Looking for inspiration? Here you’ll meet a different philosopher every month. Read about renowned thinkers from a range of intellectual domains and make new discoveries too.
Sign up to our newsletter to receive alerts when we add a new featured philosopher. 
Mary Warnock

Mary Warnock (1924–2019)

Although many distinguished twentieth-century British philosophers made significant contributions to the wider worlds of public life and policy in their home country, surely few could match Mary Warnock’s achievements in this regard. Indeed, Warnock’s high-profile role within numerous official commissions of enquiry into a range of issues of pressing contemporary concern (including environmental pollution, animal experimentation, and human fertilization) lead to her gaining a notable public reputation in the United Kingdom.

Warnock’s public career as a professional educationalist and ethical consultant was also reflected in the academic areas where her thought had most impact. Her abiding educational concern to communicate the value and purposes of philosophy to a wider public was also expressed in her extensive published output on the history of philosophy, especially on phenomenology and existentialism. Within the area of applied ethics, Warnock was at the very forefront of thought of how recent advances in modern medicine—such as in vitro fertilization and embryo research—might be normatively addressed with a view to the framing of public policy and legislation. She also made notable contributions to the philosophical study of ethics, aesthetics and imagination.

Warnock’s efforts to apply her ideas to the wider problems of policy and practice mark her out as a singular figure in contemporary philosophy. It is hard to think of any others who have similarly combined extraordinary academic fertility with a no less extraordinary extra-academic public and professional profile.

Read the full entry for Mary Warnock here.

Previous Philosophers of the Month

John Ruskin

February 2019: John Ruskin (1819–1900)

John Ruskin was the foremost fine art critic in mid-Victorian Britain. Between 1846 and 1856 his interest in medieval history, the history of the Christian Church and Turner’s work led him on to the study of architecture and his series of architectural studies, in their celebration of the Gothic style, were to play a crucial role in its mid-century revival.

It was to be in the 1860s and 1870s that Ruskin began to focus directly on contemporary social and economic issues, and to formulate a distinctive political economy in opposition to that purveyed by J.S. Mill and the classical school.

Ruskin’s contributions to political economy were offered at a time when market capitalism had acquired a hegemonic status, delivering substantial and rapid economic progress. But Ruskin refused to accept the measures of economic success purveyed by contemporary economic orthodoxy. For Ruskin, success lay not in maximizing the rate of economic growth or amassing material possessions. It was about ‘the producing of as many as possible, full-breathed, bright-eyed and happy-hearted human creatures’.

In articulating such notions, in highlighting the manner in which Victorian Britain had failed, Ruskin’s work served to remind contemporaries of the great moral, social and aesthetic price that had been paid for what passed for economic progress. 

© Getty / Popperfoto / Contributor

January 2019: Maurice O’Connor Drury

Maurice O'Connor Drury was born in Marlborough, Wiltshire of Irish parents. His accounts of his friendship with Ludwig Wittgenstein are widely cited. Their association began in Cambridge in 1929 where Drury was a philosophy student and continued until Wittgenstein’s death in 1951. Influenced by Wittgenstein, Drury abandoned preparations for ordination in the Anglican Church and took up studies in medicine in Dublin. He served in the Royal Army Medical Corps during World War II and afterwards returned to Ireland to specialise in psychiatry. He retained a deep interest in philosophy as evident in his extant correspondence with Rush Rhees, Wittgenstein’s literary executor, with whom he shared a special interest in religion. Drury’s book, The Danger of Words (1973), shines a Wittgensteinian light on the practice of medicine – psychiatry in particular. See: The Selected Writings of Maurice O’Connor Drury on Wittgenstein, Philosophy, Religion and Psychiatry (Bloomsbury, 2017).

© Getty / Popperfoto / Contributor

December 2018: Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass was among America’s foremost intellectual leaders fighting for the abolition of slavery and advancement of human rights. He also advocated for women’s right to vote. His famous book, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave (1845), was widely admired and impactful before and after the Civil War. Douglass was politically influential too. Among his successes, he urged President Abraham Lincoln to make the Emancipation Proclamation during the Civil War. Douglass later served as U.S. Marshal for the District of Columbia (1877–1881) and U.S. Minister to Haiti (1889–1891). His writings forcefully expose and denounce prejudice in all forms. His involvement with a variety of socially progressive causes gave substantial shape to the advancement of equal rights and equal opportunities.

© Getty / Popperfoto / Contributor

November 2018: Thinkers on War and Peace

This month, to mark the centenary of the end of the First World War, we’re introducing a number of thinkers who had something to say about war and peace or who were influenced by their wartime experiences.

Best known in many circles as a result of his anti-war protests, Bertrand Russell’s social activism started before the Great War and culminated in his founding of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament during the Cold War. In 1954, in one of his most celebrated talks broadcast by the BBC, Russell condemned the H-Bomb tests: ‘All, equally, are in peril, and if the peril is understood, there is hope that they may collectively avert it.’

Many other figures who lived through the First World War have made a significant contribution to pacifist thought and activism. Herbert Read, poet, critic and philosopher of the arts, fought in France and Belgium and was awarded the Military Cross and the Distinguished Service Order for his service. Yet he too espoused rebellious pacifist beliefs, giving vigorous support to movements such as Ban the Bomb and describing peace as the natural condition of humankind, war as the result of folly and pride.

© Getty / Popperfoto / ContributorPerhaps less well known is the Bostonian pacifist activist, Lucia Mead, who worked alongside Jane Addams to co-found the Women’s Peace Party in 1915. A liberal feminist, she argued for pacifism from a humanistic perspective. She became an even stronger advocate for peace after the war, calling for US support of the effort to establish a world court and a league of nations. Mead devoted much of her life to educational initiatives, developing curricula for schools and churches to teach young people about peace.

If the First World War instilled in Russell, Read and Mead a need to improve the condition of humanity, it seemed to have a somewhat different effect on Russell's erstwhile fellow student Ludwig Wittgenstein. Taken as a prisoner of war on the Italian front, Wittgenstein’s experiences turned his thoughts inward, resulting in early reflections on the conflict between man’s animalistic nature and the desire to achieve an authentic reasoning life.

It was while defending Pasinler in eastern Turkey against the Russians that Said Nursi was also taken as a prisoner of war. After escaping his camp on the Volga and reaching Istanbul in 1918, Nursi withdrew into solitude and underwent a profound mental and spiritual transformation. In the autumn of 1922, he was invited to Ankara, given an official ceremony in the National Assembly, and invited to make a speech to congratulate war veterans and offer prayers.
© Getty / Popperfoto / Contributor

Eugene Debs, socialist, labor activist and one-time presidential candidate, was a very different kind of prisoner of war. After making a speech attacking the war in Ohio in 1918, he was incarcerated for 3 years for violating the Espionage Acts. His most important contribution to socialist thought concerned the relationship between capitalism and war.

Other figures, whose writings did not necessarily focus on war and peace, combined their study and application of philosophy with active participation in military affairs. Arthur Balfour is well-known as an ex-prime minister who issued the controversial Balfour Declaration in 1917 which established a homeland for the Jewish people in Palestine. During some of his busiest years in politics, Balfour was known to leave the House of Commons during evening debates to join the philosophical society he helped to create.

© Getty / Popperfoto / Contributor

October 2018: Kwame Anthony Appiah

Chair of judges for the 2018 Man Booker Prize for Fiction, Kwame Anthony Appiah is a novelist and cultural theorist, standing among the greatest living American philosophers at the beginning of the twenty-first century for his work on cosmopolitanism and issues surrounding cultural difference and personal and political identity. He has authored numerous books in philosophy, three novels, and has edited twenty anthology projects, including the multi-tome Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African-American Experience (2005) and The Encyclopedia of Africa (2010), both co-edited with Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

© Getty / Popperfoto / Contributor

September 2018: Charles Sanders Peirce

Charles Sanders Peirce made significant contributions to astronomy and statistics. He became an internationally respected scientist during the late 1800s, but he put even more effort into scientific methodology, logic, and philosophy. Peirce was the first intellectual in the world who was both an important scientist utilizing experimental techniques and a superb philosopher advancing fundamental insights. Before Peirce, only a few thinkers combined scientific and philosophical expertise, and not coincidentally they count among the most important philosophers of all time, such as Thomas Hobbes, René Descartes, G.W. Leibniz, and Immanuel Kant. Peirce inspired generations of pragmatists from William James and John Dewey to W.V. Quine and Hilary Putnam, and his work was developed into new areas of thought, such as algebraic logic, process philosophy, process theology, semiotics, and symbolic interactionism.