Into this morass, I've managed to publish a peer-reviewed paper that proposes a "right answer" to the question of what makes something moral or not. (Actions are moral if they lead to the long-term survival of life, immoral if they do not.) If my arguments were to be accepted, this could lead to a whole host of empirical studies about what is definitively good or bad in ethics, politics, and possibly even aesthetics—three of the six major branches of philosophy. Breakthroughs like these are possible in the field (cosmology was once considered part of philosophy) and it's exciting to have the potential to contribute to one. THIS is what has drawn me into the field. My ideas may not be accepted as correct in the end, but the chance to contribute a surviving idea to humanity's shared cultural knowledge is too great a lure to ignore.
For the past year or so, I've been writing essays analysing 60 of the most important philosophers in history who have also been drawn into this endeavour for knowledge and wisdom. I've analysed them from the perspective of my "right answer", which has slotted their main ideas into the categories of "survives", "needs to adapt", or "gone extinct." I also searched through their writings for memorable quotes that can still inspire us today given our modern vantage point. Now, at the end of all this research, I can finally summarise my findings into a somewhat subjective / somewhat objective list of the survival of the fittest philosophers. None of these people wrote from malice—all of them tried to contribute ideas they thought would really help mankind. Some of them have managed to do so. Some of their proposals have turned out to be wrong in the light of having more information. All of them elicit our sympathy for their limitations, and our thanks for their efforts. We would not be where we are today without these thinkers. But without further ado, here is my list in reverse order of the fittest philosophers.
Terribly Misfit: Wrong and Dangerously Wrong
60. Muhammad (0 quotes, 0 surviving ideas, 0 need to adapt, 4 gone extinct) — Disallowed the use of images, encouraged war on non-believers, made followers visit his birthplace and give money to his survivors, stated his divined knowledge could not be questioned. We still see in newspaper headlines the problems this has led to.
59. Karl Marx (1 quote, 1 surviving idea, 1 needs to adapt, 3 gone extinct) — He successfully argued against religion and income inequality, but his agitation for class struggle rather than class cooperation led to the death of millions for the sake of an impoverishing theory of economics.
58. Upanishads (1 quote, 1 surviving idea, 1 needs to adapt, 8 gone extinct) — Recognised the path ahead cannot be one of extremes, but by preaching inaction, supernatural mysticism, and change through reincarnation, these texts encouraged billions towards poverty through lack of progress.
57. Martin Heidegger (0 quotes, 0 surviving ideas, 0 need to adapt, 1 gone extinct) — He invented a fantasy layer of terminology that overlaid reality and obscured actual searches for wisdom. This was inconsequential to the world, though his Nazi sympathies and anti-semitism contributed tacitly to the holocaust.
56. Jesus of Nazareth (0 quotes, 5 surviving ideas, 12 need to adapt, 26 gone extinct) — Much love has come into the world based on some of his parables, but the delusion that revealed truths came to the human form of a god who tells us we will be rewarded in an afterlife has led to wars, oppression, inquisitions, waste, and abuse for the billions who wanted to gullibly accept his word on things.
55. Martin Luther (0 quotes, 0 surviving ideas, 1 needs to adapt, 1 gone extinct) — The man who called reason "the devil's whore" helped crack open the hegemony of the Catholic church, but the religious wars that followed were a high price to pay for millions in Europe.
54. Moses (1 quote, 3 surviving ideas, 3 need to adapt, 4 gone extinct) — Three of the commandments we can live with, and three are okay in certain situations, but the other four only serve the survival of a church that has brought much collateral damage to the world with its belief in its ownership of stone-chiseled truths.
53. Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1 quote, 0 surviving ideas, 2 need to adapt, 5 gone extinct) — Criticised the Enlightenment, property, progress, civilisation, art, and science. He helped inspire the French Revolution and its bloody overthrow of monarchy, but an emphasis on "personal sovereignty" led to overly-individualistic societies.
52. Ayn Rand (0 quotes, 2 surviving ideas, 1 needs to adapt, 3 gone extinct) — Passionate advocate for reason and natural reality, but her selfish ideals have become the pseudo-intellectual underpinnings of a class war waged by the wealthy, which hurts our long-term chances for survival.
Minor Misfit: Wrong but of Less Importance
51. Jacques Derrida (0 quotes, 0 surviving ideas, 0 need to adapt, 1 gone extinct) — Obnoxious postmodernist who invented words to obscure meaning and provide excuses to attack those who misunderstood him.
50. Bernard-Henri Levy (0 quotes, 0 surviving ideas, 0 need to adapt, 1 gone extinct) — Lightweight fame seeker once fooled into quoting a satirical philosophy known as "botulism."
49. George Berkeley (0 quotes, 0 surviving ideas, 0 need to adapt, 1 gone extinct) — Absurd mental gymnast who denied the existence of matter unless it was perceived, which therefore proved the existence of a god who did all the perceiving of the things we see.
48. Georg Hegel (0 quotes, 0 surviving ideas, 1 needs to adapt, 2 gone extinct) — Colossal mystifier characterised as a pseudo-philosopher by Schopenhauer and others.
47. Anselm of Canterbury (0 quotes, 1 surviving idea, 0 need to adapt, 2 gone extinct) — Founded scholasticism, which relied on logic, though he needed instruction in the subject based on his ontological argument and insistence that faith should precede reason.
46. St. Augustine (1 quote, 0 surviving ideas, 2 need to adapt, 2 gone extinct) — The first medieval man, his thoughts were confined to attempts to reconcile reality with religious dogma.
45. Thomas Aquinas (1 quote, 0 surviving ideas, 2 need to adapt, 4 gone extinct) — Prolific Christian scholastic who praised reason, revelation, faith, life after death, and virtue.
44. Soren Kierkegaard (1 quote, 0 surviving ideas, 1 needs to adapt, 3 gone extinct) -- Questioned the church, but urged a "leap of faith" for individuals to find the idea for which they can live and die.
43. Skeptics (0 quotes, 0 surviving ideas, 1 needs to adapt, 1 gone extinct) — Early doubters who did not believe we could know anything and so should try to attain an imperturbable state of mind to be happy.
42. Confucius (0 quotes, 0 surviving ideas, 3 need to adapt, 2 gone extinct) — Extolled ancestors, institutions and etiquette at the expense of progress. Formulated one of the earliest golden rules, but it is too simple to be truly golden (eternal and unchanging).
A Bit Out of Shape: Mixed Record but Lightweight in the Field
41. Lao Tzu (1 quote, 1 surviving idea, 1 needs to adapt, 1 gone extinct) — Putative author of the Tao Te Ching, a short book of roughly 5,000 Chinese characters of ambiguous fortune-cookie wisdom.
40. Gottfried Leibniz (0 quotes, 2 surviving ideas, 1 needs to adapt, 4 gone extinct) — Important mathematician and logician who twisted reality to fit his religious beliefs. Thought the universe was optimal and glass shatters by knowing it must because god surely chooses best and he programs harmony in nature.
39. Avicenna (1 quote, 1 surviving idea, 1 needs to adapt, 1 gone extinct) — Arab polymath with important book on medicine and subtle though logically flawed thought experiments.
38. Arthur Schopenhauer (13 quotes, 1 surviving idea, 0 need to adapt, 4 gone extinct) — Quotable writer who thought human desires were futile and pointless so advocated negation and individual salvation.
37. Averroes (0 quotes, 2 surviving ideas, 1 needs to adapt, 1 gone extinct) — Arab defender of Aristotle, existentialism, and the equality of women, but also monarchies and religion.
36. A J Ayer (1 quote, 0 surviving ideas, 1 needs to adapt, 1 gone extinct) — Analytic philosopher and logical positivist emphasised empiricism and rationality but considered traditional fields of philosophy meaningless.
35. Ludwig Wittgenstein (3 quotes, 0 surviving ideas, 1 needs to adapt, 2 gone extinct) — Co-founder of analytic school of philosophy but believed what cannot be said clearly must be passed over in silence so advocated giving up on explorations of nebulous ideas that are the traditional realm of philosophers seeking wisdom.
34. Bertrand Russell (15 quotes, 3 surviving ideas, 1 needs to adapt, 1 gone extinct) — Co-founder of analytic philosophy, he criticised religion and advocated for rigorous use of logic and clear language, but thought topics like ethics were outside philosophy and known only through intuition.
33. Herbert Spencer (6 quotes, 2 surviving ideas, 1 needs to adapt, 3 gone extinct) — Best known for coining the phrase "survival of the fittest," he took a physicalist view of the world and tried to use his understanding of evolution to ground morality. Unfortunately, the field was young and dangerously emphasised competition.
32. Michel Foucault (0 quotes, 1 surviving idea, 1 needs to adapt, 1 gone extinct) — Most cited intellectual in the humanities who said ideas must be studied in the context of their histories. Studied methods of punishment and considered man to be a recent invention whose end was at hand.
31. Jean-Paul Sartre (2 quotes, 0 surviving ideas, 1 needs to adapt, 1 gone extinct) -- As an existentialist, he stood for existence preceding essence, but considered man condemned to be free and turned his back on life.
30. Max Weber (0 quotes, 0 surviving ideas, 6 needs to adapt, 1 gone extinct) -- Influential sociologist who studied religions and their effects on societies and governments by using entirely qualitative research, but also valued traditional charismatic authority over rational bureaucracies.
29. Pre-Socratics (0 quotes, 1 surviving idea, 2 needs to adapt, 1 gone extinct) -- Began investigations into the nature of the world, developing concepts of atoms and the importance of apprehension with the senses, but decided relativism was the only answer that their limited science had pointed to.
28. John Rawls (1 quote, 0 surviving ideas, 3 need to adapt, 1 gone extinct) — Contributed heavily to thoughts on justice with his "veil of ignorance", but his relativism undermined his logic and empathy by avoiding the deepest arguments in religion and philosophy.
27. Montesquieu (4 quotes, 0 surviving ideas, 2 need to adapt, 0 gone extinct) — Writer who invented the political concept of the separation of powers and analysed monarchies, republics, and despotism, but was too accepting of monarchies.
26. Auguste Comte (2 quotes, 1 surviving idea, 2 need to adapt, 1 gone extinct) — A positivist believing sense experiences and their logical treatment form all knowledge, he developed a Religion of Humanity that was Catholicism without Christianity. His idea that sociology would be the greatest of sciences did not come true.
25. Epicurus (7 quotes, 1 surviving idea, 2 need to adapt, 2 gone extinct) — Materialist who attacked superstition and belief in divine interventions. Thought pleasure the sole intrinsic good though higher pleasures of the mind were better than lower ones of senses. Had odd rules for knowledge and gods.
24. Desiderius Erasmus (2 quotes, 1 surviving idea, 2 need to adapt, 1 gone extinct) — His "In Praise of Folly" and support for new forms of scholarship helped crack open the rule of the church and usher in the Renaissance, even though he himself would not turn his back on the church.
23. Voltaire (12 quotes, 2 surviving ideas, 2 need to adapt, 0 gone extinct) — Courageous and witty writer who fought for the right to a free trial and freedom of religion. He believed in a non-intervening god, and inspired the French Revolution, though he distrusted democracy and thought an enlightened monarchy was preferable.
Lean But Small: Right but Minor in the Field
22. Noam Chomsky (1 quote, 1 surviving idea, 1 needs to adapt, 0 gone extinct) — Linguist who has led a life of publicly agitating for social justice by continually pointing out flaws in the system that hurt the little guy.
21. Simone de Beauvoir (7 quotes, 1 surviving idea, 0 need to adapt, 0 gone extinct) — Feminist and existentialist who argued powerfully for the equal treatment of women.
20. W.V.O. Quine (0 quotes, 4 surviving ideas, 0 need to adapt, 0 gone extinct) — Analytic philosopher with logical arguments for naturalism, common sense usage of language, and the pragmatism of predictability.
19. Galileo Galilei (5 quotes, 1 surviving idea, 0 need to adapt, 0 gone extinct) — Father of modern science who played a major role in the Scientific Revolution, which threw off the shackles of medieval religion.
18. Isaac Newton (2 quotes, 1 surviving idea, 0 need to adapt, 1 gone extinct) — One of the most influential scientists of all time who changed our cosmology and metaphysics forever.
Possibly Too Muscular: Mixed Record but Heavyweight in the Field
17. Rene Descartes (3 quotes, 2 surviving ideas, 2 need to adapt, 2 gone extinct) — Father of modern philosophy stood for logic and the existence of the external world, but thought existence was split into two—the world of ideas and the world of matter.
16. Plato (7 quotes, 1 surviving idea, 2 need to adapt, 4 gone extinct) — One of the major fathers of philosophy, he believed knowledge was justified true belief, but somehow denied the reality of the material world, positing one of eternal forms instead, which evolution has shown to be nonsense.
15. Immanuel Kant (7 quotes, 6 surviving ideas, 3 need to adapt, 5 gone extinct) — Hugely prolific philosopher wrote about limits to our knowledge and brute facts of existence. His categorical imperative sought universals in morality, but there is only a universal goal, not universal actions. His thoughts on transcendental idealism, moral autonomy, and individuals as ends not means displayed a misunderstanding of the natural world.
14. Friedrich Nietzsche (9 quotes, 1 surviving idea, 2 need to adapt, 3 gone extinct) — Harsh critic of religion declared "god is dead" and argued for a more naturalistic approach to morality. He only saw the will to power in nature though and thought supermen could follow their own inner-laws.
13. John Locke (7 quotes, 0 surviving ideas, 3 need to adapt, 1 gone extinct) — His declaration for the right to defend life, health, liberty, and possessions inspired bills of rights all over the world. A leading Enlightenment thinker he posited the first modern conception of identity, but thought we were born with a blank slate.
12. Baruch Spinoza (4 quotes, 2 surviving ideas, 3 need to adapt, 2 gone extinct) — Opposed dualism with a monism inspired by nature without intervention from gods. Thought philosophy was therapeutic, good and evil were related to human pleasure and pain, and rights came from states, but was a strong determinist.
11. Thomas Hobbes (6 quotes, 2 surviving ideas, 2 need to adapt, 1 gone extinct) — Argued for a material world where human nature came from self-interested cooperation, and a Leviathan state was necessary to stop us returning to a nasty, brutish, and short way of life. Monarchies were the strong state in his time though.
10. Jeremy Bentham (0 quotes, 1 surviving idea, 3 need to adapt, 0 gone extinct) — Founder of utilitarianism who believed the greatest happiness of the greatest number is the measure of right an wrong. While the math and subjectivity are arguable, utilitarianism has been influential and led to many pragmatically good outcomes.
9. John Stuart Mill (10 quotes, 1 surviving idea, 3 need to adapt, 0 gone extinct) — Refined utilitarianism by taking concept of harm into account and distinguishing between higher and lower forms of pleasure, happiness, and contentment. Also saw that perpetual growth was not possible.
8. Socrates (7 quotes, 3 surviving ideas, 2 need to adapt, 1 gone extinct) — The father of western philosophy famous for his method of inquiry. Believed objective moral standards could be discovered, and one should humbly pursue self-development, but insisted on philosopher kings and entertained religious mystery.
7. Guatama Buddha (5 quotes, 5 surviving ideas, 1 needs to adapt, 1 gone extinct) — Proposed a Middle Way between extremes of self-indulgence and self-mortification, focusing on right views, actions, intentions, and suppressing of desires. Rejected infallible scriptures and religious intermediaries, but talked of reincarnation.
6. Aristotle (12 quotes, 4 surviving ideas, 2 need to adapt, 2 gone extinct) — He virtually invented logic and several sciences, and remained grounded in experience of the world as he sought a Golden Mean of balance. But his methods were crude, happiness was his highest good, and slavery was justified to him.
5. Stoics (10 quotes, 3 surviving ideas, 5 need to adapt, 1 gone extinct) — Believed being was only corporeal, emotions could be controlled by right reason, and life according to nature is virtue. They practised philosophy as applied wisdom and were citizens of the world, but pantheistic ones who thought humans were blank slates.
Fit For Survival: True Giants of the Field
4. Francis Bacon (14 quotes, 2 surviving ideas, 3 need to adapt, 0 gone extinct) — Pioneer of the scientific method who believed philosophy could proceed for the benefit and purpose of life. Wrote a utopian vision where generosity, enlightenment, dignity, and public spirit filled the inhabitants of his ideal land.
3. Adam Smith (14 quotes, 2 surviving ideas, 0 need to adapt, 0 gone extinct) — The father of modern economics understood the nature of man as subtly balanced between competition and cooperation. His economic ideas brought us wealth, and his moral warnings have proved prescient.
2. David Hume (12 quotes, 2 surviving ideas, 3 need to adapt, 1 gone extinct) — Pointed out the is-ought category error in all moral systems previously put forth. (Only gone extinct because I believe I have finally bridged this divide.) Understood the problem of induction and advocated a pragmatic skepticism to live with it. Accepted compromise between free will and determinism. Saw that passions drive reason. Thought perfect economic equality was impossible and would lead to impoverishment.
1. Charles Darwin (7 quotes, 1 surviving idea, 0 need to adapt, 0 gone extinct) -- Put forth arguably the most powerful idea ever, which shattered all previous beliefs on human nature and our origins within the universe. He also saw that social instincts should grow from concern for others within a small tribe to concerns for all men of a nation, all nations on earth, and eventually all sentient beings.
Is it any surprise that an evolutionary philosopher would choose Charles Darwin as the number-one-ranked philosopher of all time? I suppose not. But the process to get here was full of unexpected learning and it has given me the confidence to put forth my own thoughts as something new and untested in the arena of ideas. Thanks for supporting me along the way and please let me know if you think any of these rankings should be adjusted. Whether Comte is 26th or 32nd won't ultimately matter at all, but the argument over what ideas are more important or more damaging to a philosopher's reputation will surely be fruitful. I look forward to it!