As part of the French literary hall of fame, philosophers have contributed to the prestige that France holds across the world. They’ve influenced the course of history and fostered social and political changes through their groundbreaking theories. They even seeped their way into popular culture through their famous quotes. Even some of the most celebrated French comedians sometimes dab into literature and philosophy. So it would be hard to get a proper sense of French culture without knowing its most significant thinkers.
Before you start racking your brains, we have gathered a list of seven famous French philosophers throughout the centuries. Here they are, in chronological order according to their years of birth:
- Michel de Montaigne
- René Descartes
- Jean-Jacques Rousseau
- Auguste Compte
- Jean-Paul Sartre
- Simone de Beauvoir
- Claude Levi-Strauss
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1. Michel de Montaigne
1533 – 1592
One of the most influential writers and philosophers of the French Renaissance, Michel de Montaigne is most famous for his Essais (or Essays in English), a mix of personal anecdotes and philosophical reflections. Taking a more modern approach, the author placed himself at the center of his book, boldly declaring “je suis moi-même la matière de mon livre” (I am the matter of my book). Yet, far from being self-centered, Montaigne is also prone to skepticism, such as when he questioned his own breadth of knowledge by asking “que sais-je ?” (what do I know?).
2. René Descartes
1596 – 1650
René Descartes has penned what may well be the most famous French quote of all time: “je pense, donc je suis” (I think, therefore I am). A scholar of mathematics and philosophy, he applied the same deductive mode of reasoning in both areas of study: Starting from a general, abstract proposition, he would work his way to a specific conclusion. His rationalistic approach was so influential that this method of thinking was named after him: cartésianisme.
3. Jean-Jacques Rousseau
1712 – 1778
Though he died in 1778, Jean-Jacques Rousseau is often considered one of the main philosophers to have inspired the French Revolution of 1789 through his writings. In such books as Du contrat social ou Principes du droit politique (On the Social Contract; or, Principles of Political Right), this philosophe des Lumières developed his political philosophy based on such modern notions as equality, freedom and popular sovereignty.
4. Auguste Compte
1798 – 1857
Often considered to be the first philosopher of modern science, Auguste Compte believed that all knowledge stems from scientific observations and conclusions. Born in 1798 towards the end of the French Revolution, he developed a positive philosophy with the intent of resolving social disorder and unrest. He also greatly contributed to the development of sociology, and even gave this brand of science its name.
5. Jean-Paul Sartre
1905 – 1980
Not content with being one half of the most famous French philosopher couple of modern times alongside Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre was also a political activist, playwright and novelist. He is often considered as the founding father of the French existentialist school of thought, which can be summarized by one of his most famous quotes: “L’existence précède l’essence” (The existence precedes the essence). Simply put, human beings are not predetermined by their own nature or their social and cultural background but are in full control of their own value system, actions and destiny.
6. Simone de Beauvoir
1908 – 1986
The only woman and the only winner of the Prix Goncourt on our list, Simone de Beauvoir didn’t actually consider herself a philosopher. However, her contributions to feminist theory and existentialism are undeniable. In her most famous book, Le Deuxième Sexe (The Second Sex), she argued that “On ne naît pas femme, on le devient” (One is not born, but rather becomes a woman). She believed that the notion of a woman is defined by our societal conventions and attitudes, rather than by a natural state, thus pioneering the distinction between gender and sex.
7. Claude Levi-Strauss
1908 – 2009
Another name among modern French philosophers, Claude Levi-Strauss considered philosophy from the point of view of anthropology. He defended the idea that there was no structural difference between a “civilized mind” and a “savage mind”, as both displayed the same human characteristics. A member of the Académie française, Levi-Strauss is deemed to be a founding father of modern sociology and ethnology.
Think big with some of the most famous French philosophers
Alongside food, wine and fashion, France is famous across the world for its literature and philosophy and it is quite easy to see why by looking at our list of seven French philosophers. Even with such a small panel, the range of topics, methods and applications that these intellectuals have demonstrated is both self-evident and breathtaking.
Anne-Lise is a translator and copywriter working for various industries, such as hospitality and travel, as well as health and well-being. Settled down in London since the end of her university years, she cannot get enough of the exceptional cultural life in the English capital city, starting with theater, be it to see a new West End show or to roll up her sleeves with her amateur drama group. She is also interested in photography, as her Instagram profile shows. She indulges her passion for languages in a translation blog she writes with other linguist friends. Go to her Linkedin page to know more about her background and her professional experience.