31 March 2008|
The Ten Most Influential Philosophies of All-Time
A brief history of Western thought
All modern Western thought can trace its roots down to ten essential philosophical concepts. These philosophical (and metaphysical) assumptions about man's role in nature are the backbone of modern science, philosophy, psychology, technology and a host of other far reaching concepts.
All of these ideas are still alive and well, persisting in Western thought even to this day.
1) The Bible- God as the Creator; later Nature as the Created
The most fundamental assumption of Western thought is that humans, the Earth, the Milky Way and even the entire universe were created. For many centuries, the creator was the Lord Almighty, as depicted in both the Old and New Testaments. Avant-garde thinkers of the 18th century began to reject the notion of a Lord Almighty in Heaven. Yet they still kept the notion of the universe as being created.
This contrasts with the way the Chinese view the fundamental nature of the universe. They see the Earth as something organic, living even. Just as an apple tree grows apples from out of its branches, the Earth peoples and creates humans.
Interesting, one can see the effect of this fundamental assumption in children. It's commonplace for a Western child to ask its mother, "Mommy where did I come from?" Yet this same question would be totally out of context for an Asian child, who would rather say something like, "Mommy how did I grow?"
2) Socrates- Socratic Method
Through his dialectic, Socrates was able to invent a system which allowed for the independent validation of a particular assumption or idea. Some of these assumptions were moral-based, like "He is richest who is content with the least, for content is the wealth of nature" or "Courage is the endurance of the soul." Others were not: "By all means marry. If you get a good wife, you'll be happy. If you get a bad one, you'll become a philosopher and that is a good thing for any man.
The Socratic Method is the default technique used by any group of people attempting to determine the validity of a complex idea or law. It's still widely used in Universities and governments alike.
3) Thomas Hobbes- Necessity of a government
Hobbes was the first enemy of anarchy. He argued that human nature was inherently destructive and that life in an anarchy state (which he called the "State of Nature") would be "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."
Instead, he believed that a government was necessary -- yet its only function was to ensure that peace and natural rights be preserved for all citizens. So long as you don't do something to violate someone else's natural rights, you should be free to do whatever you want. The crux of his philosophy comes in the form of a negation of the Bible's famous Golden Rule- "Do not that to another, which thou wouldst not have done to thyself." Hobbes' philosophical impact on later European thinkers can never be understated.
4) René Descartes- Dualism
One of many of Descartes' contributions to Western philosophy is the idea of dualism. Descartes postulated that there exited two (and only two domains) of the universe: mind and matter. Your body fell into the latter category while your mind is the former. This created the mind-body problem which is still puzzling philosophers (although some think they've figured it out).
Dualism, while proven false by the recent discovery of Quantum physics, is still the way most Westerners think about their relationship with nature.
5) Jean-Jacques Rousseau- Social Contract
Rousseau laid the groundwork for Democracy through his influential work, The Social Contract. The text claims that man can be free only by (paradoxically) submitting himself to the general will of the people as a whole. He stated that society could only be truly free if individuals were given the power to make, implement and enforce their own laws.
The Social Contract had enormous impact on liberal thinkers and partially inspired the French Revolution.
6) Adam Smith- Free market economic system
Written in 1776, Adam Smith's An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations almost singlehandedly ended mercantilism (the dominate economic philosophy of the time) and is still quoted and debated to this day (see Al Gore's Assault on Reason).
It laid out, for the first time, a complete defense of free-market economic policies, advocating for ideas like division of labor, pursuit of self interest, and freedom of trade. Smith's ideas are featured at the heart of any Socialist versus Capitalist debate today.
7) Thomas Jefferson- The Declaration of Independence
Never were the ideas supporting liberty more eloquently extolled than in the Declaration of Independence (written by Jefferson, edited by Ben Franklin and John Adams).
Jefferson's assertion that "all men are created equal" has been a battle cry for revolutionaries ever since. While the idea of utilizing government to maximize individual freedom was not new, Jefferson was just the first to apply these ideals in the creation of a state. The values described in the Declaration are now seen as the highest values in which a government can pursue.
8) Sigmund Freud- The Unconscious Mind & the Libido
Although much of Professor Sigmund Freud's work has been discredited, he may be responsible for shaping modern thought more than any other single individual. Freud firmly established in the Western mind that the base instinct of all humans was the libido. Freud postulated that this primal sexual urge was constantly lurking in the unconscious mind, and that the existence of the libido is the reason for life on the planet. Freud argued that all humans had an unconscious mind, a mental functioning that we are all unaware of.
While modern psychologists have debated Freud's interpretations (and indeed the existence of ideas like the libido), he should be given much credit for proving that human beings were more than just their exterior shells (egos) and that an even more real self lurked below our own everyday consciousness.
9) Isaac Newton- Newtonian physics
Isaac Newton's model of the world was perfectly structured: things move in predictable patterns and in predictable ways. If you tell me the position and velocity of any given object, I can tell you where it's going to be next at any point in the future. In addition, if an object goes from point A to point B, it must pass through a midpoint C.
This superhuman achievement of plotting the universe in such a way led to an unprecedented boom in technological development and quality of life. Yet thanks to the discovery of quantum physics, we are certain that all of these fundamental axioms of Newtonian physics are wrong.
Although this model doesn't allow for any cosmic fun, it appeals to the (especially scientific) human mind which craves structure and organization.
10) Quantum Physics
The quantum model of physics is changing the way scientists think about the world. Gone are the days of robotic and soulless Newtonian models of movement. The new science offers the premise that consciousness is the ground of all being. This means that effects on a quantum scale are directly predicated on one's own particular state of mind, a hypothesis which implies that each individual creates his or her own reality. It is almost as if our individual selves are just pictures, microcosms of an infinite transcendent consciousness that existed before the discovery of time or matter.
For a more in-depth discussion see the article, "Everything You Know About the World Is Wrong (metaphysically speaking)"