medea ~Troades (The Trojan Women) ~Phoenissae (The Phoenician Women) ~Octavia According to most scholars, Octavia is highly unlikely to have been written by Seneca, while many also question some other Senecan tragedies, especially Hercules Oetaeus (Hercules on Oeta).
Marcus Tullius Cicero is widely considered Rome’s greatest orator and verse writer but he was also an influential statesman, successful lawyer and philosopher. He has greatly influenced the Western thought and philosophy despite the fact that his own contribution to the discipline is generally considered of lesser importance. However, thanks to Cicero, Western philosophers gained access to many important ancient philosophical works that would otherwise be lost forever.
Although Cicero is considered one of the most important Western philosophers, he did not make any major contributions to the discipline as such. All his works are written in outstanding Latin prose, proving his brilliance with words but do not offer much originality. However, it is important to note that Cicero was primarily a politician and considered politics a priority. Ironically, he turned out to be the least successful in politics which was directly responsible for his premature death. Cicero’s philosophical works are mostly reproductions of the prominent Greek philosophers, mostly stoic. However, his works “De amicitia” (On Friendship), “De senectute” (On Old Age), “De officiis” (On Duty), “De natural deorum” (On the Nature of the Gods), to mention only a few are a priceless source of ancient Greek philosophy, while rediscovery of Cicero’s letters by Petrarch in the 14th century is by some thought to gave rise to Renaissance. Cicero’s writings also had a major influence on the Enlightenment philosophers, particularly Montesquieu, John Locke and David Hume.
Other Works Cicero is best known for his speeches (of which 57 have survived) and political philosophy. He is also known to have been a highly respected poet, however, none of his poetry survived. The works that did survived including hundreds of letters he wrote to various correspondents came to be regarded as a synonym for Latin as well as a priceless source for history of the late Roman Republic and early Roman Empire.
British economist, public servant, and philosopher John Stuart Mill is considered a linchpin of modern social and political theory. He contributed a critical body of work to the school of thought called liberalism, an ideology founding on the extension of individual liberties and economic freedoms. As such, Mill himself advocated strongly for the preserving of individual rights and called for limitations to the power and authority of the state over the individual. Mill was also a proponent of utilitarianism, which holds that the best action is one that maximizes utility, or stated more simply, one that provide the greatest benefit to all. This and other ideas found in Mill’s works have been essential to providing rhetorical basis for social justice, anti-poverty, and human rights movements. For his own part, as a member of Parliament, Mill became the first office-holding Briton to advocate for the right of women to vote.
Mill’s Big Ideas ~Advocated strongly for the human right of free speech, and asserted that free discourse is necessary for social and intellectual progress; ~Determined that most of history can be understood as a struggle between liberty and authority, and that limits must be placed on rulership such that it reflects society’s wishes; ~Stated the need for a system of “constitutional checks” on state authority as a way of protecting political liberties.
Mill’s Key Works ~On Liberty and the Subjection of Women (1859, 1869) ~Utilitarianism (1861)
A Scottish-born historian, economist, and philosopher, Hume is often grouped with thinkers such as John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, and Sir Francis Bacon as part of a movement called British Empiricism. He was focused on creating a “naturalistic science of man” that delves into the psychological conditions defining human nature. In contrast to rationalists such as Descartes, Hume was preoccupied with the way that passions (as opposed to reason) govern human behavior. This, Hume argued, predisposed human beings to knowledge founded not on the existence of certain absolutes but on personal experience. As a consequence of these ideas, Hume would be among the first major thinkers to refute dogmatic religious and moral ideals in favor of a more sentimentalist approach to human nature. His belief system would help to inform the future movements of utilitarianism and logical positivism, and would have a profound impact on scientific and theological discourse thereafter.
Hume’s Big Ideas ~Articulated the “problem of induction,” suggesting we cannot rationally justify our belief in causality, that our perception only allows us to experience events that are typically conjoined, and that causality cannot be empirically asserted as the connecting force in that relationship; ~Assessed that human beings lack the capacity to achieve a true conception of the self, that our conception is merely a “bundle of sensations” that we connect to formulate the idea of the self; ~Hume argued against moral absolutes, instead positing that our ethical behavior and treatment of others is compelled by emotion, sentiment, and internal passions, that we are inclined to positive behaviors by their likely desirable outcomes.
Hume’s Key Works ~A Treatise of Human Nature (1739) ~An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1751) ~The History Of England (1754–62)
Born in Austria to a wealthy family, Wittgenstein is one of philosophy’s more colorful and unusual characters. He lived a life of eccentricity and professional nomadism, dabbling in academia, military service, education, and even as a hospital orderly. Moreover, during his life, he wrote voluminously but published only a single manuscript. And yet, he was recognized by his contemporaries as a genius. The posthumous publication of his many volumes confirmed this view for future generations, ultimately rendering Wittgenstein a towering figure in the areas of logic, semantics, and the philosophy of mind. His investigations of linguistics and psychology would prove particularly revelatory, offering a distinctive window through which to newly understand the nature of meaning and the limits of human conception.
Wittgenstein’s Big Ideas ~Argued that conceptual confusion about language is the basis for most intellectual tension in philosophy; ~Asserted that the meaning of words presupposes our understanding of that meaning, and that our particular assignment of meaning comes from the cultural and social constructs surrounding us; ~Resolved that because thought is inextricably tied to language, and because language is socially constructed, we have no real inner-space for the realization of our thoughts, which is to say that the language of our thoughts renders our thoughts inherently socially constructed.
Historian, social theorist, and philosopher Michel Foucault, born in the riverfront city of Poiltiers, France, dedicated much of his teaching and writing to the examination of power and knowledge and their connection to social control. Though often identified as a postmodernist, Foucault preferred to think of himself as a critic of modernity. His service as an international diplomat on behalf of France also influenced his understanding of social constructs throughout history and how they have served to enforce racial, religious, and sexual inequality. His ideals have been particularly embraced by progressive movements, and he allied with many during his lifetime. Active in movements against racism, human rights abuses, prisoner abuses, and marginalization of the mentally ill, he is often cited as a major influence in movements for social justice, human rights, and feminism. More broadly speaking, his examination of power and social control has had a direct influence on the studies of sociology, communications, and political science.
Foucault’s Big Ideas ~Held the conviction that the study of philosophy must begin through a close and ongoing study of history; ~Demanded that social constructs be more closely examined for hierarchical inequalities, as well as through an analysis of the corresponding fields of knowledge supporting these unequal structures; ~Believed oppressed humans are entitled to rights and they have a duty to rise up against the abuse of power to protect these rights.
Foucault’s Key Works ~The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (1966) ~The Archaeology of Knowledge: And the Discourse on Language (1969) ~Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1975)
A French philosopher, mathematician, and scientist, Descartes was born in France but spent 20 years of his life in the Dutch Republic. As a member of the Dutch States Army, then as the Prince of Orange and subsequently as Stadtholder (a position of national leadership in the Dutch Republic), Descartes wielded considerable intellectual influence over the period known as the Dutch Golden Age. He often distinguished himself by refuting or attempting to undo the ideas of those that came before him.
Descartes’ Big Ideas ~Discards belief in all things that are not absolutely certain, emphasizing the understanding of that which can be known for sure; ~Is recognized as the father of analytical geometry; ~Regarded as one of the leading influences in the Scientific Revolution — a period of intense discovery, revelation, and innovation that rippled through Europe between the Renaissance and Enlightenment eras (roughly speaking, 15th to 18th centuries).
Descartes’ Key Works ~Meditations on First Philosophy (1641) ~Principles of Philosophy (1644) ~The Passions of the Soul and Other Late Philosophical Writings (1649)
Niccolo di Bernardo dei Machiavelli is at once among the most influential and widely debated of history’s thinkers. A writer, public office-holder, and philosopher of Renaissance Italy, Machiavelli both participated in and wrote prominently on political matters, to the extent that he has even been identified by some as the father of modern political science. He is also seen as a proponent of deeply questionable — some would argue downright evil — values and ideas. Machiavelli was an empiricist who used experience and historical fact to inform his beliefs, a disposition which allowed him to divorce politics not just from theology but from morality as well. His most prominent works described the parameters of effective rulership, in which he seems to advocate for leadership by any means which retain power, including deceit, murder, and oppression. While it is sometimes noted in his defense that Machiavelli himself did not live according to these principles, this “Machiavellian” philosophy is often seen as a template for tyranny and dictatorship, even in the present day.
Machiavelli’s Big Ideas ~Famously asserted that while it would be best to be both loved and feared, the two rarely coincide, and thus, greater security is found in the latter; ~Identified as a “humanist,” and believed it necessary to establish a new kind of state in defiance of law, tradition and particularly, the political preeminence of the Church; ~Viewed ambition, competition and war as inevitable parts of human nature, even seeming to embrace all of these tendencies.
Machiavelli’s Key Works ~Discourses on Livy (1531) ~The Prince (1532) ~The Art Of War (1519–20)
An English physicist and philosopher, John Locke was a prominent thinker during the Enlightenment period. Part of the movement of British Empiricism alongside fellow countrymen David Hume, Thomas Hobbes, and Sir Francis Bacon, Locke is regarded as an important contributor to the development of the social contract theory and is sometimes identified as the father of liberalism. Indeed, his discourses on identity, the self, and the impact of sensory experience would be essential revelations to many Enlightenment thinkers and, consequently, to real revolutionaries. His philosophy is said to have figured prominently into the formulation of the Declaration of Independence that initiated America’s war for independence from the British.
Locke’s Big Ideas
Coined the term tabula rasa (blank slate) to denote that the human mind is born unformed, and that ideas and rules are only enforced through experience thereafter;
Established the method of introspection, focusing on one’s own emotions and behaviors in search of a better understanding of the self;
Argued that in order to be true, something must be capable of repeated testing, a view that girded his ideology with the intent of scientific rigor.