The most important philosophers?

Posted on ..

Brian Leiter invited votes for the "most important Western philosophers of all time." Here are the results.

A few comments on this (I posted a similar list on his site, see the comments towards the bottom):

1. I actually tend to agree with the top three, if we are going to do this sort of listing at all (see my last point below).

2. Plotinus is not on there. He initiated Neoplatonism, arguably the most successful philosophical approach of all time (measured by sheer duration). The only reason anyone would fail to put him in the top 10 is that out of ignorance or conscious intention, current (English language, analytic) philosophy is being used as the criterion of what is important; but if you are talking about the whole of "Western" philosophy there is no doubt that he ranks towards the top.

3. There is a problem with the word "Western": as I have noted elsewhere it isn't clear how "western" applies, or doesn't, to figures from the Islamic world: Avicenna was from central Asia but Averroes and Maimonides from Spain (which is further West than most of the places that produced the philosophers on this list). Avicenna is the most influential philosopher between Plotinus and, perhaps, Descartes - and was both deeply influenced by and deeply influential on the figures on this list; but he hasn't been allowed to compete because he is not "Western."

4. It's unsurprising that the only Latin medieval thinker on there is Aquinas, but as listeners know I personally would put him behind Scotus, Abelard, and Ockham (as well as Avicenna) on any interpretation of "important."

5. As others have commented on Brian's page there are no women on the list: if you want some concrete recommendations for additions in this direction how about Christine de Pizan (so fantastic! do yourself a favor and read her) or Wollstonecraft.

6. What I really think is that the whole exercise is pointless, or has only the unintended result of revealing the depths of our ignorance: what you find out when you dig into any period of philosophy is that there are many, many more "important" (either in the sense of influential, or of philosophically interesting, usually both) thinkers than you could ever have suspected. I could pull together a rival list of 30 thinkers just working from those who lived between Plotinus and Descartes, all of whom are very plausibly as important as, say, David Lewis or Rousseau; an early modern expert could do the same for the 16-17th centuries. Hence lists like this are really more like lists of what the voters happen to know about, because of the parochial way they were educated. Again this is a point I have made elsewhere.


Brian Leiter on 25 April 2017

It's only "pointless" Peter

It's only "pointless" Peter if you think the point is to determine who the most important philosophers "really" are (whatever that would mean).  But it's actually very informative sociologically if you understand it as a snapshot of professional opinion in the Anglophone world at the present.  None of the women in the poll made the top 30; I'm sure neither of the two you mention would either.  I had thought of including Wollstonecraft, but unlike, say, Cavendish her contributions were more narrow.

In reply to by Brian Leiter

Peter Adamson on 26 April 2017

Oh yes, I agree with that -

Oh yes, I agree with that - it is good evidence confirming what we might anyway have suspected about which philosophers are nowadays taken seriously (at least by a certain kind of philosopher). In a way that is just my point too. I just meant it is pointless qua evidence for which philosophers are genuinely important, at least from a historical point of view.

I do by the way think that if by "important" one means "influential" - so, without understanding a certain figure and his or her impact, you cannot understand what came after, and having a long chronological impact - then it is not just a nebulous matter of opinion how important a given thinker is. Obviously this is not easy to determine, but no one could plausibly argue that Speusippus was more influential than Plato, just to take an extreme example. Or to take another extreme example: if someone denies that Aristotle is the most influential Western philosopher of all time, they are just betraying that they don't know what they are talking about (unless they say it is Plato but then they would have to add that Plato is influential through Aristotle). Of course the chronological duration of impact favors ancient thinkers, and if you discount this then perhaps you could argue that e.g. Avicenna or Kant has had as massive an impact on subsequent developments as Aristotle. But there are still facts of the matter here.

A comparable project was launched a few years back by the BBC, where people were asked (if memory serves) to name their "favorite" philosopher. Marx won (!).

Derek Michaud on 26 April 2017

Any sociological information

Any sociological information that this sort of exercise might provide is already given in the initial selection of philosophers to choose from. 

In reply to by Derek Michaud

Brian Leiter on 26 April 2017

That's obviously false, as

That's obviously false, as anyone who actually bothers to look at the list of 87 Western philosophers will see.

In reply to by Brian Leiter

Peter Adamson on 26 April 2017

For those who want to see it,

For those who want to see it, I discovered you can in fact still see the original list of 87 here. This is interesting because it gives you the results of the voting for the whole list, revealing for instance that Plotinus is not quite even in the top 50!

I agree that it is sociologically interesting, though of course one needs to bear in mind that the participants are the sort of people who look at Brian's blog, e.g. are likely to be from English speaking countries. My take on it is, as I say above, is that it provides plenty of ammunition for people (like me) who suspect that the teaching of history of philosophy in English speaking countries is indeed very narrow, both historically and culturally. Basically the winning figures are a list of relatively recent analytic thinkers plus people so famous that non-philosophers have heard of them too, which suggests that the study of philosophy is doing nothing at all to broaden people's perspective on who is interesting and important in the history of philosophy, apart from informing them about Frege and subsequent analytic thinkers. If Brian's original list hadn't been constrained by covering only "western" thought, the results would no doubt have proved the same point even more dramatically.

In reply to by Brian Leiter

Derek Michaud on 26 April 2017

My comment was made after

My comment was made after reading your initial list of philosophers and finding it overly narrow even allowing for an already too narrow conception of "Western" philosophy. 

John Wilkins on 26 April 2017

Also Harriet Taylor Mill,

Also Harriet Taylor Mill, author of Vindication of the Rights of Women (with her husband's assistance).

I fully agree about Plotinus and Avicenna. Averroes is crucial to the "western" tradition.

Sotiris Makrygiannis on 26 April 2017

I think this is more a fun

I think this is more a fun poll. One should ask the participants to list first all the philosophers that he knows and THEN score them based on importance. In this way, you can get a clear view of the knowledge and their popularity.

But then again the Oracle should allways be correct and Socrates is the most important ;)

one emos on 7 August 2021

I am a student and as it is…

I am a student and as it is widely known that georg HEGEL is the last great philosopher at least in the western tradition or maybe in the whole history of philosophy because systematic philosophy ended with him , that is why i will put in this list only philosophers who were before him , so my personal list of the greatest western philosophers of all time (the top 10) according to the few information that i have on them is :













Please professor Adamson i hope you leave a comment .



In reply to by one emos

Peter Adamson on 8 August 2021

The top ten?

Well, that's a pretty traditional list and I wouldn't say any of them are overrated! But on the other hand one can see from this list the problems of this kind of "great figure" approach to philosophy: these are all European men, and you are sort of assuming in advance what will count as important (basically, systematic metaphysics and epistemology... plus Socrates). Even if we accept those priorities then Ibn Sina (Avicenna) is as influential as anyone on here apart from Aristotle. If we remind ourselves that Europe is not the world we might consider putting, say, Confucius or the Buddha or Nagarjuna on there. If we think that thinking about the situation of women is not philosophically irrelevant, we might put, say, Christine de Pizan on there.

But actually my main advice would be to stop thinking in terms of greatest thinkers. Even the people on this list can only be understood by comparing them with predecessors or contemporaries who are not so famous, e.g. Plotinus' own contemporaries accused him of stealing all his ideas from Numenius (probably an unfair accusation but it still gives one pause). You do need to start somewhere of course but I would encourage you to think more in terms of philosophical problems or traditions, and not individual great men.

In reply to by Peter Adamson

one emos on 20 November 2021

Thank you professor Adamson…

Thank you professor Adamson for your precious advice , but I intentionally put all these European men because I just want to rank the big names in that region as it is more relevant and obviously the most dominant tradition today , and actually I have two lists on other philosophical traditions , one for Islamic philosophy (since I am a muslim arab ) and the other for eastern philosophy (mainly india and china) , Avicenna (your favourite one) is definitely one of the foremost philosophers in the history of islamic civilization and probably the most famous one , but I think he is a little bit overrated (I mean in the Islamic context) , personally I will put him at least after Ibn Arabi , Mulla Sadra , Suhrawardi , Al-Razi (fakhr ddin) in terms of importance , in my opinion these figures are the Big Five of Islamic philosophy due to the fact that each one of them represents a major school in this tradition .

In reply to by one emos

Peter Adamson on 20 November 2021

Influence of Ibn Sina

Oh I can't have that! How could you have any of those figures, with the possible exception of Ibn Arabi, without Ibn Sina? I mean, Fakhr al-Din is responding to him on pretty much every single page and Suhrawardi on 9 out of every 10 pages. Avicenna all the way!

But more seriously, I don't mind how you rank them as long as you read them and are passionate about them, which it sounds like you are. So let's just agree they are all fascinating!

In reply to by Peter Adamson

one emos on 7 March 2022

there is no doubt in that…

there is no doubt in that professor Adamson all of them are fascinating even i didn't read them yet , i just have some general information on them from difference sources because obviously i'm really interested but of course eventually i have to read and study them , anyway what i want to say professor is that criteria of importance includes originality too , maybe if you ask any real islamic philosopher today will tell you that Avicenna wasn't that original compared to those that i mentioned but probably or most likely he was more influential .

In reply to by one emos

Peter Adamson on 8 March 2022


Actually, Avicenna was not only staggeringly original but unusual in how self-conscious and explicit he was about the fact that he was being original. He made a big deal about reworking the whole Aristotelian approach to philosophy rather than writing commentaries on Aristotle, and innovated in pretty much every field of philosophy especially metaphysics, logic, the soul... one could go on.

one emos on 22 May 2022

Maybe Authentic is a more…

Maybe Authentic is a more appropriate word than Original because i did not mean he was not creative or overly dependent on Aristotle , what i really mean is that Avicenna was less connected to the islamic roots because he made some major errors from the islamic perspective and that is why he recieived wide criticism from Al-ghazali and also others , but for sure no one can deny his prestigious position in the history of islamic philosophy and world philosophy more broadly .

Add new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.