The following are list of influential thinkers from world history in the areas of sociology, economics, political science, theology and philosophy. Everyone listed is a candidate for inclusion for my eventual list of top 100 most influential people of all time. Others could be added to this list at some point.
This list was much more difficult to create than the political leader’s list, since theories are often harder to judge than political accomplishments. As with the politicians, the leading thinkers in this category are predominately Western, and are predominately figures that have impacted the most current influential countries and academic institutions.
To be considered one of the most influential people in world history, a person must obviously have done three things: a) done something to significantly and permanently alter the world, b) left an influence that is still greatly felt in 2016, and c) the influence must be directly or indirectly worldwide, and not just regional or national.
Please let me know if I am missing someone from this list and/or if I am missing something from my criteria for inclusion. Here is the list below:
Moses (c. 1390bc-c.1270bc) the most important prophet in Judaism. He is also important in Christianity and in Islam.
Thales (c.624bc-c.546bc) is considered the founder of Western philosophy. He is also the first known person to use deductive reasoning in geometry. He is the first known person to predict a solar eclipse, an event that is sometimes regarded as the traditional start of Western philosophy; although, philosophy undoubtedly started as soon as humans could reason.
Sun Tzu (c.544bc-c.496bc) wrote the Art of War, arguably the most influential and popular military strategy manual of all time. Today, his books is also used in business and in sports.
Confucius (551bc-479bc) his ideas were developed into a system known as Confucianism, which form the basis of Chinese tradition and belief. He came up with the “Golden Rule” about 500 years before Jesus did.
Laozi (c.550bc-c.450bc) is the founder of Taoism. He’s also a central figure in Chinese culture.
Zeno of Elea (c.490bc-c.430bc) invented the dialectic, which is the attempt by multiple people to find truth and reasoning in two drastically opposing view points. He’s also known for his paradoxes.
Gautama Buddha (c.480bc-c.400bc) is the founder of Buddhism.
Socrates (c.470bc-399bc) originator the Socratic method, which was an original and crucial development in the art of critical thinking. Socrates was the primary influence of Plato’s ideas.
Democritus (c.460bc-c.370bc) formulated the first major atomic theory of the universe.
Plato (c.425bc-c.347bc) founded the Academy of Athens, which was the first Western institution of higher education. His philosophy laid the groundwork for Western philosophy, political theory, science, religion and spirituality. He taught Aristotle.
Aristotle (384bc-322bc) created the first comprehensive system of Western philosophy, which also encompassed the fields of political theory, science, logic, linguistics, the arts, ethics and metaphysics. Some consider him to be the first true scientist. He influenced Christian, Islamic, and Jewish religious theory and was arguably the primary inspiration for the Renaissance. He was the tutor of Alexander the Great.
Philo of Alexandria (c.25bc-c.50ad) his attempt to harmonize Hellenistic and Jewish philosophy, while ignored by rabbinical Judaism, influenced early Christianity.
Mary (c.18bc-c.43ad) is considered the mother of Jesus. She is venerated in Christianity, especially in Catholicism.
Jesus (c.4bc-c.30ad) the central figure of Christianity, which is currently the world’s largest religion.
Paul of Tarsus (c.5-c.67) developed the ideas of Jesus into what is now called Pauline Christianity, which is the near unanimous interpretation of the concept of Jesus Christ by most Christians. He is also considered the primary figure in spreading the religion outside Palestine and presenting what was a Jewish Christianity in a way that would make it palatable to the Hellenistic world of the early Roman Empire.
Johanan ben Zakai (??-90) is the primary architect of rabbinical Judaism.
Augustine of Hippo (354-430) the primary influence on the theories of original sin and the concept of the just war theory.
Muhammad (c.570-632) founder of Islam, which quickly spread throughout Arabia in his lifetime. Islam is currently the second largest religion.
Ali (601-661) is considered the first Imam by Shia Muslims.
Pope Urban II (c.1042-1099) initiated the Crusades.
Ibn Rushd (“Averroes”) (1126-1198) is the founding father of secular thought for his embrace of both Aristotelian philosophy and Islamic law. Unlike the Islamic theologians of his time, he believed that God did not will every action on earth, but allowed actions to occur by natural laws that God had already created.
Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) The foremost proponent of natural theology.
Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527) the founder of modern political science. He described immoral behavior by political leaders as something that was normal and effective in politics, and at times, justified for the good of a country.
Martin Luther (1483-1546) is the theologian that most influenced the Protestant Reformation by his aggressive critique of the failings of the Catholic Church. He is also considered the founder of the Lutheran Church; although, he died believing he was still a Catholic. He translated the Bible from Latin to the vernacular, so that ordinary literate people could read the Bible for themselves.
John Calvin (1509-1564) is the founder of Calvinism, which is the chief philosophy of numerous protestant churches, such as Presbyterians, Congregational, Reformed.
Francis Bacon (1561-1626) the philosophical advocate and practitioner of the scientific method. He is also considered the founder of empiricism, the idea that knowledge comes from sensory experience.
Hugo Grotius (1583-1645) The father of international law.
Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) established social contract theory, which influenced later political theory.
Rene Descartes (1596-1650) is the Father of Modern Western Philosophy and the father of analytical geometry. His contributions to critical thinking have made all universities, more or less, Cartesian institutions.
John Locke (1632-1704) is the father of liberalism. He may be the key philosopher in influencing the American Revolution, including the language of the Declaration of Independence.
Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703-1792) is the leader of the Wahhabi movement in Islam, known as Wahhabism, which has occasionally inspired the ideology of extremist fundamentalist Islamic organizations, such as ISIS and Al-Qaeda.
Adam Smith (1723-1790) is the father of modern economics. He laid the foundation for the classical free market economic theory.
Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) is considered the central figure of modern philosophy. He believed reality must conform to the human mind’s active concepts to be conceivable and at all possible for people to be able to experience it. He is known for the categorical imperative.
Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) is the founder of modern utilitarianism.
Auguste Comte (1798-1857) the founder of sociology. He set the tone for early social theorists such as Max Weber, Karl Marx and others.
Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809-1865) is the father of anarchism.
Karl Marx (1818-1883) founder of Marxism, the most influential variant of Socialism. He was also arguably the most influential critic of capitalism. His writings on class struggles, labor and inequality make him a principle architect in the field of sociology. Much of his work was buttressed by Friedrich Engels. He is considered the father of Socialism, even though the principal ideas of Socialism were expressed by thinkers who are now known as Utopian Socialists, such as Robert Owen.
Ferdinand Lassalle (1825-1864) was the initiator of an international-style Socialism, which later evolved into Democratic Socialism or Social Democracy.
Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914) is the founder of pragmatism and abductive reasoning.
Gottlob Frege (1848-1925) is the father of analytic philosophy and is considered as the key developer of modern logic.
Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1925) arguably the lead activist in fighting for women’s suffrage. Her efforts helped achieve suffrage in her own country of Great Britain, and inspired similar efforts in other countries, including in the United States.
Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902) led the revival of Hinduism in India, which made it one of the major world religions. He’s also credited with bringing yoga to the Western world.
Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948) was the predominant leader of the Indian independence movement. He is probably the most recognized practitioner of nonviolent civil disobedience in history.
John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946) the originator of Keynesian economics. He is considered the founder of macroeconomics.
Karl Popper (1902-1994) his rejection of the scientific method in favor of falsifiability, the idea that a theory can never be proven, but that it can be falsified, makes him arguably the most important philosopher of the 20th century.
Norman Borlaug (1914-1909) is the founder of the “Green Revolution.”
Noam Chomsky (1928) is often considered the father of modern linguistics and one of the founders of cognitive science.
Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968) is the predominant figure in the African-American civil rights movement, and a leading inspiration for the rights of worldwide minorities. He was also, along with Gandhi, a chief practioneer of nonviolent civil disobedience.
Pope Francis (1936) for the rapid modernization and openness of the Catholic Church and for being the first pope from the Western Hemisphere.