Thomas Hobbes was an English philosopher who wrote during the 17th century. He was active in physics, geometry, law, history, and translation studies, among other fields, but is best remembered for pioneering social contract theory, which posits that society begins when individuals agree to subordinate their freedom to an authority in exchange for protection and stability.

Hobbes entered the world prematurely on April 5, 1588, in Wiltshire, England. His birth was induced by the terror his mother felt upon hearing news of the coming Spanish Armada. Hobbes later jested that his “mother gave birth to twins: myself and fear.”

Hobbes’s…


William James was a 19th century American philosopher who co-founded the school of pragmatism, which presents truth as contextual and useful rather than universal and certain. Born into a wealthy family, he was delivered on January 11, 1842 at the Astor House, the first luxury hotel in New York City. His grandfather had been an Irish immigrant and a rags-to-riches story, and his father, upon inheriting the former’s fortune, lost the need to work and turned to religion to find meaning in life, becoming a Christian theologian. William was the eldest of his siblings, which included the famous novelist Henry…


René Descartes was a French philosopher, scientist, and mathematician of the 17th century. During his lifetime, he participated in a variety of fields, notably optics, geometry, and astronomy. He was the first to publish a text on the laws of refraction, or what governs the bending of light as it passes from one medium to another. He invented analytic geometry, which uses a coordinate system to represent geometric figures with algebraic equations. And he theorized that the sun and planets had coalesced from whirlpools of swirling particles — a precursor to modern astronomy’s nebular hypothesis. He even correctly calculated the…


Gottfried Leibniz was a German philosopher and polymath of the early modern period. Born in Leipzig on July 1, 1646, he was raised by his mother from the age of six after his father, an ethics professor, passed away in 1652. Leibniz inherited his father’s extensive library, which facilitated his early self-education in a variety of advanced subjects. Leibniz was a high achiever, earning his bachelor’s degree at age 15, his master’s degree at age 16, and his doctorate of law at age 18. His first job out of school was a secretarial position for an alchemical society.

Throughout his…


William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was a Black sociologist, racial justice advocate, and socialist who lived in the period of American history between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of desegregation.

Born in 1868, Du Bois was raised by his mother after his father fled the family when Du Bois was two years old. He grew up in a racially tolerant Massachusetts town where he played with white classmates at school. At 16 years old, Du Bois graduated valedictorian of his high school and went on to become the first African American to earn a Ph.D. from…


Rosa Luxemburg was a Polish-German political theorist and Marxist revolutionary who championed internationalism, anti-militarism, and democratic socialism. She was born in Russian-ruled Poland on March 5th, 1871. Luxemburg belonged to a lower-middle class family and was the youngest of five siblings. Her father was a timber trader who supported liberal ideas. Her mother was a religious woman who was well-read and kept books in the home. At the age of five, Luxemburg suffered a hip displacement that beset her with a limp for the rest of her life. Her status as a disabled Polish Jewish woman made her a veritable…


Ludwig Wittgenstein was an Austrian logician and philosopher of language responsible for the “linguistic turn” that directed philosophy’s attention to the relationship between words and the world. Regarded by many as the greatest thinker of the 20th century, Wittgenstein was a peculiar man who eschewed fame and fortune and spent long periods of time in modest vocations that many felt were beneath him. Nevertheless, he authored seminal works on the structure and limits of language that offer insightful lessons to the technical and layperson alike.

Wittgenstein was born on April 26th, 1889 in Vienna, Austria to the second richest family…


Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel was born in Stuttgart, Germany in 1770. He was a bright child who excelled at his studies from an early age. At 13, his mother contracted a “bilious fever,” which she transmitted to both Hegel and his father. While she succumbed to the illness, the two men narrowly survived.

As a young man, Hegel went to seminary school and earned a certificate in theology. He spent his life occupying various tutoring and university positions and wrote in his free time. In November of 1831 Hegel died of cholera after an epidemic had broken out earlier that…


Immanuel Kant was an 18th century German philosopher whose synthesis of rationalism and empiricism, teleological view of human history, and deontological ethics, to name but a few of his contributions, had a tremendous influence on subsequent philosophy. Kant was born in 1724 in German Prussia to intelligent and deeply religious parents who raised him under Pietism: a sect of Christianity that emphasizes personal devotion to God and moral law. He was the fourth of nine children, but the eldest surviving. Kant received a strict, disciplinary education focused on religious instruction. After graduating, Kant moved on to the University of Königsberg.


David Hume is a Scottish philosopher from the 18th century. He sought to steer philosophy away from its speculative tendencies and refocus it on the scientific method.

Hume is an empiricist, holding that knowledge ought to be sought through observation of the physical world rather than abstract theorizing.

Observation entails both impressions and ideas — Hume’s two categories of perception, or “mental content.” Impressions impart sensory data and elicit emotions while ideas interpret impressions using thought and reason. This notion that ideas are derived from impressions is known as Hume’s Copy Principle, which Hume describes in the following way:

“All…

Austin Tannenbaum

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