How Old Were Philosophers When They Published Their First Major Works?


I’ll be turning 35 in January, so I’ve been doing some thinking about age in relation to the trajectory of my career. I’m in the final stages of preparing my first book, How Does It Feel?: Elvis Presley, The Beatles, Bob Dylan, and the Philosophy of Rock and Roll, for publication, and I’m well into my second book, a straight work of philosophy. With these considerations in mind, I decided to look at how old my favorite philosophers (and a few psychologists and a stray scientist and sociologist) were when they published their first major works and some of their best known works thereafter. I haven’t tried to be comprehensive, so please don’t be offended if I’ve left out one of your favorite books or thinkers. Rather, I’ve given a subjectively chosen selection of works merely sufficient to answer my question. To make a long story short, the conclusion I’ve drawn is that we philosophers are doing just fine if we publish our first book by our late forties. Philosophy is clearly not a vocation for those seeking instant gratification.

One caveat: the ages I’ve listed are approximations based solely on the years, not the months, of birth and publication, so there’s essentially a one year margin of error. I could take the time to recheck all the numbers, but you get the idea, and I need to get back to writing my book.

William James

48 – The Principles of Psychology

55 – The Will to Believe

60 – The Varieties of Religious Experience

65 – Pragmatism

67 – A Pluralistic Universe

Henri Bergson

30 – Time and Free Will

37 – Matter and Memory

48 – Creative Evolution

Alfred North Whitehead

49 – Principia Mathematica

64 – Science and the Modern World

68 – Process and Reality

72 – Adventures of Ideas

77 – Modes of Thought

C.G. Jung

37 – Psychology of the Unconscious

46 – Psychological Types

59 – The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious

69 – Psychology and Alchemy

77 – Synchronicity

87 – Memories, Dreams, Reflections

Jean Gebser

44 – The Ever-Present Origin

Richard Tarnas

41 – The Passion of the Western Mind

56 – Cosmos and Psyche

G.W.F. Hegel

37 – The Phenomenology of Spirit

42 – The Science of Logic

Thomas Kuhn

35 – The Copernican Revolution

40 – The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

James Hillman

34 – Emotion

38 – Suicide and the Soul

49 – Re-Visioning Psychology

Sigmund Freud

44 – The Interpretation of Dreams

48 – The Psychopathology of Everyday Life

57 – Totem and Taboo

74 – Civilization and Its Discontents

83 – Moses and Monotheism

Charles Darwin

50 – On the Origin of Species

62 – The Descent of Man

Max Weber

41 – The Protestant Ethic and the “Spirit” of Capitalism


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21 responses to “How Old Were Philosophers When They Published Their First Major Works?

  1. Yay! There’s still time for me yet!

  2. Rob Palmer

    I just published my first book (jazz biography) at age 49 and it has just won an award. It’s never too late.j

    • Congratulations Rob! Well done.

    • Congratulations! I find it astounding that Whitehead only began writing philosophy in his sixties, though of course he was a noted mathematician before that. It’s encouraging to realize that many, if not most of the great works of philosophy and psychology have been written at an age when people in other professions are thinking about retirement.

  3. Nice list! Allow me to add Edmund Husserl to the mix:
    32 – Philosophy of Arithmetic (1891)
    41/42 – Logical Investigations (1900/1901)
    54 – Ideas I (1913)
    And he kept going:
    70 – Formal and Transcendental Logic (1929)
    72 – Cartesian Meditations (1931)
    77 – The Crisis (1936)

  4. That’s true. I didn’t even include early works by Jung, Freud, and a few others for the same reason.

  5. Pingback: How Old Were Philosophers When They Published Their First Major Works? | Philosophy @ MHS

  6. It has been brought to my attention that Bergson’s “Time and Free Will,” his doctoral dissertation published at the tender age of thirty, could be considered a “major work,” and I’ve changed the list accordingly. Nevertheless, young Henri appears to be an exception to the rule.

  7. sam

    Very cool list. Schopenhauer is an interesting case, with his Fourfold Root published at 25 and World as Will when he was 30. Yet so many pictures of him are the old cranky looking Schopenhauer.

    • Thanks, Sam. It’s entirely possible that my taste in philosophers is skewed towards late bloomers. Actually, that wouldn’t surprise me. It would be interesting for someone to do a more comprehensive and systematic study of this phenomenon.

  8. Pingback: What Makes a Blog Post Go Viral? | Rock and Roll Philosopher

  9. I love the idea for your book! There’s a treasure trove of wisdom and cultural commentary in Rock music, and I have always thought of rock lyrics as a way that musicians were passing notes back and forth to each other.

  10. You left Kant off the list! His three critiques (after “awakening from his dogmatic slumber”):

    57 – Critique of Pure Reason
    64 – Critique of Practical Reason
    66 – Critique of the Power of Judgement

  11. Wonderful post. Here’s a quote by Kierkegaard in relate to that:
    “What the age needs is not a genius—it has had geniuses enough, but a martyr, who in order to teach men to obey would himself be obedient unto death. What the age needs is awakening. And therefore someday, not only my writings but my whole life, all the intriguing mystery of the machine will be studied and studied. I never forget how God helps me and it is therefore my last wish that everything may be to his honor.”

  12. Bertrand Russell first published at 24, first philosophical publication at 38 with Whitehead although his essays appeared earlier. Is there a reason you demoted Russell from the list of modern philospophers?

  13. leigh Fetter

    I hereby submit Arthur Schopenhauer as the most precocious philosophical genius of all time.

    His magnum opus, The World as Will and Representation, was completed when he was only 29 and published after his 30th birthday. His doctoral thesis, the ungainly titled, On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason, was integral to his subsequent work but also became a stand-alone classic. He published this widely at the age of 25.

    For context, Schopenhauer didn’t even begin university until the age of 20, after being forced to work as a merchant in his deceased father’s failing business. Further, he began studying medicine before changing to philosophy at the age of 21.

    So content was he that his system illuminated the ultimate, inner reality of the world, he didn’t publish anything again for over 15 years, and then only a few prize essays supporting his original idea or new, improved editions to his masterpiece.

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