Once a week.
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
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.
Bentham's mummified remains, known as the "Auto-icon."
Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
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.
A Japanese wood print of Bodhidharma
Image: Public Domain
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.
Austrian-British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein.
Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
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.
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 as depicted in the middle ages.
Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
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.
Kant, he was ordinary; maybe too ordinary.
Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
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 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."
- Twisted humor and life advice from Diogenes the Cynic - Big Think ›
- Hidden philosophy of the Pythagorean theorem - Big Think ›
These alien-like creatures are virtually invisible in the deep sea.
- A team of marine biologists used nets to catch 16 species of deep-sea fish that have evolved the ability to be virtually invisible to prey and predators.
- "Ultra-black" skin seems to be an evolutionary adaptation that helps fish camouflage themselves in the deep sea, which is illuminated by bioluminescent organisms.
- There are likely more, and potentially much darker, ultra-black fish lurking deep in the ocean.
A team of marine biologists has discovered 16 species of "ultra-black" fish that absorb more than 99 percent of the light that hits their skin, making them virtually invisible to other deep-sea fish.
The researchers, who published their findings Thursday in Current Biology, caught the species after dropping nets more than 200 meters deep near California's Monterey Bay. At those depths, sunlight fizzles out. That's one reason why many deep-sea species have evolved the ability to illuminate the dark waters through bioluminescence.
But what if deep-sea fish don't want to be spotted? To counter bioluminescence, some species have evolved ultra-black skin that's exceptionally good at absorbing light. Only a few other species are known to possess this strange trait, including birds of paradise and some spiders and butterflies.
The Pacific blackdragon
Credit: Karen Osborn/Smithsonian
When researchers first saw the deep-sea species, it wasn't immediately obvious that their skin was ultra-black. Then, marine biologist Karen Osborn, a co-author on the new paper, noticed something strange about the photos she took of the fish.
"I had tried to take pictures of deep-sea fish before and got nothing but these really horrible pictures, where you can't see any detail," Osborn told Wired. "How is it that I can shine two strobe lights at them and all that light just disappears?"
After examining samples of fish skin under the microscope, the researchers discovered that the fish skin contains a layer of organelles called melanosomes, which contain melanin, the same pigment that gives color to human skin and hair. This layer of melanosomes absorbs most of the light that hits them.
A crested bigscale
Credit: Karen Osborn/Smithsonian
"But what isn't absorbed side-scatters into the layer, and it's absorbed by the neighboring pigments that are all packed right up close to it," Osborn told Wired. "And so what they've done is create this super-efficient, very-little-material system where they can basically build a light trap with just the pigment particles and nothing else."
The result? Strange and terrifying deep-sea species, like the crested bigscale, fangtooth, and Pacific blackdragon, all of which appear in the deep sea as barely more than faint silhouettes.
David Csepp, NMFS/AKFSC/ABL
But interestingly, this unique disappearing trick wasn't passed on to these species by a common ancestor. Rather, they each developed it independently. As such, the different species use their ultra-blackness for different purposes. For example, the threadfin dragonfish only has ultra-black skin during its adolescent years, when it's rather defenseless, as Wired notes.
Other fish—like the oneirodes species, which use bioluminescent lures to bait prey—probably evolved ultra-black skin to avoid reflecting the light their own bodies produce. Meanwhile, species like C. acclinidens only have ultra-black skin around their gut, possibly to hide light of bioluminescent fish they've eaten.
Given that these newly described species are just ones that this team found off the coast of California, there are likely many more, and possibly much darker, ultra-black fish swimming in the deep ocean.
Information may not seem like something physical, yet it has become a central concern for physicists. A wonderful new book explores the importance of the "dataome" for the physical, biological, and human worlds.
- The most important current topic in physics relates to a subject that hardly seems physical at all — information, which is central to thermodynamics and perhaps the universe itself.
- The "dataome" is the way human beings have been externalizing information about ourselves and the world since we first began making paintings on cave walls.
- The dataome is vast and growing everyday, sucking up an ever increasing share of the energy humans produce.
Physics is a field that is supposed to study real stuff. By real, I mean things like matter and energy. Matter is, of course, the kind of stuff you can hold in your hand. Energy may seem a little more abstract, but its reality is pretty apparent, appearing in the form of motion or gravity or electromagnetic fields.
What has become apparent recently, however, is the importance to physics of something that seems somewhat less real: information. From black holes to quantum mechanics to understanding the physics of life, information has risen to become a principal concern of many physicists in many domains. This new centrality of information is why you really need to read astrophysicist Caleb Scharf's new book The Ascent of Information: Books, Bits, Machines, and Life's Unending Algorithms.
Scharf is currently the director of the Astrobiology Program at Columbia University. He is also the author of four other books as well as a regular contributor to Scientific American.
(Full disclosure: Scharf and I have been collaborators on a scientific project involving the Fermi Paradox, so I was a big fan before I read this new book. Of course, the reason why I collaborated with him is because I really like the way he thinks, and his creativity in tackling tough problems is on full display in The Ascent of Information.)
What is the dataome?
In his new book, Scharf is seeking a deeper understanding of what he calls the "dataome." This is the way human beings have been externalizing information about ourselves and the world since we first began making paintings on cave walls. The book opens with a compelling exploration of how Shakespeare's works, which began as scribbles on a page, have gone on to have lives of their own in the dataome. Through reprintings in different languages, recordings of performances, movie adaptations, comic books, and so on, Shakespeare's works are now a permanent part of the vast swirling ensemble of information that constitutes the human dataome.
I found gems in these parts of the book that forced me to put the volume down and stare into space for a time to deal with their impact.
But the dataome does not just live in our heads. Scharf takes us on a proper physicist's journey through the dataome, showing us how information can never be divorced from energy. Your brain needs the chemical energy from food you ate this morning to read, process, and interpret these words. One of the most engaging parts of the book is when Scharf details just how much energy and real physical space our data-hungry world consumes as it adds to the dataome. For example, the Hohhot Data Center in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region of China is made of vast "farms" of data processing servers covering 245 acres of real estate. A single application like Bitcoin, Scharf tells us, consumes 7.7 gigawatts per year, equivalent to the output of half a dozen nuclear reactors!
Information is everywhere
But the dataome is not just about energy. Entropy is central to the story as well. Scharf takes the reader through a beautifully crafted discussion of information and the science of thermodynamics. This is where the links between energy, entropy, the limits of useful work, and probability all become profoundly connected to the definition of information.
The second law of thermodynamics tells us that you cannot use all of a given amount of energy to do useful work. Some of that energy must be wasted by getting turned into heat. Entropy is the physicist's way of measuring that waste (which can also be thought of as disorder). Scharf takes the reader through the basic relations of thermodynamics and then shows how entropy became intimately linked with information. It was Claude Shannon's brilliant work in the 1940s that showed how information — bits — could be defined for communication and computation as an entropy associated with the redundancy of strings of symbols. That was the link tying the physical world of physics explicitly to the informational and computational world of the dataome.
The best parts of the book are where Scharf unpacks how information makes its appearance in biology. From the data storage and processing that occurs with every strand of DNA, to the tangled pathways that define evolutionary dynamics, Scharf demonstrates how life is what happens to physics and chemistry when information matters. I found gems in these parts of the book that forced me to put the volume down and stare into space for a time to deal with their impact.
The physics of information
There are a lot of popular physics books out there about black holes and exoplanets and other cool stuff. But right now, I feel like the most important topic in physics relates to a subject that hardly seems physical at all. Information is a relatively new addition to the physics bestiary, making it even more compelling. If you are looking for a good introduction to how that is so, The Ascent of Information is a good place to start.
A new study tested to what extent dogs can sense human deception.
Is humanity's best friend catching on to our shenanigans? Researchers at the University of Vienna discovered that dogs can in certain cases know when people are lying.
The scientists carried out a study with hundreds of dogs to determine to what extent dogs could spot deception. The team's new paper, published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, outlined experiments that tested whether dogs, like humans, have some inner sense of how to assess truthfulness.
As the researchers wrote in their paper, "Among non-primates, dogs (Canis familiaris) constitute a particularly interesting case, as their social environment has been shared with humans for at least 14,000 years. For this reason, dogs have been considered as a model species for the comparative investigation of socio-cognitive abilities." The investigation focused specifically on understanding if dogs were "sensitive to some mental or psychological states of humans."
The experiments involved 260 dogs, which were made to listen to advice from a human "communicator" whom they did not know. The human told them which one of two bowls had a treat hidden inside by touching it and saying, "Look, this is very good!" If the dogs took the person's advice, they would get the treat.
Once they established the trust of the dogs, the researchers then complicated the experience by letting dogs watch another human that they did not know transfer the treat from one bowl to another. In some cases, the original communicator would also be present to watch but not always.
The findings revealed that half of the dogs did not follow the advice of the communicator if that person was not present when the food was switched to a different bowl. The dogs had a sense that this human could not have known the true location of the treat. Furthermore, two-thirds of the dogs ignored the human's suggestion if she did see the food switch but pointed to the wrong bowl. The dogs figured out the human was lying to them.
Photos of experiments showing the dog, human communicator, and person hiding the treat. Credit: Lucrezia Lonardo et al / Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
"We thought dogs would behave like children under age five and apes, but now we speculate that perhaps dogs can understand when someone is being deceitful," co-author Ludwig Huber from the University of Vienna told New Scientist. "Maybe they think, 'This person has the same knowledge as me, and is nevertheless giving me the wrong [information].' It's possible they could see that as intentionally misleading, which is lying."
This is not the first time such experiments have been carried out. Previously, children under age five, macaques, and chimps were tested in a similar way. It turned out that children and other animals were more likely than dogs to listen to the advice of the liars. Notably, among the dogs, terriers were found to be more like children and apes, more eagerly following false suggestions.