Many philosophers were critical thinkers and were aware of what was happening in the world around them, meaning that they could recognize government corruption. Socrates was revolutionary, not only in philosophy. If we observe philosophy and its history, we can see that it's extremely revolutionary,

Have philosophers been involved in revolutions and have they had any influence on them ?

By 'philosophers' I mean people who published philosophical work and were mostly known as philosophers, whatever their other activities.

  • Gandhi? Che Guevarra? Marx? I suppose it depends what we call a philosopher. – PeterJ Aug 9 '18 at 15:34
  • @PeterJ publish of philosophical work and is mostly known as a philosopher – captindfru Aug 9 '18 at 15:39
  • I have changed the text a little, but only to clarify what I think is your meaning. I have left it as far as possible your question in your wording. – Geoffrey Thomas Aug 9 '18 at 16:34
  • 1
    @captindfru. Thank you, I was only trying to help. Your present comment is perfectly worded btw. GT – Geoffrey Thomas Aug 9 '18 at 17:32
  • 1
    Well, this depends on what do you mean to be involved in revolution. Bakunin, Kropotkin counts? – rus9384 Aug 9 '18 at 19:01

I understand your questions to be angled at political revolutions.

John Locke

The once influential idea that John Locke (1632-1704) wrote his Second Treatise of Civil Government in order to underpin the overthrow of James II and to justify the installation of William III (and Mary) is no longer tenable. The text was largely written in the early 1680s and Locke merely added contemporary references when the text was published in 1689. He did not write to 'establish the throne of our great restorer, our present King William; to make good his title, in the consent of the people, which being the only one of all lawful governments, he has more fully and clearly, than any prince in Christendom; and to justify to the world the people of England, whose love of their just and natural rights, with their resolution to preserve them, saved the nation when it was on the very brink of slavery and ruin' (Preface). Such passages merely gave the text a contemporary twist to apply to a revolutionary situation he favoured. Since it did have at least this intention we can see Locke as a philosopher involving himself in revolutionary politics, if not, post-Laslett, in the way traditionally believed. (Peter Laslett, 'The English Revolution and Locke's 'Two Treatises of Government'', The Cambridge Historical Journal, Vol. 12, No. 1 (1956), pp. 40-55.) [Peter Laslett, 1915-2001, was an English scholar and specialist on Locke who demolished the traditional idea that the Second Treatise had been written specifically to justify the Glorious Revolution.]

Richard Price

Price (1723-91), a nonconformist minister, was certainly a moral philosopher. His Review of the Principal Questions in Morals (1758, 3rd ed. revised 1787) is familiar to any student of 18th-century British moral philosophy. While he did not physically participate in the American and the French Revolutions, he was actively and enthusiastically involved in both. His Observations on the Nature of Civil Liberty, the Principles of Government, and the Justice and Policy of the War with America (1776) lent powerful and influential support to the American cause.

Since the beginning of the controversy between England and the colonies Price had been an interested spectator, and he had kept in close touch with a number of Americans by means of letters. He also had personal contacts with Americans who were in London during the years preceding the Revolution, among them Franklin and Josiah Quincy, jr., who was in London during the winter of 1774-1775. From the start of the quarrel Price's sympathies had lain with the Americans, and finally, after the outbreak of hostilities, he be- came an active friend of the American cause. He conveyed information to some members of Parliament who favored America."4 He likewise passed on secrets to America, and had a number (176) assigned to him for use in correspondence. This espionage work was probably of little significance. A far greater service could be contributed by Price's pen.

In February, 1776, there appeared in London a pamphlet by Richard Price entitled Observations on the Nature of Civil Liberty, the Principles of Gov- ernment, and the Justice and Policy of the Wiar with America. Few pamphlets of the eighteenth century were so widely read, so lavishly praised, or so bit- terly condemned. Within two months fourteen editions had appeared in London and over 6o,ooo copies had been sold. Price sacrificed profits by con- senting to allow cheaper issues of the later editions. The pamphlet was also published in French in Rotterdam, in German in Braunschweig, and in Dutch in Leyden. Other editions appeared in Dublin and Edinburgh. The city of London presented Price with the freedom of the city, in a gold box worth fifty pounds. In America the pamphlet was as big a sensation. Two issues appeared in Philadelphia, and others were made in New York, Boston, and Charleston. It is no exaggeration to say that as a result of the pamphlet "Dr. Price's name was in everybody's mouth."" In 1777 Price published a second work on American affairs, called Additional Observations on the Nature and Value of Civil Liberty, and the War with America . . ., and in the year after that he brought out the two pamphlets in a new edition en- titled Two Tracts on Civil Liberty . . ., for which he wrote a general introduction. (Carl B. Cone, 'Richard Price and the Constitution of the United States', The American Historical Review, Vol. 53, No. 4 (Jul., 1948), pp. 726-747 : 729-30.)

▻ American Revolution

It appears hard to deny that Price's ideas and arguments contributed to the climate of opinion in America in which revolutionary separation from Great Britain was seen as not only practicable but morally right. He was a revolutionary with his pen as effectively as if he had been a revolutionary on the battlefield.

▻ French Revolution

It was on November 4th, 1789, that Price preached the sermon which provoked the Reflections on the Revolution in France [Edmund Burke's polemic against the revolution : GT]. The occasion was the Revolution Society's celebration of the anniversary of 1688, and Price took the opportunity to interpret the opening events of the French Revolution to an audience in which enthusiasm for those developments ran high. In this sermon, published under the title 'A Discourse on the Love of Our Country,' he defended the revolutionaries on the ground that they were inspired by those "just ideas of civil government" which he believed had become substantially though imperfectly embodied in the British Constitution. The aspirations of 1789 were to be justified by what he thought were the achievements of 1688. (D. O. Thomas, 'Richard Price and Edmund Burke: The Duty to Participate in Government', Philosophy, Vol. 34, No. 131 (Oct., 1959), pp. 308-322 : 308-9.)

Again, if Price did not actively engage in the events of the French Revolution, he came out in active support of the revolution and hence involved himself in it.

Georgi Plekhanov

Widely regarded as Russia's first Marxist philosopher, Plekhanov (1856-1918) engaged in extensive revolutionary activity against the Tsarist regime in the later part of the 19th century - personally dangerous activity. He was acting at a time when the conditions for political revolution were not fully ripe; and his later politics were checked by disagreement with, then open hostility to, Lenin. But there is every reason to count Plekhanov as a philosopher who was also a revolutionary. See further : Samuel H. Baron, 'Plekhanov and the Origins of Russian Marxism', The Russian Review, Vol. 13, No. 1 (Jan., 1954), pp. 38-51.

Note on Socrates

From what little we know of Socrates, filtered mainly through Plato and Xenophon, Socrates was not a political revolutionary; he did not aim to overthrow the government. He did refuse to obey an order of the Thirty Tyrants who once had seized control of Athens (Apology, 32c-d) but when at his trial he was found guilty of impiety (irreligion) and of corrupting the youth of Athens (presumably by encouraging them to think for themselves), he asked for no clemency from the court. In prison he declined an offer from a litle knot of friends to fix his release so as avoid to the death penalty; he refused their offer on the grounds that by living in the city he had tacitly agreed - contracted or put himself under an obligation - to abide by the laws of Athens and would be violating the contract if he thwarted the court's verdict (Crito, 49d - 52a). His thinking was politically revolutionary in another way, however. He believed, so far as we can make out, in a politics of knowledge. To conduct politics properly required knowledge just as any other activity did. He did not believe, if Plato and Xenophon are to be credited, that the Athenian citizenry had the requisite knowledge; their democracy was the politics of ignorance. This represented a revolution in Greek political thinking as far as concerned its commitment to democracy.

  • Thank you for the answer, it seems that you know me a bit too well, my question was in fact angled at political revolutions, extremely detailed answer, Accepted and btw thanks for correcting me on Socrates, although the way I see him being revolutionary is the fact that he was telling the public to think for themselves as you said and he made them aware of their surroundings, but that's just my opinion. – captindfru Aug 12 '18 at 6:02

I believe it is for revolution 'real philosophers' are born.

If a philosopher can't influence others' mind...or cause a revolution in other's mind, how can we call him a philosopher?

A real philosopher's actions might not be aiming for a violent or vigorous revolution. Many of them preferred to a silent revolution. You will get the names of many philosophers in this category. The waves of their actions are still creating revolutions in society even after the absence of their physical body.

Philosophers, if they deserved that name completely, they could find solutions to their problems without violence.

You might have heard about many social reformers of this world. Their actions are actually revolutions, though we didn't name them...or include them among great world revolutions.

  • 1
    #1 for the first sentence of your answer. One could almost argue that a person who doesn't have revolutionary thoughts isn't a real philosopher. – David Blomstrom Aug 12 '18 at 3:53
  • Of course. I had used a word--'real' to specify/indicate their significance in the society. You may use philosophers in others' case. No problem. In my opinion, real philosophers must be able to find a solution to an emerging problem in his society. Since problems in society is a global problem. And they must be able to guide the society – SonOfThought Aug 12 '18 at 5:12
  • Reform is a kind of revolution. Locke & Rousseau's social contracts were revolutionary even where they didn't underpin revolutions - which they justified as final fallback.. – CriglCragl Aug 12 '18 at 15:06
  • I believe the two words you used-- 'revolutionary' and 'revolution' have different meanings...I mean, the second one is not related to mind. – SonOfThought Aug 13 '18 at 11:41

Although they have rarely participated as actual combatants (though some have), philosophers have certainly had a great deal of influence on revolutions. Indeed, it would be difficult to name many revolutions that were not based on some ideological system created by philosophers. One could trace many revolutions in history to some underlying ideological system or schism.

In recent history there were a number of revolutions against monarchical regimes resulting from the theories of the classical liberal philosophers, and then a number of further revolutions for colonial independence resulting from the theories of the Marxists. In both cases the groups leading these revolutions were strongly influenced by philosophical systems that had been developed by political philosophers and economists. Some involved the participation of combatants who made enduring contributions to philosophy.

American revolution: As feudalism declined and gave way to the industrial revolution in England, the political system was characterised primarily as mercantilism, where the Crown gave privileges and prerogatives to politically-connected groups. Over time this political system came under threat from the nascent philosophy of (classical) liberalism, expounded by the various early liberal political philosophers such as Locke, Montesquieu, Voltaire, etc., and later by the classical economists (e.g., Smith, Say, Ricardo, Mill). These liberal thinkers were critical of the privileges of the Crown and nobility and advocated a liberal system based on respect for private property and with minimal State intervention. This led to reforms in England, but revolution in the American colonies, as the colonists rebelled against unfair privileges by the Crown.

The Founding Fathers who spearheaded the American revolution were educated in the English liberal tradition, and were influenced heavily by British and French Enlightenment thinkers including liberal political philosophers. In articular, they were highly influenced by the writings of the English political philosopher John Locke. Indeed, the Declaration of Independence drew heavily on the theory enunciated of rights by Locke. Many of the participants in this revolution wrote extensively about liberalism and political philosophy and some are considered valuable political philosophers in their own right.

French revolution: As with the mercantilist system in England, the ancien régime in France was also threatened by the theories of the (classical) liberal philosophers. After the American revolution there was a major financial crisis and onerous taxation in France, leading to unrest. Growing numbers of French citizens became interested in the philosophy of liberalism, and the success of the American revolution made it clear that it was possible to implement these ideas. Robespierre and other key figures in the French revolution were highly influenced by the writings of the French political philosopher Montesquieu. Their articulation of the Declaration of the Rights of the Man and of the Citizen was rooted in similar ideas to the Declaration of Independence, and was highly influenced by the theories of the (classical) liberal political philosophers.

Russian revolution: This revolution was spearheaded by the Bolsheviks and the Menshevics, two factions of the Marxist RSDLP. The figures leading the revolution were well-versed in Marxist theory and sought to create a socialist revolution to advance Marx's dialectic progression of history. (On this point they actually differed from Marx, insofar as they formed a vanguard to create socialist revolution, which is different to the account in Marx.) Two of the leading figures in the revolution, Lenin and Trotsky, were leading intellectuals in the socialist movement, and wrote substantial amounts on Marxist theory. Both made enduring contributions to the philosophy of Marxism and are highly cited in Marxist literature.

Algerian revolution (independence from France): This revolution was spearheaded by the FLN and the PCA, socialist and communist parties within the Algerian government. One combatant in the revolution was Frantz Fanon, who wrote some works of political philosophy during and after the revolutionary period.


Philosophers who most famously pondered revolution include John Locke, Thomas Hobbes and Karl Marx. Hobbes didn't think revolution was a good idea.

Thomas Jefferson is considered one of the United States' founding fathers and is sometimes labeled a philosopher. However, his reputation as a champion of democracy and human rights is marred by the fact that he was a slave owner, similar to George Washington, Patrick Henry and many other heroes of the American Revolution.

The French existentialist Jean Paul-Sartre is sometimes described as a political activist and had lots to say about revolution. He was a huge fan of the Latin American revolutionary Che Guevara, whom he visited in Cuba.

Guevara himself is sometimes regarded as a philosopher. He is famous for putting his ideas into action, helping win the Cuban Revolution, then trying to export revolution to other countries, notably the Congo and Bolivia.

Note the article "Revolution" (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy) and Christopher Finlay's Book Terrorism and the Right to Resist: a Theory of Just Revolutionary War.


China is an interesting case rarely considered in the West. The Society of Righteous & Harmonious Fists are described as a 'folk religious nationalist' movement https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boxer_Rebellion#Origins_of_the_Boxers but they did hsve philosophical elements too.

We can see this in the more modern and so better documented case of the Falun Gong, who combine internal martial arts and energy cultivation, and ethical and philosophical commitments. We can also understand better, why the Chinese government seem so relatively rattled by a pacifist hippy-seeming and apparently positive group. Political unrest in China has invariably been mediated by such groups.

The reunification of China, after fragmentation following the death of the Yellow Emperor and almost immediate end of the Qin Dynasty, depended crucially on philosophy. An outnumbered out-resourced peasant founded the longest lived dynasty the Han, by temporing military control with Confucian, legalist, and Daoist ideas https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liu_Bei

He had to face a rebellion that exemplified the Chinese template https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yellow_Turban_Rebellion A secret society, that used ideas about healing and other acts of service, to challenge control of authorities percieved as weak, ineffective, or uncaring of the common people. You can see why Communism took off, and why it always had a different character to Russia.

Reflecting on all this is of crucial importance to the future of China, and so the world. We know the history of Europe & North America's revolutions. Maybe some know about Bolovarism in South America. But if the kind of centralised authoritarianism which European states had to end as they became democratic free-trade states, is going to end in China, it will follow a different model.

In a one party state we see factions, like that between the inland conservative rural states and their leaders, and coastal hyper-urban ones. It's likely philosophical movements will arise that heighten such factionalism, and though it's very unlikely any faction will really challenge state power, they may be how the challenge to reform and increase the voice of ordinary people manifests.

It has to be noted that Western democracy is not looking it's best at the moment, with Trump & Brexit. Short term, partisan, and basically irrational decision making seems to be on the rise in the West. Maybe a system with ethics and public service and stern limits on what is accrptable even from the most rich and powerful is what the world needs more, something like Confucianism has been at it's best. Perhaps it is China we should look to, for a model of reconciling long-term infrastructure planning and the voice of the people without that becoming the voice of the mob. We shall see.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.