Key thinkers on history

Key thinkers on history


Adding authority to your TOK essay and presentation

The knowledge questions 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 for each way of knowing and area of knowledge who will add extra authority to your TOK essay and presentation, and help you to explore the KQs connected to your title. You can see the complete list of key thinkers here.

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. We’ve also 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.
TNK = the nature of knowledge
SP = sense perception
HS = the human sciences
IKS = indigenous knowledge systems
NS = the natural sciences
RKS = religious knowledge systems

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.

Chomsky, Noam (1928 – )

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.
Also helps us to explore Language, ethics, HS

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.

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.

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.
Also helps us to explore Memory, arts, ethics, NS

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.
Also helps us to explore 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.
Also helps us to explore Ethics, HS, NS

Milgram, Stanley (1933 – 1984)

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.
Also helps us to explore Reason, ethics, HS

ESSENTIAL THINKER Orwell, George (1903 – 1950)

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.

Also helps us to explore Language, reason, ethics, HS

Pinker, Steven (1954 – )

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.
Also helps us to explore Language, HS

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’.
Also helps us to explore Ethics, 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.”
Also helps us to explore TNK, memory

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.
Also helps us to explore Imagination, arts, 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.
Also helps us to explore Ethics, 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.

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.

Cite this page as: Dunn, Michael. Key thinkers on history (3rd December 2013). Last accessed: 19th March 2018


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