Statue - Thinking

A Guide to Thinkers: 12 People You Should Have Heard Of

The further you get in your education, the more it’ll be assumed you know. That may seem reasonable in principle, but it doesn’t just cover the specific subjects you’re studying. There is a whole body of general academic knowledge you’ll be expected to acquire – and it can be embarrassing to be caught not knowing all of it.

That’s particularly evident in sentences that begin, “In the words of…” followed by someone whose words may not seem directly relevant to your field at all, but who you’re certainly expected to have heard of. We’ve described these people as “thinkers”, though the ones we have chosen in this article are a diverse group of philosophers, theorists, theologians and even an economist. What they have in common is being much-quoted in academic context with the assumption that you might know the context in which those words were spoken. So you don’t get caught out, this article is here to help.

1. Jacques Derrida (1930-2004)

Image shows Derrida addressing a seminar group.
Derrida taught at several different universities.

Perhaps the most difficult thinker on this list is Jacques Derrida, the postmodern philosopher who developed deconstruction as a technique to understand the use of language to give a text its meaning. It’s a hugely complex idea that criticises language itself as inherently imprecise, its meaning constantly shifting.

These ideas were not always welcomed by his fellow philosophers, especially from the analytic tradition, which requires a clarity and precision that is absent from Derrida’s work, and which Derrida argued language itself was not fit to achieve. When he was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Cambridge, a wide variety of eminent philosophers argued against it, saying that his work “does not meet accepted standards of clarity and rigour”. Nonetheless, Derrida was awarded the doctorate, and his influence has endured.

2. Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778)

Image shows a portrait of Rousseau.
This portrait of Rousseau was painted by Scottish painter Allan Ramsay.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau was a hugely influential Enlightenment thinker. He is now perhaps best known for social contract theory, which is the idea that people as a whole are sovereign, and that they willingly surrender some of their freedoms to the government in exchange for social order and the protection of their rights. If the government fails to uphold its side of the contract, then it is only right for the people to abolish the government. While this seems natural now, at a time of absolute monarchy it was radical bordering on treasonous, and helped to inspire the French Revolution.

However, Rousseau wasn’t just interested in political philosopher. His work also influenced early Romanticism as a novelist, composer and philosopher. He thought there was a spiritual value to the beauty of nature, which is key in Romanticism compared to the more dispassionate and emotionless approach of the preceding Age of Reason.

3. Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797)

Image shows a portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft reading.
Mary Wollstonecraft is also known as the mother of Mary Shelley.

It’s hard from the present day to imagine the world that Mary Wollstonecraft lived in, or why her ideas were so remarkable. At the time, virtually everyone believed that women were the natural inferiors of men, and that even if they deserved greater rights and better treatment, it was not on the basis of equality. Their status was not much different to that of children.

Wollstonecraft argued that apparent female inferiority was not inherent; it was simply that women were denied the education that gave men the opportunity to better themselves. She argued – controversially – that educated women make better wives and mothers; the idea that education for women was a positive in its own right would have been too radical a notion to be persuasive for her 18th-century readership. In her writings, above all A Vindication of the Rights of Women, she laid the foundations for women’s rights campaigns in the century that followed.

4. Michel Foucault (1926-1984)

Image shows Foucault at a press conference, gesturing emphatically.
Michel Foucault is shown second from the left.

Michel Foucault was primarily a philosopher, but his influence has been wide-ranging across fields as diverse as activism, literary theory and sociology. His particular focus was on the history of ideas, and though his work has usually been categorised as philosophy, his focus on understanding philosophy through an examination of history has caused some critics to question whether it’s appropriate to see him as a philosopher at all.

One example of Foucault’s thinking in this respect is his early work The History of Madness. This explores how our conception of madness has changed, and how the mad have been excluded from society and subsequently pathologised – and how this relates and responds to our growing societal preoccupation with reason.

5. John Locke (1632-1704)

Image shows a traditional portrait of Locke.
This portrait of Locke was painted by leading artist Godfrey Kneller.

John Locke has been termed the “Father of Liberalism”. He championed ideas such as religious tolerance, especially in the context of the separation of Church and State and the governmental separation of powers. Furthermore, he refuted the idea of the divine right of kings, and contributed significantly to the abandonment of that notion in the Glorious Revolution of 1688, where King James II was overthrown in favour of William of Orange.

Locke believed that humans begin their lives as a blank slate, then accumulate ideas through experience; as a result, he felt that to receive a good education was paramount in forming a good character. This was influential in Enlightenment thinking on the importance of education.

6. Edmund Burke (1730-1797)

Image shows a portrait of Burke.
Edmund Burke was painted here by Sir Joshua Reynolds.

A key dividing line in political and philosophical thought in the late eighteenth century was how thinkers chose to respond to the French Revolution. Reactions ranged from wholehearted support, to cautious optimism (which turned to despair during the Reign of Terror), to full-blooded condemnation. In the latter group was politician and theorist Edmund Burke. In his Reflections on the Revolution in France, he laid down many of the foundations of modern conservatism.

While Burke opposed ideas such as the divine right of kings – feeling that people did have the right to depose a government that oppressed them – he also felt that in most cases revolution damaged society and turned easily into tyranny. Instead, he felt that reform should be gradual and traditional values upheld, including the defence of private property. In contrast with the belief held by some in Burke’s time, that people should come to judgements based on their own reasoning and morality, Burke felt that traditional principles were more likely to lead people to the correct course of action than independent reasoning would.

7. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274)

Image shows Thomas Aquinas, with a sun on his chest, holding a church.
Aquinas is often depicted with a sun on his chest, a symbol of sacred learning.

The question of how religious faith – to some people, an inherent irrational idea – can coexist with human reason has been debated for hundreds of years, and continues to be discussed today.

That was one of the many questions that theologian Thomas Aquinas – a saint within the Catholic Church – addressed in his prolific and influential writing. Aquinas argued that reason and revelation were not contradictory, and indeed that it was possible to prove the existence of God through reasoned argument, though true faith without doubts required divine revelation. His arguments for the existence of God are known as the five ways or five proofs, and they are often still cited by religious believers today. In Western philosophy it remains hard to escape Aquinas; where philosophers disagree with him, their work nonetheless often responds to his, in areas from ethics, to metaphysics, to epistemology.

8. Adam Smith (1723-1790)

Image shows a portrait of Adam Smith.
This is a posthumous portrait of Adam Smith; it isn’t known who painted it.

Economist Adam Smith is known as the Father of Capitalism, and is particularly known for his book The Wealth of Nations. At the time when Smith was writing, the Industrial Revolution was just beginning in the UK, but most of the economy was still ordered along traditional lines. People’s work was not specialised; with a few exceptions, there were few roles that we would recognise in the modern conception of a career. What’s more, countries’ approach to trade was mercantilist; that meant putting up high tariffs to trade in order to encourage people to buy from their own areas and countries rather than importing goods from abroad.

Smith challenged all of these beliefs. He argued that the division of labour into specialisms would increase productivity, an idea that now seems so obvious that we take it for granted. He also argued in favour of the free market; that the government would not intervene by setting prices and raising tariffs, but would let the market, customers and competition set the value for goods and services – a foundational principle of capitalism. While some economists today point out the disadvantages of the free market, very few advocate a return to mercantilism.

9. Sun Tzu (545 BC – 470 BC)

Image shows a Japanese statue of Sun Tzu.
Sun Tzu is celebrated by this statue in Japan.

Was Sun Tzu a real person? If he existed, he lived so long ago that it’s hard to tell; the records of his life are contradictory, and he isn’t referenced in some early texts where someone of his notability would be expected to be included. If he was real, Sun Tzu was a writer and military strategist, best known for The Art of War; if he wasn’t, then Sun Tzu may be a form of pseudonym instead, to combine together the teachings of many different generals and theorists.

The Art of War has been influential across the world. In East Asia it’s been central to military thinking since its publication in the 5th century BC. In the Western world, it came to prominence in the late 18th century, when it was translated into French. It wasn’t translated into English until the early 20th century, but it rapidly became a classic, and continues to inspire people today – even those without any contact with warfare.

10. Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986)

Image shows a black and white photo of de Beauvoir and Sartre.
Simone de Beauvoir is shown here on a visit to China with her partner Jean-Paul Sartre.

French writer and feminist Simone de Beauvoir didn’t consider herself to be a philosopher, but that’s nonetheless how she’s typically been seen both during and after her lifetime. She’s best known for her book The Second Sex, a classic of feminist literature in which she argued that men are treated as the default sex, while women are treated as “Other”. A straightforward example is the convention of using “mankind” to mean all of humanity, but “womankind” to mean only half.

The Second Sex looks at instances of female oppression throughout history and identifies women’s role in pregnancy, childbirth and raising children as a key factor in their oppression, and keeps them from roles in the world of work or politics that might grant them power. The book became a bestseller and helped to trigger the second wave of feminism, just as Mary Wollstonecraft helped to trigger the first.

11. Confucius (551 BC – 479 BC)

Image shows a traditional painting of Confucius.
This portrait of Confucius dates from the early 18th century.

Perhaps the foundational philosopher of Chinese civilisation, Confucius was born into relative poverty, but distinguished himself through his commitment to learning. He believed that education was not only important to gain knowledge, but also to build character – something that he felt had been lost among the population and among politicians.

Important aspects of a good character, according to Confucius, were respect for human life, respect for parents and veneration of ancestors, adherence to etiquette, and celebration of ritual and tradition. He saw the building of a moral character as a lifelong project; a follower of Confucius would always seek to improve themselves with age, and consequently would respect the elderly as having had the greatest opportunity to accumulate wisdom. His ideas were spread across East Asia by his followers after his death, as they founded schools and temples to promulgate Confucian thought. Their efforts have had far-reaching consequences, with Confucianism remaining at the heart of Eastern education and politics even today, some 2 500 years after his death.

12. Susan Sontag (1933-2004)

Image shows Sontag in her own home, surrounded by bookshelves.
This photograph of Sontag was taken by notable photographer Lynn Gilbert.

Essayist, novelist and photographer Susan Sontag first came to prominence as part of a wave of 1960s counter-cultural writers, arguing against contemporary divisions between high and low culture, or the idea that some art forms were inherently better or more intellectual than others. In particular, she defended the value of the visual arts. Though, like many arguments made by thinkers on this list, it may seem obvious to us now that photography is as valid an art form as a novel, when Sontag was writing it was still a subject for debate.

The fact that her essays were published in popular as well as highbrow magazines was appropriate for her arguments, it led to criticism that she was anti-intellectual. Later in life, Sontag was less comfortable with her own defence of visual art, noting that photography could also be predatory.

Image credits: Derrida; Rousseau; Wollstonecraft; Foucault; Locke; Burke; Aquinas; Smith, Sun Tzu; de Beauvoir; Confucius; Sontag; The Thinker.