7 of the most eccentric philosophers who ever lived

Philosophers can be pretty eccentric. Here we list seven of the most out there. Yes, Diogenes is included.

  • Eccentricity is a hallmark of great philosophers.
  • They remind us that taking an idea to its logical extreme can occasionally give strange results.
  • They show us that even the most brilliant people can be a bit odd from time to time.


Philosophers are an eccentric bunch. They enjoy studying things that are as academic as they come, often ask questions that seem insane to others, and have the patience to put up with other philosophers. Some, however, stand above the rest in their eccentricity. Here we have seven of the most far-out thinkers of all time, though this list is far from exhaustive.

Jeremy Bentham

Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Bentham's mummified remains, known as the "Auto-icon."

English philosopher Jeremy Bentham was the founder of utilitarianism, the ethical theory that argues that the best thing to do is that which maximizes the total happiness. He was a rather eccentric fellow in life.

He was a bit reclusive, named his walking stick, used overly complicated language for the fun of it, and was convinced that opposition to his Panopticon was organized by a vast conspiracy against the common good. This paranoia motivated his interest in reform during the later part of his life.

It was in death, however, that he reached his greatest eccentricity. In his will, he demanded that his remains be dissected publicly by a friend of his. Invitations were sent out to see the great philosopher opened up. After this, his remains were mummified and placed in a glass case as an "Auto-Icon." It remains on display at University College London to this day. His head was rendered too macabre for display, however, and a wax copy embedded with his hair was created to complete the image.

He also bequeathed 26 "mourning rings" to esteemed friends, like John Stuart Mill. The rings featured a silhouette of his bust and strands of his hair. Six of them have been located; the hunt is still on for the remaining 20.

Bodhidharma

\u200bA Japanese wood print of Bodhidharma

Image: Public Domain

A Japanese wood print of Bodhidharma

Every great Zen master is a little eccentric; it practically comes with the title. The founder of Zen was no exception. Coming to China out of south or central Asia, he lived an interesting life that is recorded in a series of legends.

When he arrived in China, he was asked to give a lecture on Buddhism. He proceeded to sit and meditate in front of the audience for hours. When he finished, he stood up and walked away.

This drew the attention of the Emperor, a patron of Buddhism who wanted to meet the Indian monk. The Emperor asked his guest how much merit he had acquired through his support of monasteries and was told, "no merit whatsoever, there is nothing holy in the void." Taken aback by the holy man's statement, the king then asked who he was speaking to, since he couldn't be a holy man. Bodhidharma replied, "I don't know."

After this meeting, he headed north in hopes of joining the Shaolin Monastery. When they didn't let him in, he started meditating in a cave nearby for nine years. When they did let him in as a teacher, he was so shocked at the poor shape of the monks that he added martial arts to his curriculum. This is the alleged source of Shaolin Kung Fu.

Ludwig Wittgenstein

Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Austrian-British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Wittgenstein was a brilliant philosopher who changed the way we think about language. He did this despite only publishing two books.

He famously stopped working on philosophy after the publication of his first book, since he felt that he had reduced all further philosophy to language problems and only had the second published after his death. During the interlude between philosophy gigs, he gave away his massive inheritance to his siblings, became a physically abusive school teacher, and designed a house with his brother.

During the construction, he found he was unsatisfied with one room. He saw the problem, though; the ceiling was three centimeters too low. He demanded that the issue be fixed. It was.

In another amusing incident, he was once arguing with guest lecturer Karl Popper when they both were attending the Moral Sciences Club. During the argument, Wittgenstein was waving a fire poker about to emphasize his points while he also used it to stoke the fire. He became increasingly aggressive with his gestures as the debate got more heated. At one point, Wittgenstein demanded that Popper give an example of a moral rule to which Popper replied, "thou shall not threaten visiting lectures with fire pokers." Wittgenstein stormed out after hearing this.

Slavoj Žižek

Zizek is one of the most famous living philosophers. Working in the Marxist, psychoanalytic, and German Idealist traditions, he has spent his career being a bit unorthodox. He has many excellent interviews here with Big Think.

He is well known for his tics; in the above video you can see him frequently wiping his nose and ending his sentences with his trademark "and so on and so on." Allegedly, this a way to cover for his very noticeable lisp. As he explains in this bizarre interview, he also uses these tics to demonstrate that he is mad to students who ask for advice. These tics have evolved, and you can watch him here speaking reasonably clearly without them.

He has also done several minor stunts to make a point about the state of modern academia. In 2003, he famously wrote the text for a series of Abercrombie and Fitch photographs. When asked why he did this, he explained:

"If I were asked to choose between doing things like this to earn money and becoming fully employed as an American academic, kissing ass to get a tenured post, I would with pleasure choose writing for such journals!"

Here you can watch him explain the failures of the modern political left while he makes pasta.

Pythagoras

Pythagoras as depicted in the middle ages.

Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Pythagoras as depicted in the middle ages.

Pythagoras was a Greek thinker who has a famous mathematical theorem named for him even though he probably didn't discover it. He was well known as a mystic, and his philosophy of living was embraced by a cult that was somewhat popular for a short while. During his lifetime, his school of living, called Pythagoreanism, was what he was best known for.

Pythagoras' cult had many bizarre customs; members could not take public roads, eat beans, bake bread, or put their left shoe on first. By some accounts, he was killed by an angry mob that pursued him to the edge of a bean field. Not wanting to touch the beans, he stood at the side of the field until the mob caught up to him and bludgeoned him to death.

Immanuel Kant

Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Kant, he was ordinary; maybe too ordinary.

Kant was one of the most brilliant human beings of all time. His ideas have influenced nearly all subsequent philosophy and are also influential in science.

His eccentricity was all the opposites of other thinkers on this list. He was quite normal, too normal. His daily routine was so regular that his neighbors were said to set their clocks by when he went out for his walk, it occurred at precisely the same time each day. He took the same route each day, with only two exceptions.

His breakfast was, invariably, two cups of tea and the smoking of a pipe. The only meal he ate was lunch. He left his hometown once for a tutoring gig, and even his parties were planned out in exact detail with the tone of conversation strictly regulated.

Of course, the clockwork routine worked. He got more done in the latter half of his life than most people could do in three lifetimes and he made it to 79 years of age despite his weak constitution.

Diogenes 

Diogenes Searching for an Honest Man by Johann Tischbein.

Our final entry is perhaps the most eccentric philosopher of all time, which as you can see is truly an achievement. He was the greatest of the Cynical philosophers, and he practiced what he preached. Diogenes took the philosophy of Cynicism to its logical endpoint and strove to send up the culture around him while living as simply as possible. There was a method to this madness though: He wanted to help people see beyond the norms that shaped their lives.

He lived in a wine barrel in Athens and owned only a cloak and staff. He had owned a bowl until he noticed a child drinking water with his hands, inspiring him to destroy the dish in the name of simple living. When asked what he desired the king of Greece to give him, he told Alexander the Great to "stop blocking the sunlight." He often practiced his begging by asking statues for money, so he would learn not to be disappointed if he was refused. He was known to relieve himself in public and walked backwards down the street to confuse other pedestrians.

On one occasion, he overheard Plato lecturing at his academy where he defined man as a "featherless biped." Diogenes quickly ran out and plucked a chicken. He returned to Plato and shouted "Behold! I've brought you a man!" in front of the audience. Plato later added the qualifier, "with broad flat nails" to his definition.

You can understand why Plato described Diogenes as "A Socrates gone mad."

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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?


Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence
to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.


Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like
violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students
do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones,
speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment
to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on
controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
    Patriotic.

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.


Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.

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