Critical Thinking

The Critical Thinking Timeline of Some Truly Great Minds

We're shining a spotlight on some of our most brilliant minds.

Teaching with timelines is a fascinating way to bring snippets of history to our curious learners. Through them, we see snapshots of moments in our past where everything changed, and nothing would ever be the same again. 

So it's with pleasure we present you with this short but informative critical thinking timeline to explore.

You're about to meet some truly great critical thinkers and learn how they changed the world in their own right. This is not meant to be a definitive timeline by any means, but more of an inspiring one. We've chosen people that have not only engaged in world-changing thinking but also taught us something meaningful in their lives. We hope that both you and your students might one day end up on a critical thinking timeline of your own, just like this one.

The Critical Thinking Timeline: A Brief History of the Mind

Confucius (551–479 BC)

Confucius is known for having authored many definitive ancient Chinese philosophical texts, including the Five Classics. However, one piece of superb critical thinking he is renowned for is what we know as the Golden Rule: Do not do unto others what you do not want done to yourself. Even today he is considered one of the most influential thinkers in human history.

Socrates (C. 470 BC)

Over two thousand years ago, the Greek philosopher Socrates challenged the people of his day with an intellectually revolutionary idea they'd never dreamed of considering. Quite simply, Socrates suggested that even people in power were at risk of being confused and irrational. To counteract this, he urged citizens to adopt a mindset of deep questioning and probing curiosity to establish the worthiness or importance of an idea.

Abu Nasr Al-Farabi (870–950)

Abu Nasr Muhammad al-Farabi was a teacher, philosopher, linguist, and intellectual who was famous for introducing the doctrines of the Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle to the Muslim community during the Middle Ages. In fact, in Islamic tradition he is credited with the title of "The Second Teacher," with Aristotle being the first. His teachings have become well known in both the East and the West.

St. Thomas Aquinas(1225–1274)

One of the most celebrated theologians of the Middle Ages was St. Thomas Aquinas. As far as critical thinking goes, Aquinas was unquestionably prudent. It was a regular practice of his to meet all criticisms of his ideas with an open mind. He considered and anticipated conflicting views deeply and wisely, thus making a case for fact-based reasoning and cross-examination as a means of improving one's thinking.

Sir Francis Bacon(1561–1626)

Among other noteworthy accomplishments, Sir Francis Bacon is noted as the founder of the scientific method. He was also a prolific critical thinker and embodied his own beliefs about the importance of inductive thinking habits in his Four Idols of the Mind. Bacon also strongly believed in the power of narrative and storytelling, especially as teaching tools.

Rene Descartes (1596–1650)

Rene Descartes is renowned for the groundbreaking philosophical statement Ego cogito, ergo sum ("I think; therefore I am"). Descartes was a rationalist who distrusted the ability of the senses to deliver true knowledge—something he regarded as the sole duty of the mind. (The films of the science fiction trilogy The Matrix later popularized this theory.) His book, Discourse on the Method, contains four principles for practicing critical thinking and sound judgment.

Sir Isaac Newton (1642–1727)

Sir Isaac Newton was an English mathematician, physicist, astronomer, theologian, and author who is considered one of the most influential scientists of all time. Newton had a penchant for putting all his theories and ideas through rigorous testing and scrutiny to ascertain their value. In fact, it was only through deep, sustained, prolonged thinking that he was led to what would become his infamous gravitational theory.

Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790)

Ben Franklin wore numerous vocational hats during his lifetime. At one point or another, he had been everything from a printer to a scientist to a civic activist, and other professions too numerous to mention. It's hard to sum up such a productive life in just a few sentences. However, history will always regard him as one of the most accomplished and celebrated critical thinkers of his era.

Margaret Fuller (1810–1850)

American author, women's rights advocate, and transcendentalist Margaret Fuller made a name for herself by challenging the popular beliefs of her time regarding the role of women in both education and employment. Because of her status as the "most well-read person in New England," she was the first woman ever to be permitted to use the Harvard College library.

John Dewey (1859–1952)

Philosopher and educational reformist John Dewey believed the one place that social reform could truly be effective was through our schools. He argued that they were, after all, deeply social institutions. The intellectual contributions Dewey made to education, specifically to what became the basis for inquiry-based learning, were to have far-reaching effects that continue to influence the occupation even today.

Albert Einstein (1879–1955)

Theoretical physicist Albert Einstein is far and away one of the most noted critical thinkers in human history. His contributions to both science and philosophy are numerous, and he received the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1921. One of the most famous "intellectual rebels" we've ever had, Einstein claimed it was in his formal structured education where he was prompted to question and doubt what he was told by the academic intelligentsia of his day.

Simone de Beauvoir (1908–1986)

In as much as Simone de Beauvoir didn't consider herself a philosopher, her influence on modern feminist theory and existentialism is undeniable. In her lifetime, de Beauvoir was the author of several books and writings. However, she is perhaps best known for The Second Sex, an in-depth analysis of the history of female oppression, and a widely respected classic of feminist literature.

Maya Angelou (1928–2014)

Maya Angelou was highly active during the civil rights movement and worked closely with the likes of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. However, a traumatic experience during her childhood nearly silenced her forever. It was only through a love of poetry, literature, and her keen observations of the world around her that she regained her voice for the world to hear. 

Stanislav Petrov (1939–2017)

Many may consider Stanislav Petrov rather an odd inclusion in our critical thinking timeline—until you find out what he did. During his stint as a duty officer at the Oko Command Center, he critically judged reports of an incoming missile attack from the United States as being a false alarm. His decision to disobey orders and take matters into his own hands diverted an unwarranted retaliatory strike from the Soviets. Before his death, he was hailed as "the man who saved the world from nuclear war."

Stephen Hawking (1942–2018)

Few scientists have achieved as much social and cultural impact as Stephen Hawking. Almost 20 years after his birth, he was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease, and he continued to live with its effects until his death. Through his life and works, Hawking taught us not only a deeper understanding of the universe and everything in it but also of ourselves. From him, we can learn that imagination and critical thinking belong together, and that impossibility is only an illusion.

Make Some Critical Thinking History

Around and in between the names on this brief critical thinking timeline, many other great minds have left their mark on us. We could go on, but we're curious about what names you would add to this list. However, we're even more curious about the kinds of critical thinking skills your learners can develop, and we've got just the tool to help you—the Critical Thinking Companion.

Enjoy the challenging critical thinking activities and assessment tools in our most popular resource ever. Get it now from Wabisabi Learning, and help your learners make some critical thinking history of their own.