Key thinkers on knowledge

Key thinkers on knowledge


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 for each way of knowing and area of knowledge who will add extra authority to your essay and presentation, and help you to explore the KQs connected to your title. You can see the complete list of key thinkers on the 97 thinkers you should know page.

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

Aristarchos (310 BC – 230 BC)

Aristarchos was the first thinker to propose the heliocentric theory of astronomy, suggesting that the sun, rather than the earth, 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.
Also helps us to explore 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.
Also helps us to explore 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.
Also helps us to explore Ethics, NS

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.
Also helps us to explore NS

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 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).

Also helps us to explore Reason

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 personal advice to the US government in 1939 led them to become the only country during the war to possess nuclear weapons. He believed in the power of imagination in helping to acquire knowledge.
Also helps us to explore Imagination, reason, NS, 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.’
Also helps us to explore Emotion, reason, SP, ethics, HS

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’.

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.”
Also helps us to explore Emotion, faith, reason, ethics, RKS

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 SP, HS

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.
Also helps us to explore Emotion, 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.
Also helps us to explore Emotion, imagination, SP, arts

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 Emotion, intuition, 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.
Also helps us to explore Ethics, HS

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.
Also helps us to explore 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 successful 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 Language, mathematics, HS

Picasso, Pablo (1881 – 1973)

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.
Also helps us to explore Arts

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 Reason, ethics, HS

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.
Also helps us to explore Ethics, NS

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 Ethics, HS

ESSENTIAL THINKER Russell, Bertrand (1872 – 1970)

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.

Also helps us to explore Reason, ethics, mathematics, NS, RKS

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 Memory, history

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 Reason, 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.”
Also helps us to explore Language, reason, mathematics, NS

Cite this page as: Dunn, Michael. Key thinkers on knowledge (2nd December 2013). Last accessed: 19th March 2018


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