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.

Portrait of Jeremy Bentham Engraving By: C. Foxafter: Henry W. Pickersgil
Engraving of Jeremy Bentham by C. Froxafter, Henry W. Pickersgill
  • 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

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.

Bodhidharma

\u200bA Japanese wood print of Bodhidharma

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.

Ludwig Wittgenstein

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.

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.

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.

Immanuel Kant

Kant, he was ordinary; maybe too ordinary.

Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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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Are we really addicted to technology?

Fear that new technologies are addictive isn't a modern phenomenon.

Credit: Rodion Kutsaev via Unsplash
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink, which has partnered with the Build for Tomorrow podcast to go inside new episodes each month. Subscribe here to learn more about the crazy, curious things from history that shaped us, and how we can shape the future.

In many ways, technology has made our lives better. Through smartphones, apps, and social media platforms we can now work more efficiently and connect in ways that would have been unimaginable just decades ago.

But as we've grown to rely on technology for a lot of our professional and personal needs, most of us are asking tough questions about the role technology plays in our own lives. Are we becoming too dependent on technology to the point that it's actually harming us?

In the latest episode of Build for Tomorrow, host and Entrepreneur Editor-in-Chief Jason Feifer takes on the thorny question: is technology addictive?

Popularizing medical language

What makes something addictive rather than just engaging? It's a meaningful distinction because if technology is addictive, the next question could be: are the creators of popular digital technologies, like smartphones and social media apps, intentionally creating things that are addictive? If so, should they be held responsible?

To answer those questions, we've first got to agree on a definition of "addiction." As it turns out, that's not quite as easy as it sounds.

If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people.

LIAM SATCHELL UNIVERSITY OF WINCHESTER

"Over the past few decades, a lot of effort has gone into destigmatizing conversations about mental health, which of course is a very good thing," Feifer explains. It also means that medical language has entered into our vernacular —we're now more comfortable using clinical words outside of a specific diagnosis.

"We've all got that one friend who says, 'Oh, I'm a little bit OCD' or that friend who says, 'Oh, this is my big PTSD moment,'" Liam Satchell, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Winchester and guest on the podcast, says. He's concerned about how the word "addiction" gets tossed around by people with no background in mental health. An increased concern surrounding "tech addiction" isn't actually being driven by concern among psychiatric professionals, he says.

"These sorts of concerns about things like internet use or social media use haven't come from the psychiatric community as much," Satchell says. "They've come from people who are interested in technology first."

The casual use of medical language can lead to confusion about what is actually a mental health concern. We need a reliable standard for recognizing, discussing, and ultimately treating psychological conditions.

"If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people," Satchell says. That's why, according to Satchell, the psychiatric definition of addiction being based around experiencing distress or significant family, social, or occupational disruption needs to be included in any definition of addiction we may use.

Too much reading causes... heat rashes?

But as Feifer points out in his podcast, both popularizing medical language and the fear that new technologies are addictive aren't totally modern phenomena.

Take, for instance, the concept of "reading mania."

In the 18th Century, an author named J. G. Heinzmann claimed that people who read too many novels could experience something called "reading mania." This condition, Heinzmann explained, could cause many symptoms, including: "weakening of the eyes, heat rashes, gout, arthritis, hemorrhoids, asthma, apoplexy, pulmonary disease, indigestion, blocking of the bowels, nervous disorder, migraines, epilepsy, hypochondria, and melancholy."

"That is all very specific! But really, even the term 'reading mania' is medical," Feifer says.

"Manic episodes are not a joke, folks. But this didn't stop people a century later from applying the same term to wristwatches."

Indeed, an 1889 piece in the Newcastle Weekly Courant declared: "The watch mania, as it is called, is certainly excessive; indeed it becomes rabid."

Similar concerns have echoed throughout history about the radio, telephone, TV, and video games.

"It may sound comical in our modern context, but back then, when those new technologies were the latest distraction, they were probably really engaging. People spent too much time doing them," Feifer says. "And what can we say about that now, having seen it play out over and over and over again? We can say it's common. It's a common behavior. Doesn't mean it's the healthiest one. It's just not a medical problem."

Few today would argue that novels are in-and-of-themselves addictive — regardless of how voraciously you may have consumed your last favorite novel. So, what happened? Were these things ever addictive — and if not, what was happening in these moments of concern?

People are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm.

JASON FEIFER HOST OF BUILD FOR TOMORROW

There's a risk of pathologizing normal behavior, says Joel Billieux, professor of clinical psychology and psychological assessment at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, and guest on the podcast. He's on a mission to understand how we can suss out what is truly addictive behavior versus what is normal behavior that we're calling addictive.

For Billieux and other professionals, this isn't just a rhetorical game. He uses the example of gaming addiction, which has come under increased scrutiny over the past half-decade. The language used around the subject of gaming addiction will determine how behaviors of potential patients are analyzed — and ultimately what treatment is recommended.

"For a lot of people you can realize that the gaming is actually a coping (mechanism for) social anxiety or trauma or depression," says Billieux.

"Those cases, of course, you will not necessarily target gaming per se. You will target what caused depression. And then as a result, If you succeed, gaming will diminish."

In some instances, a person might legitimately be addicted to gaming or technology, and require the corresponding treatment — but that treatment might be the wrong answer for another person.

"None of this is to discount that for some people, technology is a factor in a mental health problem," says Feifer.

"I am also not discounting that individual people can use technology such as smartphones or social media to a degree where it has a genuine negative impact on their lives. But the point here to understand is that people are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm."

Behavioral addiction is a notoriously complex thing for professionals to diagnose — even more so since the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the book professionals use to classify mental disorders, introduced a new idea about addiction in 2013.

"The DSM-5 grouped substance addiction with gambling addiction — this is the first time that substance addiction was directly categorized with any kind of behavioral addiction," Feifer says.

"And then, the DSM-5 went a tiny bit further — and proposed that other potentially addictive behaviors require further study."

This might not sound like that big of a deal to laypeople, but its effect was massive in medicine.

"Researchers started launching studies — not to see if a behavior like social media use can be addictive, but rather, to start with the assumption that social media use is addictive, and then to see how many people have the addiction," says Feifer.

Learned helplessness

The assumption that a lot of us are addicted to technology may itself be harming us by undermining our autonomy and belief that we have agency to create change in our own lives. That's what Nir Eyal, author of the books Hooked and Indistractable, calls 'learned helplessness.'

"The price of living in a world with so many good things in it is that sometimes we have to learn these new skills, these new behaviors to moderate our use," Eyal says. "One surefire way to not do anything is to believe you are powerless. That's what learned helplessness is all about."

So if it's not an addiction that most of us are experiencing when we check our phones 90 times a day or are wondering about what our followers are saying on Twitter — then what is it?

"A choice, a willful choice, and perhaps some people would not agree or would criticize your choices. But I think we cannot consider that as something that is pathological in the clinical sense," says Billieux.

Of course, for some people technology can be addictive.

"If something is genuinely interfering with your social or occupational life, and you have no ability to control it, then please seek help," says Feifer.

But for the vast majority of people, thinking about our use of technology as a choice — albeit not always a healthy one — can be the first step to overcoming unwanted habits.

For more, be sure to check out the Build for Tomorrow episode here.

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