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Essential Thinkers

Here’s a (far from comprehensive) list of TOK thinkers who could play a starring role in the course. Although many of the names will be familiar, there are some less well known figures as well. But as the description of each person’s key idea or ideas should make clear, everyone on the list can provide the basis for at least one effective TOK lesson - and most for significantly more than that.
Note that there are many other thinkers who could have made the list; we’ve included these thinkers because considered together they help students to understand a wide range of ideas, from the natural sciences to the arts; from technology to religion; from history to mathematics.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Adichie’s analysis of ‘single stories’, which she explores in a fabulous TED talk, is perfect for TOK, and will help students explore the concept of perspectives. Listen out for the word ‘Nkali’, which is also very helpful.
Chomsky, Noam
Chomsky believes that humans have a inbuilt ‘language acquisition device’ that helps us to learn the grammar of languages. Has also written a wide variety of other topics, and taken a provocative stance on ethics.
Crockett, Molly
Crockett is a neuroscientist, who specialises in moral decision-making. She has written and spoken widely on how ‘neuro-babble’ is used to misrepresent scientific knowledge, and manipulate us into buying products we don’t need.
Damasio, Antonio
Damasio is a neuroscientist who studies the relationship between emotion and reason, and whose ‘somatic marker hypothesis’ is influential. He also provides a useful definition of ‘emotion’ which distinguishes it from ‘feeling’.
Davis, Wade
Davis is the ‘National Geographic explorer-in-residence’, and argues (via various TED talks and books) that ‘different visions of life making for completely different possibilities for existence’.
deGrasse Tyson, Neil
One of the great communicators of scientific knowledge, deGrasse Tyson argues that science, and scientific thinking, is the “pivot” of modern civilisation.
Descartes, Rene
Descartes, a French mathematician, mistrusted the senses, and said proof of our existence lay in the fact that we think, thus establishing the rationalist approach to knowledge.
Eagleman, David
Eagleman’s amazing work is built on the fact that our brain does not care about the way in which sensory information is relayed to it - so he has enabled blind people to ‘see’ via other senses.
Einstein, Albert
Arguably the greatest modern scientist, Einstein advocated the importance of imagination in understanding the world and universe.
Gray, John
Gray is a philosopher who is rather pessimistic about humanity’s future. Look at his ideas alongside those of Steven Pinker, and try to figure out how two very smart people, who are, in theory, objective thinkers, can arrive at two completely different conclusions about society.
Hazleton, Lesley
Hazleton is a writer and journalist, who has done extensive research into the life of early religious figures, such as Muhammed. She argues that doubt is an essential part of faith, which makes us completely question our assumptions about religion.
Kahneman, Daniel
Kahneman is a Nobel Prize-winning psychologist. He has many ideas that are transferable to TOK; amongst them, the ideas that we have “experiencing selves” and “remembering selves”, which perceive emotions differently.
Hoffman, Donald
Hoffman’s analogy of the computer ‘operating system’ for how sense perception works is a very helpful model to explain why we ‘construct’ reality, rather than see it how it actually is.
James, William
James was an American philosopher, who advocated the ‘pragmatic truth test’ as a way of assessing the usefulness of knowledge.
Kant, Immanuel
German philosopher, who argued that ethics should be approached in a deontological way - in other words, decisions or actions are inherently right or wrong, regardless of their outcome.
Locke, John
One of the key ‘empiricists’, Locke believed that knowledge comes to us primarily via the senses, and that we begin life with a ‘tabula rasa’ or blank slate.
Loftus, Elizabeth
Loftus is a psychologist best known for her work on ‘false’ memories. She argues that memory is constantly being reconstructed, and therefore works like a ‘Wikipedia page’.
Lotto, Beau
Lotto argues that ‘context is everything’, which means we construct our own sensory realities according to what makes evolutionary sense to us. His visual illusions have the power to genuinely shock and surprise students.
McKean, Erin
Erin McKean’s work shows brilliantly how language is constantly subject to evolution, and that everyone is the authority when it comes to words.
Mill, John Stuart
Mill was a philosopher and economist, whose ‘utilitarian’ principle of ethics argued that we should calculate the rightness of an action based on the happiness it creates. This makes it opposed to Kant’s deontological approach.
Oreskes, Naomi
Oreskes is a historian of science, and her work - including some great TED talks - reveals how faith, just as much as reason, causes us to put our trust in the work of scientists.
Pinker, Steven
Pinker has a lot to offer on cognitive psychology and linguists. His ideas on how society has never lived in a more peaceful time can also be considered alongside those of John Gray, to highlight how academics can arrive at very, very different conclusions.
Plato defined knowledge as “justified, true belief”, something that all TOK students must grapple with at some point. He was also responsible for the ‘Allegory of the Cave’ to show how the majority of people exist, and see the world.
Robinson, Ken
The brilliant Robinson argued that “Learning happens in the minds and souls, not in the databases of multiple-choice tests” - in other words, education is (or should be) a complex, personalised, profound experience.
Sagan, Carl
The scientist and writer Carl Sagan maintained that we rely almost completely on science, but know almost nothing about it. He also advocated the importance (but not perfection) of the scientific method.
Selasi, Taiye
In a brilliant TED talk, Selasi shows how the question of ‘where are you from?’ is meaningless, whereas, ‘Where do you feel a local?’ reveals so much about who we are.
Shafak, Elif
Shafak is a writer who believes that imagination is the way of knowing that allows us to break through into other people’s realities, and connect with them.
Socrates, the key pioneer of Western philosophy, argued that “the unexamined life is not worth living”. In other words, it’s always worth knowing the truth, regardless of the price you pay for that.
Villani, Cédric
Villani is a mathematician who portrays this area of knowledge as an adventure and emotion, rather than one in which cold logic leads to the production of knowledge.