Students often ask me, who was the most influential or important Philosopher of all time. I do not have an easy answer for them.
Let us divide the question into the problem of the most influential contemporary philosopher of the last 150 years and the problem of the most influential philosopher in history. The answer to the first question is easy, the second is slightly more problematical.
For most of the Twentieth century, the world was divided between Marxist and Non-Marxist nations. The lives of people living in these countries were drastically affected by how people in positions of political power perceived the policies of countries as Marxist or non-Marxist.
Billions of people’s lives were made better by things like woman’s equality, minimum wage, social security and guaranteed employment that grew out of Marxist ideas and the power of Marxist political parties.
Millions of people sacrificed and died in wars fought under the banner of Marxism or anti-Marxism. The current wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya are highly influenced by perceptions and beliefs in Marxist and anti-Marxist ideology.
Even today, in the United States the largest “News” television network spends all its time 24/7 attacking Marxism and ideas it perceives as Marxist or leading to Marxism. With the exception of Marx, one is hard put to name a philosopher who is commonly known throughout the world or is commonly read by non-philosophy students.
It seems clear that in contemporary times, the last 150 years, nobody has had the influence of Marx.
If we associate science with Aristotle or monotheistic Religion with Plato, we can argue that these philosophers were more influential over the last 2400 or so years. On the other hand, we should remember that Aristotle’s influence was small in the Roman empire circa 100 B.C.E.-400 C.E. Aristotle did not become important in Europe until the rise of Universities in the 12th Century. Avicenna attempted to make him a pillar of Islamic thought in the 11th Century and Thomas Aquinas’ updated him to be a pillar of Catholic thought in the 12th. The battles between Islamic and Christian countries between the 10th and 15th centuries and battles between Protestant and Catholic countries in the 16th through 18th centuries led to the development of modern experimental science. If we look at modern science as being an outgrowth of the battle between nation/states with similar monotheistic religions rather than Aristotle’s influence, Aristotle becomes somewhat less important. Plato’s father worship of the mind and mouth of Socrates reflected the ancient Greek’s father worship of the muscles and penis of Zeus. One could just as well argue for the tremendous influence of Plato’s other intellectual father – Pythagoras. One wonders where the world be without the Pythagorean Theorem, or would it have been discovered anyway and simply given a different label?
If we give Pythagoras credit for revolutionizing math, should we not also give credit to Blaise Pascal for inventing the calculating machine or Bertrand Russell for reducing mathematics to logic. These developments both helped in the creation of the computer which has had countless effects in all aspects of human life and behavior.
The question of the most influential philosopher offers no simple solution as a number of philosophers seem to have influenced various aspects of he world in a multitude of complex and interacting ways.