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Raphael, The School Of Athens, 1509  | © Adonia~commonswiki
Raphael, The School Of Athens, 1509 | © Adonia~commonswiki

Famous Philosophers From London You Should Know

Picture of Yasser Kayani
Updated: 15 November 2016
From Heraclitus and Buddha, to Sun Tzu, Nietzsche, Ayn Rand and Richard Dawkins, philosophers have sought to speak to us about society and our place in it. London is a bit like Aesop’s metamir: a metaphysical mirror that doesn’t obey the laws of optics but reflects the onlooker as he’s seen by the person standing before him…allowing one to truly know how he appears to others. That metamir has been the breeding ground for these six philosophers born in London.

Jeremy Bentham

The founder of utilitarianism, an ethical system built around the idea of pleasure. He was inspired by hedonism, which pursued physical pleasure and avoided physical pain. According to Bentham’s utilitarian principles – which he developed in London where he first came into the world in 1748 – the most moral acts are those which maximise pleasure and minimise pain, called the utilitarian calculus. Utilitarianism has been embraced by so many simply because it seems to make a good deal of sense and is relatively simple to apply. However, when it was first proposed, utilitarianism was a radical philosophy. It attempted to set forth a moral system apart from divine revelation and biblical morality, providing for a way for people to live moral lives apart from the Bible and its prescriptions. There was no need for an appeal to divine revelation. Reason rather than revelation was sufficient to determine morality. Bentham died in 1832 and, in accordance with his wishes, his body was dissected in the presence of his friends. The skeleton was then reconstructed, supplied with a wax head (the original had been mummified), dressed in Bentham’s own clothes and set-upright in a glass-fronted case. Both the effigy and wax head can be seen at University College, London.


Thomas More

His philosophical work Utopia in 1516 was the forerunner of the utopian literary genre. The genre has also been retrospectively applied to works like Plato’s Republic, upon which Utopia is largely based. More served as an important counselor to King Henry VIII of England, as his key confidante in the early 1500s, but after his refusal to accept the king as head of the Church of England he was tried for treason and beheaded in 1535. More wrote the first formal utopia in which he imagined a complex, self-contained world set on an island, in which communities shared a common culture and way of life. Some commentators interpret Moore’s Utopia as a blueprint for an ideal society that would be desirable to achieve. Others think it is simply a veiled criticism of contemporary European society. It may be both in some senses. Utopia also contains the idea of taking a rationally organised society to its logical conclusion of being agnostic or atheistic, meaning it wouldn’t have a state religion — something of which Moore himself and his deeply religious world would have been shocked about.

Francis Bacon

He once claimed ‘all knowledge as his province’ and afterwards dedicated himself to a wholesale re-structuring of traditional learning. To take the place of the established tradition (a miscellany of Scholasticism, humanism, and natural magic), Bacon proposed an entirely new system based on empirical and inductive principles and the active development of new arts and inventions.  His major contribution to philosophy was his application of inductive reasoning (generalisations based on individual instances), the approach used by modern science, rather than the a priori method of medieval Scholasticism and Aristotelianism. He was an early proponent of Empiricism and the scientific method. Bacon died in 1626 after a hair-brained scheme to test the effects of cold on decaying meat. Bacon caught a cold, developed bronchitis, and died.

Mary Wollstonecraft

Best known for her philosophical and political insightful fervour. Particularly her strenuous and lucid defence of the rights of women in society in her historic A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.  This is nowadays considered as the first manifesto of women’s rights and her most representative legacy.  Wollstonecraft survived domestic violence and had an unusual independent womanhood for her time; to write engaging letters, fiction, history, critical reviews, handbooks and treatises. Her work on coeducational thought was a major early modern influence upon the development of a post-Enlightenment tradition, and continues to hold  relevance today. Celebrated now as an early modern feminist, abolitionist and socialist philosopher, Wollstonecraft had little formal schooling, but still worked as a governess, school-teacher and educational writer.  She died tragically aged only 38 in 1797 during childbirth, but was the mother of  Mary Shelley.

George Henry Lewes

An exponent of the ideas of Auguste Comte, Goethe, Aristotle, Spinoza, Hegel and Kant, and author of the five-volume Problems of Life and Mind, Lewes was a philosophical historian and journalist. The intent of his first book, A Biographical History of Philosophy, was to remove metaphysics from philosophical investigation and focus instead on scientific positivism. Contemporaries such as Darwin, Huxley and John Stuart Mill recognized Lewes’s reputation as a philosopher and expositor of scientific work.  He became part of the mid-Victorian ferment of ideas which encouraged discussion of Darwinism, positivism, and religious scepticism. However, he is perhaps best known today for having openly lived with Mary Ann Evans, who wrote under the pen-name George Eliot.


John Stuart Mill

Mill profoundly influenced the shape of nineteenth century British thought and political discourse in the Victorian era. His substantial corpus of works includes texts in logic, epistemology, economics, social and political philosophy, ethics, metaphysics, religion, and current affairs. Among his most well-known and significant are On Liberty, The Subjection of Women, Three Essays on Religion, and his Autobiography. In his twenties, the younger Mill felt the influence of historicism, French social thought and Romanticism, in the form of thinkers like Coleridge, the St. Simonians, Thomas Carlyle, Goethe and Wordsworth. This led him to begin searching for a new philosophic radicalism that would be more sensitive to the limits on reform imposed by culture and history and would emphasize the cultivation of our humanity, including the cultivation of dispositions of feeling and imagination. While applying utilitarianism in practice to real life (he knew Jeremy Bentham well), Mill espoused the ideals of individuality and nonconformity, urging his readers to engage and value their individualism as a means of pursuing happiness — happiness which should be obtained freely, as long as one is not harming another.