Philosophy majors start their education with the classical works from the likes of Plato, Socrates, Kant, Descartes, Lock, Hume, Nietzsche, and the like. There are, however, a whole slew of other philosophers. In this article we will look at, what I think are, the most underrated philosophers that deserve recognition.
These are not organized in any particular order, merely a list of nine. It will probably come as no surprise that many women and minorities are the most underrated. They come from an era when white men were the most recognized philosophers.
1 – Voltairine de Cleyre
Radical feminism was starting to catch on during the nineteenth century. De Cleyre embraced the concept like a favorite child and didn’t stop there. She was a radical anarchist. Another activist called her “the most gifted and brilliant anarchist woman America ever produced.” She came by much of her extremism honestly, as her mother was a firm abolitionist. Voltairine was an atheist at a young age. At the age of 19, she was lecturing on reason and empiricism.
De Cleyre spent her life writing essays and poems about her beliefs. Her ardent goal was to have her readers look at their lives and envision changes.
She was a contemporary of feminists Margret Sanger and Emma Goodman, two activists who did much to change the role of women. But de Cleyre didn’t stop at activism.
Her epitaph, which she wrote herself, states, “I die, as I have lived, a free spirit, an Anarchist, owing no allegiance to rulers, heavenly or earthly.”
The late nineteenth century was a critical time for feminism. Women’s roles underwent tremendous changes. Goodman and Sanger have survived the test of time and are still considered relevant at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Voltairine de Cleyre has been lost to history. The reason is not the feminist ideology she spouted, but that her radical philosophy was too severe for any of her logical ideas to survive.
Jakob Friedrich Fries (1773 – 1843)
Emmanuel Kant was the leading German philosopher of the 19th century, gaining great acceptance for his idealism. Jakob Fries was one of the few philosophers who argued against Kant and for less idealism. Fries, a professor of philosophy at Heidelberg and Jena, was a supporter of Kant, but he did have disagreements.
While Kant argued from the basis of metaphysics, Fries attempted to connect pure philosophy with psychology – it was a blend of Kantian idealism and basic common sense. He diligently studied the mental process and the steps behind the process a critical element in forming philosophy.
Fries wrote the New Critique of Reason, wherein he attempted to combine Kant with faith and argued in favor of the senses and methodology rather than Kant’s argument for philosophy as a priori, which Fries considered dogmatic. His insistence on empirical critique earned him the reputation for psychologizing.
Fries’ insistence on empiricism may have received greater acceptance if he had not become better known for his antisemitism. He firmly defended the constitutional rights of man, but this concept did not include Jews, whom he regarded as outsiders.
In his works, Ueber die Gefaehrdung des Wohlstandes und Charakters der Deutschen durch die Juden, written in1816, Fries demanded that Jews should adopt only German culture and destroy any semblance of Jewish heritage and traditions.
In his words, “We do not declare war on the Jews, our brothers, but on Jewry.” He insisted that the students’ association at the university not accept Jewish members, and he succeeded in having them banned.
Fries lost much influence due to his antisemitism, and he was soon overshadowed by the growing influence of voices such as Kant, Hegel, Marx, and others.
Ludwig Josef Johann Wittgenstein
Ludwig Wittgenstein, born into a wealthy Austrian family in 1889, was a well-respected philosopher in his time. Fellow thinker Bertrand Russell called him “the most perfect example I have ever known of genius as traditionally conceived, passionate, profound, intense, and dominating.”
His main interest, or obsession, was words and logic. He felt that reason and logic should be freed from the limitations of words because words are open to interpretation, and logic required perfection. This was a conclusion which his own work, “Tractatus,” subsequently disputes. According to his friend, Georg Henrik von Wright, Wittgenstein did not feel that people understood him.
Perhaps he didn’t feel comfortable as a philosopher. He taught at Cambridge University. However, when John Maynard Keynes invited him to join the elite philosophy group, the Cambridge Apostles, he indicated he did not feel comfortable with philosophical discussions. Wittgenstein left academia several times. First to serve in World War I, then to teach children in a remote Austrian village school. At one point, he worked in a London hospital.
Although Wittgenstein was an important voice during his lifetime, his insistence that reason and philosophy could never achieve perfection did not keep him in favor of his fellow philosophers.
Simone de Beauvoir
Philosopher Simone de Beauvoir, born in 1908, was well-known for her long relationship with fellow-philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. And that was undoubtedly her greatest problem. She argued for feminism and equality for women but being associated with Sartre elicited claims of unoriginality. However, that was never the case, and the accusations were mainly due to the patriarchal environment.
Even as a girl, Simone had been inspired by strong fictional women, such as the characters in Little Women and The Mill on the Floss. Her father claimed his daughter had a “man’s brain.” A compliment perhaps, but an indication that thinking was regarded as a masculine domain.
She wrote her ideas in a journal from the age of 18, outlining her philosophy and thoughts, yet these ideas are still partially attributed to Sartre although she didn’t meet him until she was 21 years old. At that point, they soon entered a long-term open relationship.
Sartre encouraged her work, and Simone edited his writing. This is one of the reasons their thinking has become intertwined. However, he would sometimes talk down to her and belittle her. At the beginning of WWII, Sartre and Beauvoir began to write resistance leaflets. They worked together, but Beauvoir was referred to as “Notre Dame de Sartre.” Instead of bringing her recognition as a suffragette, her famous book, “The Second Sex,” served to cause scandal, especially for her depiction of motherhood. It was banned by the Vatican.
After Beauvoir died at the age of 78, she remained in Sartre’s shadow in terms of being a philosopher and was relegated mainly to the role of a feminist.
Diogenes of Sinope – 404 – 323 BC
Diogenes of Sinope was a Greek cynic whose claim to fame was walking the streets of Athens with a lantern in search of an honest man. He was the contemporary of Plato, Aristotle, and Alexander the Great and knew them all, although he is not as well-known. He summed up his philosophy as, “It is the privilege of the gods to want nothing, and of godlike men to want little.”
Diogenes made it a point to reject societal norms. He truly didn’t care for the opinion of others, and he lived what he preached. To Diogenes, who came from a wealthy family, possessions were bad, and he dispensed with them almost entirely.
His days were spent carrying a lantern during daylight searching for “an honest man” as a way to expose people’s hypocrisy. He lived in an old barrel and begged for food. His behavior broached the bizarre – surely a deliberate affectation on his part. He did everything in public, including urinating and defecating. Plato called him, “A Socrates gone mad.”
Was he mad, or was he living his own philosophy of utter honesty? When the conqueror Alexander the Great asked him one day what he could do for him, Diogenes snapped back, “Stand aside to stop blocking the sun.” Alexander, more amused than angry at the insult, replied, “If I were not Alexander, I would want to be Diogenes.” Diogenes told him, “If I were not Diogenes, I would also wish to be Diogenes.”
He wrote very little; mostly, he lived his ideas one day at a time. As absurd as his behavior was, he was respected by his fellow Greek philosophers. He was, after all, the very embodiment of how to live one’s beliefs. However, his behavior was simply too peculiar for his good ideas to be taken seriously for long. He was surrounded by the elite of Greek philosophy, Plato, Aristotle, and Socrates, and eventually became lost in the intellectual traffic of the times.
Marie le Jars de Gournay – 1565-1645
Women in 17th century France knew their place. This meant making a successful marriage and producing plenty of heirs. It was a definition of French womanhood that de Gournay rejected. Her father, whose death left the family in financial straits, was a minor noble in the courts of Charles IX and Henry III.
While Marie Le Jars De Gournay’s brothers received an education, de Gournay did not. She taught herself classical literature, Latin, and Greek. She also translated the works of the poet Virgil. She enjoyed the life of a writer and philosopher and disregarded any of her “womanly” duties.
In 1588, she become fascinated by philosopher Michel de Montaigne’s “Essays,” and traveled to Paris for the sole purpose of meeting him. There, she took on the role of adoptive daughter. Her own family viewed her lack of marriage and thriving literary ambitions with disdain. Following their death, she was finally free to write as much as she desired. After Montaigne’s death, her novel, “Le Proumenoir,” was published with middling success.
Montaigne’s widow requested that she edit the latest and final edition of her deceased husband’s Essays, which she proceeded to do. As a result, there were cries and criticism that she was mingling her interest with Montaigne’s.
For close to two years, de Gournay went through Montaigne’s papers and wrote several Essays on her own. She didn’t marry (as was expected of her), and she enjoyed the company of Europe’s most important intellectuals. This was her downfall. Those who’d accused her of violating Montaigne’s work now mocked her for being an old maid, for being educated, and, as the years passed, for getting old. Clearly, de Gournay had violated important principles of what a proper French woman should be.
Nevertheless, her reputation as a thinker grew and she did influence the next generation of women. Sadly, she never lost her status as an outlier and eventually, no one read her work.
Alain LeRoy Locke
Alain LeRoy Locke was a black man born in Philadelphia in 1885. At a time when slavery was still alive in people’s minds, Locke soared effortlessly above both whites and blacks. He graduated from Harvard University with a doctorate in philosophy and won the highly esteemed Rhodes Scholarship. While teaching at Harvard, he published his major work, “Harlem Renaissance,” his vision of the “New Negro,” which was positively received.
While undoubtedly encountering racial barriers, Locke was living the intellectual life of the 10 percent elite.
In “Harlem Renaissance” Locke wrote about creating a new artistic renaissance inspired by Africa. He envisioned the development of a brand new Black culture movement that would lift Blacks to the stratosphere. Here, he addressed the individual artists, not the Black race as a whole.
It soon became clear that his mindset did not embrace lifting the entire Black culture. His own privileged upbring had blinded him with a sense of being “superior” to the Black masses.
Another notable Black philosopher of the era, W.E.B. Du Bois viewed the responsibility of Black artists differently. Du Bois viewed aesthetics as a means to lift all Blacks up the social ladder. Locke mocked Du Bois and called it propaganda. Locke, although brilliant, was a pragmatist and a “look out for number one” kind of philosopher.
While a respected scholar, Locke did not ever receive near the amount of attention that Du Bois received and could only struggle in the other man’s shadows. Basically, in the 1930s, it was not a good idea of anyone, even a brilliant Rhodes scholar such as Locke, to challenge W.E.B. Du Bois.
Philosopher John Dewey said, “I believe that education is the fundamental method of social progress and reform.” To him, education was the foundation on which society rested. While teaching at the University of Chicago, Dewey became convinced that the American educational system needed a total overhaul. He was a progressive thinker whose ideas are still debated in the 21st century.
He decried what he saw as “passive” education – students sitting quietly in a schoolroom and listening to lectures. He insisted that students needed to become an active part in their own development.
In his opinion, prior to a unified school system, children worked the land and learned by doing. They learned about life’s necessities, such as sewing, cooking, farming, etc. naturally. This was Dewey’s ideal. His ideas were popular around the turn of the twentieth century when factories turned men into soulless machines.
Dewey, a socialist, rejected abstract ideas as being for the elite upper classes only. Of what use were they to the average person? In his book, The School and Society, he wrote, “The simple facts of the case are that in the great majority of human beings, the distinctively intellectual interest is not dominant. They have the so-called practical impulse and disposition. The school must represent present life.”
In Chicago, he created the Dewey School. He and his students spent little, if any, time in the classroom. They visited official institutions such as fire stations and post offices. Instead of reading plays, they staged plays. As he told his students, “Studying alone out of a book is an isolated and unsocial performance.”
As a philosopher, Dewey was convinced that it was his duty to improve society.
But all was not light and sunshine. Parents complained that following the staged play, their children were unable to read and write. Many immigrants, who saw higher education as the doorway to their children’s success, were unhappy with the manual training and demanded a good, classical curriculum, instead.
The controversy about progressive education continues. However, a teaching paradise where children don’t learn the basics has had problems catching on. Anti-progressive schools are growing in numbers. And among the remnants of progressive educators, few, if any, have read Dewey.
Around 450 BC, Aspasia was the most famous woman in Athens. She was beautiful, highly intelligent, well-educated, probably a courtesan, and life partner of the philosopher Pericles. Aspasia and Pericles spent years together and even had a child.
While information on Aspasia is limited, she is believed to have been a hetairai, which was a combination sexual and intellectual partner. Like any hetairai, Aspasia could hold her own with any of the Greek intellectuals, and her home was a fashionable place to see and be seen. Pericles appeared to consider her an equal.
He was frequently criticized for his dealings and his reliance on Aspasia. Women were expected to be good hostesses and made for the bedroom, not for political and philosophic discussions. The Athenian gossips had a field day. Among the more pleasant names, Aspasia was called was “dog-eyed whore.”
Her influence in the intellectual realm was resented; she was even blamed for the war with Sparta, which Pericles supported. After Pericles’ death, Aspasia’s influence shifted from the center to the periphery of power. Hers is the not unusual story that women can be accepted as the “power behind the man,” but are damned if they step up next to him.
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