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The School of Athens by Raphael, 1509-1511, depicts Plato and Aristotle (center) and other ancient philosophers exchanging their knowledge "The School of Athens" by Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino.jpg
The School of Athens by Raphael, 1509-1511, depicts Plato and Aristotle (center) and other ancient philosophers exchanging their knowledge

A philosopher is someone who practices philosophy. The term "philosopher" comes from the Ancient Greek, φιλόσοφος (philosophos), meaning "lover of wisdom". The coining of the term has been attributed to the Greek thinker Pythagoras (6th century BC). [1]


In the classical sense, a philosopher was someone who lived according to a certain way of life, focusing on resolving existential questions about the human condition, and not someone who discourses upon theories or comments upon authors. [2] Typically, these particular brands of philosophy are Hellenistic ones and those who most arduously commit themselves to this lifestyle may be considered philosophers. A philosopher is one who challenges what is thought to be common sense, doesn't stop asking questions, and reexamines the old ways of thought. [3]

In a modern sense, a philosopher is an intellectual who has contributed in one or more branches of philosophy, such as aesthetics, ethics, epistemology, philosophy of science, logic, metaphysics, social theory, and political philosophy. A philosopher may also be one who worked in the humanities or other sciences which have since split and branched from philosophy over the centuries, such as the arts, history, economics, sociology, psychology, linguistics, anthropology, theology, and politics. [4]


Ancient Greece and Rome

The separation of philosophy and science from theology began in Greece during the 6th century BC. [5] Thales, an astronomer and mathematician, was considered by Aristotle to be the first philosopher of the Greek tradition. [6]

While Pythagoras coined the word, the first known elaboration on the topic was conducted by Plato. In his Symposium , he concludes that Love is that which lacks the object it seeks. Therefore, the philosopher is one who seeks wisdom; if he attains wisdom, he would be a sage. Therefore, the philosopher in antiquity was one who lives in the constant pursuit of wisdom, and living in accordance to that wisdom. [7] Disagreements arose as to what living philosophically entailed. These disagreements gave rise to different Hellenistic schools of philosophy. In consequence, the ancient philosopher thought in a tradition. [8] As the ancient world became schism by philosophical debate, the competition lay in living in a manner that would transform his whole way of living in the world. [9]

Among the last of these philosophers was Marcus Aurelius, who is widely regarded as a philosopher in the modern sense, but personally refused to call himself by such a title, since he had a duty to live as an emperor. [10]


According to the Classicist Pierre Hadot, the modern conception of a philosopher and philosophy developed predominately through three changes:

The first is the natural inclination of the philosophical mind. Philosophy is a tempting discipline which can easily carry away the individual in analyzing the universe and abstract theory. [11]

The second is the historical change through the Medieval era. With the rise of Christianity, the philosophical way of life was adopted by its theology. Thus, philosophy was divided between a way of life and the conceptual, logical, physical and metaphysical materials to justify that way of life. Philosophy was then the servant to theology. [12]

The third is the sociological need with the development of the university. The modern university requires professionals to teach. Maintaining itself requires teaching future professionals to replace the current faculty. Therefore, the discipline degrades into a technical language reserved for specialists, completely eschewing its original conception as a way of life. [12]

Medieval Era

In the fourth century, the word philosopher began to designate a man or woman who led a monastic life. Gregory of Nyssa, for example, describes how his sister Macrina persuaded their mother to forsake "the distractions of material life" for a life of philosophy. [13]

Later during the Middle Ages, persons who engaged with alchemy were called philosophers – thus, the Philosopher's Stone. [14]

Early Modern Era

Generally speaking, university philosophy is mere fencing in front of a mirror. In the last analysis, its goal is to give students opinions which are to the liking of the minister who hands out the Chairs... As a result, this state-financed philosophy makes a joke of philosophy. And yet, if there is one thing desirable in this world, it is to see a ray of light fall onto the darkness of our lives, shedding some kind of light on the mysterious enigma of our existence.

Many philosophers still emerged from the Classical tradition, as saw their philosophy as a way of life. Among the most notable are René Descartes, Baruch Spinoza, Nicolas Malebranche, and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. With the rise of the university, the modern conception of philosophy became more prominent. Many of the esteemed philosophers of the eighteenth century and onward have attended, taught, and developed their works in university. Early examples include: Immanuel Kant, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling, and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. [15]

After these individuals, the Classical conception had all but died with the exceptions of Arthur Schopenhauer, Søren Kierkegaard, and Friedrich Nietzsche. The last considerable figure in philosophy to not have followed a strict and orthodox academic regime was Ludwig Wittgenstein. [16]

Modern Academia

In the modern era, those attaining advanced degrees in philosophy often choose to stay in careers within the educational system as part of the wider professionalisation process of the discipline in the 20th century. [17] According to a 1993 study by the National Research Council (as reported by the American Philosophical Association), 77.1% of the 7,900 holders of a PhD in philosophy who responded were employed in educational institutions (academia). Outside academia, philosophers may employ their writing and reasoning skills in other careers, such as medicine[ vague ], bioethics, business, publishing, free-lance writing, media, and law. [18]

Key thinkers

French social thought

Some known French social thinkers are Claude Henri Saint-Simon, Auguste Comte, and Émile Durkheim.

British social thought

British social thought, with thinkers such as Herbert Spencer, addressed questions and ideas relating to political economy and social evolution. The political ideals of John Ruskin were a precursor of social economy ( Unto This Last had a very important impact on Gandhi's philosophy).

German social thought

Important German philosophers and social thinkers included Immanuel Kant, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Karl Marx, Max Weber, Georg Simmel, and Martin Heidegger.

Chinese social thought

Important Chinese philosophers and social thinkers included Shang Yang, Lao Zi, Confucius, Mencius, Wang Chong, Wang Yangming, Li Zhi, Zhu Xi, Gu Yanwu, Gong Zizhen, Wei Yuan, Kang Youwei, Lu Xun, Mao Zedong, Xi Jinping.

Italian sociology

Important Italian social scientists include Antonio Gramsci, Gaetano Mosca, Vilfredo Pareto, Franco Ferrarotti, Elena Cornaro Piscopia.

Indian philosophers

Adi Shankaracharya, Ramanuja, Chanakya, Buddha, Mahavira, Śāntarakṣita, Dharmakirti, Nagarjuna.

Women philosophers

Women have engaged in philosophy throughout the field's history. While there have been women philosophers since ancient times, and a relatively small number were accepted as philosophers during the ancient, medieval, modern and contemporary eras, particularly during the 20th and 21st century, almost no woman philosophers have entered the philosophical Western canon. [19] [20] One notable woman philosopher was Hypatia.[ citation needed ]

Prizes in philosophy

Various prizes in philosophy exist. Among the most prominent are:

Certain esteemed philosophers, such as Henri Bergson, Bertrand Russell, Rudolf Christoph Eucken, Albert Camus, and Jean-Paul Sartre, have also won the Nobel Prize in Literature.

The John W. Kluge Prize for the Study of Humanity, created by the Library of Congress to recognize work not covered by the Nobel Prizes, was given to philosophers Leszek Kołakowski in 2003, Paul Ricoeur in 2004, and Jürgen Habermas and Charles Taylor in 2015. [21]

See also

Related Research Articles

Metaphilosophy is "the investigation of the nature of philosophy". Its subject matter includes the aims of philosophy, the boundaries of philosophy, and its methods. Thus, while philosophy characteristically inquires into the nature of being, the reality of objects, the possibility of knowledge, the nature of truth, and so on, metaphilosophy is the self-reflective inquiry into the nature, aims, and methods of the activity that makes these kinds of inquiries, by asking what is philosophy itself, what sorts of questions it should ask, how it might pose and answer them, and what it can achieve in doing so. It is considered by some to be a subject prior and preparatory to philosophy, while others see it as inherently a part of philosophy, or automatically a part of philosophy while others adopt some combination of these views.

Metaphysics Branch of philosophy dealing with the nature of reality

Metaphysics is the branch of philosophy that examines the fundamental nature of reality, including the relationship between mind and matter, between substance and attribute, and between potentiality and actuality. The word "metaphysics" comes from two Greek words that, together, literally mean "after or behind or among [the study of] the natural". It has been suggested that the term might have been coined by a first century AD editor who assembled various small selections of Aristotle’s works into the treatise we now know by the name Metaphysics.

Analytic philosophy Style of philosophy

Analytic philosophy is a branch or tradition of philosophy using analysis which is popular in the Western World and Anglosphere, beginning around the turn of the 20th century in the contemporary era and continues today. In the United Kingdom, United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Scandinavia, the majority of university philosophy departments today identify themselves as "analytic" departments.

The perennial philosophy, also referred to as perennialism and perennial wisdom, is a perspective in spirituality that views all of the world's religious traditions as sharing a single, metaphysical truth or origin from which all esoteric and exoteric knowledge and doctrine has grown.

Rudolf Christoph Eucken 19th/20th-century German philosopher

Rudolf Christoph Eucken was a German philosopher. He received the 1908 Nobel Prize for Literature "in recognition of his earnest search for truth, his penetrating power of thought, his wide range of vision, and the warmth and strength in presentation with which in his numerous works he has vindicated and developed an idealistic philosophy of life", after he had been nominated by a member of the Swedish Academy.

Praxis is the process by which a theory, lesson, or skill is enacted, embodied, or realized. "Praxis" may also refer to the act of engaging, applying, exercising, realizing, or practicing ideas. This has been a recurrent topic in the field of philosophy, discussed in the writings of Plato, Aristotle, St. Augustine, Francis Bacon, Immanuel Kant, Søren Kierkegaard, Karl Marx, Antonio Gramsci, Martin Heidegger, Hannah Arendt, Jean-Paul Sartre, Paulo Freire, and many others. It has meaning in the political, educational, spiritual and medical realms.

Porphyry (philosopher) Neoplatonist philosopher

Porphyry of Tyre was a Neoplatonic philosopher born in Tyre during Roman rule. He edited and published The Enneads, the only collection of the work of Plotinus, his teacher. His commentary on Euclid's Elements was used as a source by Pappus of Alexandria.

African philosophy is the philosophical discourse produced by indigenous Africans and their descendants, including African Americans. African philosophers may be found in the various academic fields of philosophy, such as metaphysics, epistemology, moral philosophy, and political philosophy. One particular subject that many African philosophers have written about is that on the subject of freedom and what it means to be free or to experience wholeness. Philosophy in Africa has a rich and varied history, some of which has been lost over time. One of the earliest known African philosophers was Ptahhotep, an ancient Egyptian philosopher. In the early and mid-twentieth century, anti-colonial movements had a tremendous effect on the development of a distinct African political philosophy that had resonance on both the continent and in the African diaspora. One well-known example of the economic philosophical works emerging from this period was the African socialist philosophy of Ujamaa propounded in Tanzania and other parts of Southeast Africa. These African political and economic philosophical developments also had a notable impact on the anti-colonial movements of many non-African peoples around the world.

<i>Meditations</i> literary work by Marcus Aurelius

Meditations is a series of personal writings by Marcus Aurelius, Roman Emperor from 161 to 180 AD, recording his private notes to himself and ideas on Stoic philosophy.

Pierre Hadot French historian and philosopher

Pierre Hadot was a French philosopher and historian of philosophy specializing in ancient philosophy, particularly Neoplatonism.

Philosophy Study of the truths and principles of being, knowledge, or conduct

Philosophy is the study of general and fundamental questions about existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language. Such questions are often posed as problems to be studied or resolved. The term was probably coined by Pythagoras. Philosophical methods include questioning, critical discussion, rational argument, and systematic presentation.

Western philosophy Philosophy of the Western world

Western philosophy refers to the philosophical thought and work of the Western world. Historically, the term refers to the philosophical thinking of Western culture, beginning with Greek philosophy of the pre-Socratics such as Thales and Pythagoras, and eventually covering a large area of the globe. The word philosophy itself originated from the Ancient Greek philosophía (φιλοσοφία), literally, "the love of wisdom".

The following outline is provided as an overview of and topical guide to metaphysics:

Stoicism School of Hellenistic Greek philosophy

Stoicism is a school of Hellenistic philosophy founded by Zeno of Citium in Athens in the early 3rd century BC. It is a philosophy of personal ethics informed by its system of logic and its views on the natural world. According to its teachings, as social beings, the path to eudaimonia is found in accepting the moment as it presents itself, by not allowing oneself to be controlled by the desire for pleasure or fear of pain, by using one's mind to understand the world and to do one's part in nature's plan, and by working together and treating others fairly and justly.

A sage, in classical philosophy, is someone who has attained wisdom. The term has also been used interchangeably with a 'good person', and a 'virtuous person'. Among the earliest accounts of the sage begin with Empedocles' Sphairos. Horace describes the Sphairos as "Completely within itself, well-rounded and spherical, so that nothing extraneous can adhere to it, because of its smooth and polished surface." Alternatively, the sage is one who lives "according to an ideal which transcends the everyday."

Rémi Brague French philosopher

Rémi Brague is a French historian of philosophy, specializing in the Arabic, Jewish, and Christian thought of the Middle Ages. He is professor emeritus of Arabic and religious philosophy at the Sorbonne, and Romano Guardini chair of philosophy (emeritus) at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich.

Philosophy of life Personal philosophy, whose focus is resolving the existential questions about the human condition

There are at least two senses in which the term philosophy is used: a formal and an informal sense. In the formal sense, philosophy is an academic study of the fields of aesthetics, ethics, epistemology, logic, metaphysics, as well as social and political philosophy. One's "philosophy of life" is philosophy in the informal sense, as a personal philosophy, whose focus is resolving the existential questions about the human condition.

Medieval philosophy philosophical development during the medieval period

Medieval philosophy is the philosophy that existed through the Middle Ages, the period roughly extending from the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century to the Renaissance in the 15th century. Medieval philosophy, understood as a project of independent philosophical inquiry, began in Baghdad, in the middle of the 8th century, and in France, in the itinerant court of Charlemagne, in the last quarter of the 8th century. It is defined partly by the process of rediscovering the ancient culture developed in Greece and Rome during the Classical period, and partly by the need to address theological problems and to integrate sacred doctrine with secular learning.

Protrepticus is a philosophical work by Aristotle that encouraged the young to study philosophy. It survives only in fragments and is considered a lost work.

Ilsetraut Hadot philosopher and historian of philosophy

Ilsetraut Hadot in Berlin, is a philosopher and historian of philosophy who specialised in Stoicism, Neoplatonism and more generally in Ancient Philosophy.


  1. φιλόσοφος . Liddell, Henry George ; Scott, Robert ; A Greek–English Lexicon at the Perseus Project.
  2. Pierre Hadot, The Inner Citadel. p. 4
  3. Perry, Ralph Barton (1914). "Philosophy I: General Introduction: Philosophy and Common Sense" (PDF). In William Allan Neilson; et al. (eds.). Lectures on the Harvard Classics. Internet Archive. P. F. Collier & Son Corporation. pp. 126–128. Retrieved 20 February 2018.
  4. Shook, John R., ed. (2010). "Introduction" . Dictionary of Modern American philosophers (online ed.). New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN   9780199754663. OCLC   686766412. The label of "philosopher" has been broadly applied in this Dictionary to intellectuals who have made philosophical contributions regardless of an academic career or professional title. The wide scope of philosophical activity across the timespan of this dictionary would now be classed among the various humanities and social sciences which gradually separated from philosophy over the last one hundred and fifty years. Many figures included were not academic philosophers but did work at the philosophical foundations of such fields as pedagogy, rhetoric, the arts, history, politics, economics, sociology,turtles , psychology, linguistics, anthropology, religion, and theology. Philosophy proper is heavily represented, of course, encompassing the traditional areas of metaphysics, ontology, epistemology, logic, ethics, social/political theory, and aesthetics, along with the narrower fields of philosophy of science, philosophy of mind, philosophy of language, philosophy of law, applied ethics, philosophy of religion, and so forth
  5. Russell, Bertrand (1946). A History of Western Philosophy. Great Britain: George Allen and Unwin Ltd. p.  11 . Retrieved 31 March 2016 via Internet Archive.
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  7. That is to say philosophically – Pierre Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life, trans. Michael Chase. Blackwell Publishing, 1995. p. 27: Introduction: Pierre Hadot and the Spiritual Phenomenon of Ancient Philosophy by Arnold I. Davidson. Citing Hadot, 'Presentation au College International de Philosophie,' p. 4.
  8. Pierre Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life, trans. Michael Chase. Blackwell Publishing, 1995. p. 5: Introduction: Pierre Hadot and the Spiritual Phenomenon of Ancient Philosophy by Arnold I. Davidson. Citing Hadot, 'Theologie, exegese, revelation' p. 22
  9. Pierre Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life, trans. Michael Chase. Blackwell Publishing, 1995. p. 30: Introduction: Pierre Hadot and the Spiritual Phenomenon of Ancient Philosophy by Arnold I. Davidson. Citing Hadot, Dictionnaire des philosophes antiques, p. 13
  10. Wikisource:Meditations#THE EIGHTH BOOK
  11. Pierre Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life, trans. Michael Chase. Blackwell Publishing, 1995. p. 31: Introduction: Pierre Hadot and the Spiritual Phenomenon of Ancient Philosophy by Arnold I. Davidson. Citing Hadot, 'Presentation au College International de Philosophie,' p. 7
  12. 1 2 Pierre Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life, trans. Michael Chase. Blackwell Publishing, 1995. p. 32: Introduction: Pierre Hadot and the Spiritual Phenomenon of Ancient Philosophy by Arnold I. Davidson.
  13. Readings in World Christian History (2013), pp. 147, 149
  14. "Online Etymology Dictionary".
  15. Pierre Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life, trans. Michael Chase. Blackwell Publishing, 1995. p. 271: Philosophy as a Way of Life
  16. A. C. Grayling. Wittgenstein: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press, 2001. p. 15
  17. Purcell, Edward A. (1979). Kuklick, Bruce (ed.). "The Professionalization of Philosophy". Reviews in American History. 7 (1): 51–57. doi:10.2307/2700960. ISSN   0048-7511. JSTOR   2700960.
  18. APA Committee on Non-Academic Careers (June 1999). "A non-academic career?" (3rd ed.). American Philosophical Association . Retrieved 24 May 2014.
  19. Duran, Jane. Eight women philosophers: theory, politics, and feminism. University of Illinois Press, 2005.
  20. "Why I Left Academia: Philosophy's Homogeneity Needs Rethinking - Hippo Reads".
  21. Schuessler, Jennifer (11 August 2015). "Philosophers to Share $1.5 Million Kluge Prize". New York Times. p. C3(L). Retrieved 6 April 2016.