Philosophy can either be incredibly enlightening, or incredibly boring to read. Sometimes, within works of the same author, it’s both. But, regardless of how dry, or un-poetic a philosopher’s writing may be, if there is an important message, or theory to be discussed, it will get disseminated. There have been hundreds of highly influential philosophers throughout the modern era, but only a few made this list. Like any discipline, philosophy is subjective, as much so as music, or art. What influences one, may be unworthy of even a glance for another. That said, those who were left off this list were either done so because they have become parodies of themselves, or did not have a substantial enough body of philosophical work to justify their inclusion. Or, most likely, they merely didn’t influence culture, or change the world, the way these philosophers did.
5. Jacques Derrida
Equal parts one of the most dense and out of reach philosophers of the modern age, and one of the most influential, Jacques Derrida’s impact on critical theory is as important as any, arguably even more so. The core tenant of his philosophy, ‘deconstruction’ is as confusing to casual readers as it can be to serious academics, and with good reason.
The basic principles of Derrida’s deconstruction is that societies implicitly rely on preconceived sets of intrinsic meanings, that are seen as absolute truths, and thus, that is how our relationship to language and its meaning is carried out. Derrida argues that deconstruction denies the possibility of these universal truths, therefore denying the notion of any stable meaning or notions of absolute truth. Through the study of semiotics, for which he was also known for, Derrida eloquently articulates the deconstruction of language by stating that words only have meaning because of their contrast with other words. A cat is only a cat because it is not a dog, not because some universal truth dictated a cat would be called a cat.
Furthermore, language also only gathers its meaning in the ways in which other words are left out of a particular context. The meaning in something someone could say to another may not actually be found in what they did say, but what they did not say. See? Dense. Either way, in a more pop culture context, the sitcom Seinfield has been described by many a theorist as being deconstructionist, though Derrida himself said “If you think deconstruction is a sitcom, stop watching sitcoms, do your homework and read.”
4. Jean Baudrillard
Ever seen The Matrix? Well, thank The French philosopher Jean Baudrillard for that film. Baudrillard was one of the most fascinating, and frustrating critical thinkers of the modern era. Often accused of obscurantism, one can see why; reading his works in his native French can be a chore, and reading them in English can be a laborious task that would even test Sisyphus’ patience. In simple terms, Baudrillard posited that nothing was truly real, or authentic, and that therefore we are all living in a hyper real society, a society where everything is in fact a copy, but a copy of an original that no longer exists.
Very much the ideas that The Matrix films were based upon, the idea of living in a society that completely looks and feels real (the Matrix) and is meant to placate the masses, but is in fact merely a copy of a long gone society. Need more proof of The Matrix connection? Morpheus directly quotes a Baudrillard line when he speaks about the ‘desert of the real’ and the book Neo has on his desk at the beginning of the first film: none other than Simulacra and Simulation, written by Baudrillard in 1981.
Baudrillard’s influence, predominantly in philosophical circles, is undeniable with his theories on the nature of society and reality, but his influence on pop culture as a whole, while far less recognized, is equally as important, particularity via the Matrix films. Since the release of the trilogy, how common has it become for many a person to wish they could “leave the Matrix” without ever knowing what source material they were originally quoting.
3. Albert Camus
The French-Algerian Albert Camus was arguably the coolest philosopher who ever lived. The problem? Camus never thought of himself, nor wanted to be regarded as, a philosopher. Even though Camus considered himself a journalist and writer of fiction first and foremost, he was, along with Jean Paul Sartre, viewed as the head of the existentialist movement in France in the 1940s and 50s. And though much of his published works were either collections of articles he wrote for newspapers, or works of fiction, it’s still hard to reconcile the fact that a man who argued that life was absurd, and therefore had no meaning but what you make of it, didn’t see himself as an existentialist.
But Camus not only did not see himself as an existentialist, he rejected any ideological associations all together. That said, his fiction was heavily influenced by his own personal philosophy, which really, 60 years later, is still heavily existentialist, or at the very least, absurdist, and the little works of non-fiction he managed to produce in his all-too-short a life further reiterated that philosophy. See The Myth of Sisyphus as further proof. Whether he held any ideological associations or not, one thing is for certain, Camus’ would be appalled to see his ideas on life and its lack of meaning being comically misused and misquoted by an entire generation of Facebook users posting memes to their walls, or his quotes as status updates.
2. Friedrich Nietzsche
Perhaps the most misquoted philosopher of all time, Friedrich Nietzsche was also one of the most influential, both in good ways, and in bad. The man who proclaimed, “God is dead” and wrote a book titled The Antichrist had little room to move in Christian Europe during the period in which he was writing, but in fact, he was ahead of his time.
Universally crucified for his “God is dead” argument, Nietzsche was not proclaiming an affinity to Atheism, or any other religion, but merely stating that advancements in technology and intellectual thought in Western Europe had indeed killed god and religion as the ultimate provider of meaning in one’s life, and it was now up to the individual to decide where they would draw their meaning from.
In this regard, his writing served as the early seeds of existentialism. To further articulate this point Nietzsche also wrote of the Übermensch (the overman, or superman). To Nietzsche the Übermensch doesn’t adhere to the morality of the common people because the common people favor mediocrity. The Übermensch instead rises above the herd. The Übermensch creates their own meaning in life.
Unfortunately, and tragically, Nietzsche’s works, and the concept of the Übermensch in particular, was misread, but ultimately adopted by Adolph Hitler and the Nazis when the idea of the superman, and superior race began to be propagated throughout Germany. Sadly, as misquoted as Nietzsche was by the Nazis, he isn’t the most misconstrued influential philosopher on this list.
1. Karl Marx
Baudrillard, Derrida and Camus all had an immense influence on philosophy and critical theory, and each one has had his fair share of influence on popular culture. Nietzsche may have helped invent existentialism and been so grossly misquoted by the Nazi party that they used his works to justify their racial propaganda during the 1930s and World War II, but Karl Marx changed the world; unequivocally, and irrevocably.
Marx’s philosophy created an entirely new form of political thought, a new form of government, and was responsible for the eternal battle between capitalism and communism since the mid 1800s. While his collection of works helped create modern sociology, and have maintained a profound legacy in almost every other academic discipline, it was The Communist Manifesto, written in 1848, that gave the world its first and lasting critique against the dominance of capitalist society.
Written with Friedrich Engels, the book states, “the history of all existing society is the history of class struggles.” The manifesto then declares that the capitalist society of their time would eventually be replaced by communism. In order to achieve communism, there must be a class war, and according to Marx, class wars were bloody affairs.
Though no government converted to communism during his lifetime, there were plenty of revolutions that fought capitalism in the late 1800s; so quickly effective was Marx’s message. It wasn’t until the last days of the First World War, when the traditional powers of Europe were exhausted and broke, and the citizens and soldiers utterly disillusioned, that communism first became a serious threat to capitalism.
The Russian Revolution of 1917, directly influenced by Karl Marx, ushered in a new era of good vs. evil, not based on a religious platform, but an economic. The Soviet Union, Mao’s China, the Cold War, Cuba, Korea, Vietnam, all products of Karl Marx and his philosophy. And those are only the most prominent conflicts. Countless countries in Africa and South America have fought, and continue to fight capitalism in the name of Marx’s communism. So influential is Karl Marx and his philosophy that 150 years later the struggle may never end.