Key thinkers on the human sciences

Key thinkers on the human sciences


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

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.
Also helps us to explore Reason, ethics

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.
Also helps us to explore TNK, ethics

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

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, history

Damasio, Antonio (1944 – )

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.
Also helps us to explore Emotion, reason

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.

Du Sautoy, Marcus (1965 – )

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.
Also helps us to explore 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.
Also helps us to explore Emotion, intuition, arts

Gilbert, Dan (1957 – )

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.
Also helps us to explore Emotion, intuition, reason

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.
Also helps us to explore Emotion, Faith, intuition, arts, 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.
Also helps us to explore 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.
Also helps us to explore Faith, reason, ethics, RKS

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.
Also helps us to explore Faith, reason, RKS

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 counter-counter thinkers of the 1960s and ’70s.
Also helps us to explore Emotion, faith, imagination, intuition, arts

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.’
Also helps us to explore TNK, emotion, reason, SP, ethics

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.
Also helps us to explore Faith, arts, ethics, RKS

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.
Also helps us to explore Emotion, intuition, reason

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.
Also helps us to explore TNK, SP

Loftus, Elizabeth (1944 – )

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.
Also helps us to explore Memory, ethics

Lotto, Beau (1964 – )

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.
Also helps us to explore SP

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.
Also helps us to explore Faith, reason, 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.
Also helps us to explore TNK, emotion, reason

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 History

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, history, NS

ESSENTIAL THINKER 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, history

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.
Also 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.
Also helps us to explore TNK, emotion, intuition, language, reason

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.
Also helps us to explore TNK, ethics

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, history

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.”
Also helps us to explore TNK, language, mathematics

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.’

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, history

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.
Also helps us to explore TNK, reason, ethics

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.
Also helps us to explore Emotion, intuition, ethics

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.
Also helps us to explore TNK, ethics

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, history

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, history

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.
Also helps us to explore Arts, ethics

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, history

Shafak, Elif (1971 – )

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.
Also helps us to explore Imagination, arts, ethics

Shermer, Michael (1954 – )

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.
Also helps us to explore Reason, 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.
Also helps us to explore Faith, language, arts, 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.
Also helps us to explore Intuition, reason, IKS, 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.’
Also helps us to explore TNK, reason, ethics

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, 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.
Also helps us to explore Emotion

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.
Also helps us to explore Arts, ethics

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.”
Also helps us to explore TNK, language, reason, 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.
Also helps us to explore Language, arts, ethics, 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.
Also helps us to explore Emotion, reason, ethics

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


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