Key TOK thinkers

Key TOK thinkers


Adding authority to your TOK essay and presentation

The knowledge issues in your and TOK presentation should be supported not only by your own ideas and evidence, but also by those of other people. We have therefore put together a list of key thinkers who will add extra authority to your essay and presentation, and help you to explore the KIs connected to your title.

Beautiful minds

But we’re thinking of more than just the TOK assessment: these minds are the source of some of the most incredible ideas ever put forward, and have shaped the way we view the world and our place in it. So we think they are worth getting to know in their own right, because they will genuinely help you to figure out this mysterious thing called existence.

Making use of these thinkers

We have indicated which elements of the course they are particularly useful for (remember you should be trying to link the different parts of TOK, so don’t just focus on one WOK or AOK in isolation), and we have provided a Wikipedia link for each person. However, you should see this as the point where you begin, rather than end, your exploration of these paradigm-defining figures.
Finally, we’ve identified one person for each way of knowing and area of knowledge whom we consider an ESSENTIAL THINKER, due to way they challenge assumptions or provide a particularly important idea. Each of these thinkers are accompanied by a video in which they outline their theories, and which you can quote as a source for your essay or presentation. You can find these videos within the key thinkers pages of the ways of knowing and areas of knowledge sections.
TNK = the nature of knowledge
SP = sense perception
HS = the human sciences
IKS = indigenous knowledge systems
NS = the natural sciences
RKS = religious knowledge systems

Achebe, Chinua (1930 – 2013)

Achebe was a Nigerian poet, novelist and academic, who was outspoken on colonialism and racism. He was a supporter of Biafran independence, but ultimately lost faith in politics due to the way in which he felt that power had corrupted those originally seeking freedom.
Helps us to explore Imagination, language, arts, ethics, history

Ariely, Dan (1967 – )

Ariely is a behavioural economist, who studies the way we make decisions, with a particular focus on moral choices. His bestselling book, Predictably Irrational investigated the phenomenon of making decisions that seem entirely illogical.
Helps us to explore Reason, ethics, HS

Aristarchos (310 BC – 230 BC)

Aristarchos was the first thinker to propose the heliocentric theory of astronomy, suggesting that the earth, rather than the sun, was the centre of the solar system. He was also responsible for placing the planets in their correct order. Aristarchos’s ideas were generally rejected in favour of those of Aristotle and Ptolemy, who both favoured the geocentric theory. It took over 1800 years for his ideas to be confirmed, (largely because of the resistance of secular and religious authorities, who were reluctant to see the earth demoted in importance in the universe) first by the observations of Copernicus, then by the work of Kepler and Newton.
Helps us to explore TNK, NS

Aristotle (384 BC – 322 BC)

Together with Plato and Socrates (Plato’s teacher), Aristotle is one of the most important founding figures in Western philosophy. Aristotle’s writings were the first to create a comprehensive system of Western philosophy, encompassing morality and aesthetics, logic and science, politics and metaphysics.
Helps us to explore TNK, NS

Bentham, Jeremy (1748 – 1832)

Bentham was a British philosopher and reformer who tried to develop a scientific formula for the happiness created by any action we take. This became known as utilitarianism, and is the most well-known form of consequentialist moral philosophy.
Helps us to explore TNK, ethics, HS

Bernini, Gian Lorenzo (1598 – 1680)

Bernini is regarded as one of the most talented sculptors who ever lived, surpassing even Michelangelo in his ability to make marble and stone come alive. His Ecstasy of St Agnes, is of particular interest, in the way it makes an impact on its viewers.
Helps us to explore Emotion, arts

Black Elk (1863 – 1950)

Black Elk was a Sioux medicine man and spiritual leader. He spoke of the unity of all men, and tried to emphasize the similarity of spiritual beliefs regardless of the different religious traditions from which they came.
Helps us to explore Faith, SP, ethics, IKS, RKS

Bohr, Niels (1885-1962)

Bohr was a Danish physicist who, alongside Einstein (with whom he had famous but very productive arguments) helped to develop atomic theory and quantum mechanics. Although his model of the way in which the atom works has been superceded, the underlying principles are still mostly accepted. He helped to foster other great scientific thinkers, such as Werner Heisenberg, although unlike Heisenberg, he refused to work for the Nazis, and escaped before Nazi-controlled territory
Helps us to explore Imagination, reason, ethics, NS

Brown, Derren (1971 – )

Brown is an illusionist, writer, and artist. Although he performs seemingly inexplicable mind-reading tricks, he is quick to explain his methods in order to reveal those who claim to have supernatural powers as frauds. He has a particularly interesting insight into the Barnum effect and cold reading.
Helps us to explore Reason, SP, HS

Caravaggio, Michelangelo Merisi da (1571 – 1610)

Caravaggio was an Italian painter with a taste for the underbelly of Rome’s society, unlike many other painters of the time. His David with the head of Goliath must rank as the most shocking and original self-portraits in history (his is the head).
Helps us to explore Emotion, imagination, reason, arts

Carr, EH (1892 – 1982)

Carr was a British historian, journalist, and left-wing thinker, whose 14 volume history of Russia was still unfinished at the time of his death. We will consider Carr’s book What is History? which said that historians put a great deal of themselves into their books as a result of selective use of evidence. The book has been continually reinterpreted, though, and Carr’s original meaning is a little elusive.
Helps us to explore History

Chomsky, Noam (1928 – ) ESSENTIAL THINKER

Chomsky is a linguist, philosopher, and, in his role as political activist, one of the most virulent critics of interventionist US foreign policy. Chomsky’s theories on the extent to which language is innate to humans, and his ‘universal grammar’ theory, are of particular interest to TOK students.
Helps us to explore Language, ethics, history, HS

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor (1772 – 1854)

Coleridge was a British poet, writer, and philosopher, who is noted for the way in which he used imagination in order to create literature, particularly in his poem Kubla Khan. Apparently, his great work was inspired by a dream, which he spent the rest of his life trying to recreate via the use of chemical stimuli.
Helps us to explore Imagination, language, memory, arts

Copernicus, Nicolaus (1473 – 1543)

Copernicus was the first person to present a complete version of the heliocentric theory of the universe, removing the earth from the centre of the cosmos. This idea is often cited as the best example of a paradigm shift in scientific thinking.
Helps us to explore TNK, NS

Damasio, Antonio (1944 – ) ESSENTIAL THINKER

Damasio is a Portuguese neuroscientist who works at the University of Southern California. His book Descartes’ Error posited the idea that our emotions are vital for our ability to reason properly, which he illustrated by drawing on the strange case of Phineas Gage.
Helps us to explore Emotion, reason, HS

Darwin, Charles (1809 – 1882) ESSENTIAL THINKER

Darwin was a British geologist and naturalist, and possessor of one of the greatest minds in history. His theory of evolution is one of the most important bases of scientific knowledge, but he is also interesting for the strong faith he held early in his life, which he was forced to question due to his discoveries.
Helps us to explore Faith, reason, NS, RKS

Davis, Wade (1953 – ) ESSENTIAL THINKER

Davis is National Geographic’s Explorer-in-Residence, and has a vast knowledge of indigenous peoples all over the globe. His research and studies of other cultures is characterized by respect and wonder, enabling him to truly acquire different perspectives through which to view the world.
Helps us to explore Ethics, IKS

Dawkins, Richard (1941 – )

Dawkins is probably the most famous biologist in the world, best known for his book The Selfish Gene. He has staunch opinions on superstition and religion, which he believes are actively harmful to society. He argues that one’s approach to life should be based on the scientific method.
Helps us to explore Faith, reason, NS, RKS

Descartes, Rene (1596 – 1650)

Descartes was a French physicist and mathematician, and has been dubbed the father of modern philosophy. His philosophical approach was built up from the fundamental idea that we can doubt everything (particularly the knowledge provided by our senses) other than the fact that we are doubting, which led him to state in 1637, ‘Je pense, donc je suis’ (I think therefore I am).
Helps us to explore TNK, reason, SP

Durkheim, Émile (1858 – 1917)

Durkheim typified the naturalist approach to human science, and sought to understand questions using purely objective evidence. His ‘scientific’ approach resulted in sociology gaining a great deal of respectability during his lifetime. Along with Weber, he is considered one of the founding fathers of the subject.
Helps us to explore HS

Du Sautoy, Marcus (1965 – ) ESSENTIAL THINKER

Du Sautoy is the Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science and a Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford. He is known for popularizing science and mathematics, and applying the principles found within both fields to understand our everyday lives.
Helps us to explore HS, mathematics

Dutton, Denis (1944 – 2010)

Dutton worked as a philosopher at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, and was the editor of Arts and Letters Daily. He believed that far from it being dictated by culture, our aesthetic sense is innate, and has evolved over the course of time as a result of Darwinian adaptation.
Helps us to explore Emotion, intuition, arts, HS

Einstein, Albert (1879 – 1955)

Probably the best known scientist of the last 300 years, Einstein’s name has become synonymous with genius and creativity. His development of the general theory of relativity replaced much of Newtonian physics as a basis for understanding the way the universe works, and he helped to establish quantum mechanics as a way of explaining the behaviour of sub-atomic particles.
Helps us to explore TNK, imagination, reason, NS, RKS

Firestein, Stuart (1949 – ) ESSENTIAL THINKER

Firestein is a neuroscientist as Columbia University in New York. He runs a laboratory, and teaches various course, one of which is devoted to the way in which ignorance is an integral element of scientific advancement.
Helps us to explore Reason, NS

Gaddis, John Lewis (1941 – )

Gaddis is an American ‘Cold War’ historian whose developing views on what caused the conflict typify how historical opinion changes as a result of new evidence being discovered.
Helps us to explore History

Gandhi, Mahatma (1869 – 1948)

Gandhi was a lawyer by training, but soon emerged as the key leader of Indian independence from British colonial rule and oppression. His central idea was non-violent civil disobedience, which he advocated alongside religious tolerance and pluralism.
Helps us to explore Faith, reason, ethics, RKS

Galilei, Galileo (1564 – 1642)

Along with Descartes and Newton, Galileo helped to get the scientific revolution underway, in particular with his emphasis on empirical observation of experiments as a way of ascertaining their results. He also developed Copernicus’s heliocentric theory.
Helps us to explore Reason, NS

Gilbert, Dan (1957 – ) ESSENTIAL THINKER

Gilbert studied social psychology at Princeton, and has taught at Harvard. He is a widely published author, who writes on the subject of happiness, and how to acquire it, focusing on the way in which our intuition often leads us into making the wrong decisions.
Helps us to explore Emotion, intuition, reason, HS

Glennie, Evelyn (1965 – )

At the age of 12, Glennie lost nearly all her hearing, but her passion and talent for music (as well as her determination) meant she was still able to enter the Royal College of Music in London, changing the way admissions were handled for people with disabilities.
Helps us to explore Emotion, imagination, SP, arts

Goldacre, Ben (1974 – )

Goldacre is a British doctor and science journalist, and author of the best selling Bad Science book. He writes a regular column attacking the way both the press and by the profit-making elements of the scientific community approach and present science.
Helps us to explore Reason, NS

Grayling, AC (1949 – )

Grayling is a British philosopher and journalist who will help us to remain objective about applying the rules of ethics, especially when it comes to making judgements about criminal acts. He also has a lot to say on how we acquire knowledge.
Helps us to explore Reason, ethics, RKS

Greene, Graham (1904 – 1991)

Apart from being one of the most interesting writers of the 20th century on the psychological motivations of human behaviour, Greene is interesting to us for what he says on the therapeutic value of writing. For this reason, he is an excellent thinker to consider when it comes to the TOK journal. He was also a noted Catholic, though had a difficult relationship with his faith.
Helps us to explore Emotion, Faith, intuition, arts, HS, RKS

Harris, Judith (1938 – )

Author of the ‘The Nurture Assumption’, Harris questions the importance of parents in the forming of a person’s character. She says that environment does play an important part in determining someone’s personality, but the effect of a child’s peers is much stronger than the effect of his or her parents. This is important as a source for the nature versus nurture debate in the human sciences.
Helps us to explore HS, NS

Harris, Sam (1967 – )

Harris is a philosopher, neuroscientists, and writer who is an advocate of skepticism, and who believes that morality needs a solid foundation. This, he proposes, should be based on truths that can only be empirically proven, established by a method akin to those found in natural sciences.
Helps us to explore Faith, reason, ethics, HS, NS, RKS

Hawking, Stephen (1942 – )

Hawking is a Cambridge cosmologist and theoretical physicist. His book A Brief History of Time has sold more copies than any other science book ever written. One key question associated with his ideas is whether they provide us with the complete picture when considering the origins of the universe.
Helps us to explore NS, RKS

Hazleton, Lesley (1945 – ) ESSENTIAL THINKER

Hazleton trained as a psychologist before becoming a reporter in the Middle East. She has written extensively on the nature and history of Islam, and the difference in terms of its reality, and how it is perceived.
Helps us to explore Faith, reason, RKS

Heisenberg, Werner (1901-1976)

Heisenberg was a German theoretical physicist who was one of the founding fathers of quantum mechanics. He is best known for his uncertainty principle, which helped to develop the way we understand the behaviour of sub-atomic particles. Unlike Niels Bohr, he continued working within Germany during the Nazi regime.
Helps us to explore Imagination, reason, ethics, NS

Henderson, Bobby (1980 – )

Henderson is the founder of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, which he started up to parody the decision by the Kansas State Education Board to allow the teaching of creationism in science lessons alongside the theories of Darwin. He has much to say on causation and correlation – and pirates.
Helps us to explore Faith, reason, HS, RKS

Herodotus (c.484 BC – c.425 BC)

Herodotus is regarded as one of the fathers of history because he was, along with Thucydides, the first writer to collect evidence systematically, and use it to support his narrative accounts of what happened in the past.
Helps us to explore History

Hesse, Hermann (1877 – 1962)

Hesse was a German-born Swiss poet, novelist, painter, and spiritual thinker. His quest for enlightenment via self-knowledge characterised his writing, and helped to inspire the countercounter thinkers of the 1960s and ’70s.
Helps us to explore Emotion, faith, imagination, intuition, arts, HS

Hitchens, Christopher (1949 – 2011)

Hitchens was a British-American, left wing, privately educated, militantly atheist, pro-interventionist (for war in Iraq), writer, drinker, and smoker, whose life proved that people can be many things at the same time, and should never be pigeon-holed. His (critical) views on religion are probably the most interesting to us as TOK learners, for example, his assertion that belief in an omnipotent God leads to the totalitarian subjugation of the individual.
Helps us to explore Faith, reason, ethics, RKS

Hume, David (1711 – 1776)

Hume was an Edinburgh philosopher and historian, and is regarded as the most important of the British empiricists (along with Locke and Berkeley). Unlike Descartes, he thought that the only knowledge that we should trust is that which we experience directly through our senses. He also emphasised the importance of emotions in allowing us access to truth, by saying ‘Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions.’
Helps us to explore TNK, emotion, reason, SP, ethics, HS

Iqbal, Muhammad (1877 – 1938)

Iqbal was born in modern day Pakistan, and combined the arts with politics. Known as the ‘Poet of the East’, he was one of the figures who inspired the Pakistan movement, helping to lead to the establishment of the state in 1947.
Helps us to explore Faith, arts, ethics, HS, RKS

James, William (1842 – 1910)

James was an American psychologist and philosopher, and one of the founding figures of the pragmatic school of thinking.  He believed that truth was ‘mutable’ or changeable, rather than something concrete and absolute. James believed that it often takes a long time to figure out whether something is true or not, based on whether it works successfully. This help us in formulating an understanding on the nature of ‘truth’.
Helps us to explore TNK

Kahlo de Rivera, Frida (1907 – 1954)

Kahlo was a Mexican painter, whose self-portraits are amongst the most evocative of sadness and aloneness of all works of modern art.
Helps us to explore Emotion, imagination, arts

Kahneman, Daniel (1934 – )

Kahneman is a Nobel Prize winning economist, who is also one of the most influential thinkers of psychology in the world. He has examined many aspects of human behaviour, such as decision-making, happiness, and the way we perceive our own well-being.
Helps us to explore Emotion, intuition, reason, HS

Kant, Immanuel (1724 – 1804)

Kant is arguably the most important philosopher since classical Greece, and totally modified our understanding of how we view the world. His deontological ideas argue that moral actions should only be assessed in terms of their intentions – in contrast to the consequentialists such as Bentham and Mill.
Helps us to explore TNK, reason, ethics

Keller, Helen (1880 – 1968)

Keller was an American author, and social and political thinker. The first deafblind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree, her ideas can be summed up by her famous quote: “The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched – they must be felt with the heart.”
Helps us to explore SP, arts, ethics

Kierkegaard, Søren (1813 – 1855)

Kierkegaard was a Danish philosopher, poet, theologian, and social thinker. He is interesting to us as one of the first Existentialist thinkers, and for the way in which he combined philosophy with religious faith. He once said: “Prayer does not change God, but it changes him who prays.”
Helps us to explore TNK, emotion, faith, reason, ethics, RKS

Kuhn, Thomas (1922 – 1996)

Kuhn was an American physicist who wrote extensively on the philosophy of science. According to him, scientific knowledge progresses in a violent and revolutionary way, rather than in a linear and passively accumulative fashion. He coined the term ‘paradigm shifts’ for the way in which our knowledge advances.
Helps us to explore NS

Levi, Primo (1919 – 1987)

Levi was an Italian chemist, writer, and concentration camp survivor. He wrote widely on the abuse of power by fascist leaders, on the nature of humanity, and tried to bridge the gap between natural sciences and the arts. Tragically, he killed himself in 1987.
Helps us to explore Memory, arts, ethics, history, NS

Locke, John (1632 – 1704)

Locke was the first of the British empiricists who borrowed Aristotle’s idea of a blank slate, which he termed the tabula rasa. This meant that we are born with no innate ideas, and instead, build up knowledge as we experience things through our senses. He represents the counterpoint to Descartes when it comes to thinking about how we acquire knowledge about the world.
Helps us to explore TNK, SP, HS

Loftus, Elizabeth (1944 – ) ESSENTIAL THINKER

Loftus is a world authority on memory, based in part on her landmark study in the 1970s looking at how the recall of past events can be shaped by the way in which witness are asked to describe them. She has appeared as an expert witness in hundreds of court cases to make this point.
Helps us to explore Memory, ethics, HS

Lotto, Beau (1964 – ) ESSENTIAL THINKER

Lotto is a neuroscientist and founder of ‘Lotto Lab’ who investigates how we perceive the world with our senses and brains. His optical illusions are literally staggering, and force their audience to question things they have always taken for granted.
Helps us to explore SP, HS

Maher, Bill (1956 – )

Maher is an American stand-up comedian and host of the award-winning current affairs show, Real Time with Bill Maher. Maher’s controversial thoughts on religion, and his opinions of faith as a way of knowing, are perfect for debate.
Helps us to explore Faith, reason, HS, RKS

Marcus Aurelius (AD 121 – AD 180)

Roman emperor from 161 to 180, Marcus Aurelius presided over the empire whilst it was still in its heyday – after him, it went into a steady decline. He was one of the most famous Stoic philosophers, which held that the negative effects of your emotions can be overcome simply by perceiving of them in a different way – in other words, reason over emotion.
Helps us to explore TNK, emotion, reason, HS

Marwick, Arthur (1936 – 2006)

Marwick was an Edinburgh and Oxford-educated social and cultural historian. He is particularly interesting when talking about things that get in the way of historians doing their job properly, such as political or social agendas, seeing elements of popular culture as secondary rather than primary sources, and simplifying past events or discerning patterns where there are none.
Helps us to explore History, HS

Marx, Karl (1818 – 1883)

Marx was a German economist, historian, socialist, and philosopher. He is, of course, best known for his phiolsophy of Marxism, which proposed that human societies develop via a social struggle between different interest groups.
Helps us to explore Ethics, history, HS

Matisse, Henri (1869 – 1954)

Matisse was a French painter, sculptor, and printmaker. His new way of conceiving of reality helped to define the way the whole of the arts developed in the C20th, and he is regarded as one of the most important figures in the arts in the last 100 years.
Helps us to explore TNK, emotion, imagination, SP, arts

Milgram, Stanley (1933 – 1984) ESSENTIAL THINKER

Milgram was an American psychologist, who designed the (in)famous Milgram experiment to investigate the extent to which we respond to authority. His conclusions on the human capacity to go along with immoral acts are deeply disturbing.
Helps us to explore Reason, ethics, history, HS

Mill, John Stuart (1806 – 1873)

Mill was a philosopher and liberal thinker, and one of the most important figures in the campaign against slavery. He developed the utilitarian principles of Jeremy Bentham, attaching to it the term ‘greatest-happiness principle’ in order to test if utilitarianism was being employed successfully.
Helps us to explore Emotion, ethics

Montaigne, Michel Eyquem de (1533 – 1592)

One of the greatest ever essayists and writers, Montaigne’s ideas foreshadowed many of the ones found in Shakespeare’s plays. He believed we are trapped in our own natures, and are unable to escape our instincts and personalities.
Helps us to explore TNK, emotion, intuition, language, reason, HS

Nietzsche, Friedrich (1844 – 1900)

Nietzsche permeates all modern thinking, and he is credited as being one of the key figures in the challenge to a religious-based approach to morality. Being such a defining personality, it’s hard to narrow down his ideas, but one particular example is his ‘perspectivist’ ideas on truth and morality.
Helps us to explore TNK, ethics, HS

Newton, Isaac (1643 – 1727)

Newton was so many things – a physicist, a mathematician, an astronomer, a theologian, and even a alchemist. He is considered to be one of the most influential people in history, alongside figures such as Plato, Kant, Descartes, and Darwin. In the early part of his career, at least, , saying ‘if I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.
Helps us to explore Imagination, mathematics, NS

Orwell, George (1903 – 1950) ESSENTIAL THINKER

Orwell was the author of (among many other things) Animal Farm and 1984. In many ways, he is the ‘patron saint of  TOK’, because of his huge range of ideas on so many different topics. Amongst these, were his ideas on language, and the extent to which is governs the way we think. But he also wrote on the power of the state when it comes to representing history.
Helps us to explore Language, reason, ethics, history, HS

Owen, Wilfred (1893 – 1918)

Owen was a First World War poet who wrote bitterly about his experiences as a soldier, attacking the ruling classes and the generals who in his opinion had no idea of what they were doing. This amounted to a revolutionary view of the world, and helped to change society utterly after the conflict ended.
Helps us to explore Language, arts, ethics

Pasteur, Louis (1822 – 1895)

Pasteur was a French chemist and micro-biologist. For the purposes of TOK, he is of interest for what he said about the role of serendipity in scientific discoveries. According to him, it is only the prepared mind that benefits from it.
Helps us to explore TNK, imagination, NS

Piaget, Jean (1896 – 1980)

Piaget was a Swiss philosopher, sociologist, educational thinker, and psychologist. His belief that education was the key to building a successfull society can be summed up in his words: “Only education is capable of saving our societies from possible collapse, whether violent, or gradual.”
Helps us to explore TNK, language, mathematics, HS

Picasso, Pablo (1881 – 1973) ESSENTIAL THINKER

Picasso was a Spanish painter and sculptor, who completely altered the way in which we view reality. He was one of the co-founders of the Cubism artistic movement, and is regarded as one of the most important artistic thinkers ever to have lived.
Helps us to explore Imagination, arts, ethics

Pigliucci, Massimo (1964 – )

Italian philosopher and biological scientist, Pigliucci belives that genes work with the environment to help shape our personalities. In his essay ‘Beyond Nature versus Nurture’ he points out that ‘if one changes either the genes or the environment, the resulting behaviour can be dramatically different.’
Helps us to explore HS

Pinker, Steven (1954 – ) ESSENTIAL THINKER

Pinker, a Harvard professor, is one of the best known popular science writers in the world, and his books on psychology have sold millions of copies. He has much to say on the way we use language, and also history.
Helps us to explore Language, history, HS

Planck, Max (1858 – 1947)

Planck, a German physicist, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1918. His views on the progression of ideas in the natural sciences can be seen as a forerunner to the paradigm shift idea, and are summed up by his statement: ‘A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it’.
Helps us to explore NS

Plato (428/427 – 348/347 BC)

Plato, a pupil of Socrates, was one of the most influential philosophers in history, helping to lay down the framework for the way we think. He was influenced almost as much by Socrates’ ideas as he was by his apparently unfair execution. His metaphor of the cave is of particular interest on the nature of existence.
Helps us to explore TNK, reason, ethics, HS

Plutchik, Robert (1928 – 2006)

Plutchik, an American psychologist, tried to categorize emotions by referring to them as ‘basic’ and ‘advanced’. Whether or not we can divide up such a nebulous phenomenon as our emotional state in such a way is one question that is worth considering.
Helps us to explore Emotion

Popper, Karl (1902 – 1994)

Popper, an Austro-British academic, wrote on just about every subject there is. His philosophy of science is particularly relevant, and one of his central ideas is that our knowledge of reality is severely limited, and for a theory to be truly scientific, it should be possible to empirically falsify it.
Helps us to explore TNK, ethics, NS

Richards, Sam (1960 – )

Richards is a sociologist, and teacher of race relations. He specializes in addressing and exploring difficult, controversial subjects; a process that he believes involves viewing the world through multiple perspectives, and drawing on kills of empathy.
Helps us to explore Emotion, intuition, ethics, HS

Rousseau, Jean Jacques (1712 – 1782)

Rousseau was a writer and philosopher whose thoughts on politics are amongst the most influential that have ever been developed. His idea that there should be a social contract between government and governed outlined in the publication of the same title helped to inspire the American (and later, French) revolution.
Helps us to explore TNK, ethics, HS

Russell, Bertrand (1872 – 1970) ESSENTIAL THINKER

Russell is one of the towering figures of 20th century thought, and wrote on subjects as diverse as mathematics and the morality of nuclear weapons. His thoughts scatter the TOK course, beginning with the nature of knowledge, and the definition of truth.
Helps us to explore TNK, reason, ethics, mathematics, NS, RKS

Sagan, Carl (1934 – 1996)

Sagan was an American astronomer and astrophysicist who was one of the most prolific science writers of the last 50 years. His thoughts on the nature of science help provide a definition for what the natural sciences are.
Helps us to explore NS

Said, Edward (1935 – 2003)

Said was a Palestinian writer and historian, who wrote extensively on on post-colonialism, and the way in which the ‘west’ perceives the ‘east’.
Helps us to explore Ethics, history, HS

Santayana, George (1863 – 1952)

Santayana was a Spanish-American pragmatist philosopher and writer. His views on history, and the necessity of learning it, can be summed up by his famous maxim: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Helps us to explore TNK, memory, history, HS

Sassoon, Siegfried (1886 – 1967)

Sassoon was a poet who wrote scathingly of the First World War, and helped to shape the style and ability of Wilfred Owen, who eventually eclipsed his own fame. Sassoon was particularly critical of the ruling classes, and this revolutionary view helped to change people’s perspectives of human society after the war had ended.
Helps us to explore Arts, ethics, HS

Schama, Simon (1945- )

Schama is many things: a historian, art critic, and cultural commentator. His thoughts on the ‘power’ of art are inspiring and enlightening.
Helps us to explore Imagination, arts, history, HS

Shafak, Elif (1971 – ) ESSENTIAL THINKER

Shafak is a Turkish writer whose books draw on a whole range of different themes and cultures, but for which one thing is vital: the imaginative story. She argues against pigeonholing artists and people due to race, culture, and identity, and asserts that fiction allows us to connect with others.
Helps us to explore Imagination, arts, ethics, HS

Shermer, Michael (1954 – ) ESSENTIAL THINKER

Founder of Skeptic magazine, Shermer spends his life debunking myths, exposing frauds, and highlighting fallacies. His key assertion is that before you draw on a supernatural cause for something, you first have to explore all the potential natural causes.
Helps us to explore Reason, HS, NS, RKS

Singer, Isaac Bashevis (1902 – 1991)

Singer was a Polish-American writer and Jewish thinker. He was strident in his view on language, only ever writing in Yiddish, and believed that it wasn’t possible to ‘know’ God.
Helps us to explore Faith, language, arts, HS, RKS

Sivananda, Swami (1887 – 1963)

Sivananda was an Indian Hindu spiritual teacher and yoga expert. He gained a world-side following, and popularized the pasttime of yoga, although for him, yoga was a means to achieve union with God.
Helps us to explore Faith, SP, RKS

Skinner, BF (1904 – 1990)

Skinner was many things, among them, a philosopher, psychologist, author, and inventor. His experiment on pigeons, in which he observed them behaving ‘superstitiously’, suggest that such a tendency is not limited to human beings.
Helps us to explore Intuition, reason, HS, NS

Socrates (469 – 399 BC)

Arguably, the philosopher who started it all, at least in terms of the way we think. Socrates never wrote anything down, so this makes it hard to figure out his ideas exactly. He is best known, perhaps, for his method, which stressed the fact that we should be aware of our ignorance, and never cease asking questions. He said (we think): ‘I know you won’t believe me, but the highest form of Human Excellence is to question oneself and others.’
Helps us to explore TNK, reason, ethics, HS

Taylor, AJP (1906 – 1990)

Taylor was an Oxford historian who wrote extensively on aspects of 19th century and 20th century European political history. From an early age, Taylor was brilliant and rebellious, and both of these traits are highly visible in his revisionist ideas on the causes of the Second World War, which shattered the historical paradigm of the time.
Helps us to explore Ethics, history, HS

Thucydides  (c. 460BC – c.395BC)

Thucydides is regarded as one of the fathers of history because he was, along with Herodotus, the first writer to collect evidence systematically, and use it to support his narrative accounts of what happened in the past. He is worth comparing and contrasting to his Greek peer.
Helps us to explore History

Tjapaltjarri, Clifford Possum (1932 – 2003)

Tjapaltjarri was a one of the key figures in the indigenous Australian art movement. His art often featured representations of dreaming stories, thus making use of both imagination and indigenous knowledge systems.
Helps us to explore Imagination, arts, IKS

Trevor-Roper, Hugh (1914 – 2003)

Trevor-Roper was an aristocratic Oxford historian who specialised in modern history. His view of the causes of the Second World War were a complete contrast to his peer AJP Taylor’s – illustrating how historians from the same time can come to completely different conclusions. His name was forever tarnished by his role in the Hitler diary episode.
Helps us to explore History

Weber, Max (1864 – 1920)

Along with Durkheim, one of the fathers of sociology. But unlike Durkheim, Weber believed that to understand society, one had to study its individual members and develop an empathy with the people you were studying, and understand the meaning that they themselves placed on their actions.
Helps us to explore Emotion, HS

Weil, Simone (1909 – 1943)

Weil was a French philosopher, political and religious thinker. She was noted for her compassion towards others, and is also remarkable for her thoughts and opinions on Christianity and other religions.
Helps us to explore Emotion, faith, imagination, intuition, ethics, RKS

Wilde, Oscar (1854 – 1900)

Wilde was an Irish playwright, poet and writer. The archetypal C19th wit, he also wrote widely on art, but was persecuted for his sexuality, and his anti-establishment outlook ensured his downfall.
Helps us to explore Arts, ethics, HS

Wittgenstein, Ludwig (1889 – 1951)

Wittgenstein was an Austrian philosopher of mathematics, language, and the mind. He believed that philosophical problems were generally associated with language, stating that: “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.”
Helps us to explore TNK, language, reason, HS, mathematics, NS

Woolf, Virginia (1882 – 1941)

Woolf was a British writer and intellectual. She was one of the key modernist thinkers of the the 20th century, and also held strong opinions about religion.
Helps us to explore Language, arts, ethics, HS, RKS

Zimbardo, Philip (1933 – )

Zimbardo is a psychologist best known for his Stanford Prison experiment of 1971, in which graduate students given power over their peers quickly began to abuse it in unexpected and brutal ways. For Zimbardo, it is generally the system that causes ‘evil’ to happen, rather than individuals.
Helps us to explore Emotion, reason, ethics, HS

Cite this page as: Dunn, Michael. Key TOK thinkers (16th March 2014). Last accessed: 20th March 2018


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