25 Great Thinkers Every College Student Should Read

By Donna Scott

College is for expanding one's intellectual horizons. Unfortunately, drinking and having fun, can distract from learning about history’s great thinkers. From Mark Twain to Confucius, an educated individual should posses some knowledge of certain philosophers, artists and thinkers. Here are 25 great thinkers every college student should read, even if professors don’t assign them.

Western Philosophers

Western universities understandably tend to focus on Western philosophers and thinkers. Check out the works from these masters of Western philosophical thought.

  1. Ralph Waldo Emerson: Born in Boston, Massachusetts, Emerson was an influential figure in the first recognized American school of philosophical thought. After marrying a wealthy widow, Emerson lived in relative comfort for most of his life, supporting other famous writes such as Henry David Thoreau.
  2. John Stuart Mill: One of Britain's most famous political philosophers, Mill was a member of Parliament who endlessly debated the nature of liberty and freedom.
  3. Immanuel Kant: Kant's work on the limitations and structure of reason shaped and influenced philosophical thought throughout the twentieth century. His “Critique of Pure Reason” remains a classic of philosophy and is taught in universities around the world.
  4. Soren Kierkegaard: This Danish philosopher is one of the leading thinkers responsible for existentialism.
  5. Niccolo Machiavelli: A must for aspiring politicians and wannabe despots, Machiavelli’s “The Prince” is the original guide to ruling an empire or corporate boardroom.

Eastern Thinkers

Eastern philosophies have proven influential on figures throughout history from Marco Polo to the Beatles. The sage wisdom offered by these Eastern thinkers still resonates with audiences separate by culture and time.

  1. Confucius: A Chinese thinker and social philosopher, Confucius emphasized personal and institutional morality as well as justice and proper social relationships.
  2. Avicenna: This Persian mathematician is perhaps one of the most widely known Muslim philosophers. His works discuss topics ranging from medical ethics to metaphysics.
  3. Laozi: The philosophy espoused by this ancient Chinese philosopher eventually became the Taoist religion. Laozi has often influenced and served as inspiration for anti-authoritarian movements.
  4. Siddhartha Gautama: Siddhartha was a price who gave away all his possessions to find a deeper meaning from life. After extensive fasting and meditation he achieved enlightenment becoming known as the Buddha. The teachings of this humble price have changed the course of history and philosophical thought.
  5. D.T. Suzuki: One of the few modern members on this list, Suzuki is largely responsible for introducing Western audiences to Eastern religions such as Zen Buddhism.


Polls show few people trust politicians. History tells a different story as great statesmen inspire courage and selfless action. These politicians are some of history’s great thinkers, speakers and individuals.

  1. Winston Churchill: In his nation’s darkest hour, Winston Churchill served as a beacon of inspiration and support. Churchill’s writings and speeches are true testaments to the power of words.
  2. Thomas Jefferson: Despite many hypocrisies from his actual life, Jefferson’s writings are beautiful tributes to the power of freedom.
  3. Ataturk: The powerful, infamous Turkish leader responsible for ushering his nation into a modern era, Ataturk is a highly regarded figure from Muslim and Turkish history.
  4. Mao Zedong: The leader of the Communist revolution in China, Chairman Mao’s impact on history is on increasing with time.
  5. Nelson Mandela: After surviving 27 years as a political prisoner, Mandela became South Africa’s first black president beginning the healing process from decades of apartheid.

Writers and Artists

The creative representation of life presented by artists can be more truthful than anything presented by real life. These master writers and artists use characters, brilliant technique and artistic vision to boldly explore timeless questions. Students pursuing an Communication as their major may find these resources valuable insight for their studies.

  1. Mark Twain: A genuinely clever wit, Mark Twain is best known for penning the classic, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” Go beyond Twain’s best known works to discover a thinker centuries ahead of his Victorian time.
  2. George Orwell: Modern audiences are often frightened by the remarkable foresight Orwell demonstrates in his writing. Indispensible phrases such as “big brother” and “doublespeak” were created by Orwell and are perfectly suited to modern society.
  3. Gabriel Garcia Marquez: This Colombian writer focuses on themes of third world poverty and fantasy. His work is often based in history with elements of the fantastic brilliantly incorporated in the story telling.
  4. Albert Camus: This French author brilliantly executed complicated existential philosophies into compelling narratives.
  5. Khalil Gibran: This Lebanese philosopher, writer and painter was educated in the US before returning to his native land. Gibran’s 1923 book, “The Prophet” was extremely influential on 1960s counterculture.
  6. Kurt Vonnegut: Zany, sharp and always funny, Vonnegut was one of the truly great science fiction writers of the 20th century. Even better, his works are extremely accessible and easy to read despite being a little whacky.
  7. Gunter Grass: A German writer who won the 1999 Noble prize for literature, Grass writes literature exploring complex moral issues.
  8. Marcel Proust: A brilliant French novelist, Proust’s most famous work contains over 2,000 characters over some 3,000 pages. No one could blame you for skimming the volume but the words from this genius are worth enduring.
  9. Issac Asimov: One of the reasons for the popularity of science fiction during the 20th century, Asimov is best known for writing the “I, Robot” series.
  10. Arthur Rimbaud: Rimbaud was a French philosopher that influenced the Beat Generation of American writers such as Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. Something of a prodigy, Rimbaud produced his best known works in his late teens before giving up writing all together at 21.