Key thinkers on reason

Key thinkers on reason


Adding authority to your TOK essay and presentation

The knowledge questions in your TOK essay 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 Ethics, HS

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.
Also helps us to explore HS

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, HS

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.
Also helps us to explore Faith, 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 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 TNK

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 TNK, imagination, NS, RKS

Firestein, Stuart (1949 – )

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.
Also helps us to explore NS

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.
Also helps us to explore Faith, 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.
Also helps us to explore NS

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, HS

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.
Also helps us to explore 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.
Also helps us to explore Ethics, RKS

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, ethics, HS, 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, HS, RKS

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

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, 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.
Also helps us to explore TNK, 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.”
Also helps us to explore TNK, emotion, faith, ethics, RKS

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, 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.
Also helps us to explore TNK, emotion, HS

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 Ethics, history, HS

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, HS

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, ethics, history, HS

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, Ethics, HS

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 TNK, ethics, mathematics, NS, RKS

ESSENTIAL THINKER 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 HS, 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, HS, 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, 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 TNK, language, mathematics, NS

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, ethics, HS

Cite this page as: Dunn, Michael. Key thinkers on reason (3rd December 2013). Last accessed: 22nd January 2017


Leave a Comment