Bertrand Russell (1872 – 1970)


95c30/huch/1295/hk0345Bertrand Arthur William Russell (3rd Earl Russell) (AKA Sir Bertrand Russell) (1872 – 1970) was a Britishphilosopher, logician, mathematician and historian.

He is generally credited with being one of the founders of Analytic Philosophy, and almost all the various Analytic movements throughout the 20th Century (particularly Logicism, Logical Positivism and Ordinary Language Philosophy) owe something to Russell. His major works, such as his essay “On Denoting” and the huge “Principia Mathematica” (co-author with Alfred North Whitehead), have had a considerable influence on mathematics (especially set theory), linguistics and all areas of philosophy.

He was a prominent atheist, pacifist and anti-war activist, and championed free trade between nations and anti-imperialism. He was a prolific writer on many subjects (from his adolescent years, he wrote about 3,000 words a day, with relatively few corrections), and was a great popularizer of philosophy.


Russell was born on 18 May 1872 at the Russell family seat at “Ravenscroft” in the village of Trellech in Monmouthshire, southeast Wales, into an aristocratic family. The Russell family had been prominent in Britain for several centuries, since Tudor times, and had established themselves as one of Britain’s leading Whig (Liberal) families. His father was John Russell, Viscount Amberley, (son of John Russell, 1st Earl Russell, who had twice served as British Prime Minister in the 1840s and 1860s), a confirmed Atheist and a rather scandalous (for the time) freethinker in matters of birth control and open marriage. His mother was Katherine Louisa, the daughter of the 2nd Baron Stanley of Alderley, who carried on an open affair with their children’s tutor. He had two siblings, Frank (nearly seven years older) and Rachel (four years older). John Stuart Mill, the great Utilitarian philosopher, was Russell’s godfather and, although Mill died the year after his birth, Russell was influenced by his work.

In 1874, when Russell was just two years old, his mother died of diphtheria, followed shortly by his sister Rachel and, less than two years later, his father also died of bronchitis following a long period of depression. Bertrand and his brother Frank were placed in the care of their staunchly Victorian grandparents, who lived at Pembroke Lodge in Richmond Park near London. Just two more years later, his grandfather also died, and the Countess Russell was therefore the dominant family figure for the rest of Russell’s childhood and youth. Although she was from a conservative Scottish Presbyterian family (and successfully overturned a provision in Russell’s father’s will that the children be raised as Agnostics), she held progressive views in other areas, and her influence on Russell’s outlook on social justice and standing up for principle remained with him throughout his life.

His brother Frank reacted to the atmosphere of frequent prayer, emotional repression and formality with open rebellion, but the young Bertrand learned to hide his feelings. Russell’s adolescence was, however, very lonely and he often contemplated suicide (he once remarked that only the wish to know more mathematics kept him from suicide). He was educated at home by a series of tutors, and he spent countless hours in his grandfather’s library. His brother Frank introduced him as a boy to the work of the Greek mathematician Euclid, which transformed Russell’s life.

In 1890, Russell won a scholarship to read for the Mathematics Tripos at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he became acquainted with the younger G. E. Moore and came under the influence of Alfred North Whitehead, who recommended him to the Cambridge Apostles (Cambridge’s elite intellectual secret society). He quickly distinguished himself in mathematics and philosophy, graduating with a B.A. in mathematics in 1893 and adding a fellowship in philosophy in 1895. He fell in love with the puritanical, high-minded American Quaker Alys Pearsall Smith and married her (against his grandmother’s wishes) towards the end of 1894.

His first published work was a political study, “German Social Democracy”, in 1896 and he was soon involved with various groups of social reformers and left-wing Fabian campaigners. His first mathematical book, “An Essay on the Foundations of Geometry”, followed close behind in 1897. In 1903, he wrote his important “The Principles of Mathematics” and, in 1905, the essay “On Denoting” (considered one of the most significant and influential philosophical essays of the 20th Century) was published in the philosophical journal “Mind”. He became a fellow of the Royal Society in 1908.

Soon after the beginning of the new century, though, Russell and Whitehead began working on their groundbreaking masterwork, the “Principia Mathematica”, an attempt to derive all mathematical truths from a well-defined set of axioms and inference rules in symbolic logic. It became their abiding passion, almost to the exclusion of all else, and Russell and Alys even moved in with the Whiteheads in order to expedite the work (although Russell’s own marriage suffered as he became infatuated with Whitehead’s young wife, Evelyn). The first of three volumes of the “Principia Mathematica” was published in 1910, with the second and third volumes following in 1912 and 1913, and, despite some understandable bewilderment over the dense and complex tract, Russell soon became world famous in his field.

Russell’s marriage to Alys remained something of a hollow shell, however, until they finally divorced in 1921, after a lengthy period of separation. Throughout this period, Russell had passionate, and often simultaneous, affairs with a number of high society women, including Lady Ottoline Morrell and the actress Lady Constance Malleson.

In 1911, Russell became acquainted with the young Austrian engineering student Ludwig Wittgenstein, whom he viewed as a genius and as a successor who would continue his work on Logic. He devoted many hours to dealing with Wittgenstein’s various phobias and his frequent bouts of despair, but Russell continued to be fascinated by him and encouraged his academic development, even as it began to diverge more and more from his own views, including the later publication of Wittgenstein’s masterwork “Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus” in 1922.

During World War I, Russell engaged in pacifist activities, which resulted in his dismissal from Trinity College following a conviction in 1916 and, in 1918, six months’ imprisonment in Brixton prison. In 1920, Russell travelled to Russia as part of an official delegation sent by the British government to investigate the effects of the Russian Revolution, during which he met Vladimir Ilyich Lenin (1870 – 1924), although his experiences destroyed his previous tentative support for the Revolution. He subsequently lectured for a year in Beijing, China, accompanied by his lover Dora Black, at one point becoming gravely ill with pneumonia (eliciting incorrect reports of his death in the Japanese press).

On the couple’s return to England in 1921, Dora was six months pregnant, and Russell arranged a hasty divorce from Alys, marrying Dora six days after the divorce was finalised. They had two children, John Conrad Russell (born 1921) and Katharine Jane Russell (born 1923). Russell supported himself during this time by writing popular books explaining matters of physics, Ethics and education to the layman. He also founded (together with Dora) the experimental Beacon Hill School in 1927, and after he left the school in 1932, Dora continued it until 1943.

Russell separated from, and finally divorced, Dora in 1932 (after she had had two children with an American journalist, Griffin Barry). He married his third wife, an Oxford undergraduate (who had also been his children’s governess since the summer of 1930) named Patricia (“Peter”) Spence. They had a son, Conrad Sebastian Robert Russell, who later became a prominent historian and one of the leading figures in the Liberal Democrat party.

After the World War II, Russell moved to the United States, teaching at the University of Chicago and then the University of California, Los Angeles. He was appointed professor at the City College of New York in 1940 but the appointment was annulled by a court judgment after a public outcry over his opinions and morals. He joined the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, lecturing to a varied audience on the history of philosophy. These lectures would form the basis of his book, “A History of Western Philosophy” (1945), a great commercial success which provided him with a steady income for the remainder of his life.

He returned to Britain in 1944 and rejoined the faculty of Trinity College. He was now world famous, even outside of academic circles, and frequently either the subject or author of magazine and newspaper articles, as well as a regular participant in many BBC radio broadcasts. In 1949, he was awarded the Order of Merit and, in 1950, the Nobel Prize for Literature (at least partly on the merit of his “A History of Western Philosophy”). In 1952, Russell divorced his third wife, and soon after the divorce married his fourth wife, Edith Finch, whom he had known since 1925. Edith remained with him until his death, and by all accounts their marriage was a happy, close and loving one.

Russell spent the 1950s and 1960s engaged in various political causes (primarily related to nuclear disarmament, opposition to the Vietnam War and Israeli aggression in the Middle East), in company with several other prominent intellectuals of the time, and became something of a hero among many of the youthful members of the New Left. He published his three-volume autobiography in 1967, 1968 and 1969, and, although frail, he remained lucid and clear thinking up to the day of his death.

Russell died of influenza on 2 February 1970, aged 97, after suddenly falling ill while reading at his home in Penrhyndeudraeth, Merionethshire, Wales. He was cremated at Colwyn Bay and, in accordance with his wishes, there was no religious ceremony. His ashes were scattered over the Welsh mountains later that year.


At the beginning of the 20th Century, Russell along with G. E. Moore and Alfred North Whitehead, was largely responsible for the British “revolt” against the dominant Idealism of G. W. F. Hegel. They strove to eliminate what they saw as meaningless and incoherent assertions in philosophy and sought clarity and precision in argument by the use of exact language and by breaking down philosophical propositions into their simplest grammatical components. Russell, in particular, saw formal Logic and science as the principal tools of the philosopher, and he wanted to end what he saw as the excesses of Metaphysics, adopting William of Ockham’s principle against multiplying unnecessary entities (Occam’s Razor) as a central part of the method of analysis.

Russell was particularly critical of the doctrine of internal relations (the idea that everything has some relation, however distant, to everything else, so that in order to know any particular thing, we must know all of its relations), a doctrine he ascribed to the Absolute Idealism of G. W. F. Hegel and the Pragmatism of C. S. Peirce. Russell argued that this would make space, time, science and the concept of number not fully intelligible.

Russell had great influence on modern mathematical Logic. His first mathematical book, “An Essay on the Foundations of Geometry” (1897), was heavily influenced by Immanuel Kant, but he soon rejected it completely when he realized that it would have made Albert Einstein’s schema of space-time (which he understood to be superior to his own system) impossible.

As a young man, he became very interested in the definition of number (studying the work of George Boole, Georg Cantor and Augustus De Morgan), and followed Gottlob Frege in taking a logicist approach in which Logic was in turn based upon mathematical set theory. In fact, Russell pursued a parallel course to Frege to some extent, and spent several years working on ideas that Frege had, unbeknown to Russell, already addressed. It was only later that Russell became responsible for bringing the largely unknown Frege to the attention of the English-speaking world.

It was with his 1903 work, “The Principles of Mathematics”, though, that Russell finally superceded Frege’s work. He identified what has come to be known as Russell’s Paradox to show that Frege’s naive set theory led to a contradiction. The paradox can be stated as the set of things, x, that are such that x is not a member of x, and is sometimes explained by the simplistic (but more easily understood) example, “If a barber shaves all and only those men in the village who do not shave themselves, does he shave himself?”. When he found out about this breakthrough, Frege completely abandoned his Logicism.

Russell however, continued to defend Logicism (the view that mathematics is in some important sense reducible to Logic) and, along with his former teacher, Alfred North Whitehead, wrote the monumental three-volume “Principia Mathematica” (the first volume, published in 1910, is largely ascribed to Russell). During the ten years or so that Russell and Whitehead spent on the “Principia”, draft after draft was begun and abandoned as Russell constantly re-thought his basic premises. Eventually, Whitehead insisted on publication of the work, even if it was not (and might never be) complete, although they were forced to publish it at their own expense as no commercial publishers would touch it. Perhaps more than any other single work, it established the specialty of mathematical or symbolic logic, and it established Russell’s name in the international mathematical and philosophical community. Influential as it was, though, the work fell prey to the 1931 Incompleteness Theorems of Kurt Gödel (1906 – 1978) which pointed out the inherent limitations of all but the most trivial formal systems for arithmetic of mathematical interest.

So, it was only with the effective abandonment of the Principia project, by which time Russell was nearly 40, that he turned away from Logic and towards other aspects of philosophy, where he was to prove himself almost as influential.

Perhaps more than anyone before him, Russell made language (or, more specifically, how we use language), a central part of philosophy. Philosophers such as Ludwig Wittgenstein and the practitioners of Ordinary Language Philosophy were to a large extent amplifying or responding to Russell’s earlier ideas (often using many of the techniques that Russell himself originally developed).

His most significant contribution to Philosophy of Language is his theory of descriptions, which he presented in his seminal essay, “On Denoting” (1905). The theory is often illustrated using the phrase “the present King of France” (when France has no king), and Russell’s solution was basically to analyze not the term alone but the entire proposition that contained a definite description, and then allow the definite descriptions to be broken apart and treated separately from the predication that is the obvious content of the entire proposition.

Russell’s most systematic treatment of philosophical analysis was what he called Logical Atomism, developed in a set of lectures in 1918. He set forth his concept of an ideal, isomorphic language that would mirror the world, whereby our knowledge could be reduced to terms of atomic propositions and their truth-functional compounds. He believed that the world consists of a plurality of logically independent facts, and that our knowledge depends on the data of our direct experience of them. Thus, every meaningful proposition must consist of terms referring directly to objects with which we are acquainted (or they must be defined by other terms referring to objects with which we are acquainted), a kind of radical Empiricism. In time, he came to doubt the value of this theory, and was particularly troubled by the required assumption of isomorphism (a one-to-one relation between two sets, which preserves the relations existing between elements in its domain).

In Epistemology, he distinguished between two ways in which we can be familiar with objects, “knowledge by acquaintance” (our own sense data, momentary perceptions of colours, sounds, etc) and “knowledge by description” (everything else, including the physical objects themselves, which can only be inferred or reasoned to and not known directly). In his later philosophy, however, Russell subscribed to a kind of neutral monism (similar to that held by William James and first formulated by Baruch Spinoza) which maintained that the distinctions between the material and mental worlds were really arbitrary, and that both could be reduced to neutral properties.

Russell remained throughout his life, though, an out-and-out empiricist, in the tradition of Locke and Hume, and he always maintained that the scientific method – knowledge derived from empirical research verified through repeated testing – was the appropriate method of analysis (Scientism), although he believed that science (and philosophy, for that matter) could only reach tentative and piecemeal answers, and that attempts to find organic unities were largely futile. However, the very fact that he made science a central part of his method was instrumental in making the Philosophy of Science a full-blooded separate branch of philosophy, and he greatly influenced both the verificationists in the Logical Positivism movement as well as the falsificationists.

Although Russell wrote on Ethics, being greatly influenced by the Ethical Non-Naturalism of G. E. Moore’s “Principia Ethica”, he did not believe that Ethics was really a bona fide part of philosophy. In time, however, he abandoned any belief in objective moral values and came to prefer a view closer to the Ethical Subjectivism of David Hume.

For most of his life Russell maintained religion (as well as other systematic ideologies such as Communism) to be little more than superstition, and remained a high profile Atheist (although he did accept the ontological argument for the existence of God for a time during his undergraduate years). He was careful, however, to distinguish between his Atheism as regards certain types of god concepts, and his Agnosticism regarding some other types of superhuman intelligence. He believed that, despite any positive effects it might have, religion was largely harmful to people, serving to impede knowledge, foster fear and dependency, and cause much of the war, oppression and misery that have beset the world.

Rusesell had a good ear for a well-turned aphorism and among his many quotable quotes are:

  • I would never die for my beliefs because I might be wrong.
  • Government can easily exist without laws, but law cannot exist without government.
  • I shouldn’t wish people dogmatically to believe any philosophy, not even mine.
  • It has been said that man is a rational animal. All my life I have been searching for evidence which could support this.
  • Many people would sooner die than think; in fact, they do so.
  • Patriotism is the willingness to kill and be killed for trivial reasons.
  • The greatest challenge to any thinker is stating the problem in a way that will allow a solution.
  • There is much pleasure to be gained from useless knowledge.
  • Whoever wishes to become a philosopher must learn not to be frightened by absurdities.
  • War does not determine who is right – only who is left.
  • It is undesirable to believe a proposition when there is no ground whatsoever for supposing it is true.
  • The point of philosophy is to start with something so simple as not to seem worth stating, and to end with something so paradoxical that no one will believe it.
  • A stupid man’s report of what a clever man says can never be accurate, because he unconsciously translates what he hears into something he can understand.



Alfred North Whitehead (1861 – 1947)


Alfred North WhiteheadAlfred North Whitehead (AKA A. N. Whitehead) (1861 – 1947) was a British mathematician, logician and philosopher.

He is considered one of the founding figures of Analytic Philosophy, and he contributed significantly to 20th Century Logic, especially the new symbolic type of Logic he developed in the epochal “Principia Mathematica”, along with co-author Bertrand Russell.

He also developed a fresh approach to Metaphysics, which he originally called Philosophy of Organism (or Organic Realism) and which has come to be known as Process Philosophy.

In addition he made contributions to algebra, the foundations of mathematics, physics, Philosophy of Science and Philosophy of Education. He managed to combine a staggering complexity of thought with a literary but very readable quality of writing.


Whitehead was born on 15 February 1861 in Ramsgate, Kent, England. His father, also named Alfred Whitehead, was an Anglican clergyman; his mother was Maria Sarah Buckmaster. He was the youngest of four siblings, with two older brothers and an older sister. His family was firmly anchored in the Church of England (his father and uncles were vicars, while his brother would become Bishop of Madras).

He was educated at home by his father until he was 14, because his over-protective parents thought that he was too delicate to go to school (in fact his health was quite robust). From 1875, he attended Sherborne Independent Schoolin Dorset, then considered one of the best public schools in the country, and where his oldest brother was a teacher. The syllabus was heavy on the classics, but Whitehead excelled in sports and mathematics in particular, and he was Head Boyand Captain of Games in his final year.

He won a scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge in 1880, where he studied mathematics. He was elected a Fellow in Mathematics in 1884 and then took up an assistant lectureship to teach applied mathematics. He had also developed a keen interest in physics, and his fellowship dissertation examined James Clerk Maxwell’s views on electricity and magnetism. He was promoted to a full lectureship at Trinity in 1888, and took up additional teaching duties by accepting a teaching position at Girton College.

At the end of 1890, he married Evelyn Wade, an active and outgoing Catholic Irish woman brought up in France. They were to have a daughter and two sons (one of the sons died in action during World War I). He had become interested in pure mathematics and he started work on the “Treatise on Universal Algebra” in 1891, with Evelyn’s encouragement, just weeks after his marriage (the work would take him seven years to complete, and was finally published in 1898).

Although his father was an Anglican vicar and he had been brought up as an Anglican, he began to move towards the Roman Catholic Church (perhaps due to his wife’s influence), although in the end he chose neither and embraced Agnosticism around the mid-1890s (partly in view of the rapid developments in science during that time).

Bertrand Russell had entered Cambridge in 1890 and, as examiner for the entrance examinations, Whitehead had immediately spotted Russell’s brilliance, and took him on as his student and protegé. Near the end of 1900, after learning about the work done on the foundations of mathematics by the Italian mathematician Giuseppe Peano (1858 – 1932) at the 1900 International Congress of Mathematicians in Paris, Whitehead and Russell began to collaborate. They worked throughout the 1900s on what was to become their groundbreaking “Principia Mathematica”. Whitehead even abandoned the second volume of his own work on algebra in order to concentrate on the collaboration project, with Russell supplying most of the philosophical expertise and Whitehead largely supplying the mathematics.

During the ten years or so that Russell and Whitehead spent on the “Principia”, draft after draft was begun and abandoned as Russell constantly re-thought his basic premises. Eventually, Whitehead insisted on publication of the work, even if it was not (and might never be) complete, although they were forced to publish it at their own expense as no commercial publishers would touch it. The first volume of “Principia Mathematica” was published in 1910, the second in 1912, and the third in 1913.

In 1903, he had been promoted to the new position of Senior Lecturer at Cambridge, but he resigned his teaching position at Trinity College in 1910, partly to protest the unfair dismissal of a colleague but also partly because of the slim prospects of his ever attaining a professorship in mathematics there. He moved to London in the summer of 1910 with no job to go to and, after four years without a proper position, he became Professor of Applied Mathematics at the Imperial College of Science and Technology in London in 1914.

During World War I, Russell spent a significant spell in prison for his pacifist activities and, although Whitehead visited him in prison, he did not take his pacifism seriously, and after the war the two seldom interacted, and Whitehead contributed nothing to the 1925 second edition of “Principia Mathematica”.

As the “Principia Mathematica” project neared completion, and exasperated with Russell’s constant re-thinking of his most basic principles, Whitehead turned his attention to physics, the Philosophy of Science and the Philosophy of Education. He articulated a rival doctrine to Albert Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity (which he later published later as “The Principle of Relativity” in 1922), although his theory of gravitation is now discredited. Likewise, his “Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Natural Knowledge” of 1919, while a more lasting work and a pioneering attempt to synthesize the philosophical underpinnings of physics, has little influenced the course of modern physics. His address “The Aims of Education” of 1916 pointedly criticized the formalistic approach of modern British teachers who, he claimed, did not care about the culture and self-education of their students.

In 1924, Whitehead (then 63) was invited by Henry Osborn Taylor (1856 – 1941) to teach philosophy at Harvard University. Philosophy was a subject that fascinatedWhitehead but that he had also not previously studied in any depth or taught, but he accepted the post and the Whiteheads were to spend the rest of their lives in the United States. His “Science and the Modern World” of 1925, based on a series of lectures given in the United States, served as an introduction to his later Metaphysics. His most important book, “Process and Reality” (1929), took this theory to a level of even greater generality. He finally retired from teaching in 1937 at the age of 74.

Whitehead received many honours throughout his career. He became a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1903. He was appointed president of the Aristotelian Societyfrom 1922 to 1923. He was elected to the British Academy in 1931, and was awarded the Order of Merit in 1945. Many universities awarded him honorary degrees, including Manchester, St. Andrews, Wisconsin, Harvard, Yale and Montreal.

Whitehead died in Cambridge, Massachusetts on 30 December 1947, aged 86. There was no funeral, and his body was cremated. His family carried out his instructions that all of his papers be destroyed after his death, and there was no critical edition of his writings until the 1978 edition of “Process and Reality” and the more recent “Whitehead Research Project”.


Whitehead’s intellectual life is often divided into three main periods. During his early period at Cambridge (from 1884 to 1910) he worked mainly on mathematics and Logic. His intermediate period in London (from 1910 to 1924) dealt largely with issues of Philosophy of Science and Philosophy of Education. His later period at Harvard (from 1924 onwards) saw him work on more general issues in philosophy, including the development of a comprehensive metaphysical system which came to be known as Process Philosophy. Over the course of his lifetime, Whitehead published roughly two dozen books.

The first period of Whitehead’s activities, then, was devoted to mathematics and Logic. It began with “Universal Algebra”, published in 1898 after seven years of work, continued with “Mathematical Concepts of the Material World” (1905), and culminated in the monumental “Principia Mathematica” (1910 – 1913) written in collaboration with Bertrand Russell. Their work was an extension of the Logicism of the late 19th Century German mathematician and logician Gottlob Frege, which was based on the premise that mathematics itself is just an extension of Logic, and therefore that some or all mathematics is reducible to Logic.

The new concepts of Symbolic Logic introduced in the work turned the prevailing assertion of Immanuel Kant (that the valid inferences of Logic followed from the structural features of judgements) on its head. Their new Logic was much broader in scope than traditional Aristotelian Logic, and even contained classical Logic within it, albeit as a minor part. It resembled more a mathematical calculus and dealt with the relations of symbols to each other.

In his second period, Whitehead was preoccupied with a Philosophy of Science without metaphysical exposition, and his work included “An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Natural Knowledge” (1919), “The Concept of Nature”(1920), “The Principle of Relativity” (1922) and “Science and the Modern World” (1925). The latter mentioned the idea of a metaphysical synthesis of existence, but did not yet attempt it.

The genesis of Whitehead’s Process Philosophy during this third period may be attributed to the shocking collapse of Newtonian physics in the aftermath of Albert Einstein’s work. His speculative metaphysical views started to emerge with his 1920 “The Concept of Nature” and expanded in his 1925 “Science and the Modern World”. His 1927 Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburghwere published in 1929 as “Process and Reality”, the book that founded Process Philosophy as a major contribution to Western Metaphysics. The main tenets were summarized in his last and most accessible work, “The Adventures of Ideas”(1933).

Whitehead firmly believed that the sharp division between nature and mind, established by Descartes, had “poisoned all subsequent philosophy”, and held that in reality “we cannot determine with what molecules the brain begins and the rest of the body ends”. He deemed human experience to be “an act of self-origination including the whole of nature, limited to the perspective of a focal region, located within the body, but not necessarily persisting in any fixed coordination within a definite part of the brain”. Upon this concept of human experience, Whitehead founded his new metaphysical “philosophy of the organism”, his cosmology, his defense of speculative reason, his ideas on the process of nature and his rational approach to God.

In his Philosophy of Organism or Organic Realism, now usually known as Process Philosophy, he posited subjective forms to complement Plato’s eternal objects (or Forms). The theory identified metaphysical reality with change and dynamism, and held that change in not illusory or purely accidental to the substance, but rather the very cornerstone of reality or Being. His view of God, as the source of the universe, was therefore as growing and changing, just as the entire universe is in constant flow and change (essentially a kind of Theism, although his God differs essentially from the revealed God of Abrahamic religion). Later process philosophers, including Charles Hartshorne (1897 – 2000), John B. Cobb Jr.(1925 – ) and David Ray Griffin (1939 – ), developed the theory further into a full-blown Process Theology. Whitehead’s rejection of mind-body Dualism was similar to elements in Buddhism, although many Christians and Jews have found Process Theology a fruitful way of understanding God and the universe.

Whitehead believed that “there are no whole truths; all truths are half-truths”. His political views sometimes appear to be very close to Libertarianism, although he never used the label, and many Whitehead scholars have read his work as providing a philosophical foundation for the Social Liberalism of the New Liberal of the first half of the 20th Century.

Edmund Husserl (1859 – 1938)


Edmund HusserlEdmund Gustav Albrecht Husserl (1859 – 1938) was a Moravian-German philosopher and mathematician (usually considered German as most of his adult life was spent in Germany), best known as the father of the 20th Century Phenomenology movement.

His work broke with the dominant Positivism of his day, giving weight to subjective experience as the source of all of our knowledge of objective phenomena. Along with Georg Hegel and his own student Martin Heidegger, he was a major influence on the whole of 20th Century Continental Philosophy.


Husserl was born on 8 April 1859 in Prossnitz, Moravia (present-day Prostejov in the Czech Republic, but then part of the Austrian Empire). His father was a Jewish clothing merchant, and the language of the Husserl home was probably Yiddish although it was not an orthodox household.

His father had the means and the inclination to send Edmund away to Vienna at the age of 10 to begin his German classical education (and he was lucky that the recent liberalization of the laws governing Prossnitz’s Jews allowed this), atlhough just a year later, in 1870, he moved back closer to home to the Staatsgymnasium in Olmütz. He was remembered there as a mediocre student who nevertheless loved mathematics and science. He graduated in 1876 and went to Leipzig for university studies, where he studied mathematics, physics, and philosophy.

He moved to the University of Berlin in 1878 for further studies in mathematics, and then to Vienna (under the supervision of Leo Königsberger), where he completed his doctorate in 1883, at the age of 24, with a dissertation on the theory of the calculus of variations. He briefly held an academic post in Berlin, before returning again to Vienna in 1884 in order to attend the philosophy lectures of Franz Brentano (1838 – 1917), which had a great impact on Husserl and was instrumental in Husserl’s decision to dedicate his life to philosophy.

In 1886, Husserl went to the University of Halle to study psychology and to obtain his habilitation under Carl Stumpf (1848 – 1936), a former student of Brentano. There he also converted to Christianity (Evangelical Lutheran) and was baptized. He married Malvine Charlotte Steinschneider, a woman from the Prossnitz Jewish community, who was also baptized before the wedding, and the couple were to have three children. He remained at Halle teaching as an associate professor until 1901, and wrote his important early books, including the “Philosophie der Arithmetik” (“Philosophy of Arithmetic”) of 1891 and the “Logische Untersuchungen” (“Logical Investigations”) of 1901.

In 1901, Husserl joined the faculty at the University of Göttingen, where he taught for 16 years, and where he worked out the definitive formulations of his theory of Phenomenology, which he presented in his 1913 “Ideen zu einer reinen Phänomenologie und phänomenologischen Philosophie” (“Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological Philosophy”). From about 1905, Husserl’s students formed themselves into a groupwith a common style of life and work, referring to Husserl as “the master”. The onset of World War I disrupted the circle of Husserl’s younger colleagues, and when his son, Wolfgang, died at Verdun in 1916, Husserl observed a year of mourning and kept silence professionally during that time.

In 1916, Husserl accepted an appointment to a professorship at Freiburg im Breisgau, a position he retained until he retired from teaching in 1928. Among his students at Freiburg were Martin Heidegger, (who Husserl always looked on as his legitimate heir, although their relationship cooled as Heidegger’s path took him more in the direction of Existentialism) and Rudolf Carnap (1891 – 1970), a leading figure in the Vienna Circle and a prominent advocate of Logical Positivism.

During this time, he continued to work on manuscripts that would be published after his death as volumes two and three of the “Ideen”, and to refine his Phenomenology, as well as on many other projects. After his retirement, he continued to make use of the Freiburg library until denied by the anti-Jewish legislation passed by the National Socialists (Nazis) in April 1933. The rise of the Nazis in Germany also caused Husserl to definitively break with Heidegger.

Husserl died of pleurisy on 28 April 1938 (Good Friday) near Freiburg, Germany.


Husserl developed his own individual style of working: all of his thoughts were conceived in writing, and during his life he produced more than 40,000 pages.

Under the supervision of Carl Stumpf (1848 – 1936), a former student of Franz Brentano (1838 – 1917), Husserl wrote “Über den Begriff der Zahl” (“On the concept of Number”) in 1887, which would serve as the base for his first major work, the “Philosophie der Arithmetik” (“Philosophy of Arithmetic”) of 1891. In these early works, he tried to combine mathematics, psychology and philosophy, his main goal being to provide a sound foundation for mathematics.

He published his major philosophical works while at the University of Göttingen: the “Logische Untersuchungen” (“Logical Investigations”) in 1901 (produced after an intensive study of the British Empiricists), and the first volume of the “Ideen zu einer reinen Phänomenologie und phänomenologischen Philosophie” (“Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological Philosophy”) in 1913. It was in these works, particularly in the “Ideen”, that he introduced the major themes of his theory of Phenomenology, and Husserl himself believed that his work represented the culmination of the whole of philosophy from Plato on, because, as he saw it, he had discovered a description of reality which could not be denied.

Similar to Descartes, more than two centuries earlier, Husserl started from the standpoint that, for each of us, there is only one thing which is indubitably certain, namely our own conscious awareness. That, he concluded, must be the place to start to build our knowledge of the world around us. However, our awareness and consciousness must be awareness and consiousness of something, and we cannot distinguish from experience alone between states of consciousness and objects of consciousness. Husserl agreed with Skeptics down the ages who have asserted that we can never know whether objects of consciouness have an independent existence separate from us, but he insisted that they do indubitably exist as objects of consciousness for us and so can be investigated as such without making any unwarranted assumptions about their independent existence. It was this general idea of Husserl’s that launched the influential school of philosophy known as Phenomenology.

His fundamental methodological principle was what he called “phenomenological reduction”, essentially a kind of reflection on intellectual content. He asserted that he could justifiably “bracket” the data of consciousness by suspending all preconceptions about it, including (and especially) those drawn from what he called the “naturalistic standpoint”. Thus, it really did not matter, in his philosophy, whether an object under discussion really existed or not so long as he could at least conceive of the object, and objects of pure imagination could be examined with the same seriousness as data taken from the objective world.

Husserl concluded, then, that consciousness has no life apart from the objects or phenomena it considers. He called this characteristic “intentionality” (or object-directedness), following Brentano, and it embodied the idea that the human mind is the only thing is the whole universe that is able to direct itself toward other things outside of itself. Husserl described a concept he called intentional content, something in the mind which was sort of like a built-in mental description of external reality, and which allowed us to perceive and remember aspects of objects in the real world outside.

Husserl continued to refine his Phenomenology throughout his life. His last three major books were “Vorlesungen zur Phänomenologie des inneren Zeitbewusstseins” (“Lectures on the Phenomenology of Inner Time-Consciousness”) published in 1928, “Formale und transzendentale Logik”(“Formal and Transcendental Logic”) published in 1929, and “Mèditations cartèsiennes” (“Cartesian Meditations”) published in 1931. Two more volumes of his “Ideen”, which he had written during his time at Freiburg im Breisgau were published after his death, in 1952.

In his later work, Husserl moved further towards a kind of Idealism, a position which he had initially had tried to overcome or avoid, declaring that mental and spiritual reality possessed their own reality independent of any physical basis. At first, he espoused a kind of Transcendental Idealism, similar to that of Kant and the German Idealists, which asserted that our experience of things is about how they appear to us (representations), and not about those things as they are in and of themselves, and his view generally fell short of asserting that an objective world external to us does not exist. However, as he continued to gradually refine his thought, he ultimately arrived at an even more radical Idealist position, which essentially denied that external objects existed at all outside of our consciousness.

John Dewey (1859 – 1952)


John DeweyJohn Dewey (1859 – 1952) was a 20th Century American philosopher, psychologist and educational reformer. Along with Charles Sanders Peirce and William James, he is recognized as one of the founders of the largely American philosophical school of Pragmatism  and his own doctrine of Instrumentalism. He was also one of the fathers of Functionalism (or Functional Psychology), and a leading representative of the progressive movement in American education during the first half of the 20th Century.

He developed a broad body of work encompassing virtually all of the main areas of philosophy, and wrote extensively on social issues in popular publications, gaining a reputation as a leading social commentator of his time.


Dewey was born on 20 October 1859 in Burlington, Vermont, the third of four sons born to Archibald Sprague Dewey (who owned a grocery store) and Lucina Artemesia (née Rich) (a devoutly religious woman), of modest family origins. He attended the University of Vermont in Burlington, and graduated in 1879. During this time, he was exposed to evolutionary theory, and the theory of natural selection continued to have a life-long impact upon Dewey’s thought. Although the philosophy teaching at Vermont was somewhat limited, his teacher, H. A. P. Torrey, a learned scholar with broad philosophical interests and sympathies, was decisive in Dewey’s philosophical development.

After graduating in 1879, he worked for two years as a high school teacher in Oil City, Pennsylvania, but then borrowed money from his aunt in order to enter graduate school in philosophy at the School of Arts & Sciences at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Two teachers in particular had a lasting influence on him: the German-trained Hegelian philosopher, George Sylvester Morris (1840 – 1899), and the experimental psychologist, Granville Stanley Hall (1844 – 1924). He received his Ph.D. in 1884, and left to take up a faculty position at the University of Michigan, which he kept for ten years, and during which time he wrote his first books. He married his first wife, Alice Chipman in 1886, and the couple had six children (with only four surviving into adulthood) before Alice died in 1927.

In 1894, Dewey joined the newly founded University of Chicago where his early Idealism gave way to an empirically-based theory of knowledge, and he started to align his ideals with the emerging Pragmatic school of thought. While at Chicago, he produced a collection of essays entitled “Thought and its Subject-Matter”, and his first major work on education, “The School and Society in 1899. This work was based on the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools (also known as the “Dewey School”) which he founded in 1896, which taught according to his progressive principles of hands-on learning and exploration. In 1899, he was elected president of the American Psychological Association, and in 1905 he became president of the American Philosophical Association.

Having resigned from the University of Chicago over disagreements with the administration in 1904, he took up a position as professor of philosophy at Columbia University in New York, and he taught there until his retirement in 1930. He developed close contacts with many philosophers working from divergent points of view in the intellectually stimulating atmosphere of the north-eastern universities, which served to nurture and enrich his thought. He published two important books, “The Influence of Darwin on Philosophy and Other Essays in Contemporary Thought” (1910) and “Essays in Experimental Logic”(1916). During this time, he travelled the world as a philosopher, social and political theorist and educational consultant, including trips to Japan, China, Turkey, USSR and Mexico.

His interest in educational theory also continued during these years, fostered by his work at the Teachers College at Columbia, leading to the publication of “How We Think” in 1910 and, his most important work in the field, “Democracy and Education” in 1916. Along with fellow Columbia professors Charles Beard (1874 – 1948), Thorstein Veblen (1857 – 1929) and James Harvey Robinson (1863 – 1936), he founded the New School for Social Research in 1919 as a modern, progressive, free school.

Dewey retired from active teaching in 1930, occasionally teaching as professor emeritus until 1939. However, his activities as a public figure and productive philosopher continued unabated, including frequent contributions to popular magazines such as “The New Republic” and “Nation”, and participation in several prestigious lecture series. He was involved in a variety of political causes, including women’s suffrage, the unionization of teachers and the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and he was involved in the Commission of Inquiry into the Charges Against Leon Trotsky at the Moscow Trial.

In 1946, almost two decades after his first wife died, he married Roberta Lowitz Grant, and the couple adopted two Belgian orphans. Dewey continued to workvigorously throughout his retirement, including works on Logic, Aesthetics, Epistemology and Politics. He died of pneumonia in his New York home on 1 June 1952, aged 92.


Dewey’s output was prodigious: 40 books and approximately 700 articles in over 140 journals. Many of his most renowned works were published after he was sixty years old. Some of his best known publications include “Democracy and Education” (1916), “Human Nature and Conduct” (1922), “Experience and Nature” (1925) and “The Quest for Certainty” (1929).

Dewey is considered one of the three central figures in American Pragmatism, along with Charles Sanders Peirce (who coined the term) and William James (who popularized it). However, Dewey did not identify himself as a Pragmatist per se, but instead referred to his philosophy as Instrumentalism, a similar but separate concept.

Simply put, the doctrine of Pragmatism holds that the meaning of any concept can be equated with its conceivable operational or practical consequences, and that practical consequences or real effects are vital components of both meaning and truth. Even more simply, something is true only insofar as it works.

Instrumentalism, on the other hand, is the methodological view that concepts and theories are merely useful instruments, and their worth is measured not by whether the concepts and theories are true or false (Instrumentalism denies that theories are truth-evaluable) or whether they correctly depict reality, but by how effective they are in explaining and predicting phenomena. An important aspect of Dewey’s philosophy is that it starts from the point of view of Fallibilism, that absolute certainty about knowledge is impossible, and all claims to knowledge could, at least in principle, be mistaken. Another important aspect is his belief that humanity should be considered not just as a spectator in the world, but as an agent.

Dewey’s overall ethical stance can be described as “meliorism”: the belief that this life is neither perfectly good nor bad, and it can be improved only through human effort. He believed that philosophy’s motive for existing is to make life better, and this should be approached from a practical “bottom-up” starting point, rather than the theoretical “top-down” approach of most traditional philosophy. He was a confirmed atheist, rejecting belief in any static ideal, such as a theistic God, (although he nevertheless honoured the important rôle that religious institutions and practices played in human life), and believed that only scientific method could reliably further human good.

Dewey has made arguably the most significant contribution to the development of educational thinking and the Philosophy of Education in the 20th Century. His philosophical Pragmatism, his concern with interaction, reflection and experience, and his interest in community and democracy, all came together to form a highly suggestive educative form. Consistent with his view that human thought should be understood as practical problem-solving, which proceeds by testing rival hypotheses against experience, he advocated an educational system with continued experimentation and vocational training to equip students to solve practical problems. He also emphasized “learning-by-doing” and the incorporation of the student’s past experiences into the classroom. In his “Democracy and Education” of 1916, he describes in detail how an ability to respond creatively to continual changes in the natural order vitally provides for individual and community life.

He was also a primary originator of Functional Psychology (or Functionalism), which refers to a general psychological approach that views mental life and behaviour in terms of active adaptation to the person’s environment. As such, it is not readily testable in controlled experiments or trained introspection (as the prevailing structuralist psychology approach of the end of the 19th Century suggested).

Gottlob Frege (1848 – 1925)


Gottlob FregeFriedrich Ludwig Gottlob Frege (1848 – 1925) was a German mathematician, logician and philosopher, who helped found both modern mathematical Logic and the beginnings of the Analytic Philosophy movement.

Although his work was little known and poorly received during his lifetime, it has exerted a fundamental and far-reaching influence on 20th Century philosophy. He later abandoned his extensive work on Logicism, but he directly influenced the next generation of logicians and philosophers, particularly Bertrand Russell, Ludwig Wittgenstein and the Logical Positivism movement. After his death, his Predicate Logic virtually wholly superseded traditional forms of Logic.


Frege (pronounced FRAY-ga) was born on 8 November 1848 in Wismar in northern Germany. His father, Karl Alexander Frege, was the founder of a girls’ high school, of which he was the headmaster until his death in 1866; his mother, Auguste Wilhelmine Sophie (née Bialloblotzky) was also a teacher at the school, and took it over after her husband’s death.

Frege studied at the local high school in Wismar from 1864 until 1869. Both his teacher, Leo Sachse and his father (who wrote a textbook on the German languagefor children aged 9-13, the first section of which dealt with the structure and logic of language) played important roles in determining Frege’s future career.

He continue his studies in chemistry, philosophy and mathematics at the University of Jena in 1869, where his most important teacher (and later friend, benefactor and regular correspondent) was the physicist, mathematician and inventor Ernst Abbe(1840 – 1905), as well as Karl Snell, Hermann Schäffer and the philosopher Kuno Fischer (1824 – 1907). From 1871 to 1873, Frege attended the University of Göttingen, then the leading university in mathematics in German-speaking territories, where he was lectured by Alfred Clebsch, Ernst Schering, Wilhelm Weber, Eduard Riecke and the philosopher Rudolf Hermann Lotze (1817 – 1881).

After receiving his doctorate in mathematics (geometry) at Göttingen in 1873, Frege returned to the University of Jena to take up a lectureship (on the recommendation of Ernst Abbe). He remained at Jena until his retirement in 1918, accumulating the qualifications and positions (many of them unpaid) of Habilitation in 1874, Professor Extraordinarius in 1879, and Ordenlicher Honorarprofessor in 1896.

Though his education and early work were mainly mathematical, and especially geometrical (and his employment continued to be as a mathematician), Frege’s thought soon turned to Logic and the Philosophy of Language. His initial intention was to show that mathematics grew out of Logic (known as Logicism), and his early 1879 work “Begriffsschrift” (“Concept Script”) broke new ground and marked a turning point in the history of Logic, with its rigorous treatment of the ideas of functions and variables.

Some time after the publication of “Begriffsschrift”, Frege was married to Margaret Lieseburg, and they were to have at least two children, both of whom died young. Years later, they adopted a son, Alfred. However, little else is known about Frege’s family life.

His published work was generally unfavourably reviewed by his contemporaries, and he was even forced to arrange some publications at his own expense. Due to a combination of this, the death of his wife in 1905 and his frustration with his failure to find an adequate solution to Russell’s Paradox (see below), Frege seems to have lost his intellectual steam around 1906, although he continued to publish articles, and to influence the next generation of logicians and philosophers, particularly Bertrand Russell, Ludwig Wittgenstein and the Logical Positivist Rudolf Carnap (who was one of Frege’s students from 1910 to 1913).

In the last decades of his life, he became increasingly paranoid, and wrote a succession of rabid treatises attacking parliamentary democracy, labour unions and foreigners (particularly Jews). After his retirement in 1918, Frege moved to Bad Kleinen, not far from his birthplace in Wismar. He died on 26 July 1925 in Bad Kleinen at the age of 76.


Frege’s early intention was to show that mathematics grew out of Logic with no need of non-logical axioms (a view known as Logicism), but in so doing he devised techniques that took him far beyond  traditional Aristotelian syllogistic Logic and Stoic propositional Logic.

Starting with his ground-breaking 1879 “Begriffsschrift” (“Concept Script”) he invented Predicate Logic in large part thanks to his invention of quantified variables, which eventually became ubiquitous in both mathematics and Logic, and solved the problem of multiple generality (a failure in traditional logic to describe certain intuitively valid inferences). Later, he attempted to derive all of the laws of arithmetic, by use of his symbolism, from axioms he asserted as logical, resulting in “Die Grundlagen der Arithmetik” (“The Foundations of Arithmetic”) of 1884 and his magnum opus “Grundgesetze der Arithmetik”(“Basic Laws of Arithmetic”) of 1893.

Just as Volume 2 of the “Basic Laws” was about to go to press in 1903, Bertrand Russell wrote to Frege, pointing out what has become known as Russell’s Paradox(the set of things, x, that are such that x is not a member of x), which he never resolved to his own satisfaction. Later, his frustration over this caused Frege to completely abandon his Logicism, and in his golden years he started to develop a completely new theory of the nature of arithmetic based on Kantian pure intuitions of space.

Frege’s work in Logic was little recognized in his day, partly due to his unique and peculiar diagrammatic notation, but the analysis of logical concepts and the machinery of formalization that is essential to Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead’s “Principia Mathematica”, as well as Kurt Gödel’s incompleteness theorems and Alfred Tarski’s theory of truth, is ultimately due to Frege. He did not live to see his brand of Logic (paradoxically, largely due to the championship of Russell) virtually wholly supersede earlier forms.

But, in addition to his work on Logic, Frege is also one of the founders of Analytic Philosophy, mainly because of his contributions to the Philosophy of Language. In fact, the challenge of developing new and interesting theories on the nature of language, functions, concepts and philosophical logic, so exercised him that he broke off his work on mathematical logic for several years.

He is particularly noted for his 1892 paper “Über Sinn und Bedeutung” (“On Sense and Reference”), in which he distinguished the two different aspects of the significance of an expression. In distinguishing between sense (the meaning of a word or object, which can vary widely between different people) and reference (the actual object indicated, which remains constant), Frege realized that the meaning of a given sentence must be derived from the meaning of its parts, and that therefore a word only has a definite meaning in the context of a whole sentence. Other important articles in a similar vein include “Funktion und Begriff” (“Function and Concept”, 1891) and “Über Begriff und Gegenstand” (“On Concept and Object”, 1892).

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 – 1900)


Friedrich NietzscheFriedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (1844 – 1900) was a 19th Century German philosopher and philologist. He is considered an important forerunner of Existentialism movement (although he does not fall neatly into any particular school), and his work has generated an extensive secondary literature within both the Continental Philosophy and Analytic Philosophy traditions of the 20th Century.

He challenged the foundations of Christianity and traditional morality, famously asserting that “God is dead”, leading to (generally justified) charges of Atheism, Moral Skepticism, Relativism and Nihilism. His original notions of the “will to power” as mankind’s main motivating principle, of the “Übermensch” as the goal of humanity, and of “eternal return” as a means of evaluating ones life, have all generated much debate and argument among scholars.

He wrote prolifically and profoundly for many years under conditions of ill-health and often intense physical pain, ultimately succumbing to severe mental illness. Many of his works remain controversial and open to conflicting interpretations, and his uniquely provocative and aphoristic writing style, and his non-traditional and often speculative thought processes have earned him many enemies as well as great praise. His life-affirming ideas, however, have inspired leading figures in all walks of cultural life, not just philosophy, especially in Continental Europe.


Nietzsche (pronounced NEE-cha) was born on 15 October 1844 in the small town of Röcken bei Lützen, near Leipzig in the Prussian province of Saxony (modern-day Germany). His father was Carl Ludwig Nietzsche (a Lutheran pastor and former teacher) and his mother was Franziska Oehler, and the couple had two other children, Elisabeth (born in 1846) and Ludwig Joseph (born in 1848). He was born with severe myopia and was always a delicate and sickly child.

Nietzsche’s father died from a brain ailment in 1849 (when Nietzsche was only five), after more than a year of pain and suffering, and his younger brother died soon after, in 1850. These events caused Nietzsche to question why God would make good people suffer so, and were a decisive factor in his early doubts about Christianity. The family then moved to Naumburg, where they lived with Nietzsche’s paternal grandmother and his two unmarried aunts. After the death of Nietzsche’s grandmother in 1856, the family moved into their own house.

Nietzsche attended a boys’ school and later a private school, before beginning to attend the Domgymnasium in Naumburg in 1854. Although a solitary and taciturn youth, he showed particular talents in music and language and, paradoxically, also in religious education. The internationally-recognized Schulpforta school admitted him as a pupil in 1858, and he continued his studies there until 1864, receiving an important introduction to literature (particularly that of the ancient Greeks and Romans) and an taste of life outside his early small-town Christianenvironment.

After graduating in 1864, Nietzsche commenced studies in theology and classical philology (the study of literary texts and linguistics) at the University of Bonn, ostensibly with a view to following his father into the priesthood. After just one semester, though, (much to the dismay of his mother), he stopped his theological studies and announced that he had lost his faith (although, two years earlier, he had already argued that historical research had discredited the central teachings of Christianity). Nietzsche then concentrated on philology under Professor Friedrich Wilhelm Ritschl (1806 – 1876), whom he followed to the University of Leipzig the next year, producing his first philological publications soon thereafter.

In 1865, Nietzsche thoroughly studied the works of Arthur Schopenhauer and, in 1866, he read Friedrich Albert Lange’s “Geschichte des Materialismus” (“History of Materialism”). These works, as well as Europe’s increasing concern with science, Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection, and the general rebellion against tradition and authority greatly intrigued Nietzsche, and he looked to expand his horizons beyond philology and to study more philosophy.

After his one year voluntary service with the Prussian army was curtailed by a bad riding accident in March 1868, he returned to his studies and graduated later in 1868. Although he was considering giving up philology for science at that time, he nevertheless accepted an offer to become professor of classical philology at the University of Basel in Switzerland. He renounced his Prussian citizenship, and remained officially stateless thereafter. Although he did serve in the Prussian forces during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 to 1871 as a medical orderly (witnessing there something of the horrors of war, as well as contracting diphtheria and dysentery), he observed the establishment of the German Empire and the militaristic era of Otto von Bismarck as a skeptical outsider.

During his time at Basel, Nietzsche frequently visited Richard Wagner and his wife Cosima, and was accepted into their inner circle. Wagner was a strong believer in Schopenhauer’s theory that great art was the only way to overcome the misery inherent in human existence, and he became something of a surrogate father to Nietzsche. In 1872, he published his first book, “The Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Music”, a profoundly pessimistic work in the style of Schopenhauer and Wagner, in which he asserted among other things that the best thing was not to have been born and the second best thing was to die young. His one-time teacher and mentor, Professor Ritschl, however, berated its lack of philological rigour. Gradually, from 1876 onwards, his increasing friendship with Paul Rée influenced him in dismissing the pessimism of his early writings, and he soon broke definitively with Wagner, whose growing Nationalism nauseated Nietzsche.

He pursued his own individualistic philosophy and, in 1878, published the controversial and isolating “Menschliches, Allzumenschliches” (“Human, All Too Human”). In 1879, hopelessly out of touch with his colleagues at the University of Basel and after a significant decline in health which forced him to take longer and longer holidays until regular work became impractical, Nietzsche had to resign his position at Basel. His health had always been precarious, with moments of acute shortsightedness, migraine headaches and violent stomach upsets, possibly as a result of syphilis contracted in a brothel as a student. In search of a palliative for his delicate health, he travelled frequently over the next ten years, living (on his pension from Basel, but also on aid from friends) as an independent author near St. Moritz in Switzerland, in the Italian cities of Genoa, Rapallo and Turin, and in the French city of Nice. Between 1881 and 1888, he returned repeatedly to a sparsely-furnished rented room in Sils Maria in the Swiss Alps, where he wrote some of his most important work, writing until noon and then walking in the mountains in the afternoon. He occasionally returned to Naumburg to visit his family, and his past students, Peter Gast (AKA Heinrich Köselitz: 1854 – 1918) and Franz Overbeck(1837 – 1905), who remained consistently faithful friends.

This, then, marked Nietzsche’s most productive period and, starting with 1878’s “Menschliches, Allzumenschliches”, he would publish one book (or major section of a book) each year until 1888, his last year of writing. He had little or no luck with romantic relationships, many women apparently put off by his huge moustache. In 1882, as well as publishing the first part of “Die fröhliche Wissenschaft” (“The Gay Science”), he met Lou Andreas Salomé (1861 – 1937), a gifted student and friend of Wagner, Freud and Rilke among others. They travelled together round Italy, together with his great friend Paul Rée, but Nietzsche’s spirits were severely dampened when she refused his offer of marriage.

In the face of renewed fits of illness, in near isolation after a falling-out with his mother and sister regarding Salomé, and plagued by suicidal thoughts, Nietzsche fled to Rapallo, where he wrote the first part of “Also sprach Zarathustra”(“Thus Spoke Zarathustra”) in just ten days. The book was published in in four parts between 1883 and 1885, but the market received it only to the degree required by politeness and the book remained largely unsold. The poor reception of the new alienating style and atheistic content of “Zarathustra” increased his isolation and made him effectively unemployable at any German University. He nursed feelings of revenge and resentment, and broke with his anti-Semitic German editor, Ernst Schmeitzner, printing “Jenseits von Gut und Böse” (“Beyond Good and Evil”) at his own expense in 1886, despite a severe shortage of funds.

Very slowly, his work attracted more interest, but he continued to have frequent and painful attacks of illness, which made prolonged work impossible. Georg Brandes, who had started to teach the philosophy of Søren Kierkegaard in the 1870s, delivered one of the first lectures on Nietzsche’s philosophy in the late 1880s. In 1887, he published “Zur Genealogie der Moral” (“On the Genealogy of Morality”) , considered by many academics to be his most important work. “Götzen-Dämmerung” (“Twilight of the Idols”) and “Der Antichrist” (“The Antichrist”) were both written in 1888, and his health and his spirits seemed to improve somewhat. Late in 1888, he penned his autobiographical and eccentrically self-laudatory “Ecce Homo”.

However, in Turin, early in 1889, Nietzsche first exhibited apparent signs of mental illness. He sent bizarre short writings, known as the “Wahnbriefe” (or “Madness Letters”) to various friends, in which he claimed to be Jesus, Napoleon, Dionysus, Buddha and Alexander the Great among others, and saw himself almost as a God figure taking on the suffering of all mankind. Eventually, his old friend Overbeck travelled to Turin and brought Nietzsche back to a psychiatric clinic in Basel. Now, fully in the grip of insanity (variously attributed to syphilis, brain cancer and frontotemporal dementia), he was transferred to a a clinic in Jena where he was looked after by his mother and sister, and where various unsuccessful attempts at a cure were made, until his mother finally took him back to her home in Naumburg.

Ironically, Nietzsche’s reception and recognition enjoyed their first surge during this period, as Overbeck and Gast published some of his still unpublished work (although they witheld “The Antichrist” and “Ecce Homo” due to their more radicalcontent). During the late 19th Century, Nietzsche’s ideas were commonly associated with anarchist movements and appear to have had influence within them, particularly in France and the United States. He had some following among left-wing Germans in the 1890s; German conservatives, however, wanted to ban his work as subversive.

After the death of his mother in 1897, Nietzsche lived in Weimar, where his sister Elisabeth cared for him. Many people, including Rudolf Steiner (1861 – 1925), came to visit him, but he remained uncommunicative. In 1898 and 1899, he suffered from at least two strokes which partially paralyzed him and left him unable to speak or walk and, after another stroke the next year, combined with pneumonia, he died on August 25 1900. He was buried beside his father at the church in Röcken.


Nietzsche’s books tend to be more self-consciously literary than those of most philosophers, and often read more like novels than like closely-argued philosphical treatises. The philosophy within them, therefore, often needs to be “teased out”, leaving them open to a variety of interpretations (a notorious and perennial problem with Nietzsche’s work).

He also wrote in a uniquely provocative style (he called himself a “philosopher of the hammer”), and he frequently delivered trenchant critiques of Christianity and of great philosophers like Plato and Kant in the most offensive and blasphemous terms possible (given the context of 19th Century Europe). His arguments often employed ad-hominem (or personal) attacks and emotional appeals, and he tended to jump from one grand assertion to another with little sustained logical support or elucidation of the connection between his ideas. All these aspects of Nietzsche’s style ran counter to traditional values in philosophical writing, and they alienated Nietzsche from the academic establishment both in his time and, to a lesser extent, today, when he is still often dismissed as inconsistent and speculative.

Many of his works remain controversial, and the meanings and relative significance of some of his key concepts remain contested. His distinctive German language style, his fondness for aphorism and the distance he maintained from the major existing schools of philosophy, have led to his subsequent adoption by many and varied political movements on both the right and the left. The political dictators of the 20th Century, including Stalin, Hitler, and Mussolini, all read Nietzsche, and the Nazis made (admittedly selective) use of Nietzsche’s philosophy, an association which caused Nietzsche’s reputation to suffer after World War II.

Unusually for a major philosopher, his influences were as much non-philosophical as philosophical, including the philologist Friedrich Wilhelm Ritschl (1806 – 1876), the Swiss art historian Jacob Burckhardt (1818 -1897), the Russian novelists Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821 – 1881) and Leo Toslstoy (1828 – 1910), the poet Charles Baudelaire (1821 – 1867), the composer Richard Wagner(1813 – 1883) and the naturalist Charles Darwin (1809 – 1882). The influences of philosophers such as Plato, Immanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill and Arthur Schopenhauer, while perhaps important, were almost totally negative. Nevertheless, Nietzsche’s ideas themselves exercised a major influence on several prominent European philosophers, including Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze (1925 – 1995), Jacques Derrida, Martin Heidegger, Albert Camus (1913 – 1960), and Jean-Paul Sartre, as well as on leading figures in other walks of cultural life.

His most important books include “Menschliches, Allzumenschliches”(“Human, All Too Human”) of 1878, “Die fröhliche Wissenschaft” (“The Gay Science”) of 1882, “Also sprach Zarathustra” (“Thus Spoke Zarathustra”) of 1883 – 1885, “Jenseits von Gut und Böse” (“Beyond Good and Evil”) of 1886, “Zur Genealogie der Moral” (“On the Genealogy of Morality”) of 1887, and “Götzen-Dämmerung” (“Twilight of the Idols”) and “Der Antichrist” (“The Antichrist”), both of 1888. It is in these books that Nietzsche develops some of his major themes (which are discussed in more detail below), including his “immoralism”, his view that “God is dead”, his notions of the “will to power” and of the “Übermensch”, and his suggestion of “eternal return”.

In Ethics, Nietzsche called himself an “immoralist” and harshly criticized the prominent moral schemes of his day, including Christianity, Kantianism and Utilitarianism. However, rather than destroying morality, Nietzsche wanted a re-evaluation of the values of Judeo-Christianity, preferring the more naturalisticsource of value which he found in the vital impulses of life itself. In his “Beyond Good and Evil” in particular he argued that we must go beyond the simplistic Christian idea of Good and Evil in our consideration of morality. Nietzsche saw the prevailing Christian system of faith as not only incorrect but as harmful to society, because it effectively allowed the weak to rule the strong, stifled artistic creativity, and, critically, suppressed the “will to power” which he saw as the driving force of human character. He had an ingrained distrust of overarching and indiscriminate rules, and strongly believed that individual people were entitled to individual kinds of behaviour and access to individual areas of knowledge.

In the absence of God, then, all values, truths and standards must be created by usrather than merely handed to us by some outside agency, which Nietzsche (and the Existentialists who later embraced this idea) as a tremendously empowering, even if not a comforting, thing. His solution to the vacuum left by the absence of religion was essentially to “be yourself”, to be true to oneself, to be uninhibited, to live life to the full, and to have the strength of mind to carry through one’s own project, regardless of any obstacles or concerns for other people, the weak, etc. This was his major premise, and also the the goal towards which he thought all Ethics should be directed.

However, it was not only the values of Christianity that Nietzsche rebelled against. He was also critical of the tradition of secular morality; the “herd values”, as he called them, of the everyday masses of humanity; and at least some of the traditions deriving from Ancient Greece, principally those of Socrates and Plato.

He posited that the original system of morality was the “master-morality”, dating back to ancient Greece, where value arises as a contrast between good (the sort of traits found in a Homeric hero: wealth, strength, health and power) and bad (the sort of traits conventionally associated with slaves in ancient times: poor, weak, sick, and pathetic). “Slave-morality”, in contrast, came about as a reaction to master-morality, and is associated with the Jewish and Christian traditions, where value emerges from the contrast between good (associated with charity, piety, restraint, meekness and subservience) and evil (associated with cruelty, selfishness, wealth, indulgence and aggressiveness). Initially a ploy among the Jews and Christians dominated by Rome to overturn the values of their masters, to justify their situation and to gain power for themselves, Nietzsche saw the slave-morality as a hypocritical social illness that has overtaken Europe, which can only work by condemning others as evil, and he called on the strong of the world to break their self-imposed chains and assert their own power, health and vitality on the world.

The famous statement “God is dead” occurs in several of Nietzsche’s works (notably in “The Gay Science” of 1882), and has led most commentators to regard Nietzsche as an Atheist. He argued that modern science and the increasing secularization of European society had effectively “killed” the Christian God, who had served as the basis for meaning and value in the West for more than thousand years. He claimed that this would eventually lead to the loss of any universal perspective on things and any coherent sense of objective truth, leaving only our own multiple, diverse and fluid perspectives, a view known as Perspectivism, a type of Epistemological Relativism. (Among his other well-known quotes of a relativistic nature are: “There are no facts, only interpretations” and “There are no eternal facts, as there are no absolute truths”). However, some commentators have noted that the death of God may lead beyond bare Perspectivism to outright Nihilism, the belief that nothing has any importance and that life lacks purpose, and even Nietzsche himself was concerned that the death of God would leave a void where certainties once existed.

At the heart of many of Nietzsche’s ideas lies his belief that in order to achieve anything worthwhile, whether it be scaling a mountain to take in the views or living a good life, hardship and effort are necessary. He went so far as to wish on everyone he cared about a life of suffering, sickness and serious reversals in life, so that they could experience the advantage of overcoming such setbacks. His was the original “no pain, no gain” philosophy, and he believed that in order to harvest great happiness in life, it was necessary to live dangerously and take risks. For Nietzsche, therefore, sorrows and troubles were not to be denied or escaped (he particularly despised people who turned to drink or to religion), but to be welcomed and cultivated and thereby turned to one’s advantage. This is exemplified by a famous quote from his book “Ecce Homo”: “what does not kill me, makes me stronger”.

An important element of Nietzsche’s philosophical outlook is the concept of the “will to power”, which provides a basis for understanding motivation in human behaviour. His notion of the will to power can be viewed as a direct response and challenge to Schopenhauer’s “will to live”. Schopenhauer regarded the entire universe and everything in it as driven by a primordial will to live, resulting in the desire of all creatures to avoid death and to procreate. He also saw this as the source of all evil and unhappiness in the world. Nietzsche, on the other hand, appeals to many instances in which people and animals willingly risk their lives in order to promote their power (most notably in instances like competitive fighting and warfare). He suggested that the struggle to survive is a secondary drive in the evolution of animals and humans, less important than the desire to expand one’s power. He even went so far as to posit matter itself as a centre of the will to power. In Nietzsche’s view, again in direct opposition to Schopenhauer, the will to power was very much a source of strength and a positive thing.

He contrasted his theory with several of the other popular psychological views of his day, such as Utilitarianism (which claims that all people want fundamentally to be happy, an idea Nietzsche merely laughed at) and Platonism (which claims that people ultimately want to achieve unity with the good or, in Christian Neo-Platonism, with God). In each case, Nietzsche argued that the “will to power” provides a more useful and general explanation of human behaviour.

Another concept important to an understanding of Nietzsche’s thought is that of the “Übermensch”, introduced in his 1883 book “Also sprach Zarathustra” (“Thus Spoke Zarathustra”). Variously translated as “superman”, “superhuman” or “overman” (although the word is actually gender-neutral in German), this refers to the person who lives above and beyond pleasure and suffering, treating both circumstances equally, because joy and suffering are, in his view, inseparable. The Übermensch is the person who lives life to the full according to his own values, a free spirit, unihibited and confident, although exhibiting an underlying generosity of spirit, and avoiding instinctively all those values which Nietzsche considered negative. Perhaps a better translation of Übermensch, in some ways, is that of “overcoming”, which better describes the idea of mankind seeking a new way ahead in total freedom and without the need for God, and also reflects the need Nietzsche saw for conquering and overcoming all that is comfortable, unadventurous and cowardly within oneself.

Nietzsche saw this as a goal for all of humanity to set for itself, and its relation to later Nazi interpretations and eugenics is highly debatable. The idea of the Übermensch was to some extent co-opted by the Nazi regime, largely based on a re-edited version of some of Nietzsche’s later works by his sister Elisabeth to promote German Fascist ideology and Aryan ideals, although this is generally held to be a gross (and probably deliberate) misinterpretation of a man who abhorred all forms of Nationalism and always promoted individualism.

Likewise, his notion of “eternal return” (or “eternal recurrence”) has generated much argument among scholars. Nietzsche suggested that if a person could imagine their life repeating over and over again for all eternity, each moment recurring in exactly the same way, then those who could embrace the idea cheerfully are, ipso facto, leading the right sort of life, and those who recoil with horror from this idea have not yet learned to love and value life sufficiently. Nietzsche is almost certainly not proposing that this is literally the way the real world works (as some have suggested), but he is using it as a kind of metaphor to show how we should judge our moral conduct. Some scholars (particularly the later Existentialists) have interpreted the idea as as a perpetually recurring condition of human existence, as one faces, in every moment, infinite possibilities or modes of interpretation.

Another idea which Nietzsche came back to several times in his works, beginning with his very first book “The Birth of Tragedy”, is that the best, and perhaps the only, way in which life can be justfied is as an aesthetic phenomenon. His point was that, if there is nothing outside this world (no God, no transcendental realm of any sort), then any justification or meaning that life has must be derived from within itself, in the same same way as the meaning of a painting or a poem comes only from within itself. In fact, he comes close to suggesting that maybe life itself is just a great cosmic drama, similar to Shakespeare’s notion that “all the world’s a stage”.

Until the last years of his life, Nietzsche made no attempt to build a system of any kind. However, his final project, begun in his last books, “Twilight of the Idols”“The Antichrist” and “Ecce Homo”, was to be nothing less than what he called the “re-valuation (or trans-valuation) of all values”, a prescription for morality in a post-God world and a path towards the realization of man as his own God. This was to be Nietzsche’s attempt to draw all his main themes together into a single comprehensive work, tentatively entitled “The Will To Power”. But by this time his intellectual abilities were severely disrupted by his illness, and he was not able to continue and complete the works.

William James (1842 – 1910)


William JamesWilliam James (1842 – 1910) was a 20th Century American philosopher and psychologist, and is generally considered one of the most influential of all American philosophers.

Along with Charles Sanders Peirce and John Dewey, he is recognized as one of the founders of the largely American philosophical school of Pragmatism. He was also a believer in the philosophical doctrines of Voluntarism, Fideism and what he called Radical Empiricism. He influenced generations of thinkers in Europe and America, including Edmund Husserl, Bertrand Russell, John Dewey and Ludwig Wittgenstein.

In addition to his work in philosophy, he wrote influential books on the young science of psychology (especially educational psychology and the psychology of religious experience and mysticism). He was a strong proponent of the psychological school of Functionalism, and is often credited with the discovery of the subconscious, long before Sigmund Freud’s seminal work on the unconscious.

He was a founder of the American Society for Psychical Research, as well as a champion of alternative approaches to healing.


William James was born on 11 January 1842 at Astor House (then the finest hotel in New York City). He was the son of Henry James Sr., an independently wealthyand notoriously eccentric Swedenborgian theologian, and was the elder brother of the novelist Henry James and of the diarist Alice James, as well as three other brothers. His family was well acquainted with the literary and intellectual elites of his day, and he received an eclectic trans-Atlantic education, developing fluency in both German and French (along with a cosmopolitan character) from his many childhood trips to Europe.

He showed early promise as an artist, which led to an apprenticeship in the studio of William Morris Hunt in Newport, Rhode Island, but in 1861 he turned to scientific studies at the Lawrence Scientific School of Harvard University. He switched to medical studies at Harvard Medical School in 1864.

Like most of his siblings, James suffered from a variety of physical ailments in his early adulthood (including those of the eyes, back, stomach and skin), as well as psychological symptoms which were diagnosed at the time as neurasthenia, and which included periods of depression (he contemplated suicide many times). His studies were interrupted by an ill-favoured scientific expedition up the Amazon River in 1865, and again due to illness in April 1867, which led him to travel to Germany in search of a cure. He remained in Germany until November 1868, and it was during this time that he realized that his true interests lay not in medicine but in philosophy (despite never having received any official philosophic instruction) and in psychology (at a time when the study of the human mind was just constituting itself as a science).

James finally earned his Doctor of Medicine degree in June 1869, although he never actually practiced medicine. He spent his entire academic career, from 1872 until 1907, at Harvard, in a range of disciplines: he was appointed instructor in physiology and anatomy in 1873, assistant professor of psychology in 1876, assistant professor of philosophy in 1881, and full professor in 1885. He was endowed chair in psychology in 1889, returned to philosophy in 1897, and was finally elected emeritus professor of philosophy in 1907.

In the early 1870s at Harvard, James joined in lively philosophical discussions in a group which called itself the Metaphysical Club, which included Charles Sanders Peirce, Oliver Wendell Holmes (1841 – 1935), and Chauncey Wright (1830 – 1875), all of whom were to become well known in the Pragmatist movement. He also became acquainted with the early psychological work of figures like Hermann Helmholtz (1821 – 1894) in Germany and Pierre Janet (1859 – 1947) in France. He married Alice Gibbens in 1878, and started on his brilliant and epoch-making “Principles of Psychology”, published twelve years later in 1890, in which the seeds of his philosophy were already discernible.

Among James’ students at Harvard were such luminaries as Theodore Roosevelt(26th President of the USA), George Santayana (philosopher and novelist), W. E. B. Du Bois (civil rights campaigner), G. Stanley Hall (psychologist and educator), Gertrude Stein (writer and feminist) and C. I. Lewis (philosopher).

After retiring from Harvard in January 1907, James continued to write and lecture, and published his major philosophical works: “Pragmatism: A New Name for some Old Ways of Thinking” (1907), “A Pluralistic Universe” (1909), “The Meaning of Truth” (1909), “Essays in Radical Empiricism” (published posthumously in 1912) and the unfinished “Some Problems of Philosophy: A Beginning of an Introduction to Philosophy” (published posthumously in 1911).

He was increasingly afflicted with cardiac pain during his last years, and he underwent some unsuccessful experimental treatments in Europe in 1910 before dying of heart failure on 26 August 1910 at his home in Chocorua, New Hampshire. By the time of his death, he was world renowned both as a psychologist and philosopher, and, for much of his life, the novelist Henry James felt himself under the shadow of his much more famous elder brother, William.


James wrote voluminously throughout his life, mainly on psychology in the earlier years, and mainly on philosophy later in life. His prose style is commendable, some say equal to that of his novelist brother, being imaginative, ingenious and full of imagery.

He gained widespread recognition with his monumental “Principles of Psychology” (1890), twelve hundred pages in two volumes which took twelve years to complete, as well as an 1892 abridgement designed as a less rigorous introduction to the field, “Psychology: The Briefer Course”. In these works, he argues that consciousness functions in an active, purposeful way to relate and organize thoughts, giving them a streamlike continuity (a view known in psychology as Functionalism), and this psychological viewpoint informed his later philosophical work.

He is also often credited with the discovery of the subconscious, long before Sigmund Freud’s seminal work on the unconscious. He believed that the darkened psychical zone around and beneath the conscious mind, was where the highest spiritual values (such as genius, sanctity, etc) were formed, and where contact was established with the absolute.

His philosophy had four principal aspects:

  • Pragmatism (the view that considers practical consequences or real effects to be vital components of both meaning and truth, and that the meaning of any concept can be equated with the conceivable operational or practical consequences of whatever the concept portrays);
  • Voluntarism (the metaphysical and epistemological view that regards the will as superior to the intellect and to emotion, and that will is the basic factor both in the universe and in human conduct);
  • Fideism (the view that religious belief depends on faith or revelation, rather than reason, intellect or natural theology, and that religious belief is at least not less rational than Atheism or Agnosticism, even if it is not necessarily more rational); and
  • Radical Empiricism (the belief that human knowledge arises from the senses or through experience, but furthermore that these experiences lean on nothing but other finite experiences and that experiences know, believe and remember other experiences).

In his 1907 book “Pragmatism: A New Name for some Old Ways of Thinking”, James offered significant expansions of C. S. Peirce’s philosophy of Pragmatism, and in the process helped to popularize the idea much more widely. He not only accepted Peirce’s method of using pragmatic meaning to resolve dispute, but also spelled out a pragmatic theory of truth as whatever is “expedient in the way of our thinking”. Thus, he considered Pragmatism to be both a method for analyzing philosophic problems and also a theory of truth. In the book, he used the pragmatic test to show that some apparently different alternative philosophies were actually undifferentiable from a pragmatic and practical point of view. He was not, however, looking to put forward Pragmatism as a new philosophy to replace all older ones, but saw it more as a continuation of previous thought.

In “The Will to Believe” (1897), James’ attempted vindication of his Fideist beliefs, he argued that belief must remain an individual process and that we may rationally choose to believe some crucial propositions even though they lie beyond the reach of reason and evidence, a position that has important implications for religious convictions in particular. He further explored this area in detail in “The Varieties of Religious Experience” (1902).

In “A Pluralistic Universe (1909) and “Essays in Radical Empiricism (1912), James developed the metaphysical position which he labelled Radical Empiricism. This was his attempted to integrate the apparently mutually-exclusive insights of Empiricism (experience-based thinking) and Rationalism (concept-based thinking). He believed that there is no fixed external world to be discovered by one’s mind, but instead what he called a “humming-buzzing confusion” that one organizes through experience. The universe (as well as one’s knowledge of it) is continuously evolving, and, because it is never complete, it cannot therefore be reduced to a single underlying substance.

Charles Sanders Peirce (1839 – 1914)


Charles Sanders PeirceCharles Sanders Peirce (often known as C. S. Peirce) (1839 – 1914) was a 20th Century American philosopher, logician, mathematician and scientist, and is considered among the greatest of American minds.

He is best known as the founder of the largely American philosophical school of Pragmatism, which was later popularized by his life-long friend William James and his one-time student John Dewey, although his contributions to the development of modern Logic were also of the first order.

He was largely ignored during his lifetime (secondary literature was scant until long after World War II), and much of his huge output is still unpublished.


Peirce (pronounced PERS, as in purse) was born on 10 September 1839 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA, the second of five children. His father was Benjamin Peirce, a renowned professor of astronomy and mathematics at Harvard University and one of the first serious research mathematicians in America; his mother was Sarah Hunt Mills, the daughter of a Senator. He suffered all his life from what was then known as “facial neuralgia” (trigeminal neuralgia), a very painful nervous-facial condition, which often left him depressed and subject to violent outbursts of temper.

He was a child prodigy, and was educated mainly by his brilliant father (who refused to discipline his children in case he destroyed their originality). At the age of 12, he read an older brother’s copy of “Elements of Logic” by Richard Whately(1787 – 1863), then the leading English language text on the subject, and began a lifelong fascination with Logic and reasoning. Soon after, he learned philosophy mainly by reading a few pages each day of Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason” in the original German. Despite his disdainful and indifferent attitude, he obtained his B.A .and M.A. degrees from Harvard University, as well as beginning lifelong friendships with Francis Ellingwood Abbot (1836 – 1903), Chauncey Wright(1830 – 1875) and William James, and then, in 1863, an M.Sc. in chemistry from the Lawrence Scientific School. In 1872, he began the now legendary Metaphysical Club with, among others, William James and, in 1873, he married Harriet Melusina Fay, who came from a leading Cambridge family and was an active feminist campaigner.

From 1859 until 1891, Peirce was intermittently employed in various scientific capacities by the United States Coast Survey, where he enjoyed the protection of his highly influential father until the latter’s death in 1880, and which also exempted him from participation in the Civil War of 1861 – 1865. He was involved with, among other things, geodesy and gravimetrics, the measurement and representation of the Earth’s gravitational field by the use of pendulums. From 1869 to 1872, he was also employed as an assistant in Harvard’s astronomical observatory, where he worked on determining the brightness of stars and the shape of the Milky Way. In 1876, he was elected a member of the American National Academy of Sciences and, in 1878, he was the first to define the unit of length the meter as so many wavelengths of light of a certain frequency, the definition employed until 1983.

For a period from 1879, Peirce was appointed untenured lecturer in Logic at the new Johns Hopkins University (which was very strong in the areas of philosophy, psychology and mathematics), the only academic position Peirce ever held. His efforts to obtain academic employment, grants and scientific respectability may have been deliberately frustrated by the covert opposition of another major American scientist of the day, Simon Newcomb (1835 – 1909).

His ongoing physical illness and some elements of his personal life also handicapped him. His first wife left him in 1876, but the divorce only became final in 1883. In the meantime, he had been openly living and travelling with a French gypsy called Juliette Froissy Pourtalès, and Peirce was dismissed from Johns Hopkins University when this scandal was pointed out by Newcomb, and his subsequent applications to several major Amercian universities were all suspiciously unsuccessful. He married Juliette seven days after the divorce came through in 1883, but the damage had been done.

In addition to spells in New York and Washington D.C., his work with the United States Coast Survey took him to Europe several times during the 1870s and 1880s, and he took the opportunities to seek out British mathematicians and logicianswhose turn of mind resembled his own, including Augustus De Morgan (1806 – 1871), William Stanley Jevons (1835 – 1882) and William Kingdon Clifford(1845 – 1879). His interest in his Coast Survey work waned during the 1880s, and Peirce sometimes took years to write reports that he should have completed in mere months. Meanwhile, though, he was writing hundreds of logic, philosophy and science entries for the “Century Dictionary”. In 1891, he was “requested” to resign from the Coast Survey, and never again held regular employment, devoting himself to the philosophical and other pursuits which had always been mere spare time activities.

In 1887, Peirce spent part of his inheritance on some rural land near Milford, Pennsylvania. The land never yielded an economic return, but he built a large house there, where he spent the rest of his life writing prolifically on philosophy and other subjects, much of it unpublished to this day. However, he was living beyond his means and soon encountered financial and legal difficulties, unable to afford heat in winter or new stationery, and subsisting on old bread donated by the local baker. He earned some money from scientific and engineering consulting, and wrote dictionary and encyclopedia entries, reviews for “The Nation” and translations for the Smithsonian Institution (all for meagre pay), but he relied in his brother, James Mills Peirce, and his neighbours to settle many of his debts. During these desperate times, his old friend William James also helped, arranging for Peirce to be paid for a series of lectures at Harvard and canvassing his friends in the Boston intelligentsia for financial contributions to help support Peirce.

Peirce died of cancer, destitute, on 19 April 1914 in Milford, Pennsylvania. Although such 20th Century philosophical luminaries as Bertrand Russell, Alfred North Whitehead and Karl Popper (1902 – 1994) were to hail Peirce as one of the most original minds of the late 19th Century, recognition had to wait until many years after his death.


The only books that Peirce had published in his lifetime were the “Photometric Researches” of 1878 (a monograph on the applications of spectrographic methods to astronomy) and the short “Description of a Notation for the Logic of Relatives” of 1870. However, after his death, he left approximately 1,650 unpublished manuscripts, totalling over 100,000 pages, which were acquired by Harvard University, but not catalogued until 1967, and most of it remains unpublished. His writings bear on a wide array of disciplines, including astronomy, metrology, geodesy, mathematics, Logic, philosophy, the history and Philosophy of Science, linguistics, economics and psychology. He had planned a magnum opus called “The Minute Logic” which was unfinished and unpublished at his death.

Peirce always thought of himself first and foremost as a logician, although he interpreted the term “logic” very widely, describing it as “the art of devising methods of research” and seeing it to large extent in terms of semiotics (the study of signs and sign processes). His “Logic of Relatives” looked into the relationships of objects, signs and impressions of the mind more deeply than the formal Logic of the time allowed, considering anew the concept of relative terms, which had its roots in antiquity. It is considered one of the wellsprings of contemporary systems of Logic, which then entered a radically new phase of development. Much of his work on Logic and foundational mathematics has been found to have anticipated much later developements (in Boolean algebra and set theory in particular) by many years.

Although he was only really a professional philosopher during the five years he lectured at Johns Hopkins University (and a working scientist for 30 years), he initiated the philosophical tendency known as Pragmatism, a variant of which his life-long friend William James and his one-time student John Dewey would later popularize. Early in his work, Peirce outlined a theory of three universal categorieswhich he would apply throughout his philosophy (and elsewhere) for the rest of his life: firstness (a quality of feeling), secondness (a reaction, resistance or relation) and thirdness (representation). These were foundational ideas, breaking the ground for his blueprint for a Pragmatic philosophy, which can be seen to originate in two of Peirce’s papers from 1877 and 1878, “The Fixation of Belief” and “How to Make Our Ideas Clear”.

Peirce initially conceived Pragmatism as a method for clarifying the meaning of specific difficult ideas (which he called “intellectual terms”), rather than the clarification of all terms, although he did also try to extend his theory later on. As a practising scientist all his life, his goal was mainly to clarify terms as a means of furthering and expediting scientific investigation, and not just as an academic exercise. He had, then, a rather more rationalistic and realistic goal than some of the enthusiasms of later Pragmatists like William James and John Dewey.

The way he sought to achieved this clarification was through the application of what he called the “pragmatic maxim”. For Peirce, this was a method of sorting out conceptual confusions by equating the meaning of any concept with the conceivable operational or practical consequences of whatever it is which the concept portrays. Put another way, for any concept to meaningful, then its application in reality must make an observable difference on something. The corollary of this is that any theory that proves itself more successful than its rivals in predicting and controlling our world, can be said to be nearer the truth. He held that, although the scientific method may be the best for theoretical questions, it is not always better than tradition, instinct, etc, for time-sensitive practical questions.

Peirce stated the pragmatic maxim in many different ways over the years, but the simplest of these may be: “Consider what effects that might conceivably have practical bearings you conceive the objects of your conception to have. Then, your conception of those effects is the whole of your conception of the object” (my emphasis).

Peirce was also largely responsible for another rather revolutionary developmentin 20th Century thought. He believed that any truth, even “proven” scientific “facts”, is necessarily provisional, and that the truth of any proposition cannot be certain but only probable, a view known as Fallibilism. Thus, scientific theories, for example, should be used for as long as they work, but we must be prepared to replace them if difficulties come to light subsequently. Peirce’s Fallibilism and Pragmatism may be seen as playing roles in his work similar to those of Skepticism and Positivism, respectively, in the work of others.

In Metaphysics, Peirce declared himself a “Scholastic Realist” about generals and also about modalities (possibility, necessity, etc). He believed in God, not as an actual or existent being, but all the same as a real being. In physical Metaphysics, he held the view which he called Objective Idealism, that the world “out there” is in fact Mind communicating with our human minds, and that there is only one perceiver, and that this perceiver is one with that which is perceived.

Karl Marx (1818 – 1883)


Karl MarxKarl Heinrich Marx (1818 – 1883) was a German philosopher, political theorist and revolutionary of the 19th Century. Both a scholar and a political activist, Marx is often called the father of Communism, and certainly his Marxist theory provided the intellectual base for various subsequent forms of Communism.

Marxism, the philosophical and political school or tradition his work gave rise to, is a variety of radical or revolutionary Socialism conceived as a reaction against the rampant Capitalism and Liberalism of 19th Century Europe, with working class self-emancipation as its goal. Among other things, he is known for his analysis of history (particularly his concept of historical materialism) and the search for a systemic understanding of socioeconomic change.

Although a relatively obscure figure in his own lifetime, his ideas began to exert a major influence on workers’ movements shortly after his death, especially with the Russian Revolution of 1917. Despite the numerous debates among Marxists (and among political philosophers in general) over how to interpret Marx’s writings and how to apply his concepts to current events and conditions, there are few parts of the world which have not been significantly touched by Marx’s ideas over the course of the 20th Century.


Karl Marx was born on 5 May 1818 in Trier, Prussia (modern-day Germany), the third of seven children of a Jewish family. His father, Heinrich Marx, was descended from a long line of Jewish rabbis, but converted to Lutheran Christianity in order to continue practising law; his mother was Henriette Pressburg.

Marx was educated at home until the age of thirteen, when he attended the Trier Gymnasium. In 1835, at the age of seventeen, he enrolled in the University of Bonn to study law (his father would not allow him to study philosophy and literature, as Marx would have preferred, for practical career reasons), However, he did not pursue his studies very dilligently (at one point serving as the president of the Trier Tavern Club drinking society), and his father moved him the next year to the more serious and academically orientated Humboldt University in Berlin.

At Humboldt, he began to absorb the atheistic philosophy of the Young Hegelians(the more radical left-wing followers of G. W. F. Hegel) who were prominent in Berlin at the time. He earned his doctorate in 1841 with a thesis entitled “The Difference Between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature”, although he had to submit his dissertation to the University of Jena as he was warned that his reputation among the faculty as a Young Hegelian radical would lead to a poor reception in Berlin. In 1843, he married Jenny von Westphalen, the educated daughter of a Prussian baron, despite the objections of both families.

In 1843, Marx moved to Paris, (then the hotbed of German, British, Polish and Italian revolutionaries) in order to work with Arnold Ruge (1802 – 1880), another German revolutionary, on the political journal “Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher” (“German-French Annals”). However, the next year he met Friedrich Engels (1820 – 1895), and began the most important friendship of his life (and arguably one of the most important in history). Engels had come to Paris specifically to see Marx, and to discuss with him Engels’ greatest individual work, “The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844”. Engels, a committed communist, kindled Marx’s interest in the situation of the working classand guided Marx’s interest in economics.

The “Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher” soon failed and Marx started to write for “Vorwärts”, the most radical of all German newspapers in Paris, generally on Hegel and on the Jewish question, and he published “Zur Judenfrage” (“On the Jewish Question”) in 1844. The same year, Marx himself became a communist, and set down his views in a series of writings known as the “Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844” (which remained unpublished until the 1930s), in which he outlined a humanist conception of Communism, influenced by the philosophy of the Young Hegelian Ludwig Feuerbach (1804 – 1872), and based on a contrast between the alienated nature of labour under Capitalism and a communist society in which human beings freely developed their nature in cooperative production.

In January 1845, Marx and Engels and many others were ordered to leave Paris (after their approval in “Vorwärts” of the assassination attempt on King Frederick William IV of Prussia), and he and Engels moved to Brussels, Belgium. There, Marx devoted himself to an intensive study of history and elaborated on his idea of historical materialism, particularly in a manuscript published posthumously as “Die Deutsche Ideologie” (“The German Ideology”).

Marx and Engels’ published their most famous work, “The Communist Manifesto”in early 1848, as the manifesto of the Communist League, a small group of European communists who had come to be influenced by them. 1848 saw tremendous revolutionary upheaval in Europe and Marx was arrested and expelled from Belgium. He was invited to return to Paris by the radical movement that had seized power from King Louis-Philippe in France, and he witnessed the revolutionary “June Days Uprising” first hand. When the uprising collapsed in 1849, Marx moved back to Cologne and started the “Neue Rheinische Zeitung” (“New Rhenish Newspaper”). The paper was suppressed and Marx, after two arrests and acquittals, returned to Paris again, but was forced out yet again.

This time, in May 1849, he sought refuge in London, where he was to remain for the rest of his life. During the first half of the 1850s, the Marx family lived in povertyand constant fear of creditors in a three room flat in Soho, London. They already had four children and three more were to follow (although only three survived to adulthood). Marx worked for a time as correspondent for the New York Tribune in London, but their major source of income was Engels, who was drawing a steadily increasing income from his family’s business in Manchester and, later, some small inheritances from Jenny’s family.

Throughout the 1850s and 1860s, Marx continued the laborious task of writing his huge works on political economy, spending day after day in the reading room of the British Museum. The most important of these was his masterwork “Das Kapital”(“Capital”), the first volume of which was published in 1867, well behind schedule. Volumes II and III remained mere manuscripts upon which Marx continued to work for the rest of his life, and which were published posthumously (as were several of his other works) by Engels.

However, Marx was also devoting much of his time and energy during this period to the First International, to whose General Council he was elected at its inception in 1864. He was particularly active in preparing for the annual Congresses of the International, and in leading the struggle against the anarchist wing led by Mikhail Bakunin (1814 – 1876). One of the most important political events during the existence of the International was the Paris Commune of 1871, when the citizens of Paris rebelled against their government and held the city for two months. Marx wrote one of his most famous pamphlets, “The Civil War in France” in enthusiastic defence of the Commune after its bloody suppression.

During the last decade of his life, Marx’s health declined and he was incapable of the sustained effort that had characterized his previous work. Following the death of his wife, Jenny, in 1881, Marx developed a catarrh that kept him in ill health for the last fifteen months of his life, and that eventually brought on the bronchitis and pleurisy from which he died in London on 14 March 1883. He died a stateless person and was buried in Highgate Cemetery, London, his tombstone carved with the final line of “The Communist Manifesto”: “Workers of all lands unite”


As a philosopher, Marx was influenced by a number of different thinkers, including the Kantian and German Idealist Immanuel Kant; the Hegelianists Georg Hegel and Ludwig Feuerbach (1804 – 1872); the British political economists Adam Smithand David Ricardo (1772 – 1823); and the French social theorists such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Charles Fourier (1772 – 1837), Henri de Saint-Simon (1760 -1825), Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809 – 1865), Flora Tristan (1803 -1844) and Louis Blanc (1811 – 1882).

Some have argued that Marx’s original contributions to philosophy were extremely limited or even zero, and that all he did was to adapt Hegel’s work to his own political, social and economic ends. As a young man at Humboldt and Jena Universities, Marx became involved with the atheistic Young Hegelians, particularly Ludwig Feuerbach (1804 – 1872), Max Stirner (1806 – 1856) and Moses Hess(1812 – 1875), who had begun to adapt Hegelianism and to criticize Hegel’s metaphysical assumptions, but also to make use of his dialectical method(separated from its theological content) as a powerful weapon for the critique of established religion and politics.

Stirner in particular inspired Marx’s “epistemological break”, and he developed the basic concept of Historical Materialism in “Die Deutsche Ideologie” (“The German Ideology”) as early as 1845, although the manuscript was not actually published until long after his death. This was the work in which he first noted that the nature of individuals depends on the material conditions determining their production, and in which he traced the history of the various modes of production and predicted the collapse of the present one (industrial ) and its replacement by Communism.

Essentially, Historical Materialism (or the Materialist Conception of History) is Marx’s theory of history, his attempt to make history scientific, and it undeliesmuch of the rest of his work. It is based on the principle of Dialectical Materialism(a synthesis of Hegel’s theory of Dialectics and the idea that social and other phenomena are essentially material in nature, rather than ideal or spiritual, hence the link with Materialism) as it applies to history and societies. It holds that class struggle (the evolving conflict between classes with opposing interests) is the means of bringing about changes in a society’s mode of production, and that it structures each historical period and drives historical change. Material conditions and social relations are therefore historically malleable because developments and changes in human societies are dependent on the way in which humans collectively producethe means to life.

“The German Ideology”, as well as “The Poverty of Philosophy” of 1847 (a critique of French socialist thought), laid the foundation for Marx and Engels’ most famous work, “The Communist Manifesto”, the defining document of Marxism and Communism. It was first published on 21 February 1848 as the manifesto of the Communist League, a small group of European communists who had come to be influenced by Marx and Engels.

According to Marx, it is class struggle (the evolving conflict between classes with opposing interests) that is the means of bringing about changes in a society’s mode of production, and that structures each historical period and drives historical change. He believed that the Capitalist mode of production enables the bourgeoisie(or owners of capital) to exploit the proletariat (or workers) , and that a socialist revolution must occur in order to establish a “dictatorship of the proletariat”with the ulimate goal of public ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange, and the self-emancipation of the working class.

During his time in London in the 1850s, Marx continued to make slow progress on a major work on political economy, and by 1857 he had produced a gigantic 800 page manuscript on capital, landed property, wage labour, the state, foreign trade and the world market, which would be published only in 1941 under the title “Grundrisse er Kritik der Politischen Ökonomie” (“Outlines of the Critique of Political Economy”). In 1859, he produced the “Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy”, his first serious economic work to be published. In the early 1860s, he worked on three large volumes of the “Theories of Surplus Value” (also published posthumously), one of the first comprehensive treatises on the history of economic thought, which discussed the classical theoreticians of political economy such as Adam Smith and David Ricardo (1772 – 1823).

In 1867, well behind schedule, the first volume of his masterwork “Das Kapital”(“Capital”) was published, which analyzed the capitalist process of production(arguing that the alienation of human work and the resulting “commodity fetishism” was the defining feature of Capitalism), and in which he elaborated his labour theory of value and his conception of surplus value and exploitation(which he argued would ultimately lead to a falling rate of profit and the collapse of industrial Capitalism). Volumes II and III remained mere manuscripts upon which Marx continued to work for the rest of his life, and which were edited and published posthumously by Engels.

Henry David Thoreau (1817 – 1862)


Henry David ThoreauHenry David Thoreau (1817 – 1862) was an American philosopher, naturalist, writer and political activist of the early Modern period. He was involved with the 19th Century American Transcendentalism movement of his friend and mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Although relatively unknown to the general public during his own lifetime, the influence of his philosophy of civil disobedience and non-violent resistance has been specifically credited by such later figures as Leo Tolstoy, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. He adhered to no recognizable political position, but his work to some extent influenced later generations of Anarchists, Marxists and Existentialiststs.

Likewise, it was only many years after his death that he came to be regarded as one of the foremost American writers, both for the modern clarity of his prose style and for his prescient of his views on nature and politics. His writings on natural history anticipated the methods and findings of modern ecology and environmentalism.


Thoreau (pronounced THUR-ow) was born on 12 July 1817 in Concord, Massachusetts. He was christened David Henry Thoreau; he only became known as “Henry David” after college. His father was John Thoreau, the owner of a pencil factory in Concord; his mother was Cynthia Dunbar (her father, Asa Dunbar, was known for leading Harvard’s 1766 “Butter Rebellion”, the first recorded student protest in the United States). He had two older siblings, Helen and John Jr., and a younger sister, Sophia. He was usually described as plain to the point of ugly, with a long nose, misshapen mouth and wild neck-beard, and with “uncouth and rustic, though courteous” manners.

He studied at Concord Academy from 1828 to 1833, and then at Harvard University from 1833 to 1837, taking courses in rhetoric, classics, philosophy, mathematics and science. During a leave of absence from Harvard in 1835, he taught at a school in Canton, Massachusetts, awakening an interest in education. After graduating in 1837, he briefly joined the faculty of Concord Academy, but the school board soon dismissed him when he refused to administer corporal punishment. He and his brother John then opened a grammar school in Concord in 1838, where they introduced several progressive concepts, including nature walks and visits to local shops and businesses. The school closed when John became fatally ill from tetanus in 1842. He worked at his family’s pencil factory at various times throughout his adult life, helping to create the modern pencil by introducing clay into the manufacture of graphite (pencil “lead”), and later converting the factory to produce ink for typesetting machines. He also worked as a land surveyorfor a time.

During the early years after graduating, Thoreau met Ralph Waldo Emerson (whose essay “Nature” he had read while at Harvard), which proved to be a decisive turning point in Thoreau’s life. Emerson took a paternal (and at times patronizing) interest in Thoreau, advising the young man and introducing him to a circle of local writersand thinkers, including Ellery Channing (1818 – 1901), Margaret Fuller (1810 – 1850), Bronson Alcott(1799 – 1888), Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804 – 1864) and Julian Hawthorne (1846 – 1934). Several of these were members of Emerson’s Transcendentalism philosophical movement, and Thoreau became a convert of Transcendentalism (albeit not a hugely active one), which fitted well with his spiritual and intuitive bent and his interest in Nature.

From 1841 to 1844, Thoreau moved into Emerson’s house, where he served as children’s tutor, editorial assistant, repair man and gardener. For a few months in 1843, he moved to the home of Emerson’s brother, William, on Staten Island, tutoring his children while also writing for New York periodicals, aided in part by his future literary representative, Horace Greeley (1811 – 1872).

He went through a restless period in the mid-1840s, and often talked of buying or leasing a farm to give him the means of support and the solitude to write a book. He finally embarked on his two-year experiment in simple living in July of 1845, when he moved to a small self-built house on land owned by Emerson in a second-growth forest around the shores of Walden Pond, just a couple of miles from his family home. In 1854, seven years after moving out of his Walden Pond house (and after seven full drafts and re-writes), he published “Walden, or Life in the Woods”, his famous account of the two years, two months and two days he had spent at Walden Pond. Part memoir and part spiritual quest, “Walden” (which includes his famous lines, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation” and “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer” among many other well-known quotations) at first won few admirers, but today critics regard it as a classic American book that explores natural simplicity, harmony and beauty as models for just social and cultural conditions.

Soon after moving to Walden Pond in 1845, he was arrested on account of six years of unpaid tax, spending a night in jail before his aunt paid his arrears for him. He used the tax issue to protest his opposition to the Mexican-American War and to slavery, and his small first act of civil disobedence had a profound effect on him. He began to lecture on the relation of the individual to the State, and produced an influential essay entitled “Resistance to Civil Government” (also known as “Civil Disobedience”), which was eventually published in 1849.

In 1847, he self-published a book called “A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers”, an elegy to his brother, John, on Emerson’s advice (and using Emerson’s own publisher). The book failed badly, and put Thoreau into a debt that took years to pay off. Emerson’s flawed advice caused a schism between the friends that never entirely healed.

In the 1850s, Thoreau became increasingly fascinated with natural history and travel narratives. He kept increasingly detailed natural history observations on his local area in a huge continuous journal covering many years. He also travelled widely in eastern and mid-western America, writing all the while. In 1859, he wrote an uncompromising defence of the radical abolitionist John Brown (1800 – 1859) after Brown’s contentious raid at Harpers Ferry in 1859, and Thoreau’s speech proved persuasive as the abolitionist movement began to accept Brown as a martyrby the time of the American Civil War (immortalized in the song “John Brown’s Body”).

Thoreau had first contracted tuberculosis in 1835 and suffered from it sporadically throughout his life. In 1859, following a late night excursion during a rain storm, he became ill with bronchitis, and his health declined over the next three years with brief periods of remission, until he eventually became bedridden. Although he seemed to accept his imminent death with tranquillity, he nevertheless spent his final months frantically editing his travel books (including “The Maine Woods”and “Excursions”) for publication.

He died in Concord on 6 May 1862 at age 44. Emerson wrote the eulogy spoken at his funeral, and Thoreau’s remains were eventually moved to Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord. It was only many years later that he came to be regarded as one of the foremost American writers, both for the modern clarity of his prose style and the prescience of his views on nature and politics, and his memory is now honoured by the international Thoreau Society among other institutions.


Although Thoreau never managed to earn a living by his writings, his works fill 20 volumes. By far the most famous is “Walden” (subtitled “Life in the Woods”), published in 1854, his account of the two years he spent living the simple life in the woods at Walden Pond. His travel books, “The Maine Woods” and “Excursions”, were published after his death. His most influential essay was the 1849 “Resistance to Civil Government” (often reprinted with the title “Civil Disobedience”), in which he recommended disobeying unjust laws. His huge “Journal”, accumulated over 24 years, was published in 14 volumes in 1906.

Along with his friend and mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and others in the group of American Transcendentalists who formed around Emerson, Thoreau dedicated his life, skills and classical learning to the call for the creation of an original American literature and philosophy, in an era when “writer” was not yet a specialized profession. Thoreau and the Transcendentalists believed that there was more to reality than what a person could experience with their senses, and more knowledge than what a person could discover through human reason. They encouraged intuition, self-examination, individualism and exploration of the beauty of nature and humankind.

Contrary to popular opinion, Thoreau neither rejected civilization nor fully embraced wilderness. Instead, he sought a middle ground, the pastoral realm that integrates both nature and culture. He dedicated much of his life to the exploration of nature, not just as a backdrop to human activity but as a living, integrated system of which humanity is simply a part. His “nature writing” progressed from the poetic symbolism of “Walden” to the scientific method in his later journals (involving observation and information-gathering, the stating of a hypothesis, and the verification of the hypothesis by testing), anticipating many of the methods and findings of modern ecology and environmentalism.

His essay “Civil Disobedience” of 1849 has been perhaps the most influential of his works because of its overt political implications. He boldly asserted that “the only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right”. He believed that radical social reforms (such as the abolition of slavery, for example) could be effected only when each right-minded individual takes direct action on his own part. This form of “peaceful revolution” could be achieved by an individual withdrawing his allegiance “in person and property” from the government that supports or permits the abuse in question (such as, for example, refusing to pay taxes). This philosophy of civil disobedience and non-violent resistance has been specifically credited by such later figures as Leo Tolstoy, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.

Thoreau was a committed anti-slavery activist and, despite his deep-rooted Individualism, he was readily moved to activism against injustice. The well-known essay “Civil Disobedience” was not Thoreau’s final word on resistance against injustice and oppression: his strongest critiques of American society lay in his later public addresses, “Slavery in Massachusetts”“Life Without Principle” and “A Plea for Captain John Brown”.

Like Karl Marx, he sought to some extent to dismantle existing institutions in an attempt to provide full human satisfaction. Yet, like Søren Kierkegaard, he insisted on maintaining the uniqueness of the individual as the ultimate source of value. Thus, he did not advocate revolution, but he was an influence on Marxism; he would not have claimed to be an Existentialism (had such a concept even been known in his day), but his insistence on Individualism carried weight with later Existentialists; he was not an out-and-out Anarchist, but he opposed the strictures of government and influenced later figures with Anarchist sympathies.