How well do you actually know philosophy?

By: Torrance Grey
Image: Shutterstock

About This Quiz

What's the meaning of it all? We can't tell you that, but our quiz will test how well you know Kant from Kierkegaard! (Please note, this quiz is about the Western philosophers ... Confucianism, Buddhism, etc., is a whole different animal we're not going to cover here.)

What does the word "philosophy" literally mean?

Philos = "love" and sophy = "wisdom," in the Greek. Similarly, the English word "sophistry" means particularly tricky or technical arguing, but it's not usually a compliment.

Put these student-teacher relationships in the correct order:

Though they're thought of as a group, the "big three" of classic Greek philosophy, there was an academic hierarchy. Finishing off the chain, Aristotle was the tutor of Alexander the Great. Alexander might have been another of our great philosophers, had he not been distracted by that "conquering the known world" project.

Which philosopher is known for his Academy?

Not a lot is known about what subjects the Academy taught. However, it's likely that students learned more than what we traditionally consider "philosophy."

Which philosopher said, "Man is the rational animal"?

Aristotle was also a "natural philosopher," as proto-scientists were once called. Unsurprisingly, many of his theories, while elegant, have proven to be untrue. This includes his belief -- hardly unique to him, in the fifth century -- that the universe was composed of four elements: earth, water, fire, and air, to which Aristotle added a fifth element, the "aether."

The strategy of asking questions to provoke thought and reveal logical errors is called what?

This is called the Socratic Method. Simply asking someone a question about their beliefs is an excellent way to expose gaps in knowledge. For example: Person A says, "Not nearly enough research has been done on GMOs." Person B says, "How much research has been done, and how much would satisfy you?" Though person A may bluster, they might walk away realizing they've put no actual study into the issue they previously thought they knew all about.

Which philosopher was murdered by an angry Christian mob?

Though her murder is often credited to religious intolerance, the real reason is more complex. Hypatia, who taught philosophy and astronomy, was caught up in a political dispute of the day. Several good biographies of her exist, for the interested.

Which philosopher thought that friendship was a key source of happiness and founded a school that was essentially a commune of his friends?

Epicurus sought a happy life -- the goal of many philosophers -- but contrary to popular belief, didn't regularly indulge in fine food and wine. Instead, he sought a tranquil, self-sufficient life among friends.

Which school of thought suggests that nothing can ever be absolutely known?

Modern skepticism has moved away from the belief that nothing can be known. Instead, modern skeptics like Carl Sagan, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, and Michael Shermer promote scientific literacy and critical thinking in the face of an Internet-based, choose-your-own-facts culture.

What Greek school of philosophy has given its name, in present times, to an attitude of pessimistic sarcasm?

Many modern people might be surprised at the meaning of Greek Cynicism. Cynics rejected wealth and fame, desiring to live in honest poverty and virtue. One reason that Cynicism isn't as well-known as other Greek philosophies is that the early Christians came along and took over the honest-poverty-and-virtue business, overshadowing the pagan version.

The Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius is an example of what kind of classical philosopher?

The Stoics believed, in part, in accepting that there is much about the universe you cannot change, and adapting your expectations accordingly. The name came from the "Stoa," or porch, where the philosopher Zeno taught.

Which of the following Frenchmen is not commonly considered a philosopher?

Though obviously a very thoughtful person, Proust is first and foremost considered a novelist. In this regard, he resembles Leo Tolstoy, who wrote fiction very concerned with big ideas. "Remembrance of Times Past" is sometimes translated as "Remembrance of Things Past" or "In Search of Lost Time."

Which philosopher was particularly interested in the ideas of Aristotle and tried to reconcile them with Christianity?

Aquinas is a giant in philosophy and theology. "Thomism" is the school of thought named for him.

Which bleak philosopher is sometimes called "the melancholy Dane"?

According to Mason Currey, the author of "Daily Rituals," Kierkegaard's coffee ritual was to fill a teacup with sugar until it was visible over the rim, then pour black coffee into that, then drink the thick syrup that resulted. How anyone could sustain such a gloomy mood with that much caffeine and sugar in their system is a mystery!

Which philosopher is readily identifiable in pictures by his big, walrus-like mustache?

Though very smart and a published author, Friedrich Nietschze never had much success with women. We hesitate to draw conclusions here, but the giant soup-strainer might not have helped. Among his works are "The Will to Power" and "Beyond Good and Evil."

Which French philosopher preferred short essays and anecdotes to huge blocks of prose?

Michel de Montaigne was a Renaissance-era thinker and writer. His most famous book is literally called "Essais." His focus on a shorter style and personal anecdotes would have made him a good editor for Heidegger, whose work is famously turgid.

Which philosopher famously said, "I think, therefore, I am" ?

Descartes wondered, like the skeptics, if anything could be known for certain (or was even real). "I think, therefore, I am" was his starting point in carefully analyzing the world around him. He shared some ideas with the Greek skeptics.

Which political philosopher said that life without government would be "nasty, poor, brutish and short"?

Hobbes made that assessment in his book "Leviathan." He was very interested in government as a "social contract," and his thinking informs a lot of modern Western political theory.

Who is known for his famous wager involving Christianity?

Pascal makes a rational, even mathematical, argument for faith. He says that either God exists or he does not. But the risk of rejecting God -- losing heaven and going to hell -- is much greater than the risk entailed by living as a Christian, which is basically the loss of some pleasures here on earth. Therefore, according to Pascal, being a Christian is a rational decision. He's also known for his book "Pensees" (French for "Thoughts").

Which philosopher was preoccupied with the idea of "bad faith"?

In the absence of absolute morality, Sartre wanted people to live in "good faith," to be honest to their conception of themselves. To live in social conformity was living in "mauvais fois" or "bad faith."

Which philosopher is unjustly identified with the Nazi movement?

Sadly, Nietschze's sister edited some of his work after his death to make it align with German nationalism. This undoubtedly made it more attractive to Hitler, who apparently admired Nietschze, though it's not clear whether he actually read the philosopher's work.

The search for meaning and answers in a world inherently without them is called what?

The name makes it sound like the study of the farcical or ridiculous, but absurdism is a serious branch of philosophy. Absurdists like Camus advocated for striving to create meaning in a world that doesn't provide it.

Which philosopher wrote "Being and Time"?

Heidegger's writing is dense and difficult. Fortunately, modern essays on his ideas can give you a solid grounding in his ideas. This German philosopher introduced the concept of "Dasein" or "being-there."

The idea that you should only act in ways that you would be comfortable with everyone acting is called what?

The "categorical imperative" was formulated by Immanuel Kant. It suggests that a person should ask, before making a decision, "What if everyone did what I'm about to do?" e.g., cheating on your taxes. (The similarity to Christianity's Golden Rule has been noted.)

Which philosopher summed up Christianity as "slave morality"?

People also like to quote Nietschze as saying, "God is dead," which he did. But they usually leave off the second half of the quote: "... and we have killed him."

The reduction of good to the amount of the happiness it creates, minus the suffering it causes, is called _________.

Utilitarianism is a concept that John Stuart Mill championed, but he wasn't really the father of utilitarianism. That was Jeremy Bentham, whom Mill's father admired greatly.

Which existentialist philosopher wrote "The Second Sex"?

Simone de Beauvoir wrote fiction as well, like her lover, Jean-Paul Sartre. She died in 1986.

Who wrote "The Myth of Sisyphus"?

Camus's essay addressed the question of the absurd. He uses Sisyphus, the mythological Greek figure who was condemned to push a rock up a hill for eternity, only to see it always roll back down, as an example of the "absurd man." Sisyphus must accept his fate to overcome it and be happy, Camus concludes.

Which philosopher is associated with utilitarianism?

John Stuart Mill was raised by his father to be a genius; he was learning Greek by age 3. He was very intellectually advanced, but perhaps not surprisingly, had a depressive breakdown at just age 20. The poetry of Wordsworth lifted him out of it. This English philosopher was also an economist.

Which school of thought takes its name from the Latin word for "nothing"?

"Nihil" means "nothing" in Latin, and is shortened to "nil" in English. Nietschze was a main proponent of nihilism, the idea that life is devoid of inherent meaning or morality.

Which of the following do many philosophers agree humans do not have?

While we all struggle with choices every day, many philosophers subscribe to "hard determinism" -- the belief that free will is an illusion. Which is not to say that we're automatons, just that every thing we do grows out of past events or existing circumstances that we have no control over. For example, you might decide at this point to stop taking this quiz to prove you have free will -- but you'd just be acting on the stimulus of reading the "free will" question.

Which philosopher famously said, "Man is free to do as he wills, but not to will as he wills"?

Schopenhauer was very interested in what he called the Wille zum Leben, or "will to live." This doesn't mean just survival instinct, though, but also the base, instinctual desires that drive us all. He's known for his interest in Eastern philosophy and his imposing tufts of white hair.

What is the theory that tries to reconciles free will with hard determinism?

Compatibilism has to do with whether individuals are free to act on their motivations without external coercion. It's a complicated topic, but the books of Daniel Dennett are a good place to start learning.

Which philosopher popularized the idea of deconstruction?

Derrida was also a linguist, as his theory indicates. Deconstruction is too complex a concept to explain here (or anywhere, some people might argue). He's commonly studied in literature and English departments.

In the 21st century, elements of what used to be called philosophy are found in which field?

If it seems like we're low on philosophers these days, it's not really so. For example, the question of free will is taken up by quantum physicists, who say it involves the certainty with which we can know where electrons are. (No, we can't explain it either ...)

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