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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."
Innovation in manufacturing has crawled since the 1950s. That's about to speed up.
Health officials in China reported that a man was infected with bubonic plague, the infectious disease that caused the Black Death.
- The case was reported in the city of Bayannur, which has issued a level-three plague prevention warning.
- Modern antibiotics can effectively treat bubonic plague, which spreads mainly by fleas.
- Chinese health officials are also monitoring a newly discovered type of swine flu that has the potential to develop into a pandemic virus.
Bacteria under microscope
needpix.com<p>Today, bubonic plague can be treated effectively with antibiotics.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Unlike in the 14th century, we now have an understanding of how this disease is transmitted," Dr. Shanthi Kappagoda, an infectious disease physician at Stanford Health Care, told <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health-news/seriously-dont-worry-about-the-plague#Heres-how-the-plague-spreads" target="_blank">Healthline</a>. "We know how to prevent it — avoid handling sick or dead animals in areas where there is transmission. We are also able to treat patients who are infected with effective antibiotics, and can give antibiotics to people who may have been exposed to the bacteria [and] prevent them [from] getting sick."</p>
This plague patient is displaying a swollen, ruptured inguinal lymph node, or buboe.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention<p>Still, hundreds of people develop bubonic plague every year. In the U.S., a handful of cases occur annually, particularly in New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado, <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/plague/faq/index.html" target="_blank">where habitats allow the bacteria to spread more easily among wild rodent populations</a>. But these cases are very rare, mainly because you need to be in close contact with rodents in order to get infected. And though plague can spread from human to human, this <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health-news/seriously-dont-worry-about-the-plague#Heres-how-the-plague-spreads" target="_blank">only occurs with pneumonic plague</a>, and transmission is also rare.</p>
A new swine flu in China<p>Last week, researchers in China also reported another public health concern: a new virus that has "all the essential hallmarks" of a pandemic virus.<br></p><p>In a paper published in the <a href="https://www.pnas.org/content/early/2020/06/23/1921186117" target="_blank">Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences</a>, researchers say the virus was discovered in pigs in China, and it descended from the H1N1 virus, commonly called "swine flu." That virus was able to transmit from human to human, and it killed an estimated 151,700 to 575,400 people worldwide from 2009 to 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.</p>There's no evidence showing that the new virus can spread from person to person. But the researchers did find that 10 percent of swine workers had been infected by the virus, called G4 reassortant EA H1N1. This level of infectivity raises concerns, because it "greatly enhances the opportunity for virus adaptation in humans and raises concerns for the possible generation of pandemic viruses," the researchers wrote.
So far, 30 student teams have entered the Indy Autonomous Challenge, scheduled for October 2021.
- The Indy Autonomous Challenge will task student teams with developing self-driving software for race cars.
- The competition requires cars to complete 20 laps within 25 minutes, meaning cars would need to average about 110 mph.
- The organizers say they hope to advance the field of driverless cars and "inspire the next generation of STEM talent."
Indy Autonomous Challenge<p>Completing the race in 25 minutes means the cars will need to average about 110 miles per hour. So, while the race may end up being a bit slower than a typical Indy 500 competition, in which winners average speeds of over 160 mph, it's still set to be the fastest autonomous race featuring full-size cars.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"There is no human redundancy there," Matt Peak, managing director for Energy Systems Network, a nonprofit that develops technology for the automation and energy sectors, told the <a href="https://www.post-gazette.com/business/tech-news/2020/06/01/Indy-Autonomous-Challenge-Indy-500-Indianapolis-Motor-Speedway-Ansys-Aptiv-self-driving-cars/stories/202005280137" target="_blank">Pittsburgh Post-Gazette</a>. "Either your car makes this happen or smash into the wall you go."</p>
Illustration of the Indy Autonomous Challenge
Indy Autonomous Challenge<p>The Indy Autonomous Challenge <a href="https://www.indyautonomouschallenge.com/rules" target="_blank">describes</a> itself as a "past-the-post" competition, which "refers to a binary, objective, measurable performance rather than a subjective evaluation, judgement, or recognition."</p><p>This competition design was inspired by the 2004 DARPA Grand Challenge, which tasked teams with developing driverless cars and sending them along a 150-mile route in Southern California for a chance to win $1 million. But that prize went unclaimed, because within a few hours after starting, all the vehicles had suffered some kind of critical failure.</p>
Indianapolis Motor Speedway
Indy Autonomous Challenge<p>One factor that could prevent a similar outcome in the upcoming race is the ability to test-run cars on a virtual racetrack. The simulation software company Ansys Inc. has already developed a model of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on which teams will test their algorithms as part of a series of qualifying rounds.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"We can create, with physics, multiple real-life scenarios that are reflective of the real world," Ansys President Ajei Gopal told <a href="https://www.wsj.com/articles/autonomous-vehicles-to-race-at-indianapolis-motor-speedway-11595237401?mod=e2tw" target="_blank">The Wall Street Journal</a>. "We can use that to train the AI, so it starts to come up to speed."</p><p>Still, the race could reveal that self-driving cars aren't quite ready to race at speeds of over 110 mph. After all, regular self-driving cars already face enough logistical and technical roadblocks, including <a href="https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-53349313#:~:text=Tesla%20will%20be%20able%20to,no%20driver%20input%2C%20he%20said." target="_blank">crumbling infrastructure, communication issues</a> and the <a href="https://bigthink.com/paul-ratner/would-you-ride-in-a-car-thats-programmed-to-kill-you" target="_self">fateful moral decisions driverless cars will have to make in split seconds</a>.</p>But the Indy Autonomous Challenge <a href="https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5da73021d0636f4ec706fa0a/t/5dc0680c41954d4ef41ec2b2/1572890638793/Indy+Autonomous+Challenge+Ruleset+-+v5NOV2019+%282%29.pdf" target="_blank">says</a> its main goal is to advance the industry, by challenging "students around the world to imagine, invent, and prove a new generation of automated vehicle (AV) software and inspire the next generation of STEM talent."
A new Harvard study finds that the language you use affects patient outcome.
- A study at Harvard's McLean Hospital claims that using the language of chemical imbalances worsens patient outcomes.
- Though psychiatry has largely abandoned DSM categories, professor Joseph E Davis writes that the field continues to strive for a "brain-based diagnostic system."
- Chemical explanations of mental health appear to benefit pharmaceutical companies far more than patients.
Challenging the Chemical Imbalance Theory of Mental Disorders: Robert Whitaker, Journalist<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="41699c8c2cb2aee9271a36646e0bee7d"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/-8BDC7i8Yyw?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>This is a far cry from Howard Rusk's 1947 NY Times editorial calling for mental healt</p><p>h disorders to be treated similarly to physical disease (such as diabetes and cancer). This mindset—not attributable to Rusk alone; he was merely relaying the psychiatric currency of the time—has dominated the field for decades: mental anguish is a genetic and/or chemical-deficiency disorder that must be treated pharmacologically.</p><p>Even as psychiatry untethered from DSM categories, the field still used chemistry to validate its existence. Psychotherapy, arguably the most efficient means for managing much of our anxiety and depression, is time- and labor-intensive. Counseling requires an empathetic and wizened ear to guide the patient to do the work. Ingesting a pill to do that work for you is more seductive, and easier. As Davis writes, even though the industry abandoned the DSM, it continues to strive for a "brain-based diagnostic system." </p><p>That language has infiltrated public consciousness. The team at McLean surveyed 279 patients seeking acute treatment for depression. As they note, the causes of psychological distress have constantly shifted over the millennia: humoral imbalance in the ancient world; spiritual possession in medieval times; early childhood experiences around the time of Freud; maladaptive thought patterns dominant in the latter half of last century. While the team found that psychosocial explanations remain popular, biogenetic explanations (such as the chemical imbalance theory) are becoming more prominent. </p><p>Interestingly, the 80 people Davis interviewed for his book predominantly relied on biogenetic explanations. Instead of doctors diagnosing patients, as you might expect, they increasingly serve to confirm what patients come in suspecting. Patients arrive at medical offices confident in their self-diagnoses. They believe a pill is the best course of treatment, largely because they saw an advertisement or listened to a friend. Doctors too often oblige without further curiosity as to the reasons for their distress. </p>
Image: Illustration Forest / Shutterstock<p>While medicalizing mental health softens the stigma of depression—if a disorder is inheritable, it was never really your fault—it also disempowers the patient. The team at McLean writes,</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"More recent studies indicate that participants who are told that their depression is caused by a chemical imbalance or genetic abnormality expect to have depression for a longer period, report more depressive symptoms, and feel they have less control over their negative emotions."</p><p>Davis points out the language used by direct-to-consumer advertising prevalent in America. Doctors, media, and advertising agencies converge around common messages, such as everyday blues is a "real medical condition," everyone is susceptible to clinical depression, and drugs correct underlying somatic conditions that you never consciously control. He continues,</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Your inner life and evaluative stance are of marginal, if any, relevance; counseling or psychotherapy aimed at self-insight would serve little purpose." </p><p>The McLean team discovered a similar phenomenon: patients expect little from psychotherapy and a lot from pills. When depression is treated as the result of an internal and immutable essence instead of environmental conditions, behavioral changes are not expected to make much difference. Chemistry rules the popular imagination.</p>