A Few Thoughts About My Philosophical Influences

At November’s NAGC conference in Denver, one of my professors, Dr. Todd Kettler, (who knew I studied philosophy as an undergraduate) asked me to name my favorite philosopher. I was unprepared for the question, as I had never really thought about it. Ultimately, I mentioned Soren Kierkeggard, a Western philosopher whom I admire greatly. But favorite? It is exceptionally difficult to arrive at such a definite conclusion.

Returning from Denver, I was focused on completing class assignments for the final weeks of the semester. Yet the question that Dr. Kettler asked me still lingered in the back of my head, and I found myself thinking more and more about it. And it finally occurred to me that I can never name a favorite philosopher, because favoritism is not the way I conceptualize my relationship with philosophy. Also, I have a broader view of philosophy that includes several areas and disciplines that aren’t traditionally included. Psychology is one example, which is, in its most simplistic form, philosophy of the mind.

Once the semester ended, I started to reflect more deeply on the question, and arrived at the conclusion that the best way to provide an answer would be to speak in terms of influence, to speak of the thinkers who have most deeply influenced me. So here is my list, working its way down to the most influential thinker on my personal philosophy and worldview.

Jonathan Haidt – Jonathan Haidt, the moral psychologist and author of The Righteous Mind, may be the newest influence on my list, but his ideas are quickly burrowing into my worldview. I respect his willingness to forsake four decades of established dogma to take a fresh look at the principles of moral psychology. I find his Intuitionist model and Moral Foundations theory to be very compelling.

Fyodor Dostoevsky – Dostoevsky is on this list because he introduced me to Existential philosophy. As an undergraduate, I took a philosophy class that consisted primarily of a reading of Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov and, by extension, an introduction to Existential philosophy. Brothers Karamazov is perhaps the finest example of philosophy in literature.

Soren Kierkeggard – Dostoevsky led me to  Soren Kierkeggard, the 19th Century philosopher from Denmark and the principle figure of Existentialism. In terms of classical Western philosophers, he has probably influenced me the most.

Sir Ken Robinson – Sir Ken Robinson, the educational psychologist, is the reason that I am pursuing my PhD in the field of educational psychology. I saw him speak about creativity at a business conference in 2009 and it was an epiphany for me – he articulated so much of my own subconscious views. Sir Ken completely changed my professional direction and made me realize that I was meant for something more than what I was doing at the time. Great experience for me but probably the worst training investment my employer could have made.

Ayn Rand – While I don’t subscribe to all of Ayn Rand’s ideas, I do find a lot of value in her writings. Her description of haters of exceptional people is revelatory; that such individuals do not function from envy, but from hatred, seeking the destruction of the good rather than its acquisition. I don’t do it justice in my brevity.

Will Durant – It seems almost paradoxical to mention Will Durant after Ayn Rand, because they were about as far apart on the philosophical spectrum as two people can get. However, the philosopher and historian has provided me with an education through his writings and combines an amazing breadth of knowledge with an exceptional literary ability. His integral approach to history and celebration of its personalities rightfully captured the respect of popular culture in the 20th Century.

Lao Tzu – My philosophical perspective is deeply influenced by Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching, the basis of Taoism (which is a naturalistic philosophy that can be applied in a variety of areas). I am most influenced by its promotion of the concept of adaptability. Lao Tzu postulated Darwinism before the civilization that begat Darwin even existed.

Jiddu Krishnamurti – There are more than a few gifted people on this list (in fact, you could argue that they are all gifted), but Jiddu Krishnamurti embodies the story of giftedness. Born into poverty in India, Krishnamurti was identified as the next messiah by the Theosophical Society, which took him into its care and educated him in England. Upon reaching adulthood, he was scheduled to take his place as the leader of the organization but, in a stunning turn of events that sounds straight out of Hollywood, turned his acceptance speech into a repudiation of the dogma he was expected to perpetuate. He would go on to become one of the most original and profound philosophers of the 20th Century.

Eric Hoffer – Eric Hoffer was an uneducated longshoreman who, when he was not working the docks, produced remarkably insightful writings about society. A fascinating example of a gifted mind that found expression against significant odds, his work continues to amaze me.

William Shakespeare – I consider Shakespeare to be one of the greatest philosophers; his writings contain so much timeless wisdom and food for thought. If being a philosopher means understanding the human condition, then Shakespeare deserves a place alongside Plato and Socrates.

Kahlil Gibran – If I had to give up my entire library of books (which numbers over 1,800 at the moment) save one, Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet is the book that I would keep. Stunning in both the profundity of its philosophy and the poetic magic of its composition, it is a book I can return to again and again.

Bruce Lee – Bruce Lee may be a surprising choice, but he was quite the philosopher himself. Although not original in terms of philosophical ideas, he was a great borrower of ideas from a variety of disciplines and demonstrated a remarkable ability to see where different concepts converged and how they could be applied in unexpected ways. He was my first introduction to the worlds of philosophy and psychology, and his impact on my adult development and direction in life cannot be overstated.

Abraham Maslow – Maslow is a tremendous influence on me, particularly his conceptualization of self-actualization. It has been a driving principle in my life and one that I have spoken about on occasion – most recently at the Texas Association for Gifted and Talented’s annual conference. Maslow stated his belief that only 1% of the population becomes fully self-actualized; I would argue that, of that 1%, all are gifted.

Carl Rogers – Last is the thinker who has influenced me the most. If The Prophet is my #1 book choice based on its philosophical and literary merits, Rogers’ On Becoming a Person would be a close second. It may not be first as leisure reading, but it certainly has had more of an affect on me in terms of influence. It was the reason I sought a second master’s degree in professional counseling. Rogers’ person-centered theories are at the heart of my own philosophy and his influence can be found in my personal worldview, my professional approaches, and even in my educational theories.

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