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.
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Langer, Susanne Katherina Knauth (1895–1985)

Susanne Langer received her degree in philosophy from Radcliffe College, the female coordinate College of the all-male Harvard University, in 1920. During her time at Radcliffe College Langer laid the foundations for pivotal contributions to the philosophy of art and aesthetics in the mid-twentieth century. Remaining at Radcliffe College as a tutor until 1942, Langer focused on the centrality of the symbolic realm to all human endeavour and communication. Her focus found particular clarity in the study of creative pursuits, inner feeling, and symbolic expression.

Symbolization was key to her philosophy, which she established in the text, Philosophy in a New Key: A Study in the Symbolism of Reason, Rite and Art (1941). This work outlined symbolism as the ‘new key’ through which meaning-making in the human mind could be read. It allowed for multiple interpretations of symbolisation including fixed and mutable points of reference, as well as the complex interplay of intended and received meaning between different people. Writing in response to the prevailing philosophies of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Langer, greatly influenced by the Idealist tradition of Ernst Cassirer and the logical-positivist school of Wittgenstein and Russell, forged her own path forward as a bridge between the two traditions. She chose to focus on the mind as an ordering, symbol-led device, used by people to grasp all of reality in complex forms, foregoing any reliance on narrow scientific methods in order to do so.

Langer situated the centrality of the symbolic realm to the creative arts in Problems of Art (1957), a work which deserves a seminal place in the philosophy of art. It outlined the complex communication between the inner contemplation of the artist, outer expression, and the mind which absorbs the presentation of art, language, music etc. Throughout her work Langer highlighted the primacy of abstraction as the unique human endeavour, making connections between artistic practice, form, and meaning which remain influential in the field today.

Read more about Susanne Langer here.

Previous Philosophers of the Month

March 2020: Gertrude Elizabeth Margaret Anscombe

G.E.M. Anscombe dedicated her philosophical career to original and impactful studies of intention (Intention, 1957), causation (Collected Philosophical Papers, 1981) and morality. Her writing often broke with tradition and challenged taken-for-granted positions on facts, morality and truth. A pre-eminent analytic philosopher, Anscombe tackled a long line of English moral philosophers, and pursued a sustained critique of Hume’s philosophy to secure a seminal place for herself within the philosophy of mind, action theory, moral philosophy, ethics and the philosophy of logic. 

She played a significant role translating Wittgenstein, producing the go-to translation for Philosophical Investigations (1953) as well as the explicatory text: An Introduction to Wittgenstein’s Tractatus (1959). As a close friend, many read Anscombe’s philosophical preoccupations through Wittgenstein to highlight the points of confluence in their work. But her contribution remains unique as much as it is indebted, she wrote on topics such as war, euthanasia, and contraception when such subjects were not considered adequately philosophical by her contemporaries in analytical philosophy.  

A rigorous thread of logic characterises her discussion of the moral issues of the day, including the moral philosophy
being taught at Oxford. Unable to accept that any such teaching could be considered ‘ethically neutral’, Anscombe argued for the multifarious and mutable motivations and meanings which lay beneath rigid concepts like causation, intention, good, and bad. Influencing leading philosophers like Donald Davidson, Philippa Foot and Michael Thompson through her distinctive theory of action and approach to ethics and morality, Anscombe’s body of work remains richly comprehensive and worthy of our time today. 

Read the full entry for G.E.M Anscombe here.

Najm al-Din-al-Kubra Mausoleum

January 2020: Najm al-Din al-Kubra (540–617/1145–1220)

Najm al-Din al-Kubra was a 13th century Sufi pioneer, whose life and works helped to establish a tradition of Sufism which persists to this day. Born in Khwarazm, modern day central Asia, and the historical centre for the Iranian Khwarezmian civilisation, Kubra travelled throughout the Muslim world of his time, pursuing a vocation as a scholar of Islamic Traditions (hadith) and theology (‘ilm al-kalam). His relationship to Sufism began in Egypt, and was cemented in Tabriz, Iran where he became a murid (Sufi novice) and was later granted spiritual authority to teach and initiate disciples himself. 

Continuing in this vein led to the creation of his own Sufi cloisters wherein a large number of disciples passed through, who themselves would become prominent teachers and exponents of Sufism. No longer concerned with traditional Islamic sciences, Kubra focused on his own writing and teaching within Sufism’s visionary framework. His most influential work, the Fawa’ih al-jamal wa fawatih al-jalal (loosely, Aromas of Beauty and Preambles of Majesty) is a manual of mystical psychology, detailing his own visions and ecstatic experiences, recounted for the benefit of the murid on their Sufi path. Preparing the Sufi novice for the possible states (ahwal), stations (maqamat), and ‘interior events’ (waqi‘a) such as dreams or visions which characterise the Sufi path came to shape Kubra’s output and legacy.  

The reach of Kubra’s work established itself through the influential order which bears his name, the Kubrawiyya. The order would later extend itself throughout Central Asia and as far east as the Muslim regions of China, whilst Kubrawi saints influenced mysticism on the Indian subcontinent, people today are able to draw links between the Kubrawiyya and the key tenets of yoga.

Read the full entry for Najm al-Din al-Kubra here.


November 2019: Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860)

Arthur Schopenhauer was a German philosopher, whose magnum opus, The World as Will (1918) attempted to establish his reputation as one of the foremost thinkers of his time. The central focus of this text outlined a complex metaphysics of ‘the will’ which severely criticised Kant’s epistemology. Ranging in focus on subjects as diverse as nature, the self, art, as well as scientific, religious, and aesthetic values. The core argument of the text defined the subjective will as the ‘striving’, non-rational will which defines all action, reflection and representation in and of the world. 

Despite the unique focus of his philosophical work, Schopenhauer’s reputation struggled to establish itself in his own time, considered at turns too literary and rhetorical by analytical philosophers; too metaphysical by the logical positivists and scientific naturalists; too ahistorical and apolitical by the Hegelians and phenomenologists. 

The interdisciplinary range of his ideas can be seen to have established themselves more successfully in the 20th century, perhaps most interestingly, amongst various artists and writers who invoke Schopenhauer in their work including Gide, Beckett, and Borges. In addition to this influence, recent scholarship and attention has aimed to situate Schopenhauer more firmly within the history of philosophy, not just as a precursor, or influencer of seminal philosophers and thinkers like Nietzsche, Freud, and Wittgenstein but as a philosopher who made fundamental contributions to metaphysics, and who deserves to be read in his own right.

Read the full entry for Arthur Schopenhauer here.


September 2019: Michel Foucault (1926-84)

Michel Foucault was a French philosopher and historian, committed to the study of power and knowledge, his most famous works include The Birth of the Clinic (1973), Discipline and Punish (1977), and his far-reaching four-volume study, The History of Sexuality (1978-2018). 

Foucault’s seminal place in the canon of French philosophy was set into motion in 1946 when he began studies at the École Normale Supérieure where Louis Althusser served as the philosophy tutor, deeply influencing Foucault and many of his contemporaries. Making a break with the Sartrean subject/object focus which held sway in postwar France, Foucault’s central contribution was to re-focus attention on to the impersonal, abstract, and historically specific structures which brought people into existence. Tracing the lines of connection between the knowledge, power, and ethics implicit in these structures led to his distinctive historical studies of madness, prisons, the organization of knowledge, and sexuality. 

The clarity and currency of Foucault’s ideas led to him taking up the Chair for the History of Systems of Thought at the Collège de France in 1970 until his death in 1984. Whilst his core conceptualisation of the intricate power relations which sit behind false appeals to freedom remain prescient today, maintaining wide influence across the humanities, social and medical sciences. 

Iris Murdoch

July 2019: Iris Murdoch (1919-99)

Iris Murdoch was a British novelist and philosopher, best known for her works of fiction such as ‘The Sea, The Sea’, ‘The Bell’ and ‘The Black Prince’. Murdoch spent most of her life dedicated to her literary and philosophical pursuits. She published 26 novels, 5 works of philosophy and lectured on philosophy for 15 years at St Anne's College in Oxford.

Murdoch's achievements as a philosopher were often over-shadowed by her success as a novelist but her philosophical views on morality, sexual relationships and the nature of self-consciousness permeated throughout her fiction as much as her philosophical works. Inspired by the likes of Simone Weil, Plato and Sartre, Murdoch’s philosophical work comments on the importance of the 'inner' life to moral action. Her fiction provided a platform to enact moral dilemmas while her philosophical works delved deeper into the machinations behind the moral actions.

In recent years, however, a re-appraisal on Murdoch’s contribution to philosophy has recognised her substantial role in post-war Anglo-American philosophy, particularly for her unfashionably prescient work in moral philosophy. Two of her works, The Sovereignty of Good (1970) and Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals (1992), broke new ground in re-introducing ethics as a topic for discussion within the British philosophical tradition.

Dorothea Erxleben

June 2019: Dorothea Erxleben (1715–62)

Dorothea Erxleben was the first woman in Germany to become a doctor of medicine and was also the author of a feminist treatise advocating the admission of women to schools and universities.

Educated and trained by her father who was a local doctor, Erxleben lamented the fact that she was unable to gain a formal qualification to practice medicine on the simple basis that she was a woman. Frustrated she wrote down her thoughts on the exclusion of women from schools and universities which was then subsequently published as a book in 1742. Despite calls of 'quackery' Erxleben went on to pass all of her exams and received her doctorate in medicine becoming the first female medical doctor in theGerman states. She continued to practise medicine until her death in 1762.

Her work of 1742 is one of the most significant pieces of Enlightenment feminist theory, yet it has been surprisingly neglected. Erxleben criticizes the standard prejudices, faulty arguments, and social impediments that exclude women from schooling in general and academic studies in particular. She does so with steadfast appeal to logic, standards of empirical evidence, and the generally shared values of the times, aiming to clear up prejudices with rational argument.

Mary Warnock

April 2019: 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.

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. 

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.