philosophers to know


According to Wheelwright (1951) “Aristotle was born in 384 BC at Stagira, a town in Macedonia, colonized by Grecian emigrants.” Aristotleʻs father, Nichomachus (also the name of his son, for whom the Nichomachean Ethics was written) was a court doctor for the King of Macedonia. Aristotle left and in a sense overcame the stifling provincialism of his youth and entered Plato‘s Academy at age 18, where he remained until 347 BC (Wheelwright, 1951, xv).

Aristotle lived, studied and taught during one of the most eventful periods of Macedonian and Greek history – he was a contemporary and was admired by Macedonian King Phillip, who invited Aristotle to tutor his thirteen-year old son, later known as Alexander the Great.

As with Plato, it is unclear exactly what we are reading when we read Aristotle, but for a different reason. As Wheelwright puts it: “the prose style is unfinished, loose, and choppy; in marked contrast to the conscientious precision with which key words are employed.” The texts appear to be some sort of notes, and three theories exist as to how these were produced: 1) they were student notes, 2) they were Aristotle’s lecture notes, or 3) “the original Aristotelian writings were lost, recovered in a damaged condition and pieced together by incompetent editors” (Wheelwright, 1951, xviii).

Aristotle’s output was so monumental that it set the tone, in fact the content, little changed for over a thousand years in Europe, with Catholic scholastics synthesizing Aristotelian thought with Biblical scripture (although there is a fair amount of debate over the extent of his influence). His principal work can be grouped in nine basic categories:

1) Logic

2) Natural Science

3) Zoology

4) Psychology

5) Metaphysics (famously only called this because it came after the physics)

6) The Nichomachean Ethics

7) Politics (or, “On Statecraft”)

8) The art of oratory

9) The art of Poetry

It is impossible to summarize this output here, but possible to give a taste of his thought. The Metaphysics begins with questions on the nature of knowledge, and how we know (epistemology):

ALL men by nature desire to know. An indication of this is the delight we take in our senses; for even apart from their usefulness they are loved for themselves; and above all others the sense of sight. For not only with a view to action, but even when we are not going to doanything, we prefer seeing (one might say) to everything else. The reason is that this, most of all the senses, makes us know and brings to lightmany differences between things.



Friedrich Nietzsche was born in Röcken, Germany in 1844 the son of a Lutheran clergyman. Precocious as a student, he attended the Universities of Bonn and Leipzig, where he read and was deeply influenced by the work of the pessimistic philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. Nietzsche once claimed that he felt Schopenhauer was writing directly to him. Nietzsche was made professor of Philology at the University of Basel at the incredibly young age of 24 (he had not yet completed his dissertation). It is unclear exactly when Nietzsche lost faith – his gymnasium (high school) teachers describe him as devout and highly engaged with the topic of religion – but the break would come.

Within a decade of teaching, Nietzsche became disillusioned with academia, which he saw as pedantic, and began to conceive of himself as the harbinger of a new consciousness – one that was unfettered from the constraints of religion, one that was “beyond good and evil.” What may have seemed sheer arrogance at the time proved to be prophetic in its significance, because Nietzsche ushered in, or at least saw the emergence of, an atheistic era. In fact, Americans today likely donʻt realize just how atheist (or agnostic) the rest of the developed world is. In Britain, only six percent of citizens attend religious services and the majority of those are Muslim. But unlike most contemporary atheism which trusts science to guide us, Nietzsche’s put its faith in the arts, and in particular that of the great German composer Richard Wagner.

His close, but later strained, relationship with Wagner seemed to encourage this sense of superiority, and coincided with a campaign to unify the German identity and national consciousness. This superhuman self-concept was expressed most clearly in his work Thus Spake Zarathustra, in which the prophet Zoroaster or Zarathustra (chosen because he represents the beginning of the monotheistic religions he saw as glorifying the weak) proclaims the true doctrines of the death of God and the rise of the übermench – the “superman” or “overman:”

Zarathustra spoke thus to the people:

I teach you the superman. Man is something to be overcome. What have you done to overcome him? … What is the ape to men? A laughing-stock or a painful embarrassment. So shall man be to the superman: a laughing-stock or a painful embarrassment.

Nietzsche left Germany and travelled, in particular Italy and Switzerland held appeal for him. He spent many summers in a small Swiss hamlet hiking the peaks of Sils-Maria. The walks kept him relatively vigorous (his health was in a constant fragile state), but climbing the peaks was a metaphor for his transcending of normal human consciousness.

Caspar David Friedrich's Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog is often used as an image for Nietzschean striving.

Perhaps unknowingly, Nietzsche became a pioneer in the field of methodology, developing a view later carried on by Michel Foucault called “genealogy.”

Nietzsche had a nervous breakdown in 1889 in Turin, Italy, likely the result of syphilis he contracted in his youth. He was said to have reacted to the beating of a horse in the street and never recovered. He lived 11 more years as a catatonic invalid and died in 1900. Some of his collected works were published as The Will to Power in 1901 and Ecce Homo was published in 1908.


If Marx was declared dead in 1990-91, he seemed to be resurrected in 2008. As Communist governments fell or were transformed, awkwardly, into pseudo-capitalist ones (as Russia did, and China had previously), capitalism appeared to have taken the day – Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” had arrived. But in the inventing years, Marx retained his currency in academia because of his theoretical contributions to the critique of capitalism, and because the academic left was not as jubilant for the end of history as was the right. Then Marx was rehabilitated when capitalism’s structural flaws became apparent with the financial crisis.

All this is to situate Marx in the real world – I came to know his work during his brief afterlife in the 1990s. I remember first reading The Communist Manifesto at a campsite in Flagstaff Arizona and feeling somewhat subversive in that conservative state. Thus it is with some relish that I dust off (literally) my old copy of The Marx-Engles Reader. Marx was born at Trier, Prussia (later Germany) in 1818, studied at the Universities of Bonn and Berlin, and wrote his best-known work (though not his magnum opus), The Communist Manifesto in 1848 [Hawaiian connection]. He married Jenny von Westphalen, the daughter of a Baron, had several children, and lived in such dire poverty that some of the children died, though spies told of his caring, loving demeanor as a father. He lived in England and collaborated with Friedrich Engles, author of Condition of the Working Class in England.


Marx was one of the “Young Hegelians” who followed in the wake of that philosopher to whom Foucault said “all philosophy is a footnote.” Specifically, he was a “left Hegelian” using Hegel’s idea of the dialectic to show how advanced societies would move, in evolutionary fashion, toward socialism. The dialectic was, like a dialog, a conversation in which each element responds to the last and development occurs this way. This is as opposed to a “teleological,” or internally-driven form of development. According to Kedourie in Hegel and Marx: Introductory Lectures (1995), he saw himself as another Hegel, who, standing on his head, was set right by Marx. While Hegel invoked spirit with his weltgeist (world spirit) and zeitgeist (spirit of the times), Marx was, at root, a materialist; he viewed the material conditions of humanity as the basis of historical development itself – Marx’s “historical materialism.”


In his essay On the Jewish Question, Marx addressed the topic of private property. Specifically, he examined its relation to voting rights in the US. He applauded the state constitutions that had abolished private property as a voting requirement [Hawaiian connection], but questioned whether doing so actually sublimated the role of private property so that the privilege it afforded became invisible.


“A specter is haunting Europe; the specter of communism” (Marx, 1848). This quote and the final line from Marx’s Manifesto, “Workingmen of the world unite!” are seared into the minds of the (at one point) billions of people living under communist regimes. The sheer impact of Marxʻs work, both philosophically and in the real world explains the relevance of his thought and why many still visit his tomb in London.


Many philosophers had scattered interests and wrote on diverse topics, but Foucault, despite his massive erudition, really had only one interest: power. His work forms one of the most systematic explorations of a topic that any philosopher has produced. He looked at the power of norms, in other words, what is considered normal and abnormal – as a gay man, he had a particular interest in the latter. By examining forms of abnormality – criminality, insanity, sexual deviance, ill health – and how they changed over time, he theorized they ways in which power functions as a form of control over populations and individuals.

Michel Foucault (1926-1984) was professor of the History of Systems of Thought at the prestigious College de France, where he was not required to teach, but only to do research and give a series of public lectures each year.

Michel Foucault was born in 1926 in Poitiers, France, the son of a doctor. His father wanted him to become a doctor as well, and their somewhat strained relationship seems to have left traces in his work and life. He sat for the entrance exam to the prestigious Ecole Normal Superior, and at first failed to gain acceptance (he was 101st – only 100 were admitted!). He studied for one more year and placed fourth on the exam (placing first was the feminist philosopher Simone de Bouvior). At the Ecole Normal Superior, he was influenced by Freidrich Nietzsche, who remained influential throughout Foucault’s career. Foucault said that Nietzsche had gotten right the centrality of power in human affairs.


When I was an undergraduate, my Professor – David Dixon, who is the academic who is responsible for my going into political science – read from Edward Said:

“ʻOrientalism [was] a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient’ – one sentence like that can get you tenure at Columbia – it’s great!” But the back cover of the book says it most succinctly: “all [Orientalists] have a certain representation or idea of ʻthe Orient’ defined as being other than the ʻOccident’ [the West], mysterious, unchanging and ultimately inferior” (Hourani, 1978).

Foucault’s and Gramsci’s ideas of discourse and hegemony converge in the thought of Edward Said. Said finds it “useful to employ Foucault’s notion of a discourse” (Said, 1978, 3) – the dynamic exchange of ideas, statements, assertions which constitute for Foucault a form of power exchange he calls power/knowledge

Said’s metaphor of a cultural landscape (not insignificantly one that is global with few or no empty spaces) borrows from Gramsci’s application of Marxist thought to cultural space. Said thus relies on Gramsci’s translation and of Marx to make it adhere to an Italian context, i.e., to make it a realistic cultural representation. Said views, utilizing Gramsci, the replacement of “direct political control” with a kind of domination described as “cultural hegemony, ” consisting of “directive” or ruling ideas. (Said, 1993, 249)

Edward Said (1935-2003) was a Palestinian American from a Christian family, who was also a concert-level pianist and music critic. He was one of the founders of Postcolonial studies and professor of English (comparative literature) at Columbia University.

Said acknowledges his debt to Gramsci by explaining his use of an approach to scholarship forwarded in the Prison Notebooks. For Gramsci, History deposits in people traces – through heredity, family or other experiences – which accumulate to constitute a book, but this book contains no inventory. The scholar’s task is to compile this inventory, which is a task of interpretation. The reason for this task is to understand one’s own history in terms of “others’” history. It is a pluralistic project that illustrates Said’s commitment to secular, democratic and inclusive theoretical and political solutions. The goal then is effectively to become someone else, to forge a new identity that includes the inventory of the “other.”

Yet if Said prefers to locate the struggle on this idealistic landscape, it is a battlefield on which the “other” is at a disadvantage. While Said asserts that there is no “Archimedean point beyond the question from which to answer it … no vantage outside the actuality of relationships among cultures,” he engages in confrontation with the “West” from its own nucleus, and using its own language – that of literature. Said further acknowledges and describes a geographicity and a cultural dimension of Gramsci’s take on Marx. And it is in the realm of culture that Said makes his mark.

Despite Foucault’s interest in anti-colonial struggles, Said notes that he (as well as the theorists of the Frankfurt school) do not engage theoretically with imperialism, and retain a focus on Europe. As Said puts it, Foucault’s work is “drawn from what are considered exclusively Western sources … a theoretical oversight that is the norm in Western cultural and scientific disciplines.” (Said, 1993, 41.)

Said hints that what might be called the genealogy of theory is on the side of the oppressed. Using Lyotard’s definition of postmodernism – the “loss of the legitimizing power of Western emancipation and enlightenment,” Said suggests that the power of the Western literary narrative is on the wane, and that any renewed effort in this direction is merely reactionary (Said, 1993, 57)

Said acknowledges his debt to “a certain generation of French writers,” and “of them all … Foucault” whose method he describes in the words of R.P. Blackmur as “a technique of trouble.” (Said, 1975, 283) Said shares and admires Foucault’s view of history as “a succession of functional conditions that give rise to the existence not only of knowledge, but of man himself.” (Said, 1975, 238) Prefiguring his own notion of intertextuality, Said notes Foucault’s “hampered” attempts to “[get] to the bottom” of his Archeology of Knowledge, which “yields only the … assertion that man is a temporary interruption, a figure of thought, of what is already begun.” (Said, 1975) Man is always/already the product of and the creator of his/her narrative/existence. Said here reveals his own departure from Foucault’s hermeneutic (or perhaps post-hermeneutic) approach, to his own genealogical approach, which may owe a debt to Foucault’s later work – Discipline and Punish and The History of Sexuality. Even the notion of “otherness” is ascribed to Foucault.(Said, 1975, 284) which became the theoretical centerpiece of Said’s most noted work.