This is a supplemental writing to a larger “Commentary on the Sefer Yetzirah“. It contains thoughts relevant to an interpretation of the context of the Theory of Knowledge guide as given in its latest release, though those unfamiliar with the text of the Sefer Yetzirah or the Tarot may find some of its references difficult to follow. It may shed some light on the core themes as well as how knowledge, understanding and meaning are understood in the writings on this blog. It also sheds light on how I have come to understand the saying of Simone Weil: “Faith is the experience that the intelligence is illuminated by love.”
The concept of “world” used here is from the German philosopher, Martin Heidegger. Heidegger was an anti-Semite and a Nazi. Heidegger is the only great German philosopher who did not have a Protestant Christian background. Heidegger’s anti-Semitism was a product of the Roman Catholicism of the rural Germany in which he grew up. Heidegger’s “tragedy” is that he did not pay sufficient attention or give sufficient thought to the Delphic command to “know thyself”. Heidegger’s comments were that Jewish “rootlessness” caused them to be be, historically, without “world” i.e., that they were not human beings in the full sense but mere beasts. The Jews were not connected to the “blood and soil” that Heidegger saw as necessary to having a “world”. After the war, Heidegger was silent (for the most part) on the Shoah, but there are some notes he left behind that would seem to suggest that he was aware of the death camps and that he approved of them. What is being said about modern philosophy when its most consummate practitioner found appropriate political expression for his thought in the base inhumanity of National Socialism?
World and Meaning in the Sefer Yetzirah
Being the ‘perfect imperfection’, as human beings we desire to know the “reality” of whatever is, how it “is” as it is whatever it is, and the being of whatever has being. For the Sefer Yetzirah, as it was for the Greek philosopher Aristotle, “presence” (ousia) is what constitutes the reality of the things that are. Two questions predominate: what is the thing’s nature (essence)? what is its source (arche)?
In the Sefer Yetzirah, the study of the first question, the “what” question, is metaphysics. The study of the second question, the “how” question, is theology (“natural theology” as opposed to “revealed theology”, although these, too, are interrelated). For Aristotle, the nature of the being of the real is energeia. The ultimate source of the being of the real is “pure” or “perfect energeia”. Some thing is real if it is, and is some thing. For Aristotle, a thing’s form is its “ideal” way of being; it is what the thing is supposed to be.
We may compare Aristotle’s concept and that which is in the Sefer Yetzirah to the metaphor of the athlete and the ascetic: to athlon “the prize to be won in a contest”; athleo “to contend for the prize”. Contending for the prize requires that the athlete continuously work out in order to get in shape. Being an athlete requires being an ascetic, someone who constantly works to get in form or stay in shape. The Sefer Yetzirah is a training manual for the ascetic, and in this characteristic it shares a number of similarities with the writings of the Gnostics.
To apply the metaphor to the concept of “presence”: the only thing perfectly in shape is the divine, the ideal form. Everything else is striving for its ideal form or shape. To be real does not mean being in one’s form but becoming one’s form. Human beings are not yet in their finished form like a completed work of art. Human being is “still on the way” to a goal. With this view, “being real” can be still becoming one’s ideal form or already being it, either still moving to perfection (kinesis) or already at rest with one’s fully achieved self (stasis). In the Sefer Yetzirah, the ideal forms or shapes are the Sephirot, the Ten. The being on the way for human beings is the achievement of a unity or a harmony with the emanations of the divine that are the real as revealed through the Sephirot.
This unity or harmony is attained by human beings in a lived context within a world where things (such as the Sephirot) are encountered. A “world” is the matrix of understanding which is intelligibly structured by human interests and purposes. In this world of understanding (what is referred to as Binah in the Sephirot of the Sefer Yetzirah) beings become “meaningfully present” in the world of Yetzirah, one of the four worlds of the Sefer Yetzirah. Yetzirah means “formation”, although it is oftentimes translated as “creation”. In our modern context, it is the world dominated by that form of seeing, knowing and making that is called “technological”.
“The world worlds” i.e., contextualizes things, gives meaning to things found within it by providing the medium whereby they make sense. The meaningful and what it is is what appears in understanding and what allows it to appear. The meaningful is what shows up in the understanding of its meaning to human beings. “Presence” is not to be understood as a spatio-temporal “out there” but as what is “significant” to us, meaningful to us. The word parousia, so important in understanding the Sefer Yetzirah, is what means “near to our concerns though far away in distance”. This meaning is also to be considered with its other meanings of “between”, “alongside”.
What constitutes the meaning of things is the context of human involvement within which those things are met, the matrix of human purposes ordered to human interests and to human survival i.e., a world. This is the world of Yetzirah. Each human world discloses or unlocks the meanings that can occur to the things found within a world. A world discloses by providing a sense of possible relations in terms of which the things as they appear get their significance. In the language of the Sefer Yetzirah these are the ‘paths’ or ‘the gates’ that are travelled or met on the soul’s journey. (This is not to deny that the thing itself has its own telos or purpose outside of human involvement. This is dealt with in the discussion of the beauty of the world in another segment.)
Human beings live in many distinct worlds at the same time, but they are encompassed by the One world. A mother can make business calls from home while rocking her baby to sleep. Each world – her job, her parenting – has the function of providing the range of possibilities among the sense-making activities within its specific area.
You will note that meaning is to be derived in the lived world from the practical activities within that world. The Greeks understood this as praxis i.e., the activity of the parent, student, athlete, artist, and it is from these activities that one could attain “splendour” or “social prestige” through proficiency in the knowledge and skills required in those activities, the “know how”. “Know how” was called techne by the Greeks.
A world is any place wherein human beings live out their interests and purposes, the “relations” whereby the things within that domain get their meaning and significance. A world is a range of human possibilities in terms of which anything within that context can have significance. All such possibilities are teleologically (limited, possible of completion) ordered to human beings by way of fulfilling human purposes; however, in the perfection of their imperfection, human beings still hold a belief in the possibility of re-uniting with the Good wherein they will find their own “completion”. The world, the relational context which constitutes the meaning which is ordered by Love, is ordered to the final cause of human fulfillment that lets things in our everyday world make sense. This is the manner in which the relations between the Sephirot, the paths, and the gates are to be understood and interpreted in the Sefer Yetzirah. Meaning is given in the hierarchical order given to things in their relation to the Good. It is the Good which makes us give priority to our world of parenting over our world of business or the job, or to give priority to study rather than to merely whiling our time away in mindless pleasures and activities.
There is a fundamental difference between the meaningful thing and its meaning i.e., between any particular instance and its class, between a Sephirot and the thing or event it signifies, between the Tarot card and the experience it illuminates. Things do not come with their meanings built into them but get made as meaningful. Discursive meaning, meaning that is obtained by knowledge and reason and is able to be communicated to others, is a synthesis between distinct elements that are synthesized into a meaningful whole. Affirming that so and so is an athlete assumes that she does not exhaust the class “athlete” – she and the class are distinct – even though she can be identified, in a synthesis, as being a member of that class. In analyzing “world”, the structure of synthesizing and distinguishing (dianoia and diaresis) relates not only to the random acts of making sense (e.g., “She is an athlete” – an assertion), but also towards the world itself where such athletic acts are performed. Synthesis and differentiation (what Plato termed dianoia and diaresis) is the condition of all discursive sense-making. (See the discussion of Plato’s Divided Line in the Appendix to the “Commentary on the Sefer Yetzirah.”)
“World” is both static and dynamic, at rest and in motion. The world as static is the place of meaningfulness. Viewed dynamically, the world is the placing of things in meaning. This placing of things in meaning is done through the logos: contextualizing things within a set of possibilities that makes things able to be known and used in terms of their possibilities. “Being” as static is “presence”; taken as dynamic it is the “presenting” of things, the act of allowing things to be meaningfully present. This letting things be meaningfully present is done through Love acting as it does through sight which allows the things to be seen meaningfully.
The place where things become meaningful is in “the open that opens things up”. For Aristotle, “the soul” is the topos eidon, “the place where meaning shows up”. In the static world, it is the open field in which all forms of meaningfulness occur. (The Chariot card of the Tarot in the Rider-Waite deck, for example, is placed in an open field, outside the city.) In the dynamic world, this open area opens things up for possible use and appropriation i.e., makes them accessible and significant, lets them “be”. In Greek philosophy, the condition of “being open” indicates imperfection (the circle being the highest form and circular motion being higher than linear motion, for instance). Closure, self-closure upon one’s self would be the realization of all one’s possibilities, perfection, completion, accomplishment. This end is not possible for human beings in time. The meaning-giving-world is open rather than closed. It can never be fully known. Human being is always incomplete and finite.
Our “making sense” is always a partial synthesis for there is always an element of tension or “strife” in the area of “difference” and in the in-betweenness and mediation. Meaningfulness requires mediation (the logos) in order to make possible the relations that connect – these tools to that task, for instance. The pre-requisite for mediation is a medium, a field of possible relations within which the connections can be made. When static, the world understood as the logos, is the medium of intelligibility. In its dynamic state, the world as medium mediates tools and tasks (as well as subjects and predicates in language and reason) to each other with the result that sense or meaning occurs. The meaningfulness is never a perfect unity but always exists within a “strife” or tension.
According to Aristotle, what we understand as “freedom” is the power that “empowers” things in the static world to open themselves up to their various possibilities and potentialities. In the dynamic world, the “free” frees the things of the world and the power “empowers” their significance. In this world of Yetzirah, insofar as the world is one of relations between tools and their possible utility, language and number become the tools that are used to liberate those tools from their “just thereness” by revealing their suitability for fulfilling this or that purpose. For Plato, it is the Good that makes intelligibility possible, for it is the medium between the person’s ability to understand and the ability of the form’s eidos to be understood.
In the static presence of being, the opening is that region which clarifies things, the area of unfolding that lets them appear. Their emergence in this opening is a coming-forth or a stepping-forth. It is the light (love) which brings things to presence; but in order to do so, there must be an opening that allows the light in. In the allegory of the Cave in Plato, the opening is that of the Cave to the light of the Sun; the Cave itself is physis or Nature. In the dynamic state, the light brings clarity to things by letting light shine on them and show themselves as this or that. Aletheia or truth is the self-unfolding of the static world itself. The dynamic unfolding is the bringing of them into meaning. Physis is the world’s arising or self-emergence. In its dynamis, it is the emergence that brings things forth into the open where they can appear as this or that.
What is the source of meaningfulness? The open that opens things up through love (care, concern), the clearing that clarifies them, the ever-present presence that allows things their meaning is determined by what we think our “treasure” is. It can be the freedom that empowers (power itself for its own sake) or it can be the love of the beauty of “otherness” that enables the “letting be” of things to be as they are. In the Gospel of St. John, “In the beginning was the Word…” shows that Christ is both “world” and “word”, and as Love it is through Him that all things come into being. Things that do not come into being through Him are but “shadows”. One question that arises is whether or not the opening of world, the ontological movement of human beings that opens up the clearing for the parousia of being (Christ’s “presence” within the world), is a human doing or whether it is a receiving of a gift from outside of the human being, a gift from the God.
In Aristotle, kinesis or movement is “perfect” when it is a “self-possessed” movement: a thing is perfect or complete when it possesses its telos “wholeness”, “ownness” and it does so by being a finished work. Every entity is perfect to the degree that it has come into its own. The imperfect is what is still striving to fulfill its essence. We participate in a goal without fully possessing it. You speak some French even if not perfect French; you strive in your studies for “A’s” though you have not arrived there yet. Participation without full possession is deficient or a-teles, still coming into its own. Aristotle says “becoming is for the sake of Being”. The telos of the thing actively moves the thing. This is contrary to Plato who states that the Good is beyond Being and the Good is the telos of all Being and beings and moves all beings and Being.
Everything in Aristotle’s universe is either telic (reached its limits) or erotic (deprived, in need). When the thing is telic, it is wholly present informing and fulfilling the thing. When not, it is still drawing the thing from within, not to anything outside of itself, but towards its own fulfillment. Self-fulfillment is what Aristotle means by “the good”. The telos moves by being desired (the good). We are erotic creatures because self-fulfillment is what we long for. A moved thing is drawn on by its telos and human being is self-moved by its own desire for self-fulfillment. Human being is defined by its absence from perfection and is equally its erotic presence to perfection. Absence (relative but not absolute – deprivation – the desired telos) draws us to ourselves. Absence gives (lets be; allows for; is the source of) Presence. Our imperfect presence is the gift of the presence-bestowing-absence.
This ontological condition is shown in how we comport ourselves in our everyday dealings. Ari is studying for the IB Diploma: that is his raison d’etre at the moment. The Diploma is relatively absent yet but, as desired, gives Ari his presence, the world of meaning in which he currently lives, that of being an “IB Diploma student”. The absent Diploma which is desired but still unattained bestows presence. It gives world to Ari.
What kind of presence does human beings’ self-absence give? In the world of Sefer Yetzirah, becoming and perfection are paradoxically tied together. We may understand it in Plato’s words that “Time is the moving image of eternity”. The becoming that is Time is the absence of the perfection of God. God is perfectly perfect having always attained perfection being eternal. There is no becoming in God. God’s absence in His creation is to be understood as such: by withdrawing, God allows the beings to be in their presence. If there is no withdrawal, there are no beings since all would be perfectly perfect, a One. The telos for human beings then becomes unity with the Divine. In the world of Yetzirah, the wood for a table participates in its future perfection, but deficiently. It is still being moved towards its fulfillment, and once it reaches it, the movement of becoming a table will stop.
For human beings, the paradox expresses itself in that we are the perfectly imperfect creature in our incompleteness. Human beings can never attain completeness or perfection in the future because human beings are finite creatures i.e., in Time. Human being is always becoming a this or a that, yet it is always human being. It is itself “a moving image of eternity”. The difference between a table and a human being is that a table’s becoming will cease once the construction reaches its goal, whereas human beings’ becoming is directed toward the Good itself. The question is always whether or not there is such an end or whether human beings’ becoming is an end in itself. Whereas God is always whole and perfect and in a state of rest, his Creation is whole and perfect in its state of infinite motion. Human being is going nowhere because it is always where it is supposed to be, in its state of coming-into-its-own. For the Sefer Yetzirah, Adam is the first human being because he was the first being capable of discourse. Human being is neither progress over time (as in change of place, quality or quantity i.e., “evolution”), nor ontological transformation into something it essentially was not before (as in the case of substantial change). Human beings’ perfection is to be imperfect.
For the Greeks, reality is not only a matter of perfection (coming-into-one’s-own) but also a matter of “showing forth” and “appearing” – being present and accessible. Being and truth are interchangeable. The greater the thing’s degree of being, the greater its degree of meaningfulness in the double sense of its ability to know itself and others and to be known by itself and others. This “knowability” is the danger tied to “social prestige” as the illusion when the Good is mistaken and understood as Necessity.
Meaningfulness comes in different degrees at different levels of perfection. Human being is only partially knowing and knowable. For Aristotle, knowing is being one with that which is known. The erotic desire for the good is bestowed by its absence. For imperfect human beings, the degree of their presence to the relatively absent telos gives them their measure of knowing and knowability. The relatively absent goal, to the degree that it is desired, gives the moving entity its degree of ability to make sense of things. Human beings know mediately by bonding with the knowable in a matrix of mediating relationships. Human being makes sense of itself and others only by way of world (logos).
Insofar as human beings are imperfect, needing beings, that need is a longing and a desire for belonging even if there is nothing to belong to and no some thing else to long for. Human being (best depicted in the Tarot card The Chariot) is held in the strife between difference and synthesis, and human being is this strife. Human being is world – logos the zoon logon echon the living being capable of speech, thought. Eros pulls human being into its openness. As drawn out and opened up by its own need, its imperfection, human being frees things from the area of unintelligibility into the clearing and clarifies them, and the unifying of difference draws them into meaningful entities. When human being appears as what it is, it is not just the place where meaning appears but the very appearing of appearance, and is human being is capable of apprehending the source of meaning: the aitia, arche, and logos – the cause of, source of, and reason for appearance in the first place. This is its salvation. We are moved by eros (not ourselves: it is done to us) and in this moving world occurs. We are the always near but never arriving being.
Thoughts on the latest IB TOK Prescribed Essay Titles May 2022
The TOK essay provides you with an opportunity to become engaged in thinking and reflection. What are outlined below are some strategies and suggestions, prompts and prods, questions and possible responses only for deconstructing the TOK titles as they have been given. They should be used alongside the discussions that you will carry out with your peers and teachers during the process of constructing your essay. The TOK essay is a challenging assignment at any time but especially now given the worldwide Covid-19 pandemic and the various learning environments that are a result of that pandemic.
The notes here are intended to guide you towards a thoughtful, personal response to the prescribed titles posed. They are not to be considered as an answer let alone the answer to the question(s) posed by the title and they should only be used to help provide you with another perspective to the ones given to you in the titles and from your own TOK class discussions and research. You need to remember that most of your examiners have been educated in the logical positivist schools of Anglo-America and this education and its social contexts pre-determines their predilection to view the world as they do and to understand the basic concepts as they do. The TOK course itself is a product of this logical positivism though efforts are being made to make it more universally embracing.
There is no substitute for your own personal thought and reflection, and these notes are not intended as a cut and paste substitute to the hard work that thinking requires. Some of the comments on one title may be useful to you in the approach you are taking in the title that you have personally chosen, so it may be useful to read all the comments and give them some reflection on how they might be of some use to you towards the title you have chosen.
My experience has been that candidates whose examples match those to be found on TOK “help” sites (and this is another of those TOK help sites) struggle to demonstrate a mastery of the knowledge claims and knowledge questions contained in the examples. The best essays carry a trace of the struggle that is the journey on the path to thinking. Many examiners state that in the very best essays they read, they can visualize the individual who has thought through them sitting opposite to them. To reflect this struggle in your essay is your goal.
Remember to include sufficient TOK content in your essay. When you have completed your essay, ask yourself if it could have been written by someone who had not participated in the TOK course. If the answer to that question is “yes”, then you do not have sufficient TOK content in your essay. Also, follow the basic format requirements of the assignment: 1600 words, 12-point font, etc. Have the assessment rubric ready-to-hand and use it to guide you in the structuring of your paper.
A sine qua non: the opinions expressed here are entirely my own and do not represent those of any organization or collective of any kind.
Can there be knowledge that is independent of culture? Discuss with reference to mathematics and one other area of knowledge?
We are asked in Title #1 to consider whether there is a knowledge which transcends culture, a knowledge free from the limitations or biases that might be seen in the “values” that a particular culture esteems most highly. We are asked to consider mathematics as the one area of knowledge that appears to transcend cultures since a man working in Moscow, Idaho will have no problems collaborating with a woman who researches in Moscow, Russia on the same topic of research since mathematics is perceived as a “universal language”. It might be better, perhaps, to ask whether there is a mode or manner of knowing that will provide a knowledge for us that is beyond the limits of change that is brought about by becoming (time) and history, what is properly called “historicism”.
“Knowledge” is a product (something that is brought forth) of and through human beings; and individual human beings are the product, or what is brought forth, of and through the societies, communities or “cultures” they happen to inhabit at any given time. Being products of these cultures, they will value or esteem what their particular culture holds most highly or most dear. What a culture values most highly will be based upon or grounded in what that culture has determined is most necessary to its “security” and permanence. The culture’s need for security and permanence decides in advance what the individuals in that culture think experience is and what the things about them are. For us in TOK, this is central to how we understand and interpret our Core Theme of “knowers and what is known”.
Title #1 asks what is considered “knowledge” and asks you to look specifically at mathematics and one other area of knowledge. This is an appropriate question, since in technological societies algebraic calculation is esteemed or valued most highly by those various “cultures” and societies. (I put “cultures” in scare quotes because there is only one “culture” in technological societies since technology is, ultimately, an homogenizing force. That is the point of the example of the man and woman collaborating in different Moscows: they are able to do so because they are working in the same “culture”).
The word “culture” was first used by the Roman orator Cicero where he spoke of “the cultivation of the soul”, the perfection of human beings, what we today would call “empowerment”. Culture is related to the word “cultivate”, to the gathering and securing of a place, to the tilling of it, to being responsible for it, to responding to it, and to attending to it caringly. In the Biology lab, we speak of a “bacteria culture”. Care and its attendant concepts would be a central category or predicate of any discussion of our Core Theme in our attempts to describe who we are as human beings. We are the beings who “care” for things.
The concept of what we mean by “culture” today is relatively new. It came to prominence in the 18th and 19th centuries in Germany, although today it is ubiquitous or commonplace. Today we speak of “ancient Greek culture”, but this is erroneous for the Greeks had no “culture”. Their closest word to our concept of “culture” would be ethos from which we get our word “ethical”. The ethical has to do with actions, with doing something, what the Greeks called praxis, and this ethos was lived out in the polis or the “shared community”. We sometimes call a culture the sum of all the thoughts and actions of the human beings who compose it.
Why does a culture need to secure itself? Because a culture involves the activities that engage the human beings within it, there must be some purpose or goal that provides the ground to those activities, something which gives those activities meaning and stability. The concept of “culture” was necessary because of the relativism that arose with the arrival of historicism. Is there a knowledge that is independent of historicism i.e. a knowledge beyond an historical period, geographical place, localized cultures which in turn are used to give context to theories, stories and narratives, and other interpretations of our being-in-the-world from within those cultures?
The issues present in Title #1 are not new. They have been with us since human beings began questioning and thinking about the world we live in. Historically, the nominalist view thought that universals or general ideas were merely “names” without any corresponding reality or relation to particular objects. Properties, numbers, sets or the mathematical itself were considered merely a way or mode of considering the things that exist and, therefore, they were arbitrary and had no correspondence to the “real world”. It took no less an effort than Immanuel Kant’s three great Critiques: Critique of Pure Reason, Critique of Practical Reason, and Critique of Judgement to overcome this view, and Kant did so through showing how the mathematical was related to nature and to objects in the world around us. The mathematical was embedded in the objects of Nature.
In the AOK Mathematics, the title invites us to consider whether mathematics was “discovered” or “invented”. Until the thinking of the French philosopher Rousseau, reason (upon which the mathematical and mathematics are based) was considered ahistorical and beyond or independent of any cultural limitations such as time and place, etc. After all, it was reason which determined what human beings are ( the animalrationale: the being capable of reason ) and thus determined and made what became called “culture” possible. Reason was prior to mathematics and culture; and the principle of reason (nihil est sine ratione: nothing is without (a) reason) was the ground of both mathematics and culture. If mathematics was “discovered”, it would be beyond the limitations of any particular culture. If mathematics was “invented”, then it would be a product of those particular cultures wherein and from whence it arose. Today, of course, scientists are able to collaborate on projects without regard to the culture in which they are dwelling (or can they? Do they not “dwell” within the same “culture”?). Some research on your part should provide you with examples of the discoveries of the origins of mathematics which occurred simultaneously in China, India and Greece and would seem to suggest that mathematics is not a product of a culture but is more a determiner of what a culture would become. (The Greeks, for instance, rejected Babylonian algebra as being “unnatural” for them.)
Today, we rely on the mathematics of finite calculus and algebra. These define what knowledge is for us. Nature is understood as that which can be measured with exactitude, and through such measurements its “what”, “how”, and “why” can be determined through reason. Our culture esteems mathematical reason, for through it our control over nature (our “knowledge”) provides us with the power to secure our human being-in-the-world (our “culture”) through our sense of caring (concern) and responsibility. Mathematical science is a product of technology , that is, it is a predicate of technology, not vice versa as we commonly think. (See the writings on technology on other pages of this site.) Technology will be used by our culture to solve the problems that technology itself has brought about (climate change, pollution resulting from the use of fossil fuels, etc.).
When considering the Arts as an AOK relating to this title, one does not have to look far to see that the Arts play a secondary role in the estimations of value in our modern cultures. Arts are for our entertainment, amusement, or to provide us with “experiences” in our leisure hours. They help us to pleasantly pass the time when we are not engaged in the more “serious” pursuits that our cultures reward.
Whenever I ask a group of young people if they agree that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, the usual response is a one hundred percent hands raised. When I follow up the question with “what then is beholding”, the perplexed looks begin. The more brave will try to give a Cartesian-inspired response along the lines of “subject/object” and of the “subjective” representations of the evaluations of the work of art as an object and the “subjective” values deriving from matters of taste. It is no co-incidence that judgements in the Arts and their truth became “subjective” along with the arrival of the “objective” considerations of algebraic calculus in mathematical physics. Truth lies in the domain of mathematical calculus, not in the works produced by artists. Artistic judgement is now called “the philosophy of aesthetics”. The separation of human beings and their actions (what we understand as their “cultures” and “histories”) from those of nature (Descartes’ concept of the Self as Ego cogito ergo sum: I think, therefore I am) resulted in human beings being placed at the centre, as the apotheosis of nature, as makers of their own destinies and histories. This was the great paradigm shift of Occidental human beings and it began around the time of the Renaissance and found its completion in the Age of Reason. Human beings became “creators” unlike the “makers” or technites/technes as the Greeks understood them.
We can rephrase our earlier question regarding mathematics by asking: “Is great art discovered or invented?” The most probable response (because it is the easier response) will be that great art is invented or created. Does great art’s truth lie beyond (or is it independent of) the culture of which it is a product?” If great art is “invented”, then it is clearly a product of its time and place, its social contexts, etc. If it is “discovered”, from where does it originate? We often hear of the “timelessness of great art”. And when the artists themselves are asked about their art, they are at many times, at a loss for words to explain it and sometimes refer to mystical or other sources such as “muses” or “possession”, other “spirits” or “daemons”. They are usually not at a loss for words, however, when they speak of their techniques when engaging in bringing forth their works. This suggests that the truth of art and art itself (and I am only speaking of great art here) lies independent of and beyond the culture of which the artist as an individual is a product.
Here in Bali where I live, the people do homage to their gods for the many gifts that the gods have bestowed on them. Those of us from the West and from the technological societies of the East find it “silly” or “superstitious” that the Balinese would pay homage to their gods rather than to Honda, Toyota or Yamaha for the making of their motorcycles and their automobiles. But for the Balinese, it is not Toyota or Honda that have “created” their motorcycles and cars. Motorcycles and automobiles were always already there as gifts from the gods, waiting for “inspired” human beings to “discover”, or more precisely, to “uncover” them and bring them out into the “open”.
2. To what extent do you agree with the claim that “there’s a world of difference between truth and facts“? (Maya Angelou) Answer with reference to two areas of knowledge.
Title #2 asks for a personal response from you: do you agree with the claim that there is a world of difference between truth and facts and to what extent i.e. totally? partially? not at all? So the title is not looking for an academic scholarly recitation on the distinction between “truth” and “facts” (if indeed there is any) but rather, a personal response filled with personal examples (unless, of course, you happen to have made those scholarly opinions on truth and facts “your own”). These notes and thoughts to follow may not be helpful to you in this regard, but the hope held here is that they may prod you along the path to thinking about a possible response to the topic.
Truth is usually discussed from within three main theories: the correspondence theory, the coherence theory, and the pragmatic theory. The correspondence and coherence theories of truth were introduced into Western thinking through the thought of Aristotle and rely basically on the principles of logic. The pragmatic theory of truth finds its origins in the sophist Protagoras (“man is the measure of all things”) and gains further development in the thinking of British and American empiricists and finds its foundations in the Greek word pragma or practical, “material”, concrete things. If you have read any of the other writings on this blog, you will probably have noted that I subscribe to the original meaning of the word “truth” as it is found in the Greeks: aletheia, which means “to uncover”, “to reveal”, “to unconceal”, “to bring out into the open so that something may show itself”, “to retrieve from forgottenness”. This original meaning of the word “truth” is broader and encompasses the other main theories within it. No matter what your response to this topic, your essay will have to contain elements of the correspondence, coherence and pragmatic theories of truth if it is to be successful. Your essay will “bring forth and show” your propositions and assertions (correspondence), your evidence (coherence) and your judgements (pragmatic) regarding the question asked and demonstrate or show your knowledge of the terms used.
What is a “fact” and are there facts that stand alone outside of the systems which create them? Here in Bali, the date on the Balinese calendar posted on my wall is much different than the date and time shown on my computer. The Balinese calendar is a lunar calendar; the computer’s calendar is a solar one. Both calendars are correct but they express different facts. The Balinese calendar shows me when I can anticipate various religious activities to occur here; the solar calendar lets me know when, for instance, the TOK essay titles will be released. The two calendars reference two distinct worlds. Both calendars express “truths” in that they are a “showing forth” of time; it is the same time. Both calendars are attempts to understand what time is. We commonly view time as a series of consecutive “nows” which can be measured with exactitude in discrete mathematical units. We do the same with space. But what time and space are in themselves (their “truth”) remains a mystery for us, hidden from us. The use of mathematics and the facts which it reveals about the nature of ourselves and our worlds (and the world) is the reason why it is so highly valued among technological cultures. The spontaneity of our freedom is made greater through our control and commandeering of the spontaneity of nature.
We as human beings inhabit a number of different “worlds” simultaneously. You inhabit the world of being a student or a teacher; you are a mother or a father, a son or a daughter, a friend or lover in another “world”; you may have a number of different avatars in the virtual “worlds” you may inhabit; you may be a sportsperson, or musician, or inhabit some other “world” in your hobbies. Each of these worlds contain their own facts which are illuminated for you by their “truths”.
In the AOK Human Sciences, a phenomenon that should be of great concern is the assault on truth that is occurring among the populist movements of both Europe and North America, something which the African-American poet and novelist, Maya Angelou, would be greatly concerned about since truth, knowledge and freedom would be inextricably linked for her. The distinction between North American populism and its European counterpart is in the fact that European populism is based on “blood and father/motherland” while North American populism directs its goals to more abstract concepts such as “liberty, justice and freedom”, etc. Europeans and Asians, for the most part, are indigenous or autochthonous peoples: they have belonged to the “father/motherland” from before the time of making the land their own in their “conscious” memory. North Americans are not so. For North Americans, there has always been an historical awareness of making the land their own since they have no history from before the age of progress.
The North American making of the land their own began with the genocide of its Native Peoples, and in the USA, the establishment of the institution of slavery among its white landholders. The truth of these facts is not written in many of their historical narratives (which have been written primarily by white males, though this is changing). The desire to include critical race theory in the curriculum of its schools is divisive for many in the white society which does not want to know itself and which is finding itself becoming a minority and feels itself under threat. North American history texts are filled with facts, but truth is very much lacking in most cases.
North American populists are searching for the roots that they have never had. The search appears to be focusing on what they believe are their “roots” in European fascism where race, “patriotism”, and the need for a scapegoat for their perceived ills (African Americans, later immigrants, any “other” perceived as “alien’) are what they use to give their threatened identities some meaning. This sense of threat is an indication of their underlying weakness. The threat that North American whites feel is the loss of security in their own homeland (their “culture”, if you like), and they are willing to defend themselves against this perceived threat through the use of violence with the many weapons they have ready-to-hand. Any viewing of “right wing” media and its topics of discussion will reveal their concerns. The phenomenon of “alternative facts” is not directed at a desire for truth, however, but a desire for power even if this must be achieved through falsehood. (The Italian political philosopher, Machiavelli, once said that princes gain power through fraud.)
Truth as understood by the Greeks also relates to the individual human being as “one who does not hide or forget”. It referred to a person of candour and frankness, someone who does not dissemble or lie when being with others. It is the person who is “free” to be the person that they are (something that seems to be waning in the worlds of our social media today). Truth is a product of our world: it is given to us; falsehood is the product of human being-in-the-world. The world does not lie; it hides. The denial of truth destroys something essential to our humanity and makes us become more bestial.
Within the Arts as an AOK there is, literally, a world of difference between the truths expressed through the Arts and the facts and their truths given to us through our scientific interpretations of the world understood as nature. Scientific research looks for the “fixing of facts” in a world of constant change. This “solidification” of what are called “facts” is provided by our ability to give an explanation and evidence of the “what” and “how” of things (objects) so that they can be secured, fixed, and commandeered to meet whatever ends or goals that we may have in mind. Our age and culture is grounded through a specific interpretation of what is as objects (facts) and through specific comprehensions of truth (correspondence, coherence, pragmatic), and these grounds have come to determine our age as the technological age. This is the reality of our age; the “world” of our age.
The painting by Van Gogh shown here (one of his many “Sunflowers” paintings) is titled with the chemical compounds that compose Van Gogh’s yellow paint. A chemist familiar with the compositions of the paints would recognize this “fact”, but knowing this fact would not bring her anywhere nearer to the painting’s truth, for its truth lies elsewhere, literally, in another world than that of her laboratory. The chemical composition of the paint, its “fact” does reveal something about the painting, but its truth lies elsewhere. The chemist herself, as a human being, not only occupies the world of her laboratory. She also dwells within a number of other worlds, one of which may be where the beauty of the truth of the painting of the “Sunflowers” enriches her life and gives to her a greater sense of her humanity. To dwell only within the world of the facts of her science would be akin to madness.
3. Is there solid justification for regarding knowledge in the natural sciences more highly than knowledge in another area of knowledge? Discuss with reference to the natural sciences and one other area of knowledge.
To “regard” something is to show “care and concern” for that thing. We send our “best regards” to our near and dear ones when we contact them in order to show our care and concern for them. Since we modern human beings define our “essence”, what we are, as “freedom”, the knowledge that enhances and secures that freedom will be held in the highest regard i.e. it will be given our greatest care and concern (attention) and will be “valued” and esteemed most highly. The knowledge which we have gained from the natural sciences, the knowledge that controls and commandeers the chance brought about by nature’s spontaneity, increases our own spontaneity understood as “freedom”.
The two Greek words techne and logos have been combined by moderns into the one word technology, and this one word captures the knowing (the knowledge) that is present in the sciences (logos) with the making (techne) that is the application of those sciences in the applied and mechanistic arts. Modern medicine, for example, is one area where the discoveries of the natural sciences are applied through the art of healing. Technology is our way of being-in-the-world and through it we demonstrate our care and concern for “life”.
To look at an immediate example of what is being said here: nature has demonstrated its spontaneity with the arrival of the Covid 19 virus and its many mutations, and this virus has limited the spontaneity and freedom of human beings in obvious ways. Through the knowledge that we have from the natural sciences, we have been able to somewhat control nature’s spontaneity through the development of vaccines even though the virus continues to mutate. The ability to secure our freedom (our “lives”, in this case) is the reason why the knowledge that we get from the natural sciences is most highly valued in our technological societies.
This esteeming of the knowledge gained from the natural sciences comes at a price, however, and this price may be seen and understood in the use of the words “solid justification” in the title. Science is “the theory of the real”. In modernity, theory is the viewing of the real, how the real is seen and appropriated, how the world is taken into ourselves by way of experience. Science sets upon the real to set itself up as theory and to set the real up as a surveyable, calculable series of causes. What comes to presence through the viewing is the real, and science throughout its history has been transformed into the theory that entraps the real and secures its objectness, makes it come to a stand, “fixed”, “solid”, “permanent”. Theory makes secure a region of the real. Every new phenomenon emerging within an area of science (physics, chemistry, biology and even the Human Sciences) is refined to the point that it can be defined and fit into the standardized objective coherence of the theory. It becomes “solid”, “fixed” in other words. It is not permitted to change.
“Solid justification” is the requirement of the principle of sufficient reason necessitating that reasons be rendered to others for assertions made regarding the “reality” or “facts” of an object, situation or condition. Human beings are the “rational animals”; to be “irrational” is, by definition, to be less than human, to be inhumane. We believe that we can “justify” our scientific observations of the world through mathematical calculation, and from these calculations make “predictions” of events that will occur in the future. It is this “pre-dictive” power (lit. before “speech”, before the handing over to others) that gives calculative reasoning its dominance since the predictive power provides security and certainty with regard to the way things are. This security and certainty enhances our “preservation of life” and allows us to empower ourselves towards “enhancement of life” through a recognition of life’s potentialities in our freedom. By predicting and controlling nature’s spontaneity, our freedom is enhanced and our possibilities widened.
To “pre-dict” is to make an assertion prior to that speech which renders reasons. When the predictions or results are justified through reason, we believe that we have achieved a correspondence between our minds and the objects, conditions or situations under observation and questioning. To justify is to indicate “that which is responsible for” the “correctness” of the “judgement” made in the assertion. As the philosopher Kant indicated, “Judgement is the seat of truth”, or that upon which truth is grounded or based. “Reasons” bring that which is being spoken about to light and justifies them. Without such reasons, the thing being spoken about remains in the dark, hidden. “Evidence”, or that which is experienced through sight primarily, must be provided and the correspondence between that which is “experienced”, the evidence and the thing, situation or condition must correspond. For example, reasons provide the relations between a criminal and his crime and “justifies” the assertion of guilt. When one asserts a position that Democrats in the USA are really lizard-like aliens preying on children for their blood (just one of many QAnon beliefs) evidence must be provided for making such a statement. When one asserts that “the Presidential election was stolen”, one must provide corresponding evidence to show that that was indeed the case. Believing that a situation or condition is the case is not the same as “justifying” that belief, as many courts throughout the USA have asserted. Conspiracy theorists, in general, lack the corresponding evidence and reasons for their assertions to be taken as true. Their beliefs are irrational, without reasons.
One of the consequences of the type of “justification” required by reason is, some believe, not possible when making assertions about morals or ethics because moral judgements are “values” and these must be distinguished from assertions made about what we call “facts”: i.e. there are no “moral facts” because morals are ephemeral, lacking solidity, and fixity and thus without the possibility of justification. “Values” are what we human beings create through our freedom and willing in the world and through our determination of what things are and how they are and what we think they should be. This separation of statements or assertions of fact from statements or assertions of value is known as the “fact-value” distinction and it is the dominant principle or position in every Human Science. Efforts have been made to make morals subject to the same calculations that are used for scientific evidence such as Bentham’s utilitarianism, “the greatest happiness for the greatest number”, and the use of statistics is the primary language that the Human Sciences use to reveal their “truths”.
To “justify” clearly has relations to its root word “justice”. How does our understanding of the word “justice” relate to justifying and justification? With the modern view of what human beings are given to us by the philosophers Descartes and Kant, human being is that being before whom all other beings are brought before and required to give their reasons for being what they are as beings. This is the domineering, commanding stance of human being before whom all other beings are brought before and “justified” as to what they are as beings. This “justification” is that which is responsible for something being defined as what it is, how it stands in its truth. To justify is to argue for or defend. Our reasons for justifying our mathematical calculations, for instance, are that these calculations give the best explanation of our observations and experiences (experiments).
Our calculations secure our standing in our being-in-the-world and provide the potential for the all-important “life enhancing” or “quality of life” activities that are the purposes and ends of our arts, what we have come to call our “culture”. It is our calculations that give us our domination and control, our mastery of nature; and their “correctness” is demonstrated in the predictability of outcomes. There is a “justification” provided by the mind’s correspondence to the object in question and in the mind’s representations of that object in the mathematical. These justifications are shared in the language of the principle of reason through the belief in the schemata of the technological framing of the things in this world i.e. the world and its beings (things) understood as object. In many parts of the world, there is a turning away from the facts so that we may affirm what is contradicted by the experience of everyday living (climate change denial, for instance, or the need to live in an alternative reality).
In the modern age, beauty has been radically subjectivized so that we have our belief that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”. In all of our scientific explanations of things, we are required to discount the “other” as beautiful because the beautiful is not calculable (try as we may to do so). “Love” is consent to the fact of authentic “otherness”: we love otherness not because it is other but because it is beautiful. But what happens to “love” in a world dominated by the view that the freedom brought about through the objectivication of the things that are becomes most highly valued? The Greek philosopher, Plato, places the tyrant (Shakespeare’s Macbeth, for example, but the list could include all of the other autocrats currently parading or ‘strutting and fretting’ around the world’s stage) as the worst human being because in his self-serving, “otherness” has completely disappeared for him.
What I am trying to say here is that the world before us is beautiful and our appropriate response to it is love. However over time, trust in the world has been replaced with doubt as the methodological pre-requisite for an exact science. If we confine ourselves to anything simply as an object, it cannot be loved as beautiful (reflect on the example of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers in title #2). The key difficulty is that in loving the beauty of the world as it is (and esteeming it most highly), how does this affect the desire to change it? With regard to our title, what is being maintained here is that one knows more about something by loving it, and it should be this love that should be most highly esteemed because it should determine our understanding of the world. In our age, the knowledge gained in the natural sciences through the principle of reason is exalted above understanding and this is the reversal of the world shown to us in Plato’s Cave.
4. How do historians and human scientists give knowledge meaning through the telling of stories? Discuss with reference to history and the human sciences.
Title #4 is very restrictive in the parameters of its requirements: you are required to confine yourself to the areas of knowledge of history and the human sciences. You will also have to consider what “meaning” is and how it might be understood, and what is meant by “the telling of stories”.
“Meaning” is that knowledge that is handed over to others. It is “meaningful”; it is something requiring concern and care to a greater or lesser degree. It is that knowledge that is intended to be conveyed to another through the use of language, whether that language be in words or in numbers, symbols or signs. Meaning ascribes to something its “de-finition”, its limits or its boundaries so that it may be distinguished from something else which is not intended. The Greeks identified human being as the zoon logon echon, that animal that is capable of speech and thus that animal that is capable of conveying meaning through language. We constantly tell each other stories about our experiences. This telling of stories is the giving of an account, whether it be what we did over the weekend or our view of what the meaning of life is.
Since their inceptions, both History and the Human Sciences have aspired to the exactitude and “truth” that is given to us in the knowledge of our Natural Sciences because the knowledge given to us in the Natural Sciences is that which is most highly valued. This aspiration realizes itself in History and the Human Sciences in what is called “research” as the most appropriate method in the approach to what is called knowledge. The Natural Sciences deal with the objects of nature, those objects which come to presence in their own ways from out of themselves, and those objects tend to remain “fixed” and can be accounted for as masses in motion in time and space for the most part. These movements of coming to presence can be accounted for mathematically through the use of axioms, principles, laws and theories. This is how they are accounted for.
In History, the object of study is not present before us. It is in the past and must somehow be brought to presence, to the present, through a way of viewing (theory) and the selection of either appropriate artefacts or other evidence that will support the assertions or propositions put forward. In the way of viewing, the way of how the first principles have been pre-determined, the objects of History become fixed and can be researched in such a way that what we call knowledge can result. The objects that are studied in the Human Sciences are in constant motion. They, too, must be fixed so that statements/assertions can be made about them. This fixing comes about in the form of statistics which provide the “evidence” to support the assertions that are made based on the first principles that are used.
Whether the world is accounted for through language or mathematics, it must necessarily be accounted for. The giving of an account is the interpretation that provides meaning, that which makes something meaningful. The giving of an account is a narrative, the telling of a story. We must remove from our minds the fossilized conception of a “story” being a “fiction”. Accounts or stories may be simple or complex. A recipe is an account of how to bake a cake. Its step-by-step algorithm when followed correctly will result in the bringing to presence of the end product: a cake. The accounts of History or the Human Sciences, likewise though more complex, are stories which will bring about end results that are meaningful to the historian and the social scientist and their audience. The first principles will determine what will be chosen and how the stories will be told, the methodology. A difficulty in the stories told, for instance, is that many women complain that the stories are told by men, particularly white men for the most part.
History is different from the other Human Sciences, or indeed other sciences in general, in that the seekers of knowledge or researchers cannot directly observe the past in the same way that the object of research can be observed and studied in the Natural Sciences. How the past is to be viewed must be decided on beforehand. “Historiology” is the study of history in general, the search for what its essence is, what its purpose is. “Historiography”, that is, a study of the writings of history, is not a study of all of the past, but rather a study of those traces or artifacts that have been deemed relevant and meaningful by historians; and this choosing of artefacts and evidence is the most important aspect of the study of history as it attempts to aspire to “scientific research”. This is where the importance of “shared knowledge” comes into play: what we call our “shared knowledge” is “history”, and what artefacts we choose to select and what stories we decide to tell are determined beforehand by our culture.
Our ways of knowing are the manners in which we establish a relation between ourselves and our worlds, our communities, and to the things that we encounter in the world about us. One of these ways of relating is through Memory. With Memory, we must also keep in mind “forgetting” and what is forgotten or what is chosen to be forgotten, for memory and forgottenness go hand in hand.
“To forget” in Greek is lethe. It is the opposite of aletheia or the Greek word for “truth” or “a bringing to presence”. To bring something to presence, to bring something to mind, to “regard it” with care and concern, is “truth”. It is a “bringing things to light”. Lethe is to cast something into oblivion, into darkness, or that the something is “not present” for us. In Greek mythology, one must first drink of the river Lethe after death in order to be able to cross over in Charon’s boat into the underworld; remembering is essential to being human and to its “life”. To be good at rote learning, to remember facts and dates or mathematical formulas, has nothing to do with Memory as a way of knowing. Memory is more akin to “commemoration” and is part of what distinguishes human beings from other animals; we are able to “commemorate”; other animals cannot. This is why Memory is an essential part of history, and its elements of story telling for History must take the form of “narrative”, a story.
In the oral traditions prior to the arrival of written narratives and stories, Memory was seen as “saving” and “preserving” the story, but this saving and preserving also gave the story “meaning” by its being supported as plausible. The Greek philosophers, Plato and Aristotle, saw philosophy as more akin to poetry than to science. Both History and the Human Sciences attempt to find their truth through the methodology of scientific research and its first principles, but in the search for meaning and preserving both must resort to stories or the telling of narratives. This is especially so in the USA where there is no collective Memory from before the Age of Progress.
What we call History as an object of study appears simultaneously with ratio, calculation, thought. Thucydides, the first historian of the West, wished in his History of the Peloponnesian War, to give an account of the war without the “adornments and embellishments of the poets” (Homer’s Iliad and the Trojan War, for instance) so that he could arrive at his universal main theme: an understanding of the essence of war, all wars. He wished to go from the particular to the universal such as you attempted to do in your Exhibition. The height of Thucydides’ History, however, is “Pericles’ Funeral Oration” and it is a fiction: it is not a verbatim of the actual speech. It was written by Thucydides himself. Some questions could be: does Thucydides’ History as an account of the Peloponnesian War come closer to the essence of war, the universal, than does Homer’s Iliad? Does an historian aspire to make myth? If Josef Stalin is correct in his statement “Only the winners get to write the history”, are not all historians engaged in writing myth (at best) or propaganda (at their worst)? Are modern historical accounts “science” or “myth” since to arrive at their statements of “truth” they must use words (rhetoric) rather than mathematics to make their judgements? Do modern historians give a sufficient account of their first principles?
The basic problem for history in its attempts to be a “science” is that in establishing the past as object and in establishing ourselves as the summonsers for its artefacts to give us their reasons, we can learn about the past, but we cannot learn from the past since our positions as summonsers already establish us as superior to that which is being studied. Since we have seen the kind of societies the “winners” of history have produced, perhaps it is time to look at what knowledge the “losers” of history might have to share with us. This is what “critical race theory” is all about.
5. How can we distinguish between good and bad interpretations? Discuss with reference to the arts and one other area of knowledge.
What we commonly mean by “interpretation” is to provide an “explanation” for some thing that appeals to reason and to common sense. To say that the wildfires in California and Greece are attributable to “Jewish space lasers controlled by the Rothschilds” does not appeal to our reason and common sense, for instance. It is a “bad” interpretation and explanation for the phenomenon of wildfires.
An interpretation is meant to bring some thing to presence in order for it to show what, how and why it is as it is. It is associated with the thing’s “truth”. In Group 1 and Group 6 subjects, you are asked to provide an “interpretation” of a work of art, whether a novel, a poem or painting for instance, and in doing so name it as “such-and-such” or “so-and-so”, but to do so you must first turn that art into an object. In the Human Sciences attempts are made to find fixed, permanent principles that will lead to interpretations of social life which attempt to understand what is present at all times and in all places when living in communities, while in the Natural Sciences “explanations” are looked for through experiments on the “fixed” things that are the objects of nature.
Our lives are pervaded by interpretations both of ourselves and of other entities and things. Our “Core Theme” seeks to interpret how we understand ourselves, while our “Optional Themes” seek to understand other entities in the world around us. Our everyday interpretations or awareness of things is prior to our systematic interpretations undertaken in the Human Sciences and prior to our explanations provided by and given in the Natural Sciences. You need to find your way to the library or the science lab and interpret the contents in those places as books or science equipment before doing any of the activities called science or research. When you walk into a classroom, you do not first see uninterpreted black marks on the white board or hear the sounds of your classmates arriving. You perceive these things right away as printed or spoken words even if you cannot understand them. That you understand speech as speech or a textbook as a book does not mean that your interpretation is unreliable nor that it creates the meaning of what is interpreted. Your understanding of what the things are about you is bound together with your interpretation of them. Understanding is global and general; interpretation is local and particular.
Hermeneutics is a special kind of “interpretation”. In Plato’s Ion Socrates refers to the poets as the “interpreters” of the gods. Hermeneta is Greek for “interpretation”, the disclosing of that which was previously hidden. Interpretation is conjoined with what the Greeks understood “truth” to be. Formally, hermeneutics was the study of how interpretation occurs and is intertwined with “method”. It is the art of understanding written texts; but in it, all things are understood as written texts. The Irish writer, James Joyce, gives us a beautiful example of hermeneutical activity and what we understand as art, and in doing so, of what understanding and interpretation indicates, in the “Proteus” section of his novel Ulysses: Continue reading “Prescribed Titles May 2022”
The TOK essay provides you with an opportunity to become engaged in thinking and reflection. What are outlined below are strategies and suggestions, prompts and prods, questions and possible responses only for deconstructing the TOK titles as they have been given. They should be used alongside the discussions that you will carry out with your peers and teachers during the process of constructing your essay. The TOK essay is a challenging assignment at any time but especially now given the worldwide Covid-19 pandemic.
The notes here are intended to guide you towards a thoughtful, personal response to the prescribed titles posed. They are not to be considered as an answer let alone the answer to the question(s) posed by the title and they should only be used to help provide you with another perspective to the ones given to you in the titles and from your own TOK class discussions and research. You need to remember that most of your examiners have been educated in the logical positivist schools of Anglo-America and this education pre-determines their predilection to view the world as they do and to understand the basic concepts as they do. The TOK course itself is a product of this logical positivism though efforts are being made to make it more universally embracing.
There is no substitute for your own personal thought and reflection, and these notes are not intended as a cut and paste substitute to the hard work that thinking requires. Some of the comments on one title may be useful to you in the approach you are taking in the title that you have personally chosen, so it may be useful to read all the comments and give them some reflection on how they might be of some use to you towards the title you have chosen.
My experience has been that candidates whose examples match those to be found on TOK “help” sites (and this is another of those TOK help sites) struggle to demonstrate a mastery of the knowledge claims and knowledge questions contained in the examples. The best essays carry a trace of the struggle that is the journey on the path to thinking. Many examiners state that in the very best essays they read, they can visualize the individual who has thought through them sitting opposite to them. To reflect this struggle in your essay is your goal.
Remember to include sufficient TOK content in your essay. When you have completed your essay, ask yourself if it could have been written by someone who had not participated in the TOK course. If the answer to that question is “yes”, then you do not have sufficient TOK content in your essay.
Here is a link to a PowerPoint that contains recommendations and a flow chart outlining the steps to writing a TOK essay. Some of you may need to get your network administrator to make a few tweaks in order for you to access it. Comments, observations and discussions are most welcome. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or directly through this website.
A sine qua non: the opinions expressed here are entirely my own and do not represent any organization or collective of any kind.
The November 2021 Titles
1. Why is it so difficult to identifya clear linebetween accepted and disputed knowledge within a discipline? Answer with reference to two disciplines, each taken from a different area of knowledge.
Title #1 offers many key concepts which must be identified (deconstructed) in order to proceed. The initial question “why” asks us to provide reasons as to why there are disputes and agreements within various disciplines as to what may be called knowledge within those disciplines. What type of reasons are to be considered and what type of knowledge is meant in the question? To answer the question “why” is necessary because the principle of reason dominates the majority of disciplines and this principle demands the rendering of sufficient reasons: “be-cause”, “the cause is”. So, what is the “cause” of the disputes over what is to be considered knowledge within the various disciplines that you have chosen? This will require some research.
The rendering of sufficient reasons requires evidence which grounds and supplies the base for the assertions being made regarding knowledge in the discipline. Each discipline requires different kinds of evidence. In the natural and human sciences, this evidence will be in the form of mathematical equations which, due to their accuracy and correctness, provide the basis for making statements of “fact”. We believe “numbers don’t lie” and are the surest way in establishing the “truth” of an assertion or a proposition. Numbers, it is believed, are more “certain” than words in identifying and communicating statements regarding knowledge for “words strain, crack and sometimes break, under the burden, under the tension, slip, slide, perish, decay with imprecision, will not stay in place, will not stay still” to quote T.S. Eliot. Could this be because languages are living things while numbers are not and we have chosen to place our faith in numbers? Is it necessary that in order to “know” things we must, in some way, “kill” them first? The philosopher Nietzsche constantly railed against the “mummification” of knowledge.
The “difficulty” we have in “establishing clear lines” is that in the establishment of “lines” we are attempting to set the limits (horizons) of what something is and in so doing define what that thing is. To de-fine is to set the limits of something, to say it is this and not that. The philosopher Nietzsche once wrote: “Only that which has no history can be defined”. This setting of limits is to “frame” something so that the something may be brought to presence before us in time and space, given its horizons. In order to do so, time and space must be measured in units (seconds and metres, for instance) and this is why we are so keen to use numbers when we bring something to presence. Bringing something to presence is to reveal the thing for what it is; this we call knowledge. In making the assertion of what the thing is, we are saying “truth” about the thing and revealing the thing for what it is. The problem is that things are not revealed in their whole truth but only partially. The search for the whole truth regarding things is what the journey toward knowledge is all about and it is because things are only partially revealed that we have “disputed” and “accepted” knowledge regarding them. What we call knowledge is how the things are brought to stand in their presence before us. Do things come to a greater illumination before us with the assertions made by others regarding them?
In the Arts, for instance, a basic question is “Is it Art”? Whether or not something is art or is to be considered art depends, of course, on how art is defined, on the limits established for a work (a thing) to be considered art. These preliminary definitions or limits establish the breath of the scope of the seeing for what that some thing (the work) is. Can other animals, other than human beings, make a work of art? When an elephant swashes a brush across a piece of paper and fills it with colorful strokes, is this a work of art? How one defines art will determine whether or not something is art. Because it is a product of the 20th century, Political Science has had difficulty defining fascism as a modern political phenomenon and is helpless in stating whether corporate capitalism, liberal socialism, or historical fascism is a superior form for establishing and running a state. Here the difficulty lies in the adherence to the “fact/value” distinction and the belief that judgements of value are not useful in describing something as it is.
In the Physical or Natural Sciences, one could question whether the tree the botanist views is illuminated in its truth, its presence, to a brighter stage than the tree beheld by the poet. The nature of the beholding is the key to how a thing is defined and, therefore, made one’s own while it itself remains its own. (If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, what then is the beholding?) The accepted viewing and the challenging of this viewing occurs on the theoretical, not the experimental level. In the history of the viewing that is Physics, we could not have the paradigm shifts of Galileo/Newton or Einstein/Heisenberg (quantum physics) without the challenging of the viewing that had become the “accepted” knowledge of those who worked and investigated within those fields. Physicists still attempt to challenge the findings and conclusions of quantum physics while attempting to search for evidence of the truth of Einstein’s viewing of the world.
2. “Knowledgegained through direct experience is powerful but problematic.” To what extent do you agree with this statement?
What is the type of “knowledge” gained through direct experience? What is “direct experience”? In your science classes you are asked to do “experiments” in order to have direct “experience” of the knowledge that has been handed over to you. We could call this “knowledge by acquaintance”: you are familiar with what is being discussed and you can claim knowledge of the topic because you have become familiar with and determined the outcomes and seen the outcomes of the experience (experiment) yourself. But is what you have gained truly “knowledge”? In order to determine whether or not it is so, it is necessary to go back to the grounds of questions that have determined how you will view the world of the experience that you are to undergo. When we touch a hot stove for the first time, the knowledge that we gain of the pain that results is not problematic. We will not touch the stove again if we are rational. We were told by our mothers “Don’t touch the stove”, but we had to find out for ourselves, right? This type of knowledge, the voices of our mothers, is knowledge from authorities or the shared knowledge given to us by the communities we happen to be members of.
The example provided may seem trite, but it contains the core of what are called “knowledge problems and issues” in TOK. You are constantly told to “Show, don’t tell” when you write your essays and make your exhibitions. “To show” means that you are required to bring to presence before others evidence for the judgements you have made regarding the experiences or situations which you have claimed to have undergone and what the things are that are to be considered. Those of us who would like to consider ourselves sane ask for evidence that our political enemies, our neighbours, are really lizard-like aliens who prey on the blood of children and worship Satan in evil cabals. Or that California wildfires are the result of Jewish space lasers in the control of the Rothchilds and George Soros. Those who make such claims are unable to provide such evidence, of course, and yet they stubbornly cling to their beliefs in the judgements that are made regarding our common experience of these things i.e. politicians and wildfires. At the root of such stubborn clinging is the desire for power, whether it be the need for “self-empowerment” by being seen as a member of some group who believe themselves to be downtrodden by history, or for political power by being seen as a member of a faction within their communities.
When we are speaking of knowledge and its problems, whether it be knowledge by acquaintance or theoretical knowledge, it is important to distinguish and determine what type of knowledge we are talking about. When we are in the science lab, it is perfectly appropriate to question the theoretical knowledge that is being handed over to us: from where are the origins that brought about the seeing in this way? The type of questions asked will determine the kind of knowledge we are seeking. If we ask the question “Why is there more crime in the United States than in Singapore?” we can hope to find an answer to this question through scientific research. We have direct knowledge or experience of the data but problems arise when and how that data is interpreted. No scientific research, however, will answer the question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” When the Jock’s intellectual girlfriend asks him “Why is there air?”, to an extent he is being correct to respond “There’s air to blow up volleyballs and basketballs; that’s why there’s air”. The Jock’s world and the world of his intellectual girlfriend clash for each requires a different viewing and interpretation of things and thus a different experience of the things.
When we ask about the knowledge gained from “direct experience”, its power and its problems, a very complex process is going on which, at most times, we are unaware of. We have direct experience of things in most waking moments of our lives. What is it that determines its importance for us so that we take possession of the experience and make it knowledge for us? All of us have different preferences for different things and place their importance in a hierarchy. Many of you have demonstrated this hierarchy of importance by your course choices for your IB program of study. But clearly, your world of being a student is only one aspect of who you are. You are also a son or a daughter, a Canadian, a Chinese, an Indonesian, an American and so on. In your virtual worlds, you may inhabit or hide under other guises. Because you inhabit a variety of worlds, various direct experiences of the overall world itself will either draw your attention or be ignored by you. Your knowledge will be limited by which worlds have been given to you and by the worlds you have chosen. How deep your knowledge of those worlds will become is something for you to determine.
3. “There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact” (Arthur Conan Doyle). Discuss this claim with reference to two areas of knowledge.
The quote from the writer of the Sherlock Holmes tales expresses a deeply disturbing thought and begs us to ask the question “What is reality?”. What, in fact, is a “fact”? That today is the 5th of June, 2021 (at the time of this writing) is a supposed fact. But here in Bali, the calendar is some 78 years behind our Western traditional Gregorian calendar. Both calendars are correct; they express facts but the facts are different because the interpretation of time is different. One calendar is based on the moon; the other is based on the sun. But both are based on the motion, movement of these celestial bodies.
What is time? What is space? All of what we call “facts” are determined by an interpretation of these two phenomenon for we need to place things in the concepts of time and space and make them stand fast so that they can be defined and their limits set: “here and now”, “there and then”, “here or there next week”, etc. To make these determinations, we use “units”, numbers. Time is composed of seconds or nano-seconds, something which is measurable and calculable and these units are uniform in themselves. Space is measured in centimetres, or other units of distance which are also uniform. We use these units of measurement in order to gain some control over time and space and the things that occur within them but in order to do so we must make time and space uniform first.
When we speak about the possible “deception” of facts, we are speaking about how a thing appears, how a thing comes to stand in its presence before us. In Physics, for instance, the difference between the classical physics of Aristotle and the modern physics of Newton is that what is actually apprehended as appearing and how it is interpreted are not the same. For Aristotle, nature is the change of something into something else. How a body moves, how it relates to its place (space) has its basis in the body or thing itself. The body moves according to its nature. An earthy body moves downward; a fiery body moves upward. Why? Because each body has its place according to its kind and moves towards that place. The motion of bodies occurs in a straight line and is incomplete. The motion of the stars and the heavens, however, is circular. Linear motion is incomplete; circular motion is complete and eternal. Thus Plato can say: “Time is the moving image of eternity” and we can construct our calendars according to the movements of the sun or moon.
In Newton’s First Law of Motion, all natural bodies are of the same kind (mass) and celestial bodies are not superior ones. There is no priority of circular motion over linear motion. Linear motion is decisive. Every body can be in any place; place is no longer where the body belongs according to its nature but only a position in relation to other positions. Why the moon moves in a circular motion and not a linear motion is what must be accounted for. Newton’s answer is gravity. With the experiments of Galileo in Pisa, both Galileo and his opponents saw the same “facts”, but they interpreted those facts differently and made the same “direct experience” visible to themselves in different ways. This viewing, as quantum physics shows us, impacts the how of the thing that is under observation comes to presence for us; our viewing has an impact on the thing. What Galileo thought in advance about motion was the determination that the motion of every body is uniform and rectilinear when every obstacle is eliminated from hindering it. Such an occurrence as a lack of hindering does not occur in “reality”; it is not a “fact”. But the conclusions arrived at are: all bodies are alike; no motion is special; every place is like every other place; every moment is like every other moment; every force is calculable only by the change of motion it causes and results in change of place. Nature is everywhere uniform and becomes subject to a mathematical calculation that is itself uniform.
It is clear from the above example that the “deception” regarding “facts” lies in the viewing and how this viewing determines their interpretation and how they are and will be interpreted. There are no “alternative facts”; there are only alternative interpretations of the facts that are given to us. When a USA senator states that the events of January 6, 2021 were not an insurrection but an ordinary day in the life of the American government, when he himself is shown cowering in fear when these “tourists” were attempting to storm the floor of the Senate, then we as sane people must reject this interpretation of the facts in light of the evidence given to us, and as “tourists” avoid putting a visit to the US Capital on our itineraries. In the Human Sciences, the use of statistical data is an area where “deception” regarding facts comes to the fore. In political polls in the USA, it appears that reliability is an issue because many respondents are lying and their words and actions are not congruent. The world of social media is also one where deception, lies and fraud necessitate the condition of anonymity and a healthy skepticism with regard to the assertions made by other people in those various communities. This begs the further question: why is truth under such a great attack at the present time?
Facts and their interpretations rely on their contexts and on the prevailing viewing that dominates the community where those facts and their interpretations predominate. This is what is meant by the word ethos. In our everyday worlds, we move about within an opinion of the way things are. We go along with the way that the world shows itself. We orientate ourselves to others that we are with within the world through holding opinions, but we demand from ourselves and from others evidence that the opinions that we and they hold are justified and true. Opinion motivates us to speak to each other and express an opinion, and it is in expressing these opinions that our humanity is revealed and it is this that distinguishes us from other animals.
4. “Areas of knowledge always rely on a systematic process oftrial and error to aid the production of knowledge.” Discuss this claim with reference to two areas of knowledge.
What is “the production of knowledge”? Production is a “showing forth”, a “bringing forth into presence” of some thing. In other blogs on this site, I have tried to show that this “showing” and “bringing forth” is what the ancient Greeks referred to as “truth”, aletheia. The “process of production” attempts to achieve “perfection”, a state of being complete and correct in every way. This bringing forth that attempts to achieve an end of completion and correctness results in a “work” whether it be a work of art, a drama production, an experiment, an algorithm or app, an essay or an exhibition. Help with the “production” of this “work” is probably why you are consulting this blog at the moment. You have a number of ideas, materials, and resources ready-to-hand that you will use to carry out this “work”. If you are wise, you will use a process of trial and error (that is, drafts) to achieve a level of completeness and correctness that will bring the work to the highest degree of completeness and correctness of which you are capable.
You will notice, though, that prior to your going forward and proceeding to bring your work into view, you will already have an end in view, a purpose which will pre-determine how you will view the ideas, materials and resources that you will gather or have gathered in order to “systematically” bring this end about. This systematic process of trial and error is what has been called “technology” in the Optional Themes for TOK on this blog. (https://mytok.blog/2019/09/30/ot2-knowledge-and-technology/). It is the “knowing” (logos) and “making” (techne) that is grounded in the principle of reason that determines the methodology necessary to bring about the kind of end or work which you wish to bring about. The principle of reason (“nothing is without (a) reason”), particularly the principles of causation and contradiction, are the grounds of all those concepts that we can call “systematic”.
The title states areas of knowledge “always rely on” the systematic methodology of trial and error in order to produce knowledge. Of course, when we hear the words “always rely on” we are skeptical of the truth of the statements that contain them. We try to find exceptions to this “always”. Certainly, there is no problem in the Natural Sciences. They rely on the trial and error method of experimentation in order to prove their hypotheses, propositions and premises to be true. The discoveries and disclosures of the results will be handed over to others in the form of mathematical calculations. The experiments must be repeatable for others in order for the evidence shown to be seen and verified by others and demonstrated to be true. The experiment follows the viewing and the viewing determines how the experiment will be set up and what procedures will be followed.
The great revolutions in the Natural Sciences occur when a change of viewing occurs. From Plato and Aristotle to Galileo and Newton to Einstein and Heisenberg, it is the change of viewing in relation to the things that are which brings about a fundamental change in what human beings conceive themselves and knowledge to be. Charles Darwin’s viewing of the priority of modification and natural selection brought about a great upheaval in how human beings viewed themselves and the other species surrounding them in the natural world. These changes of viewing the world were the result of a prior “systematic process of trial and error” in order to account for the things as they were beheld by these great scientists. From the viewing of these great scientists, vast amounts of knowledge have been produced by others.
In the Arts in most cases, there is a “systematic process of trial and error” that the artist goes through in order to bring forth the work that she has in mind in all of its completeness and correctness. Many artists are not satisfied with their work once it is finished because it lacks this completeness and correctness that they originally envisioned in their minds when the work is finally brought forth. If you “work out” in the weight room or on the practice pitch, on the basketball court or in rehearsals for the school drama production, you are constantly going through a process of trial and error in order to develop your knowledge and skills in order to bring your body to its highest level of perfection that you are capable of in order to bring about the end that you have in view so that this end can be the best that it can be.
In terms of looking for an exception to the “always rely on” in the Arts, we might look to the example of Mozart and his music. Mozart claimed that he received his music “all in one look”, complete, correct and perfect. His manuscripts which have come down to us show no corrections or edits, which is a remarkable achievement. His “viewing” allowed him to compose the overture for the opera Don Giovanni in one night at one sitting, or so we are told. In considering this example of Mozart, we might want to reflect on and consider the manner in which we view the world. Mozart’s viewing is a “receptive” viewing by an individual of eminent knowledge and skill. Its reception requires an acceptance of what is received, the gift given. His only freedom is to choose to accept or reject the gift. Many artists claim that their art does not come from them but is given to them. In their works, they are “makers”, not creators. The creating belongs elsewhere.
5. “If all knowledge is provisional, when can we have confidence in what we claim to know?” Answer with reference to two areas of knowledge.
Why and when is all knowledge considered provisional? Or is it? The word “if” is a subordinate conjunction in English grammar. A subordinate conjunction is an incomplete thought and the use of the clause “if all knowledge is provisional” indicates that the clause is dependent and provides further information to add to the sentence’s main idea “confidence in what we claim to know”, signaling a cause-and-effect relationship (“if…then”) or a shift in time and place (“if…when”) between the two clauses. That all knowledge should be considered provisional and conditional creates a disturbing situation for our understanding of our being-in-the-world which would be made clearer by our changing the subordinator “if” to “when” so that the dependent clause becomes “when all knowledge is considered provisional”. When all knowledge is considered provisional, what then? So an appropriate response to this title will consider the if and the when in its response. Is all knowledge provisional? Is reason provisional? If so, then when did this occur and why did it occur? What becomes of our “confidence” in such “knowledge” and from where does this confidence arise? Certainly, the current attack on truth founds itself upon the “provisionality” of what we think knowledge to be.
Knowledge is sometimes considered provisional because it is part of a whole and we cannot gain knowledge of the whole because we ourselves are part of it. The word “provisional” arrives into the English language around the 1600s. This was around the same time as the new discoveries in the modern sciences by Galileo and Newton, and in the philosophy of the German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz. Leibniz is considered to be the creator of finite calculus in mathematics and what is known as the modern insurance industry. Why are these two creations of Leibniz not co-incidental but related in their grounds?
The word “provisional” comes from the Latinroot provisionem, “a foreseeing, foresight, preparation, or prevention.” Our modern viewing of the world is a mathematical projection of that world (algebraic calculation) developed from a plan initiated beforehand to commandeer and control the objects of the world (by understanding the cause-effect relations of objects and their forces) and to overcome any contingencies that would hinder that domination and control. This mathematical projection is what is known as transcendentalism. It is the projection of human thought over and beyond the objects of the world so that the thought creates the object and “knows” it. We know more about the things we make than those that we do not make. The human mind makes the object. (Kant) Or as the German physicist Werner Heisenberg, one of the founders of quantum physics, said: “What we observe is not nature in itself but nature exposed to our method of questioning. Our scientific work in physics consists in asking questions about nature in the language that we possess and trying to get an answer from experiment by the means that are at our disposal.” The development of the plan or system (which is mathematical in nature) helps us to maintain “confidence” in what we feel we can claim to know. We can see here the connection between the creation of finite calculus and the creation of the insurance industry. Insurance is the foreseeing and preparation in case of contingencies and allows one to have “confidence” in their willing and actions in the world.
In modern Physics, for example, we know that there is a gap between the macro-physics of Newton and the sub-atomic physics of relativity and quantum physics. The discoveries of sub-atomic physics overturn the findings of Newtonian physics yet we know that they both operate on the micro and macro levels. We see the principles of quantum physics explain the behaviours of celestial bodies within the vastness of the galaxies and their movements through space in astrophysics, and we see the operation of the principles of Newtonian physics in every waking moment of our lives. At the moment, we are unable to determine where these two views of the world meet so that their truths will illuminate and not contradict each other.
Titles #5 and #6 are really the same. From certainty comes confidence and while we may rarely be certain from a theoretical perspective and view our theoretical knowledge “provisionally”, we act with surety and confidence from a common sense perspective. In our day-to-day lives we could not act and plan without some sort of confidence in our knowledge that the sun will come up tomorrow. We know how to get to school, to find our classrooms, to find our way to the library or the gymnasium. We know these things because we are able to distinguish between things, and we can distinguish between them because we already have knowledge of them beforehand.
As we have been discussing in the other titles here, the modern view of knowledge is that it is dependent upon the social and historical contexts in which it appears or occurs. Such a view is known as historicism. The word “provisional” indicates that social and historical contexts change. The type of knowledge that we are speaking about here is dependent upon the manner of the “vision” or seeing that is prevalent at the time and is subject to change due to various contingencies or chance. The if of the “if all knowledge…” is a very big “if” indeed. The position taken in the quote is that all knowledge is provisional and therefore disposable. What are the grounds of such disposable knowledge so that it may be called knowledge in the first place? Is not the statement nothing more than nihilism when the if becomes when and do we not already act as if the if were when? Is not such action, in many cases, irrational?
6. “We are rarely completely certain, but we are frequently certain enough.” Discuss this statement with reference to two areas of knowledge.
From where does the desire and need for “certainty” arise and at what type of knowledge is it directed? We need to go back to the 16th century to find some background; and then, we need to make a few observations of what, where and when “we are frequently certain enough”.
The desire for “certainty” arises from two main sources in Western historical and philosophical thinking: 1. the need to ground the mathematical project which was briefly discussed in title #5; and 2. the Christian dogma and doctrine prevalent before and during the 1600s that required the certainty and security of the individual’s salvation. How Protestant Christianity came to accept the account of Nature that was given in the new natural sciences resulted in that phenomenon that we call humanism where human beings are seen as the centre of the world that was seen as a created thing. The new sciences exalted “freedom” and it was in their freedom that human beings would find the certainty of their salvation.
The first thinker to address the problem of certainty in depth was the French philosopher Rene Descartes whose answers to the questions he posed resulted in the beginning of what is called modern philosophy. Descartes began by doubting everything. Descartes does not doubt because he is a skeptic; he doubts because he posits the mathematical project as the ground of all knowledge and seeks for a foundation that will be in agreement with it. This foundation turns out to be the reason expressed in the axioms and principles of mathematical calculation itself. Cogito ergo sum: “I think, therefore I am”. For Descartes, thinking and reason are the same and constitute the very being of a human being. The “I think” of Descartes becomes the ground upon which all certainty and truth becomes based. Descartes inverts the traditional subjectum or what the classical thinkers saw the things in the world to be (a subject with predicates: a book that is green, heavy, on the table, a new book, etc.) into a special subject and so arose the subject/object distinction of Cartesianism. Historically, we call this period The Age of Reason and from this age we proceed to The Age of Enlightenment. These Ages culminate in The Modern Age. In our Age, the only knowledge that deserves to be called knowledge is that achieved through algebraic or mathematical calculation.
In our common sense world of day-to-day activities, this reason also operates. When we deny the facts of reason and the reality that is revealed through the use of reason, we become less than what we truly are as human beings. The European Holocaust, the genocide conducted by the Khmer Rouge, and the endless list of many other human atrocities throughout history were first preceded by a loss of faith and trust in reason and the disappearance of the recognition of the otherness of human beings. As Plato showed, the disappearance of Otherness leads to political tyranny. Shakespeare’s Macbeth is the best example we have of this in the English language.
As was mentioned, this title is really the same as title #5. When we cross San Francisco Bay, we cannot be certain that an earthquake of sufficient size to take down the bridge will not occur as we are doing so, yet we are certain enough that we proceed to do so. We all know that accidents can happen and we try to minimize our risks against them. If we are wise, we look both ways before we cross the street. We could not live if we did not do so. Those who are motivated to take risks usually do so because they find their lives too secure and boring to begin with and the element of risk makes them feel more alive. What is being said about human being here?
In reflecting on this question and referring it to the areas of knowledge, you should first discuss the type of knowledge that you are dealing with and the specific examples from the areas of knowledge that address the question.
“Now I am tempted to say that the right expression in language for the miracle of the existence of the world, though it is not any proposition in language, is the existence of language itself.”—Wittgenstein
“Language is the house of Being. In its home humans dwell.”—Heidegger “Letter on Humanism”
“‘En arche ‘en ‘o Logos” (“In the beginning was the Word”)—John 1:1
“…we ourselves no longer have the power to trust that the word is the essential foundation of all relations to beings as such.”—Heidegger: “Aristotle’s Physics”
Language is probably the most important theme of 20th century philosophy and will be of the philosophy that moves into the 21st century. Why this has come to be the case will be the outline of these writings on language and its relation to what we think knowledge is.
The very essence of what we are as human beings, our ontology, our being-in-the-world is contained in our language and in our relation to and understanding of language. To understand language is to contrast instruction with teaching; and to do so is to recognize that the teaching in TOK is to be characterized as “useless” and it must be “useless” in order to allow true learning and teaching to happen. To reflect on the issue of “uselessness” and “usefulness” is to connect these seemingly irrelevant themes to the status of education in our modern technological age and what we think education is today. In order to begin this reflection, we must think upon language and rethink language.
The rethinking of language takes place from and within the rethinking of technology. The relation between technology and language is crucial for a rethinking of language in our modern technological age. It is therefore necessary to talk about the technological language, which defines “a language that is technologically determined by what is most peculiar to technology,” that is, by framing (or “positioning” or enframing). It is imperative that we ask what is language and in what special way it remains exposed to the dictates of technology. Such imperatives to our thinking about language are only met in the rethinking of the current conception of language that we might characterize in the following way:
Today we think speech is: (1) a faculty, an activity and achievement of humans. It is: (2) the operation of the instruments for communication and hearing. Speech is: (3) the expression and communication of emotions accompanied by thoughts (dispositions) in the service of “information”. Speech is: (4) a representing and portraying (picturing, the making of pictures) of the real and unreal. Because human beings live within societies necessitates that they have language of some kind.
The traditional metaphysical connection of subject “the things” + predicate “the qualities of the things”, the categories, between language and thinking that we have seen in our discussions of Reason defines language in terms of thinking. Thinking is the human activity of representing objects in this view, and thus language has been seen as a means for conveying information about objects. “In-form-ation” results from our providing a “form” in order to “inform” regarding what we call “data”. This provision of a form is what we call “classification”, a providing of definitions or the limits and horizons of things. Traditional metaphysics places thinking as “reason” (reason, “logic” which has its root in “logos” which in Greek is “language”, “speech”) as the determining factor (the “-ation” or “atia” in Greek, “that which is responsible for”) in the relation between language and thinking. Reason provides the “form” in a calculative way so that the data (the content) can be structured so that it may “inform”. This is shown in our current conception of language as an “instrument of expression” in the “service of thinking”. The common view believes that thought uses language merely as its “medium” or a means of expression, an instrument. Thought is seen as logic, reason in this view.
We assume that language is a tool used by human beings to communicate information. We think that the same fact can be expressed in many different languages. We think a competent speaker is in control of language and can use it efficiently to convey data to his/her audience. In the quest for efficiency in communication, we have devised artificial languages that give us more control over language. Symbolic logic, computer programming languages, and the technical languages of the sciences are set up as systems in which each sign can be interpreted in only one way. Each sign points clearly to what it represents so that the sign itself becomes completely unobtrusive. The perfect language in this view is a technique for perfect representation. We have discovered that language in algebraic calculation.
There are two major schools of thought on language and its relation to knowledge: the “structuralist” or “analytical” school which has been described up to now, and the “continental” school. The “continental” school’s foremost representative is Martin Heidegger: “Language is the house of being. In its home humans dwell” is a quote that captures Heidegger’s understanding of language. But what does the quote mean? How is language a “house” and how through its use does it create a “home”?
The conception of language as a mere means of exchange of information undergoes an extreme transformation in our modern technological age that is expressed in the definition of language as “information”. The analytic school of thought on language offers a prime example of a “metaphysical-technological explanation” of language stemming from the “calculative frame of mind.” This view believes that thinking and speaking are “exhausted by theoretical and natural-scientific representation and statements,” and that they “refer to objects and only to objects.” Language, as a tool of “scientific-technological knowing”–which “must establish its theme (thesis, theory) in advance as a calculable, causally explicable framework”– is “only an instrument that we employ to manipulate objects.” We refer to this as an algorithm: the world is looked upon as a calculable, causal framework that gives us a problem that must be solved.
Think of this in terms of our computers and our other tools of “information technology”, particularly the speed reading technologies and applications that are becoming available: the principle of reason must establish the “frame” or “position” in advance so that data can be controlled through calculation in order to inform. This frame transforms the manner in which things are approached.
Heidegger notes the influence and understanding of language by analytic philosophy in our modern technological age in the following way:
Of late, the scientific and philosophical investigation of languages is aiming more resolutely at the production of what is called “metalanguage.” Analytic philosophy, which is set on producing this super-language, is quite consistent when it considers itself metalinguistics. That sounds like metaphysics -not only sounds like it, it is metaphysics. Metalinguistics is the thoroughgoing technicalization of all languages into the sole operative instrument of interplanetary information. Metalanguage and sputnik, metalinguistics and rocketry are the Same.
Heidegger is speaking this in the late 1950s, but the connection to today’s information technology illustrates the truth of his statement. Given the logical bent of analytical philosophy, the modern mathematical and symbolic logic or “Logistik” is metaphysics. Logistics was, for Heidegger, the “unbroken rule of metaphysics” establishing itself everywhere; and modern epistemology (“theories of knowledge”) acquire a “decisive position of dominance.” It was a matter of grave concern for Heidegger to see that logistics was being considered everywhere “the only possible form of strict philosophy” on the grounds that its procedures and results are deemed productive for what he called “the construction of the technological universe.” (Have a look at the etymological roots of “logistics” on dictionary.com). This must be thought about in relation to what we understand as “artificial intelligence” or AI: how does or will our understanding of what reason and language are determine the nature of what is called “artificial intelligence” and of the machines that will use it? In the age of cybernetics, human beings will be the materials that will be ordered and disposed of i.e. human resources, human capital.
Heidegger’s negative characterizations of logistics abound: It is a “logical degeneration” of traditional categorical logic of Aristotle, and its development is a sign of the “decay of philosophy,” an indication of its “dissolution” and “completion.” At another point, Heidegger states: “Technique is the metaphysic of the age.”
Language and Concepts:
How does language determine what we call our “key concepts”, the manner in which we are to approach what we call knowledge? If we think about what we call “dead” languages for a moment, we will notice that they are called “dead” because they are no longer subject to changes in meaning. Any “living” language will have changes in meaning and interpretation according to the historical time in which it occurs. As the poet T. S. Eliot wrote:
“Words strain, Crack and sometimes break, under the burden, Under the tension, slip, slide, perish, Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place, Will not stay still.”
Our modern attempts to fixate language into an unambiguous tool for communicating information and representing beings/things illustrates our desire to fulfill the revealing of truth as representation, to follow the correspondence theory of truth and the principle of reason. There is “truth” (according to Heidegger), but how we understand what this truth is is relative to the historical situation in which it occurs; it is not a “subjective” truth, but a communal truth: that is, it is not based on personal knowledge but is the knowledge that we all share. In our current situation, this is the global “revealing” through technology and this revealing drives us to realize the “global village” or “internationalism” along with what we call “international mindedness”. The “system” which results from the “framing” that is the technological requires no individual thinker or thinking. In science, time and place are not important and scientists from disparate locations can carry out their work with the certainty that their “accounts” will be correct when properly following the method established within the framing. This is because the language which they use is fixated.
If Heidegger is correct, the same fact cannot be expressed in many different languages because beings and “information” present themselves differently according to different cultural contexts. The quest for a universal, unambiguous language can only succeed in creating stillborn languages. These languages are locked into a particular interpretation of the world and the things in it (representational revealing) and are incapable of responding creatively to new experiences. Artificial languages (and one might say artificial intelligence since it will be based on these languages) are not more “objective” than natural languages—they are just narrower and more rigid because their goal is certainty and efficiency.
Language cannot be merely a tool that we use because we can control it: we owe our own Human Being to language. For the Greeks, we are the zoon logon echon, the animal capable of speech, language. Language is fundamental to our revelation of the world; it is an essential part of what enables us to be someone, to be a human being and notice things in the world in the first place. Language has the power to reveal our world and transform our existence. But the lucid and creative moments are few both in individuals and in societies; the rest is inauthentic and derivative. Every day “idle talk” is a pale, dull reflection of the “creative meanings” that are first revealed and achieved in poetry.
Language as Representation:
Where does the understanding of language as representation come from? As the “doctrine of the logos” in Aristotle is interpreted as assertion or statement, logic is the doctrine of thinking and the science of statement (or the making of statements—propositions, the creation of “pictures”), that is, logic (the principle of reason) provides the authoritative interpretations of thinking and speaking that rule throughout the technological. More specifically, logistics has as its basis the modern interpretation of the statement or assertion as the “connection of representations” (the correspondence and coherence theories of truth). It is in this sense that Heidegger regards it as another manifestation of the “unchecked power of modern thinking” itself. Heidegger depicts the connections between logic and modern technology in very dramatic tones:
Without the legein (the saying) of [Western] logic, modern man would have to make do without his automobile. There would be no airplanes, no turbines, no Atomic Energy Commission. Without the logos, of logic, the world would look different.
The general form of modern metaphysical thinking is thus a “scientific-technological manner of thinking.” This thinking, this world-picture, threatens to “spread to all realms” thereby magnifying the “deceptive appearance which makes all thinking and speaking seem objectifying.” This thinking and speaking finds its full realization in algebraic calculation. It is this form of objectifying thinking that strives to “represent everything henceforth only technologically-scientifically as an object of possible control and manipulation.” With it, language itself takes a corresponding form: it becomes “deformed into an instrument of reportage and calculable information”. However, while the form that language takes is thus instrumental, in such a form of thinking, language itself exerts its own influence insofar as it is “treated like a manipulable object to which our manner of thinking must conform.” Language itself allows itself to be treated in such a way. Language and reason are, in the end, inseparable. They allow themselves to create our box, what we call our “mindset”.
The traditional metaphysical manner of thinking in our age is a “one-track thinking,” (in Heidegger’s words) and this ‘one track’ can be understood and associated with technology. It is a “one-sided thinking” that tends towards a “one-sided uniform view” in which “[everything] is leveled to one level,” and “[our] minds hold views on all and everything, and view all things in the same way.” Our manner of thinking is the box. (*A link can be made to the uniformity of our understanding of number and its correspondence to Newton’s view of the uniformity of matter in the AOKs Mathematics and Natural Sciences.)
There is a kind of language that, as the expression of this form of thinking, is itself one-tracked and one-sided. One “symptom” of the growing power of the technological form of thinking is in our increased use of designations consisting of abbreviations of words or combinations of their initials. Our text messaging and our love of acronyms is a technological form of language in the sense that these herald the ordering in which everything is reduced to the univocity of concepts and precise specifications. This reduction and ordering also leads us to view all activities we engage in to be leveled to one level: the student who is asked to create a work of art either in words or other media, sees their activity as nothing more than their being in a shopping mall or at a supermarket. The activity ceases to have any priority in importance. In this view, “speed reading” will come to flourish since we cannot learn from texts anything other than “information” and this learning must be done as “efficiently” as possible.
Such interpretations are the “technological”; they are a given only “insofar as technology is itself understood as a means and everything is conceived only according to this respect (technology understood as “tools”).” If our way of thinking is one that values only that which is immediately useful, then language is only conceived and appreciated from this perspective of its usefulness for us. More importantly, this suggests it is the essence of technology as framing that somehow determines the “transformation of language into mere information.” We refer to this framing of information as “the box” that inhibits our thinking.
If the essence of modern technology is framing, then there is also a “language of framing.” [All] ordering finds itself channeled into calculative thinking and therefore speaks the language of framing. Speaking is challenged to correspond in every respect to framing in which all present beings can be commandeered. –Heidegger
It is within framing (the “form”, the “position”), then, that “speaking turns into information.” We can look at the computer as one manner in which modern technology controls the mode and the world of language as such. We can infer that the computer is one crucial way in which this language of framing speaks.
“To compute”, obviously, means to calculate. With the construction of artificial intelligence, calculating, thinking and translating machines, speed reading applications, the computer is made possible insofar as its activities take place in the element of language and are made possible by the element of language. The term “computer” should not be taken as merely talking about calculators and computers. Machine technology itself is “the most visible outgrowth of the essence of modern technology” (Heidegger) and that ours is the age of the machine (and the Age of Information) is due to the fact that it is the technological age, and not vice versa. More importantly, framing (the form) itself is not anything technological in the sense of mechanical parts and their assembly. In TOK we wish to explore our “key concepts” and language within a knowledge framework, a system. Thus, the language of framing cannot itself be reduced to anything technological in this narrow sense. The computer and other informational tools intrude by regulating and adjusting through its hardware and software and their functions how we can and do use language. Think of our smart phones and other assemblages that are linked to our computers and the manner of their linkages and how they assemble information and how this information must be assembled if it is to be communicated.
If there is a transformation of language in the computer that speaks the language of framing, then the question is what is the essence of language itself that it allows for its transformation into a technological language, into information? The essence of language is defined from the essence of language: It is a Saying that shows, in the sense of letting-appear. The possibility of a technological language lies here, for it is itself a Saying-Showing that is limited to the mere making of signs for the communication of information. Let us now examine some of the historical background for this development of language.
St. Augustine in his autobiography Confessions gives us the common understanding of how language comes about:
When they [my elders] named some object, and accordingly moved towards something, I saw this and I grasped that the thing was called by the sound they uttered when they meant to point it out. Their intention was shown by their bodily movements, as it were the natural language of all peoples: the expression of the face, the play of the eyes, the movement of other parts of the body, and the tone of voice which expresses our state of mind in seeking, having, rejecting, or avoiding something. Thus, as I heard words repeatedly used in their proper places in various sentences, I gradually learnt to understand what objects they signified; and after I had trained my mouth to form these signs, I used them to express my own desires. (Augustine, Confessions, I. 8)
Here, Augustine speaks of language as “signs”. They are a “pointing out”, a “directing of the gaze or glance” and from them, the thing that is pointed out comes to stand for us as what it is in the saying so given and becomes “grasped” or “captured” by us. But notice that in Augustine’s description there are a number of steps involved in the “grasping” of the thing that is “pointed out”. First there is the pointing, then there is the bodily movement, then there is the sound uttered, then there is the notice of the “disposition” made when the sound is uttered, and all of this occurs within a social context; there is the “dialogue”. From this follows the “grammatical” structure of language, “the placing of the signs in their proper places in various sentences” which allows one to “express their own desires”.
Augustine is speaking of language as “representational”: the picture created is a word or a sign that stands for or represents a thing by virtue of that word or sign’s meaning. Each word means just one thing, and it does so by virtue of a meaning that we can think of or understand. Language is, then, the communication of meanings from one person to another in the package of a sign: to communicate with you, I “frame” my intended meaning within the appropriate sign, and then give you the sign in speech or writing, whereupon you “decode” (interpret) it again, supplying the meaning for the sign I have given from within the same frame. To speak language, then, is to imbue dead signs with life, to breathe air into the otherwise mute forms of signs. Language is thought of as the breath of life animating lifeless form; language is the soul of meaning infusing and animating the bodies of signs. Hence Aristotle discusses language as the “showing” of the soul’s “dispositions”:
Now, whatever it is [that transpires] in the creation of sound by the voice is a showing of whatever dispositions there may be in the soul, and the written is a showing of the sounds of the voice. Hence, just as writing is not identical among all [human beings], so too the sounds of the voice are not identical. However, that of which these [sounds and writing] are in the first place a showing are among all [human beings] the identical dispositions of the soul; and the matters of which these [dispositions] form approximating presentations (pictures) are likewise identical.
Aristotle construes language as a kind of showing (in pictures), but taken in the view of the history of Western metaphysics, Aristotle’s pictures imply that language is a mere instrument (tool) for the expression of inner intentions or thoughts (dispositions). Within the tradition of Western thinking, this picture will imply that the relationship between signs and the thoughts they express is purely arbitrary, or to use the term favored by logical positivist philosophers, “conventional”; language is a system of arbitrary correlations (conventions) of signs to common meanings. Notice, though, that Aristotle insists that the “dispositions” themselves are the identical common meanings.
It is important to note here that Plato wrote “dialogues”; Aristotle wrote treatises. If one reads Plato’s dialogues in the same manner as one reads an Aristotelian treatise, one will fail to understand the dialogue. This reading of Plato in the same manner that we read Aristotle is one of the fates that have befallen us within the English-speaking community. British and American thinkers of previous generations read Plato as if they were reading a treatise of Aristotle and by this, failed to understand the dialogue of Plato that they were reading.
The traditional picture of language found in Augustine, Aristotle, and the logical positivists, also has deep connections with the metaphysics of “subjectivity” (Descartes, Kant). In this traditional picture, the sign stands for an object (subjectum), but it is also the sign for a concept or image in the speaker’s mind (the frame), an abstraction. The concept, or mental image, is a representation in the speaker’s mind or brain. Even though we can exchange signs in communication, we can never be sure, in the traditional picture, that we are successful in communicating the mental representations, concepts, or images that go with them (the predicates). The connection between a particular sign and the mental image that it evokes is the connection (or lack thereof) between something public and communicable, and something essentially private and incommunicable. Mathematics as “symbolic language” or “signs” overcomes this sense of arbitrariness in the public realm and is one of the reasons for its dominance in the realm of what can be called “knowledge”.
How can we rethink language and meaning, outside the traditional picture, in a way that reveals its essence as a showing (aletheia), rather than portraying it as a conventional correlation of signs to meanings, a mere instrument for the expression and communication of thoughts and dispositions? To rethink the essence of language, we must attempt to “bring language as language to language.” But how is this to be done?
To recapitulate: in the traditional view, language turns out to be “the eternally self-repeating labor of spirit to make articulated sound capable of being an expression of thought.” Language is what humans do to make sound able to express thought: it is the infusion of articulated sound with the spirit of meaning or intention. It is an action. This way of “bringing language to language,” this labor of the spirit, the infusing of sound with meaning, has been the intellectual development of mankind. But because it construes language as a human doing, as a labor of soul upon body, this traditional way of thinking of language remains trapped within the metaphysics of our age and fails to reveal the essence of language. According to Heidegger: “[this] way to language goes in the direction of man, passing though language on its way to something else: the demonstration and depiction of the intellectual development of the human race.” Heidegger continues:
“However, the essence of language conceived in terms of such a view does not of itself show language in its essence: it does not show the way in which language essentially unfolds as language; that is, the way it comes to stand; that is, the way it remains gathered in what it grants itself on its own as language.”
To determine what language is, we need to determine what pertains to language as language.
We list what pertains to language in order to understand what is essential to language, what is at the root of everything that happens in, and through, language. One of the things that pertains to language as language is the speaker. “To speech belong the speakers.” In speaking, we presence things; we make present the objects of our concern and our common interest by “pointing them out”. Think of this in relation to your Exhibition.
“In speech, the speakers have their presencing. Where to? Presencing to the wherewithal (purpose) of their speech, to that by which they linger (the “things” that are present-at-hand), that which in any given situation already matters to them. Which is to say, their fellow human beings and the things, each in its own way; everything that makes a thing a thing and everything that sets the tone for our relations with our fellows. All this is referred to, always and everywhere, sometimes in one way, at other times in another.” (Heidegger “The Way to Language”).
What else belongs to the essence of language? We can run through the things that belong to language – the speaker, what is spoken, also the unspoken – but we do not thereby think their unity. Their unity, the unity of the essence of language, remains hidden to us. What we are saying here becomes obvious, though hardly pondered in its full scope, when we indicate the following. To speak to one another means to say something to one another; it implies a mutual showing of something, each person in turn devoting himself or herself to what is shown. To speak with one another means that together we say something about something, showing one another the sorts of things that are suggested by what is addressed in our discussion, showing one another what it is that is addressed allows the addressed to radiate of itself.” To speak, then, is not to talk to someone else; it is to participate in the “saying” (logos) that is a showing.
This “showing”, according to Heidegger, is older and more essential than the definition of language as a system of signs. “What unfolds essentially in language is saying as pointing. Its showing does not culminate in a system of signs. Rather, all signs arise from a showing in whose realm and for whose purposes they can be signs.” This showing (aletheia) is not simply something that we do, but a self-showing of that which shows (a revealing of what we are as human beings), a manifesting in which language itself speaks. When we think of language as this self-showing, we can begin to understand it as something to which we ourselves belong and with which we ourselves may come into a more or less direct relationship:
“If speech as listening to language lets itself be told the saying, such letting can be given only insofar – and so near – as our own essence is granted entry into the saying. We hear it only because we belong to it. However, the saying grants those who belong to it their listening to language and hence their speech. Such granting comes-to-stand in the saying; it lets us attain the capacity of speech. What unfolds essentially in language depends on the saying that grants in this way.” (Heidegger “The Way to Language”).
When we think language essentially, as a self-manifesting showing that points, we are well on the way to bringing language as language to language. We experience language, then, as a possibility or a granting, an essence that allows manifestation (aletheia), rather than as something we do, make, or control. Thus, language as the saying (legein, logos) holds its own in the realm of truth. Think of this from your own experiences of when you are in a country in which you have no knowledge of the language. How does the experience of language show itself?
In a world in which language and speaking has become the mere exchange of information,
“the framing…sets upon human beings – that is, challenges them – to order everything that comes to presence into a technical inventory (standing reserve, resources or “disposable”), [and] unfolds essentially after the manner of appropriation (a “grasping” and an “owning”); at the same time, it distorts appropriation, inasmuch as all ordering sees itself committed to calculative thinking and so speaks the language of framing. Speech is challenged to correspond to the ubiquitous orderability of what is present. Speech, when posed in this fashion, becomes information.” (Heidegger “The Way to Language).
All that remains of language in information is “the abstract form of writing that is transcribed into the formulae of a logic calculus” whose clarity “ensures the possibility of a secure and rapid communication” (our text messaging and our public discourse as media bytes). The principles transforming language are technological-calculative. It is from the technological possibilities of the computer that the instruction (command) is set out as to how language can and shall still be language. Such instruction (command) spells out the absolute and overriding need for the clarity of signs and their sequences; the algorithm dominates. The fact that the computer’s structure conforms to linguistic tasks such as translating (i.e. whether the command/instruction is in Chinese or English does not matter) does not mean that the reverse holds true. For these commands are “in advance and fundamentally bound up” with the computer. With the “inexorability of the limitless reign” of technology, the insatiable technological demand for a technological language, its power increases to the point that the technological language comes to threaten the very essence of language as Saying-Showing. It is “the severest and most menacing attack on what is peculiar to language,” for language is “atrophied” into the mere transmission of signals, according to Heidegger.
Moreover, when information (in the form of command) is held as highest form of language on account of its univocity, certainty and speed, then, we have a “corresponding conception” of the human being and of human life. Norbert Wiener, a founder of Cybernetics, said that language “is not an exclusive attribute of man but is one he may share to a certain degree with the machines he has constructed.” This view is itself possible only when we presuppose that language is merely a means of information. This understanding of language as information represents, at the same time, a “threat to the human being’s ownmost essence.” (Heidegger) The fact that language is interpreted and used as an instrument has lead us into believing that we are the masters of the computer, but the truth of the matter might well be that the computer takes language into its management and masters the essence of the human being creating a fundamental change in human ontology (human being-there-in-the-world).
These assessments of the metaphysical-technological interpretation and form of language are indisputably critical. Why? What is at stake? Why should this be important for us?
The gripping, mastering effect technological language has over our very essence as human beings (ontology) makes “the step back out of metaphysics difficult.” (Heidegger) Language itself “denies us its essence” and instead “surrenders itself” to us as our “instrument of domination over beings.” (Heidegger) It is extremely difficult for us in the modern age to even understand a non-instrumental concept of language. The interpretation and form of “language as information” and of “information as language” is, in this sense, a circle determined by language and in language, within “the web of language.” (Heidegger) Hence, Heidegger has referred to language as “the danger of all dangers” that “necessarily conceals in itself a continual danger for itself.” In fact, “we are the stakes” in the “dangerous game and gamble” that the essence of language plays with us.
“The following 12 concepts have particular prominence within, and thread throughout, the TOK course: evidence, certainty, truth, interpretation, power, justification, explanation, objectivity, perspective, culture, values and responsibility. Exploration of the relationship between knowledge and these concepts can help students to deepen their understanding, as well as facilitating the transfer of their learning to new and different contexts.”–Theory of Knowledge Guide, 2022
The understanding of key concepts and terms is crucial to success in TOK. It is from our understanding lit. a ‘standing under’ or ‘what stands under’ or ‘grounds’ and provides a base to the key concepts that our knowledge is ’produced’ or ‘brought forward’. It is the questioning of these grounds regarding whether or not they are truly grounds that is the foundation of the Theory of Knowledge course. Below are précis of the basic concepts used in TOK. Each would require a separate blog in order to explore them in their full possibilities of meaning.
Initially in the West, it was understood that words and their meanings were historical in nature while language itself was ahistorical. From language (logos) and its grammatical rules arose what we understand as “logic”: while grammar related to “right speaking”, “logic” related to “right thinking”. Both language and “logic” were considered ahistorical until the thinking of the French philosopher Rousseau. It was Rousseau who first pronounced that language and reason were historical and that human beings themselves were historical animals. We ourselves dwell within this stunning paradigm shift with our belief in the “modification” theories of evolution from Charles Darwin and others.
Philosophical English is Latinate in origin and the Latin is, usually, a translation of the original concept from the Greek. So, for example, the Greek word “logos” is translated by the Latin “reor” or “ratio” and from this human beings come to be understood as the “animalerationale“, the “rational animal”. The Greeks determined human beings to be the “zoon logon echon“, the animal capable of speech or discourse, the speech that related human beings to their world and to other human beings. It was this speech which distinguished human beings from other living beings. You and I are capable of reading this blog; Fido, the dog, cannot. These different definitions of the Greeks and the Latins have given rise to many various interpretations of what human beings are and illustrate the difficulty of not only translation, but also of trying to determine the historical meanings of our basic concepts. Concepts are the grounds (the principles, the beginnings, the archai) from which our understanding derives, and the results we achieve and the conclusions we reach regarding things are given beforehand in the manner in which we approach the things of the world e.g. physics must report itself mathematically since it is the mathematical that determines its beginnings and the logos from which it originates.
Below are given some basic approaches to how we may determine the nature of our basic concepts and how we have come to de-fine or “set the limits” or “horizons” to our understanding of them. An “horizon” is that open space within which something dwells and its limits define what that something is.
Certainty relates to the belief that what we hold is truly the case regarding some thing be it an object, situation or condition, and that what it is is its actuality or reality. Certainty relates to the correspondence theory of truth and its establishment and grounding through the principle of reason. For certainty to be held, that about which an assertion is “certain” about must be shared or “rendered” to others i.e. experiments must be repeatable, hypotheses must be supported by evidence and handed over to others. This rendering has been called logos from which the concept of “logic” is derived. Reason is, and has been, understood as logic. Certainty results when the reasons are considered sufficient reasons for some thing being as it is and they are are handed over to others. Without the handing over, verification cannot take place and so the assertion remains merely “subjective” as an assertion.
The requirement of certainty is founded upon “doubt”. If we do not doubt or if we are not skeptical regarding assertions that are made we would not need certainty. The requirement for certainty in knowledge comes to the fore in Descartes’ Cogito ergo sum: while I may not be certain of objective truth, I am certain that it is I who is doubting and it is I who is doing the thinking. Doubt is the first step to thought for Descartes and as such it is a way of being in the world, an ontology. Opposed to this view was “trust”. The Greeks trusted in the goodness of the world initially and then doubted assertions made regarding that world. This trust in the world allowed the Greeks to have moral certainty regarding the virtues of various human actions within the world and to establish a hierarchy of what was best for human beings. We, today, have no such hierarchy because we have no such certainty. We are exhorted to appeal to the “fact-value distinction”, that assertions of fact cannot be the same as assertions of value.
In our self-knowledge we may have psychological certainty regarding the way things are and this certainty is based on resoluteness and will. If one examines the views of the followers of Donald Trump in the USA, we can see that psychological certainty can sometimes be false but that does not affect the belief in the certainty of things that his followers hold and their relation and importance to those followers. Those who attack the followers of Trump do so on the basis of the principle of reason and its realization in the correspondence theory of truth. This is sometimes called epistemic certainty, that certainty which stems from what is understood as “knowledge”. However, whether the views are those of the ‘right’ or of the ‘left’, the drive to certainty produces ‘intolerance’ towards what is outside of those viewpoints. This intolerance is a reflection of the belief that all ‘values’ are subjective and that reason and science cannot provide us with the ‘objective’ certainty of those values. While it was initially hoped that ‘tolerance’ would be the product of this viewpoint, the opposite is what occurs in fact. Followers of Trump accept the QAnon belief that Democrats are pedophiles and Satanic cult worshippers. Such views are modifications of those held by the Germans of the Jews in the 1930s which ultimately led to the European Holocaust.
Culture: The word “culture” is a relatively new word in our language arriving in the 19th century. As with all words, their meaning is to be determined from the social contexts and conditions from which they arose. Why and of what are we speaking when we use the word “culture”? Culture is a very general term and indicates the thinking and actions that social groups share and these, in turn, determine the thoughts and actions of the individuals within those groups. In some instances, it is referred to as a “mindset”. What are these “mindsets” and from where do they originate?
In 19th century German philosophy, the word weltanschauung arrived from two words: welt or “world”; and anschauung meaning “view”, “view of”, “outlook on the world”. The world Weltbild also arrived, meaning “world-picture” or “a picture of the world”. These two words, like our words “culture” and “civilization”, do not mean the same thing. A “world-picture” is usually associated with science or a science such as “a physicist’s world-picture” or the “mechanistic world-picture”, while a “world-view” can be pre-scientific or scientific. A “world-picture” is usually a theoretical view of the external world while a “world-view” is “a view of life”, a view of our position in the world and how we should act. Adherents to the same “world-picture” may hold different “world-views” and enter into war using the weapons supplied by their common “world-pictures”, as is the case with many conflicts in the world today. A world-picture is only one constituent of a world-view.
A world-view may be personal, individual, expressing one’s own particular life experiences and opinions or it may be total, extinguishing all personal opinions. We can see variations of these among populist movements operating in various countries throughout the world.
The modern world-picture in the West involves mathematical science, machine technology, the reduction of art to an object of experience, human activity as culture and as the realization of “values” (civilization), the concern in politics for a ‘cultural policy’, an atheism that co-exists with the secularized Christianity and intense religious experience. We conceive of the world as picture and we are ‘in’ the picture or we conceive of the world as text, something that requires interpretation. The world is captured within a frame. Things as a whole are now taken in such a way that they are beings only insofar as they are presented by human beings, the representer and producer.
What is called the age of humanism arrives simultaneously with the world conceived as picture. The English poet William Blake captures it in his poem “The Tyger”: “What immortal hand or eye/ Could frame thy fearful symmetry?”. A picture requires a frame, in the case here, a system. Ancient and medieval human beings did not have a world-picture. They did not consider themselves as subjectum nor did they consider themselves the centre of beings and that the world they experienced needed to be explained and assessed in terms of human beings and with a view to human beings. The whole picture and anything in it is within the control of human beings so we can start with a clean slate and remake everything anew.
Culture and civilization are two words that are used interchangeably at times. They are not the same. A culture provides the open space that allows the artefacts of civilization to come into being. We speak of the ancient Egyptian civilization and we can recognize the artefacts that have come down to us from it. Archeologists then search for the ‘culture’ that allowed the civilization to come into being, Egyptian mathematics, religion and politics for instance.
We can speak of technological civilization and technological culture in the following way. The instruments and gadgets of technological civilization are brought into being by the technological culture which provides the open space for their realization and production. There are no computers and hand phones without the technological culture that requires them, and in the future, they will be looked upon as evidence of technological civilization.
Experience: ‘Experience’, like all basic words, changes its meaning over history. What counts as “experience” at a given period depends on a prior interpretation of the world that is not itself derived from or vulnerable to experience. Such an interpretation is derived through language and what is shared among human beings. We believe we know that what we have ‘experienced’ in our privacy is true for us, and we seek verification from others to justify our interpretation and understanding of those events from others whether in formal settings such as controlled experiments or in the informal settings of social chat groups. But those interpretations are based on an interpretation of the world and the events in it that is prior to our own personal experience and knowledge.
There are many different types and kinds of events that we call “experience”. For example, many Americans might say “that was quite an experience” when they speak about the Trump administration in the future and this would be referring to their own internal ‘feelings’ with regard to various events that occurred in their country. The strife and divisiveness brought about by different world views will produce quite different interpretations of the experience of the last few years.
Experience can refer to things/events both internal and external. Externally we can ‘go forth’ and travel, or learn, hear of, find out. We can also undergo something similar to the example provided above and learn from such an experience. We usually call such knowledge learned from experience “common sense” and this type of knowledge is distinguished from the knowledge gained by “theoretical experience” or science. The Greeks called theoretical knowledge episteme and they distinguished it from techne or “know how” or “knowing one’s way in and around” something. The knowledge gained from everyday experience was called phronesis and this kind of knowledge assisted in living within communities among other human beings. Mature individuals have knowledge from phronesis; those who are not mature do not. This knowledge has evolved into what we call “emotional intelligence” today, but the Greeks saw “emotion” as the way in which we disclose the world about us and not as something primarily subjective and individual.
We first encounter the world passively 1: we come across something without going in search of it. In active experience, we ‘go forth’ to look for something. We go to something to see (perhaps with artificial aids such as microscopes) what happens to it under varying conditions, either waiting for the new conditions to arise or intervening to produce them. The word “experiment” is derived from the word “experience”: we intervene in something to see what happens, if we do such and such, only now we do so in ‘anticipation of regularity, e.g. when so much – then so much’. The modern experiment essentially involves ‘exact’ measurement. Objects are shorn of their essences and regarded as mere individuals conforming to mathematical regularities. These regularities determine in advance what counts as objective. Scientists do not conduct exact experiments to discover whether nature conforms to mathematical regularities; they do so because they presuppose a projection of nature as mathematical. Experiment in this sense is quite different from ‘experience’: ‘science becomes rational-mathematical, i.e. in the highest sense, not experimental’. ‘Experiment’ and ‘experience’ were once contrasted with the medieval practice of examining authorities and previous opinions. Now they are contrasted with mere observation and description, guided by no mathematical ‘anticipation’.
The issue between competing scientific theories, for example, cannot always be settled by ‘experience’: One cannot say that Galileo’s doctrine of the free fall of bodies is true and that of Aristotle, who holds that light bodies strive upwards, is false, for the Greek conception of the essence of body, of place and of their relationship depends on a different interpretation of beings and therefore engenders a different way of seeing and examining natural processes. This is an instance of the general idea that our ‘mode of access’ or way of knowing as a manner in which we ‘experience’ a type of entity, e.g. atoms or historical figures, varies with our prior conception of their being i.e. our understanding of what, how and why they are as they are. ‘The truth of a principle can never be proved from its result for the interpretation of a result as a result is conducted with the help of the principle, presupposed, but not grounded’. Our interpretations of what we call knowledge is based on the principle of reason but it is not grounded in every case.
The Greek fundamental experience of the being of beings, which underlay and gave rise to both the subject-predicate form of their language, its grammar and their conception of a thing as a subject with accidents or qualities, indicates the priority of the understanding of the being of beings that first determines what we believe knowledge to be and how we experience the world and thus our arrival at what our understanding of experience may be.
Explanation: An explanation is a statement to others which describes the “how” and the “why” of things, their causes, conditions and contexts, and the results or consequences of what we have determined to be “facts”. The statement or account must make something clear, bring it to light; and because it deals with “truth” by bringing to light, it may establish rules or laws or bring to light already established rules and laws in relation to the object or phenomenon under discussion or examination.
In dealing with the question of “how”, an explanation makes something clear or easy to understand. It is a ‘telling’ and ‘a showing’ or a reason for or a cause of something. It is related to the Greek logos or speech. You use it in your Exhibition; and the word “ex-hibition” itself means “a showing forth”, a “bringing out of hiding” and that which is responsible for the bringing out of hiding. To bring something out of hiding is to reveal it and this is what the Greeks meant by “truth”.
What is responsible for the bringing out of hiding is the principle of reason. We begin our statements with “be-cause”, “the cause is”, so that the statement becomes a “showing forth” of the “why”. The statements make the “ex-hibition” become an “ex-position” such as an experiment in science or an interpretation of a poem or a work of art.
Evidence: Evidence is the requirement of the principle of sufficient reason to “justify”, “explain” or “render an account of ” things, conditions and situations in order to establish and ground their truth or their correspondence to “reality” for being what, how and why they are as they are. Evidence is the demand that things give an account of themselves for being what and as they are in order to justify assertions and judgements made regarding them. Whether it is the assertions and judgements you make regarding the objects in your Exhibition, or your assertions or thesis statements of your essay, your demands of your teachers or your parents, ‘sufficient reasons’ have to be given to account for things and situations as they are given to you in your day-to-day lives.
We may speak of empirical evidence as that “information that verifies the truth (which accurately corresponds to reality) or falsity (inaccuracy) of a claim.” As we have written elsewhere, the “data” which is placed in a “form” so that it may “inform” and become “information”, is carried and made renderable to others and for others through the principle of reason. In the empiricist view, one can claim to have knowledge only when based on empirical evidence: the thing must be “brought to presence” before one. Think of this in relation to your Exhibition. You must “ex-hibit”, or “bring out of hiding” and “hold to view” so that it will be able to stand and be seen by others.
In our writing on David Hume, we have shown that he uses the principle of reason to question the principle of reason in empirical observations. Evidence does not give certainty but it does provide confidence in our beliefs that things are as we believe them to be; it provides justification for our believing that things are the way that they appear to be for us. Evidence provides for us our interpretation of what we call facts.
Interpretation: What we commonly mean by “interpretation” is to provide an “explanation” for some thing that appeals to reason and to common sense. An interpretation is meant to bring some thing to presence in order for it to show what, how and why it is as it is. In Group 1 and Group 6 subjects, you are asked to provide an “interpretation” of a work of art, whether a novel, a poem or painting for instance, and in doing so name it as “such-and-such” or “so-and-so”. In the Human Sciences attempts are made to find fixed, permanent interpretations of social life which attempt to understand what is present at all times and in all places when living in communities, while in the Natural Sciences “explanations” are looked for through experiments.
Our lives are pervaded by interpretations both of ourselves and of other entities and things. Our “Core Theme” seeks to interpret how we understand ourselves, while our “Optional Themes” seek to understand other entities in the world around us. Our everyday interpretations or awareness of things is prior to our systematic interpretations undertaken in the Human Sciences and prior to our explanations provided by and given in the Natural Sciences. You need to find your way to the library or the science lab and interpret the contents in those places as books or science equipment before doing any science or reading. When you walk into a classroom, you do not first see uninterpreted black marks on the white board or hear the sounds of your classmates arriving. You perceive these things right away as printed or spoken words even if you cannot understand them. That you understand speech as speech or a textbook as a book does not mean that your interpretation is unreliable nor that it creates the meaning of what is interpreted. Your understanding of what the things are about you is bound together with your interpretation of them. Understanding is global and general; interpretation is local and particular.
Hermeneutics is a special kind of “interpretation”. In Plato’s Ion Socrates refers to the poets as the “interpreters” of the gods. Hermeneta is Greek for “interpretation”, the disclosing of that which was previously hidden. Interpretation is conjoined with what we understand “truth” to be. Formally, hermeneutics was the study of how interpretation occurs and is intertwined with “method”. It is the art of understanding written texts; but in it, all things are understood as written texts. The Irish writer, James Joyce, gives us a beautiful example of hermeneutical activity and what we understand as art, and in doing so, of what understanding and interpretation indicates in the “Proteus” section of his novel Ulysses:
“Ineluctable modality of the visible: at least that if no more, thought through my eyes. Signatures of all things I am here to read, seaspawn and seawrack, the nearing tide, that rusty boot. Snotgreen, bluesilver, rust: coloured signs. Limits of the diaphane. But he adds: in bodies.”
Dilthey, the founder of the modern Human Sciences, expanded the methodology of hermeneutics so that it became the study of the methods of the sciences themselves. When we look at ourselves as knowers, as we attempt to do in our Core Theme, what we are really doing is interpreting ourselves through the “shared knowledge” that comes to us through our culture. What we are is concealed to us through this shared knowledge, and so what is required is a “deconstruction” of this shared knowledge. In interpreting ourselves we are interpreting a text that has been overladen by centuries of “interpretations” and “misinterpretations”.
Hermeneutics originally focused on how the Bible was interpreted, as well as other religious texts. The word itself is associated with Hermes, the messenger of the gods, and pneuma or “breath, in-spiration” so that the word implied an “inspired hearing” or an openness to what the messages of the gods were.
Some questions that arise from the inherent circularity of interpretation are: How can I learn what art is except by studying works of art? and How can I recognize a work of art unless I know what art is to begin with? Our implicit prior knowledge of what art is enables us to recognize clear cases of works of art. When we ask the question: Is it art?, how we interpret the work before us will determine the answer to this question. Whether the work is “serious” or “great” depends on other factors such as “how deep a life it portrays”, how does it illuminate the truth of that which it tries to bring to presence before us. We learn about what language is not by speaking about it and turning it into an “object of study”, but through conversing with it and in it. To do so, we must already know what language is beforehand. We cannot get to hear the message of the messenger unless we already know something about it ahead of time.
Justification: The requirements of the principle of sufficient reason necessitate that reasons be rendered to others for assertions made regarding the “reality” or “facts” of an object, situation or condition. Human beings are the “rational animals”; to be “irrational” is, by definition, to be less than human. We believe that we can “justify” our scientific observations of the world through mathematical calculation, and from these calculations make “predictions” of events that will occur in the future. It is this “pre-dictive” power (lit. before “speech”) that gives calculative reasoning its dominance since the predictive power provides security and certainty with regard to the way thing are. This security and certainty enhances our “preservation of life” and allows us to empower ourselves towards “enhancement of life” through a recognition of life’s potentialities.
To “pre-dict” is to make an assertion prior to that speech which renders reasons. When results are justified through reason, we believe that we have achieved a correspondence between our minds and the objects, conditions or situations under questioning. To justify is to indicate “that which is responsible for” the “correctness” of the “judgement” made in the assertion. As the philosopher Kant indicated, “Judgement is the seat of truth”, or that upon which truth is grounded or based. “Reasons” bring that which is being spoken about to light. Without such reasons, the thing being spoken about remains in the dark, hidden. “Evidence” or that which is experienced must be provided and the correspondence between that which is “experienced”, the evidence and the thing, situation or condition must correspond. For example, reasons provide the relations between a criminal and his crime and “justifies” the assertion of guilt. When one asserts a position that Democrats in the USA are really lizard-like aliens preying on children for their blood (just one of many QAnon beliefs) evidence must be provided for making such a statement. When one asserts that “the election was stolen”, one must provide corresponding evidence to show that that was the case. Believing that a situation or condition is the case is not the same as “justifying” that belief, as many courts throughout the USA have asserted. Conspiracy theorists, in general, lack the corresponding evidence and reasons for their assertions to be taken as true. Their beliefs are irrational, without reasons.
The type of “justification” required by reason is, some believe, not possible when making assertions about morals or ethics because moral judgements are “values” and these must be distinguished from assertions made about what we call “facts”: i.e. there are no “moral facts”. “Values” are what we human beings create through our willing in the world and through our determination of what things are and how they are. This separation of statements of fact from statements of values is known as the “fact-value” distinction. Efforts have been made to make morals subject to the same calculations that are used for scientific evidence such as Bentham’s utilitarianism, “the greatest happiness for the greatest number”. This inquiry on facts and values is discussed in more depth in the writings on Darwin and Nietzsche in this blog.
To “justify” clearly has relations to its root word “justice”. How does our understanding of the word “justice” relate to justifying and justification? With the modern view of what human beings are given to us by Descartes and Kant, human being is that being before whom all other beings are brought before and required to give their reasons for being what they are as beings. This is the domineering, commanding stance of human being before whom all other beings are brought before and “justified” as to what they are as beings. This “justification” is that which is responsible for something being defined as what it is, how it stands in its truth. To justify is to argue for or defend. Our reasons for justifying our mathematical calculations, for instance, are that these calculations give the best explanation of our observations and experiences (experiments).
Our calculations secure our our standing in our being-in-the-world and provide the potential for the all-important “life enhancing” or “quality of life” activities that are the purposes and ends of our arts. Our calculations give our domination and control, our mastery of nature, and their “correctness” is demonstrated in the predictability of outcomes. There is a “justification” provided by the mind’s correspondence to the object in question and in the mind’s representations of that object in the mathematical. These justifications are shared in the language of the principle of reason through the belief in the schemata of the technological framing of the things in this world.
Objectivity: At the core of the questioning regarding the IB’s approach to knowledge is the question of “objectivity”. Our ideas regarding objectivity and of our environment as object is central to how we have come to understand ourselves and our world around us. The division of our being-in-the-world into one apprehended as subject-object through the thinking of the French philosopher Rene Descartes, marking that point where human beings become the centre of their worlds. is the great paradigm shift in the history of thought in the West. When we consider the nature that is the object of natural sciences and of technological exploitation, we believe that we have some knowledge regarding beings and things. Is this the case? Philosophers and thinkers have argued that we do not have knowledge of the things themselves; what we have knowledge of is our own representations of those things. The dominance of technology and its rationalism is held together in our modern world with a susceptibility to superstition for human beings seem to desire more than what is given to them in their rationalism and technology.
“Objectivity” has its roots in the Latin ob- and jacio: jacio “to throw”, ob “against”. What is “thrown” and what is that “against” which it is thrown? The things of the world must be brought to presence and made to stand in permanence so that we can make judgements regarding them. As the philosopher Nietzsche once said: “Only that which has no history can be defined”. To define is to make judgements regarding the things of our world. But are not all things historical? Things are brought before us to give us their reasons as to their “what”, “why”, and “how”. It is human beings who determine what qualifies as a thing and what does not. This is made most explicit in the philosophy of Kant (“The mind makes the object”) but we can also find it in the philosophy of the English philosopher John Locke who determined that the things of Nature were of no value in themselves unless they were taken possession of and worked on by human beings. The key with regard to “objectivity” is that human being is made the centre of the world. The two central features of modernity are that human beings are the centre of beings as a whole, the “subject” to which they are all referred, and the beingness of things/beings themselves is conceived as the being-represented as the producible and explainable.
The following links provide greater depth regarding the question of objectivity:
Power: The word “power” is one of the most general concepts that are used in TOK, and because of this generality becomes quite obscure when a more precise definition is required. Power indicates what something is in its “possibilities”, its “potential” to be something that it is not already, how something is in its manner of being-in-the-world, what something actually is in its factual “reality”. When, for instance, we speak of money as “congealed energy” , we are speaking of it as having as its basis its roots in “power”. The old saying “Money is the root of all evil” would more properly be said as “Power is the root of all evil”, something which is caught most beautifully in the films of The Lord of the Rings. The German philosopher Nietzsche sees all being and beings as “will to power and nothing besides”, including ourselves as human beings.
All “power” originates in Nature. The word “nature” comes from the Latin natura which in turn comes from nasci, “to be born, to originate”. (Lord of the Rings fans will recognize that this is the word given to the Ring in the language of Mordor). Natura means “that which lets something originate from itself”. We can see some connections here to what we mean by “creativity”, for example in Shakespeare’s statement that “the art itself is nature”. When we speak of “the nature of things” we mean what things are in their “possibility” and how they are regardless of whether they actually are or not. In Christian thought, human beings in their “natural state” are viewed as what is given to human beings in their createdness as beings which is turned over to their freedom. The “nature” if left to itself brings about the total destruction of the human being through the passions. Nature must be suppressed. It is in a certain sense what must not be.
Another view, the modern view, says that it is through the unleashing of the drives and the passions that the natural state of human beings is to be achieved. This modern view is given to us most clearly in the thinking of Nietzsche who makes the “body” the key to our interpretation of the world and brings about a harmonious relation of the “sensible” and the elements of the natural. This new relation is realized through our technology which brings the elemental (earth, fire, water, light) into our power and by this power gives us the ability to make ourselves capable of the mastery of the world through a systematic world domination. It is from within technology that the systematic articulation of the truth at any given time about ‘beings’ as a whole is given and this articulation is called “metaphysics”. Nietzsche will say “technology is the highest form of will-to-power”; Heidegger following Nietzsche will say “Technique is the metaphysic of the age”. Technology is the attempt to overcome the separation of “spirit and nature” that dominates Western thinking and is one of the reasons why this thinking arose in the West and not elsewhere.
When we attempt to arrive at an understanding and definition of the concept of “power”, we can begin by going back to Aristotle and noting that he describes the essence of nature as “movedness”, “motion”, or kinesis. What is the essence of movement? We view all movement as requiring a “cause” or agency. For Aristotle, what we call “nature” is taken as “cause” understood as aitia or aition in the sense of “origin”. By aition Aristotle means “that which is responsible for the fact that some thing is what it is”. Aition is a common suffix in English and we can understand many of our common words according to this understanding: “education” from educare “the leading out” and that which is responsible for the leading out; “information” that which is responsible for the “form” that “informs”. This aition becomes later understood as “sufficient cause” and “agency”.
For Aristotle, however, aitia is not only understood as the “cause” of motion; it is also understood as the control present over the movement as such. The movement present in the seed becomes a tree, not something else; the movement in the fertilized human embryo becomes a human being, not a cat. This domination or control was called Necessity by the Greeks, what we might sometimes refer to as “the laws of Nature”. Movement is not merely to be understood as change of place. A tree my remain still while being in motion as is shown in its leaves changing colour, etc. For the Greeks, movement was an emergence into being present, a flower blossoming for example.
The power within the things that are by nature is distinguished from the “artifacts” which are made by human beings. The things of nature have the power within themselves while artifacts such as a chair or desk have their power given to them from outside of themselves. The things of nature are in movement towards a completion, an end which may or may not occur. The artifacts made by human beings are complete, finished and have been brought to presence by human work. We speak of a ‘work of art’.
Power must be understood as a means and not an end, just as money cannot be an end in itself but as a potential means to achieve ends. Seeing power as an end in itself is similar to confusing the piano to the sonata or the palette to the painting. The attractiveness of power lies in its dynamic potential and we moderns see this potential as limitless, quite different to previous civilizations, and this perhaps accounts for our insatiable fascination for the ‘gigantic’ and our desire for speed and efficiency in all facets of our lives.
When we speak of the “power of words”, we mean their power to create illusion and error. Currently, the role of fantasy and imagination which denies the reality of fact, the disbelief in the sciences, the destruction of language as a conveyor of truth, the belief that merely holding an opinion is “freedom of thought”, these are all expressions of the powerlessness of the people who believe in their need to find something which allows them to face the reality of the world whether it be the social reality of politics or the physical reality given to us in our sciences. Their belief finds itself present in their desire to submit themselves to a collective, any collective where the real needs of love and recognition may be found but they are found only in ersatz form.
Responsibility: Ethics is the area of knowledge where the idea of responsibility is a basic concept. Ethics relates to our actions and behaviours in communities, our speaking with and to others, and our ability to choose what our actions will be towards others. The concepts of ethics, morals and values are concepts that are sometimes used interchangeably in TOK, but are they, in fact, the same things? We speak of “ethical responsibility” and “moral responsibility” but we do not have similar terminology for “value responsibility”? Are we not “responsible” for the choices we make of what we “value”? Different human beings value different things. On what ground do they value those things? Our lack of clarity with regard to these concepts stems from our desire to have it both ways: we wish for the “freedom” we believe we have in our “subjectivity” while at the same time holding on to the “permanence” of what we believe “facts” and “objectivity” give to us believing as we do that “facts” are “value-free” which, as many of the posts here attempt to point out, is not true.
Responsibility is literally “the ability to respond” because one has the power or potential to do so and is able to affect an outcome. It involves “choice” and it involves our relations with others in our communities. The failure to act is also an action and usually involves our concern for our own self-interest. Responsibility is conjoined with duties and obligations towards both ourselves and others within our communities. In the West, the parable of the Good Samaritan and the question of “Am I my brother’s keeper?” are questions and examples that are constantly with us when we consider our actions. The answers to these questions are at the core of the IB program and how the IB identifies what its student should be, the IB’s wishes for the way-of-being of its graduates.
When Donald Trump responded to a question from a reporter that he “bore no responsibility” for his administration’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic, he demonstrated both moral and ethical falsehoods regarding the concept of responsibility. Firstly, as the leader of the most powerful nation on earth, he certainly had the power, the ability to muster the resources available to him and direct them to fighting the virus; and secondly, as President he had sworn an oath to protect the American people and so was under an obligation to do so. His response was so inadequate as to be seen as a sign of his overall incompetence and unfittedness for the office he held. The only true freedom human beings have is the ability to think and to not do so is both “unfree” and to be less than fully human.
We can see many of these themes regarding responsibility in that most ethical play of Shakespeare’s: Macbeth. The play is Shakespeare’s shortest because Macbeth is a man of action, “a man of few words” and, consequently, a man of few thoughts. The play is not about “ambition”; Shakespeare is not speaking against ambition but he is, most emphatically, speaking against “the illness should attend it”, about what happens when people aspire to positions for which they are not fitted. Macbeth is the great soldier, the saviour of his country, but what makes Macbeth a great soldier, something for which he is truly “fitted”, are not the same virtues that are required in a king. The “virtue” of some thing is what that thing is fitted for, its “good”. It is the virtue of a thorough-bred race horse that it be capable of running fast; this particular type of horse is not good if it cannot do so. Virtue is conjunctive to ethics, morals and values and their relation to what human beings are fitted for in that in the play both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth must release themselves from their humanity: they must become “inhuman”, like the Weird Sisters, in order to “catch the nearest way” to their desires to rule Scotland. Their descent into darkness begins with a denial of truth, and their subsequent rise is filled with fraud, deception and lies. For Shakespeare, moral and ethical responsibility are “natural” and comprise what being a human being truly is.
Truth: Aletheia and truth: How we understand and interpret what “truth” is is essential for understanding who and what we are as human beings and what we think the world about us is. Truth is what is sought when we begin to use our “maps” and journey towards understanding the entities that are in our areas of knowledge.
Aletheia is Greek for ‘truth; truthfulness, frankness, sincerity’. Alethes is ‘true; sincere, frank; real, actual’. There is also a verb, aletheuein, ‘to speak truly, etc’. The words are related to lanthanein, with an older form lethein, ‘to escape notice, be unseen, unnoticed’, and lethe, ‘forgetting, forgetfulness’. An initial a- in Greek is often privative, like the Latin in- or the Germanic un-. (The ‘privative alpha’ occurs in many Greek-derived words in English: ‘a-nonymous’, ‘a-theism’, etc.) Alethes, aletheia are generally accepted to be a-lethes, a-letheia, that which is ‘not hidden or forgotten’, or he who ‘does not hide or forget’. (These characteristics/meanings of truth can all be applied to Shakespeare’s Macbeth and doing so will provide an approach or an opening to an understanding of that play).
We reach the ‘essence of truth’, the ‘openness of the open’, from two directions: from ‘reflection on the ground of the possibility of correctness (adaequatio, ‘truth as correctness’ or ‘correspondence’)’ and from ‘recollection of the beginning (aletheia)’ Aletheuein is ‘to take out of hiddenness, to uncover; aletheia is ‘uncovering’; and alethes is ‘unhidden. This uncovering allows that which is to be perceived.
This has three implications: 1. Truth is not confined to explicit assertions and discrete mental, primarily theoretical, attitudes such as judgments, beliefs and representations. The world as a whole, not just entities within it, is unhidden – unhidden as much by moods (emotion as a way of knowing) as by understanding. 2. Truth is primarily a feature of reality – beings or things and entities, their being and world – not of thoughts and utterances (reason and language as ways of knowing). Beings, things, entities are, of course, unhidden to us, and we disclose them ‘to unconceal; -ing; -ment’, they can have an active sense: ‘alethes means: 1. unconcealed said of beings, 2. grasping the unconcealed as such, i.e. being unconcealing’. But beings, etc. are genuinely unconcealed; they do not just agree with an assertion or representation. 3. Truth as ‘unconcealment’ explicitly presupposes concealment or hiddenness. Human being and being is in ‘untruth as well as truth’. This means that ‘falling’ human being misinterprets things. (‘Falling’ has the character of being lost in the publicness of the society of which one is a member and of the clinging to the understanding of the world that that society has put forward, or being absorbed in the shadows of the Cave as Plato says in his Allegory. (Macbeth’s first soliloquy: Act I sc. vii and the imagery/metaphors associated with ‘leaping’ and ‘falling’; his second soliloquy “Is this a dagger that I see before me…” where the dagger is ‘revealed’ to him as the ‘instrument’ that he will use to kill Duncan rather than as the last warning sign at that last moment where Macbeth still has a choice.)
Untruth’ is not plain ‘falsity’, nor is it ‘hiddenness’: it is ‘disguisedness’ of the truth. In Shakespeare’s plays Julius Caesar and Macbeth, ‘untruth’ is still not ‘falsity’, but ‘hiding, concealing’. What conceals is no longer human being, but being itself. The prophecies of the witches for example in Macbeth provide an example of this concealing hiddenness that disguises.
There are two types of unconcealing: (a) of the open, the world or beings as a whole; (b) of particular beings within this open space. The first type (a) involves concealment: everything was hidden before the open was established, and concealment, persisting in that the open, reveals only certain aspects of reality, not its whole nature. It is not possible for human beings to have knowledge of the whole. Each area of knowledge provides a ‘field’ or an ‘opening’ in which the beings that it studies are illuminated and hidden simultaneously.
The second type (b) involves a concealment that we overcome ‘partially and case by case’. Plato, in assimilating truth to light, and of the light to Love indicates the ‘openness’ that is necessary for things to be revealed in their full ‘unconcealment’ (Stage 4 of the Cave where the human being is outside of the Cave; the journey outside of the Cave occurs ‘within’ the human being and the Cave). We choose, like Macbeth for instance, the idea of hiddenness or darkness over the light and ‘unhiddenness’ (thus the many metaphors of darkness and disguise, hiddenness and forgetfulness in the play; after the killing of Duncan, Macbeth loses all sense of ‘otherness’ and becomes a tyrant), and thus the privative force of a-letheia: the light is constant – never switched on or off (Jean Paul Sartre’s play No Exit as a reversal of this but also a denial) – and reveals everything there is to anyone who looks. We lose the idea of the open (and the comportment of Love), which must persist throughout our unconcealing of beings. For Plato, morality is purely internal; and it is here in the revealing that morality, ethics and ontology are given substance (as they are, for instance, in Shakespeare’s Macbeth).
In Plato, aletheia ‘comes under the yoke of the idea’. Idea, from the Greek idein, ‘to see’, refers to the visual aspect of entities or things. The ascent of the prisoners out of the cave is a progressive opening of their vision to this idea and the idea of the Good from which all ideas spring (although we cannot speak of the Good as an ‘entity’ in the sense of a ‘thing’ or ‘object’ whose idea it is). Hence aletheia is no longer primarily a characteristic of beings in themselves: it is ‘yoked’ together with the soul, and consists in a homoiösis, a ‘likeness’, between them which is generated through Beauty (or Eros). This can be understood as a triad (or triangle): the soul + the idea + Beauty. Homoiösis has since become adaequatio (in the Latin interpretation of the word, ‘correctness’ or ‘coherence’) and then ‘agreement’; and since Descartes, the relation between soul and beings has become the subject-object relation, mediated by a ‘representation’, the degenerate descendant of Plato’s idea. Truth becomes correctness, and its ‘elbow-room’, the open, or the experience of Beauty and of eros, is neglected. (‘Beauty is in the eye of the beholder’).
Some counterclaims to this version of truth: It is not certain that alethes comes from a- and lanthanein. Even if it does, it hardly ever means ‘unhidden’ in Homer, Hesiod (the earliest authors), and later authors, but has three main senses: the correctness of speech and belief (epistemological); the reality of being (ontological); the genuineness, truthfulness and conscientiousness of an individual or character (‘existential’). These three aspects of aletheia are united in Plato (and also for Shakespeare). The ascent from the cave is an ascent of being, of knowledge and of existence. Throughout the history of philosophy, it is assumed that if Plato regards truth as correctness of apprehension, he has jettisoned its other senses; while if another sense reappears, this is because Plato is indecisive and ‘ambiguous’. The three senses are fused together in Plato. Interpreting truth as unhiddenness would not save it from modern subjectivity: unhiddenness must be unhiddenness to someone, but the nature of this unhiddenness is pre-determined.
Plato says that the things we ‘make’ by holding up a mirror are not beings that are ‘unhidden’, and that the things painters make are not alethe (Republic, 596d,e). But perhaps this may be a joke of Plato’s since he himself has written a book, a dialogue, which is a ‘mirror’ of the being of Socrates, or an idealization of the being of Socrates. How is it that the things in mirrors and in paintings are not ‘unhidden’? How are we to understand how it can be said that to make things by holding up a mirror, we must take ‘making’ as Techne in the Greek sense? Are things no more hidden in a mirror than in their being in the world? To discuss this at length would be to have to examine the nature of the Platonic dialogue and particularly the dialogue Phaedrus which is the dialogue on writing, and this cannot be done here. In the allegory of the Cave the shadows, too, require light, but in their revealing the things that they are, they are not fully ‘shown’.
(Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Act 3 sc. 2 may be of help here: “… let your own discretion be your tutor. Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this special observance that you o’erstep not the modesty of nature. For anything so overdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature, to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.”) Plato’s (and Shakespeare’s, through his use of personification) point is that things in a mirror are not real, not alethe in the ontological sense, but that their revealing requires a special human beholding, a beholding that takes place in the open, that the mimetic art is directed to us and to the Forms themselves and what is created are the ‘images’ and the outward appearance of these entities.
Values: The word “values” comes to prominence in the 19th century in the writings of the German philosopher Nietzsche. “Values” are what human beings create in their willing and are, therefore, “subjective”. The word “values” has come to dominate our speech regarding morals and ethics. Even the Pope uses the word “values” when discussing what human behaviour should be. The consequences of using such a word unthinkingly are many. Values indicate that there are no “moral facts” or universal principles of action that are appropriate to all human beings at all times and in all places. In the human sciences, we speak of the “fact/value distinction” and this distinction has become a principle for the thinking in that area of knowledge if it is to call itself a science.
The following links address the concept of “values” and how it shapes our everyday thinking and being-in-the-world:
A few notes of warning and guidance before we begin:
The TOK essay provides you with an opportunity to become engaged in thinking and reflection. What are outlined below are strategies and suggestions, questions and possible responses only for deconstructing the TOK titles as they have been given. They should be used alongside the discussions that you will carry out with your peers and teachers during the process of constructing your essay.
The notes here are intended to guide you towards a thoughtful, personal response to the prescribed titles posed. They are not to be considered as the answer and they should only be used to help provide you with another perspective to the ones given to you in the titles and from your own TOK class discussions. You need to remember that most of your examiners have been educated in the logical positivist schools of Anglo-America and this education pre-determines their predilection to view the world as they do and to understand the concepts as they do. The TOK course itself is a product of this logical positivism.
There is no substitute for your own personal thought and reflection, and these notes are not intended as a cut and paste substitute to the hard work that thinking requires. Some of the comments on one title may be useful to you in the approach you are taking in the title that you have personally chosen, so it may be useful to read all the comments and give them some reflection.
My experience has been that candidates whose examples match those to be found on TOK “help” sites (and this is another of those TOK help sites) struggle to demonstrate a mastery of the knowledge claims and knowledge questions contained in the examples. The best essays carry a trace of a struggle that is the journey on the path to thinking. Many examiners state that in the very best essays they read, they can visualize the individual who has thought through them sitting opposite to them. To reflect this struggle in your essay is your goal.
Remember to include sufficient TOK content in your essay. When you have completed your essay, ask yourself if it could have been written by someone who had not participated in the TOK course. If the answer to that question is “yes”, then you do not have sufficient TOK content in your essay. Personal and shared knowledge, the knowledge framework, the ways of knowing and the areas of knowledge are terms that will be useful to you in your discussions.
Here is a link to a PowerPoint that contains recommendations and a flow chart outlining the steps to writing a TOK essay. Some of you may need to get your network administrator to make a few tweaks in order for you to access it. Comments, observations and discussions are most welcome. Contact me at email@example.com or directly through this website.
A sine qua non: the opinions expressed here are entirely my own and do not represent any organization or collective of any kind.
1. “Accepting knowledge claims always involves an element of trust.” Discuss this claim with reference to two areas of knowledge.
The first title provides us with a number of terms that we need to reflect on and clarify: “acceptance”, “knowledge claims”, “always”, “involves” and “an element of trust”.
Let us approach the title by going backwards. “An element of trust” is presumably juxtaposed to “doubt” or “skepticism”. Being an “element”, it is presumably part of a compound that includes other “elements”. In TOK we begin by looking to and at ourselves and attempt to arrive at some propositions as to “who” and “what” we are both as human beings and as members of a community. We attempt to look at various things and how we express and make intelligible those things to others. We do this through language in one of its many forms. In order to do so, we must have some prior understanding of what some “thing” is. This includes all the things that are. They must have some being in some way by the very fact that we are discussing them. It is in the manner of their being that acceptance and rejection are possible. The denial of some thing, what we call skepticism or “alternative facts”, contradicts itself and is therefore impossible; we can deny the name that is given to it, but we cannot deny the existence of the thing itself. The refutation of skepticism is the refutation of every kind of relativism. This refutation appeals to the principles of non-contradiction and the principle of identity; and it appeals to “logic” and thus to “diction”, to speaking back and forth and to speaking “against” ourselves. The speaking “against” ourselves implies that we have some prior apprehension of the “truth” of the thing that is under discussion. The thing itself must have made itself manifest prior to our beginning of our discussion about it to begin with.
In our usual day-to-day lives we must have trust in some form in some things; if we do not, we are not capable of being fully “human” i.e. we are considered “paranoid” and “delusional” and such persons are considered “mentally ill”. Without some element of trust we could not function. We sometimes call this trust “common sense”. When we drive our automobiles over the Golden Gate Bridge, we place our trust in the knowledge of the engineers who have designed the bridge and in the men and women who constructed it so that we can believe that using the Bridge will not cause us to plummet into the Bay. Trust and belief go hand in hand. Through this trust and belief, we “accept” and submit ourselves to its outcomes. The knowledge claims we submit ourselves to involve “common sense” as well as the theoretical knowledge of our sciences which have been revealed to us through science’s mathematics.
“Doubt” has always been present in the act of thinking. For the ancient Greeks where philosophy began in the West, this doubt was encapsulated and contained within a being-in-the-world of trust: while one doubted the propositions or statements that were made or put forward regarding things, the things themselves and “what” and “how’ they were, nevertheless, were over-arched by a recognition that Nature (all things) were Good and the purpose of doubt was to establish that relation between the thing and the Good through the use of logos or “speaking” about them. The essential difference between ancient and modern thought was initiated by the French philosopher Descartes who began by “doubting” all things and everything until he arrived at the conclusion that what couldn’t be doubted was that he himself, the thinking “I”, could not be doubted. Cogito ergo sum: I think, therefore, I am.
The Greeks defined human being as the zoon logon echon, the animal capable of speaking, of using the logos. In later Latin, the logos was translated as ratio which means “relation”, and human beings became defined as the animale rationale, the animal capable of establishing relations to things and to others through “reason”, through speaking. “Logic” was determined as the doctrine of “right thinking” and “right speaking”, the science of thinking and its rules. Logic was the “lawfulness” of thinking, the acts and procedures of thought, what we nowadays call “method”. These rules and procedures were founded on grammar, the rules of speaking properly about things. These rules of grammar can be seen today with our programming languages for our computers and other electronic devices. With Descartes, we focus on the doubt involved in the thinking of the “I think”, but perhaps a better way of stating his principle is “I am, therefore, I think”, and within this thinking and being is the element of doubt or skepticism about being itself.
“Knowledge claims” are assertions made in speech regarding the truth of something. In the world at the moment, “trust” in many knowledge claims that are made is an element that is quite rare whether it be in the assertions of “common sense” or in the assertions contained in the theories of the sciences and the arts. The USA is today going through one of its most turbulent moments in its history because the trust that in the past had been placed in its institutions and leaders has now been placed in doubt. The lack of trust in science by many members of its communities, for instance, created a Covid-19 response that has baffled many in other countries of the world who, in the past, had looked to America for leadership on matters involving the application of the practical sciences. This admiration has now turned to pity as the wounds of the country are primarily seen as self-inflicted. They are not seen as, for example, the wounds suffered by Germany before it accepted Nazism as those wounds were brought about by others through the Treaty of Versailles.
The protests against systemic racism in America’s streets have brought to light the shallowness of its mythology surrounding its “founding fathers” and their definitions of a “people” that excluded African slaves and the indigenous peoples of the continent. “The desire to have it both ways”, which is so much of the American character, is revealed in the desire to recognize some “inalienable rights” (the lack of the right to property, for example, was overlooked) in order to create a leisure class based on the enslavement of Black people. As it so often does, greed overruled morality (virtue, if you like) in their writing of their Constitution. Perhaps we are seeing the flowering of a seed which from the outset was rotten to its core. The US Constitution and its Bill of Rights are examples of the less than “noble lies” required for the establishment of the State.
The Greek philosopher Plato placed democracy just above tyranny when listing the best order of regimes. Monarchy was the best; tyranny was the worst. This ranking was based on how a regime regulated its polis or community with regard to the place of virtue in that community when that community created its laws. Because democracy was based on the fulfillment of the common, lowest appetites and instincts of its members and not the growth of virtue of its members, Plato thought that it would inevitably devolve into tyranny (as was the case in his own Athenian polis). The USA’s founding fathers chose the economic well-being provided by the labour of its slaves above the morality of recognizing slaves as “human beings” and “people”, and thus the systemic racism of the USA which is present today was born and allowed to flourish in the country throughout its history. Democracy, according to Plato, neglects the education to “virtue” of its citizens within it or domestically, and appeals to an imperialism in the State without in its relations to its neighbouring states because of its avariciousness. Democracy inevitably devolves into tyranny through time because it is unable to develop a sense of “otherness” among its inhabitants i.e. it is not able to establish the virtue of “friendship” among its members. “Friendship” is established through logos or “speech”. Friendship is only possible when “trust” is present. While there may be “honour” among thieves, there is no “friendship”. This is discussed in greater detail in the blog regarding knowledge and politics: https://mytok.blog/2019/11/22/ot-5-knowledge-and-politics-part-1/
In literature, Shakespeare provides us with two great tragedies, Hamlet and Macbeth, in which the issue and the question of trust and the consequences of its lack are most beautifully given. When Hamlet in his anagnorisis, his moment of insight that gives him self-knowledge and illumination, is able to say: “There’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now. If it be not now, yet it will come—the readiness is all” he is able to trust in the purpose and meaning of his life and in the purpose and meaning of the world about him and in doing so is able to overcome his fear of death (indicated by the use of the impersonal pronoun “it”) and is finally able to act. Unfortunately, this illumination comes too late for him. It is his overriding doubt and skepticism that is Hamlet’s undoing.
If Hamlet can say “there is nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so” prior to his moment of illumination, the play Macbeth gives the lie inherent in that statement. Macbeth is a character who desires the power and recognition of kingship, but his character is “unfit” for that position. In order to become king, Macbeth must turn against the light given to him regarding who and what he is: he is a great soldier, brave and heroic, the saviour of his country, but he is not a king. He chooses darkness over the light and in this choosing descends int0 tyranny and madness. To become king, Macbeth must lose his fullness of “the milk of human kindness to catch the nearest way”. His choice of evil is the loss of his humanity. He recognizes this in his anagnorisis:
I have lived long enough. My way of life/ Is fall’n into the sere, the yellow leaf,/ And that which should accompany old age,/ As honor, love, obedience, troops of friends,/ I must not look to have, but, in their stead,/ Curses, not loud but deep, mouth-honor, breath/ Which the poor heart would fain deny and dare not.
Macbeth Act v sc. iii,
The tragedy illustrates the great danger inherent in language as the means of creating, invoking, and sustaining trust. Human beings are the animal that uses language to reveal truth to themselves and to others. But language can also, of course, be used to deceive; deception creates distrust.. When language is used to deceive, things are “covered over”, “hidden” rather than revealed. For Plato, the things become “non-beings” like the witches themselves who “look not like the inhabitants o’ the earth,/ And yet are on ‘t” i.e. they are “not real”, and in not being real, they are not to be “trusted”. The motifs of “equivocation”, “covering”, “hiddenness” that run throughout the play “illuminate” how the play as a whole becomes darker and darker as it goes on illustrating Scotland’s descent into darkness under the tyranny of Macbeth. Such darkness is only enabled with self-delusion and this is made clear in Macbeth’s misinterpretations of the three prophecies provided by the three witches. Macbeth creates a world of fear and divisiveness because his is a mind that sees “daggers”.
2. Within areas of knowledge, how can we differentiate between change and progress? Answer with reference to two areas of knowledge.
The key concepts to be brought to light in title #2 are the differentiations between “change” and “progress”. All “change” is related to “motion” of some kind and “motion” is related to “time”. Things that change are distinguished from those things that are at “rest”, those things that do not “move”. Things that change are said to be in time, while those things that do not change are outside or beyond time. For example, the “inalienable rights” spoken of in the US Constitution are beyond “change” in that they are considered timeless and beyond the tinkering of human beings. They are “ideals” to be aspired to, to “progress toward”. “Ideals” originate in Plato’s “ideas”, those beings that were beyond change and gave rise to the things that are. The things that are dwell in time and space, and “change” is relative to location.
Our understanding of motion or change is of something without an aim, without an end or a goal. It is chaotic, without purpose, order or reason. The sciences, for example, “move forward” or “progress” when their discoveries call for a revision of their basic concepts. The work of Newton as opposed to Aristotle and of Einstein and Heisenberg as opposed to Newton are examples of this. These are sometimes called “paradigm shifts” for they result in a change of human beings in their relations toward the world they inhabit. The practical applications of the results of those sciences’ discoveries do not shift or change the paradigm itself. The latest computer model or technological gadget is available through the nano-technology that quantum physics has given to us. The whole of our Information Age and our Atomic Age is made possible by the discoveries of those physical sciences which in turn are made possible by the “progress” in the theoretical insights prior to their applications. The labeling of these historical epochs is an indication that these are global phenomenon and not simply restricted to the origins of those discoveries which occurred in the West.
What is considered the Age of Progress begins in the West with the greatest paradigm shift: when human beings, the animale rationale, become placed or elevated to the centre of created things. With this shift, the Age of Humanism begins. Humanism and the Age of Progress go hand-in-hand and begin when human beings’ view their relationship to nature as one of conquest and domination and not one of reverence; human beings take their fate into their own hands. To attempt to understand the USA and North America, for instance, first begins with a recognition that they are the only societies that do not have a history from before the Age of Progress; and because of this they have become the world leaders in embracing change as progress since their relationship to the land about them was one of conquest and domination. Sometimes novelty is confused with progress, but our fascination with the “new and improved” is counter-balanced by the old lament of “they don’t make ’em like they used to”. While change itself is perceived to have no goal or end, progress does and it seeks its end in “perfection”.
There is no question that there has been “progress” in some areas. No one who has had a sick loved one is not grateful for the progress in the medical sciences, for instance. How can we not be grateful for the eradication of a disease that has killed human beings? It is hard for me to consider as sane those who do not see progress in this area. Our current attempts to find a vaccine to counteract the Covid-19 virus is another example of how our beliefs in the scientific method will allow us to, at some point, bring this disease under control. But in looking at the progress of the medical sciences and of the arts and sciences, we must also consider what has been lost in our acceptance of our technological fate. To speak of fate is to speak of something over which we have no control or choice. Is there really any choice other than the desire for change and progress if one wishes to live in society at the moment?
Can we rightly speak of “progress” in the arts or are the various movements in the arts simply changes in techniques and content which merely bring about novelty of some kind? In the arts, “change” is obvious, but is it “progress” in the sense that it has an end or goal in view? All artists attempt to make us “see anew” and to seek out new possibilities in the things that are. Is this seeking out of new “possibilities” for their own sake “progress” as we are trying to understand it? Does a painting by Picasso exhibit progress over a painting by Titian, for example? Picasso himself lamented that he was not a greater artist than the Old Masters because he allowed himself to succumb to the temptations of popularity and money which, in turn, caused him to produce simply “novelty”, sub-standard works, for which he was well-paid and lauded by the public.
Our approach to art, our seeking for its purpose and meaning, now focuses on the artist as the creator and producer of the work of art rather than on the work of art itself. When I taught the novel The Catcher in the Rye some of my students wished to claim that its hero, Holden Caulfield, suffered from bi-polar disorder and this caused him to view the world as he did. I related to the students some of the biographical facts of Salinger’s life: that as a soldier in the US Army he was among the first to land at Omaha Beach in Normandy on D-Day, took part in the battle of the Hurtgen Forest in Germany, and that he was among the first American soldiers to liberate the Dachau concentration camp. All of these events occurred while he was writing the novel. Such experiences would challenge any faith in the belief in the moral “progress” of humanity. But my question to the students was; does the novel speak to the truth about the human condition and about our human experience, and is this truth, this illumination and uncovering, constrained by the fact that we can label it with the concept of “bi-polar disorder”? I mentioned to the students a comment made by the psychiatrist R. D. Laing that “Insanity is a sane reaction to an insane world”, and if this is so, if there is some truth in Laing’s comment, is not the artist that we might consider insane not revealing to us a view of our world that we would rather not see nor have to deal with? Canadian writer Margaret Atwood in a talk at which I was present said, “We like our artists to have tortured souls”. Has not our “Age of Progress” simply brought an age of mass meaninglessness? Has our “technological progress” been able to bring about a corresponding progress in our morality and, thus, in our humanity and in our human being-in-the-world?
3. “Labels are a necessity in the organization of knowledge, but they also constrain our understanding.” Discuss this statement with reference to two areas of knowledge.
The first question we ask ourselves with Title #3 is: what is a label? Labels are language attached to an object which provide information or act as a symbol to indicate what that thing is. To label some thing is to first make an assertion about the thing and then to place it in a classification which provides a structure and a system. It is an assertion of what a thing is and, at the same time, what it is not; and it provides the horizon and delimitation from within which the thing is to be viewed. The determination of what the thing is and where it should be placed, its classification, how the thing comes to a stand, comes first and the label is later applied For labels to be applied, assertions must first be made. For an assertion to be made, the object must be present to us in some way, and the “how” of our disposition towards the object and over the object is determined ahead of time. All of our areas of knowledge are designated by labels and you know ahead of time what to expect (and what is expected of you) before you enter a physics class or a Language A class.
Labels, too, are things and they provide us with a means of organizing information or data so that it can be easily accessible. These means of organizing and organization are sometimes referred to as “taxonomies”. Taxonomy is the practice , the action, of identifying different things, classifying them into categories, and naming them; labeling is a naming. All things, both living and non -living, are classified into distinct groups with other similar things and given a scientific name or an identifying label. Given the abundance of information regarding things which are ready-to- hand for our disposal necessitates the requirement of a system of organization. For example, without the Dewey-Decimal System, a library would be a chaos of books.
We have all experienced the frustration that occurs due to the mislabeling of things whether it be something as simple as going to the supermarket and not finding the item we are looking for in the place where we believe it should be, or doing research online and not finding the information we are seeking in an effective and efficient manner because it has not been properly defined and labeled. More ominously and dangerously, inadequate labeling creates confusion and may be used to obfuscate things so that we are unable to distinguish between the truth and non-truth of the things that are asserted. The QAnon movement is an example of the misuse of labels in providing information.
The constraints involved in “labeling” are that they occur after the essence and the content of a thing has already been determined; the definitions of things will, also, be pre-determined under their structures and systems. In the Human Sciences, for instance, the definition of “what” human beings are has already been determined; “who” human beings are creates problems for the analysis of the data because it is not so numerically pliable. We can see the constraints of our labeling most clearly and powerfully in the manner in which our information technologies consider what ‘knowledge” is. “Knowledge” is “information”. The word “information” may be broken down thus: “-ation” that which is responsible for, the “form”, so that it may “inform”. Labels may in fact be a necessity for the organization of all the possible “information” available to us, but whether or not this information is “knowledge” is an entirely different matter. The constraint determined by labeling is that a definite mode of questioning is already pre-delineated in our areas of knowledge. Through this manner of questioning, the answer is already given in advance i.e. a definite range of answers is already demarcated. No matter how far these areas of knowledge may be developed, they will never get beyond what they have already decided about their object of study and what knowledge of it consists in.
Art and artists constantly engage against the status quo established by our labeling and try to get us to see and understand common things, the ready-to-hand things, differently. In our labeling, how the thing which we are seeing may be used is at the heart of our pre-determination of what the thing is. To the left is a picture of a painting by the artist Andy Warhol, one of over 50 which he created, of the label of Campbell’s Tomato Soup. Other paintings by Warhol are of different types of soup. It would seem that Warhol wishes us to reflect on the label itself as art and to consider the significance of its use and our demeanor towards its use. Is he making a statement regarding life and its everydayness?
The attempt to disassociate the object from its use is made even more startlingly (and controversially) in the work entitled “Fountain” by Marcel Duchamp, a French artist from the earlier 20th century. Both Warhol’s and Duchamps works are done with some irony and humour. We, of course, are aware that the object is used for male urination, but does the “fountain” refer to its use or to its shape as an object? The constraint of our labeling of things is to limit the manner in which we see them; and artists are continually challenging us to see the things about us in a different light and in a different manner to disassociate an object from its use.
Another example of the constraints imposed by labeling is provided in the painting by Rene Magritte. The Treachery of Images (French: La Trahison des images) is a 1929 painting by surrealist painter René Magritte. It is also known as This is Not a Pipe and The Wind and the Song. In discussing the painting, Magritte said: “The famous pipe. How people reproached me for it! And yet, could you stuff my pipe? No, it’s just a representation, is it not? So if I had written on my picture “This is a pipe”, I’d have been lying!” Again, the tone is one of irony and humour, although there is a seriousness to it by calling it “The Treachery of Images”. The images, representations, language, labels that we attach to things can, indeed, be treacherous.
4. “Statistics conceal as much as they reveal.” Discuss this claim with reference to two areas of knowledge.
You are probably familiar with the phrase “There are lies, damned lies, and statistics” which is falsely attributed to the American writer Mark Twain, although he has been noted as using the phrase. The original source is unknown. What the phrase speaks to is our propensity to believe in the persuasive power of numbers, particularly in the Human Sciences’ use of statistics, their use to bolster weak arguments, or to believe that the thing that they are attempting to describe has been fully revealed in its truth through the numbers. It is also sometimes colloquially used to doubt the statistics used to prove an opponent’s point. Statistics are means to provide evidence to support an assertion about what something is.
We can see from the title itself that “concealing” and “revealing” are essential elements of what we mean by “truth”, the “actual”, the “real”; and that to have “knowledge” of some thing, that thing must be “revealed” to us in some way and come to a stand whether as a correspondence between the images in our minds and the objects or things outside of us, or in the coherence of the logical steps necessary to make an assertion and, at the same time, a judgement regarding the thing, or in the recognition of the possibilities or potentialities for the thing’s practical use to meet our own ends. The attempt to point to the “actual”, the “real” is what the use of statistics in the search for knowledge is all about and why it is given pre-eminence as a means of providing evidence. This is due to the Human Sciences attempt to mirror the rigour of the Natural Sciences with regard to its statements and judgements about what is. The difficulty, though, is that the object under study in the Human Sciences is much more complex than the object under study in the Natural Sciences.
For example in Economics, during the crash of the housing markets in 2008, some statisticians attempted to use Heisenberg’s probability equations to measure the risk involved for the banks in various investments, even though they were warned by the quantum scientists that this could not be done as “macro” materials do not behave in the same way as sub-atomic materials behave. However, the obscurity and technical nature of the data given to the CEO’s of the banks by these statisticians impressed the CEOs and ultimately was one of the factors causing them to make the bad judgements that caused their banks to collapse. One of the difficulties with statistics is that in them we will sometimes see what we wish to see. The judgement of the object under study will be pre-determined prior to and during the analysis of the data. “Objectivity” is not possible since the observer is bound by his/her methods and means of analysis to understand the object in a certain way. The Human Sciences and the statistics used within them are the products of Western white European culture.
With the Covid-19 pandemic at the moment, statistics are proving to be most useful in both the containment and treatment of the disease. The fiasco that has occurred in the USA’s response to the pandemic is not a result of the statistics (and science’s use of those statistics), but of those who would rather ‘deny’ the “facts” and the “reality” of the disease that the statistics reveal. Such a denial is not a “skepticism” as we spoke of in title #1 because it is not based on reason, but it is an irrational denial which views the science skeptically based on various private needs. While one may question the validity and truth of the conditions and the reality that the statistics “reveal”, attempting to “conceal” the reality of the disease and its effects is not what most of us would call a “sane” response.
When considering statistics we need to ask the basic 5Ws and H questions: who did the study? what are the statistics attempting to measure and reveal? where did the study take place? when did the study take place and who was asked? (was the study timely?) how were the subjects asked and what form was the asking? why was the study conducted in the first place and to what is the study being compared? Asking and answering these questions when you are working through the examples that you are using to write about and support the assertions that you are making with regard to this title will help you to construct your response.
5. “Areas of knowledge are most useful in combination with each other.” Discuss this claim with reference to two areas of knowledge.
Our word “technology” comes from two Greek words: techne and logos. There is no single word in Greek that would be equivalent to “technology” as we understand it and the fusion of these two words came about sometime in the 17th century. The word literally means “knowing and making” and it indicates the co-penetration of the arts and sciences that is the most clear characteristic of our modern age. The “knowing” is the logos and the techne is the “making”. It is our manner or mode of viewing the world, the things about us including other human beings, and it is the manner of how we view ourselves: what we are and who we are. How we view works of art today has come to be understood as aesthetics. The word comes from the Greek aisthesis meaning what we understand as “sense perception” or “sensory apprehension” or “empiricism”, and it indicated the view that examines the work of art as an “object” in much the same way that the sciences approach the objects of their areas of study and knowledge. The process of viewing is called “creative projection” and we are engaged in a “project”. We focus on “specialization” in our studies, but this “specialization” is really the manner of viewing of the object of study or the object at hand as it reveals itself to us in our areas of knowledge.
For example, if you wish to enter “Med School” you will probably need to have one year of Biology with lab, one year of General Chemistry with lab, one year of Organic Chemistry with lab, one semester of Biochemistry, one year of Physics with lab and one year of English. These pre-requisites indicate what we believe is “useful” to know with regard to what we consider “the study of medicine” to be, and they are clearly combinations of our various areas of knowledge in some cases. This is the logos side of “technology”; and since the object of study is other human beings, it illustrates what we have come to define human beings as being. For someone involved in medicine, these fields of study are what will bring human beings to “light” for them. But is this all that human beings are?
These initial pre-requisites are what universities will require you to study. The techne side, the “know how” of bringing about the end of good health, will require other subjects in order for you to complete your study. While it is nature that ultimately decides what “good health” will be in a patient, the doctor is a facilitator, an abettor, in that her techne, her “know how”, will enable nature to take its proper course and bring about “good health”. The “art” of the doctor is “in another, through another, and for another”. She is not a “creator” or a “maker” of good health, but a facilitator helping nature achieve its proper end.
Clearly, our approach to medicine is quite different than the Greek approach where it was called “the art of medicine”, and the Greek philosopher Aristotle was fond of using analogies to medicine when discussing various subjects because his father was a doctor. The two great differences are our modern knowledge of chemistry and its combination with other sciences, and our understanding of what and who human beings are.
Logos is that aspect of our human being which defines us whether we understand ourselves as the living creature that is capable of speech (the zoon logon echon of the Greeks) or the living animal capable of reason (the animale rationale of the Latins). What we have come to determine “knowledge” to be is through a logos of some kind which we believe reveals a “truth” of some kind. The “usefulness” of such knowledge is determined by our techne or “know how”; “know how” is that knowledge which allows us to put knowledge to use. “Know how” requires a combination of our areas of knowledge. In choosing your examples for this title, it is more than likely that you will focus on how this “know how” brings about the realization of our desires or ends.
Because we are human beings that have “needs” (what the Greeks understood as eros), the meeting of these needs and aims or goals requires action in order to bring them about. Our actions are what we understand as our “ethics”. They are not the “principles” of our actions; the “principles” are already encased in our understanding of what we are as human beings. What we need is what we “value” and what we value is not something abstract or ideal that we strive to achieve in our actions but is something we have pre-determined as the purpose for our actions themselves. The latest enhancement of our technological gadgets is a striving for a perceived “perfection” that is the aim itself. Truth itself is One. The revealing of the things that are is what we call “knowledge”; knowledge and truth are integral to each other. This was understood by the Greeks as the threefold: Nature, the world of human beings, and the “speech” of human beings. It was through speaking that human beings came to understand their world and their place in it. It was our speaking to others and to ourselves, the logos, that required the combination of various areas of study. A glance at the titles of the works of Aristotle indicate this. These titles were not given by Aristotle himself but by later scholars.
6. “Avoiding bias seems a commendable goal, but this fails to recognize the positive role that bias can play in the pursuit of knowledge”. Discuss this statement with reference to two areas of knowledge.
The title focuses on “bias” and its positive role in the “pursuit of knowledge”. What is the “knowledge” which comes about or can come about through the “slanted view” of things that bias produces? When I sit in my garden, I can see the greenness of the foliage of the plants and at the same time hear the songs of the birds in the trees present there. To be able to do so requires something more than merely sense perception as a way of knowing. I am able to take in the otherness of seeing and hearing. To try to account for these things as sensation only is insufficient. Something else must be present to hold these two different things together as a single experience. That something else is what we call thought.
“Bias” as a view of things presupposes that assertions that are made about things, what the things are, are merely “opinions” and that those assertions may also be “false”. The title seems to suggest that what is initiated as a “slanted view” could, eventually, result in an outcome that is not in itself slanted or biased. Such a view is present in many people in the USA today. The USA’s Constitution and Bill of Rights initiated the “systemic racism” that is at the core of the American ethos. That the “people” referred to in these documents happened to be the white, European immigrants which made up the ruling class of the day and not the Native Peoples or African-American slaves is obvious to anyone who views the situation and history of the USA dispassionately. When results are favourable to the ruling class of the day, the “bias” inherent in their position of privilege and its viewing devolves into “prejudice”.
The Greek word for such a viewing was pseudos which did not indicate that the viewing was “false” but rather that the knowledge of the thing under discussion would remain “covered over” or “hidden” and the thing itself would not be encountered in its truth. The result would be “illusory” or “not real” as the Greeks understood reality. It should be remembered that for Socrates, the opposite of knowledge was not “ignorance” but “madness”. Has the lack of knowledge in America reached the stage where its “intentional ignorance” has become madness?
Bias relates to how we view things, how our opinions may be formed. The desire to view without bias is what we would call “objectivity”, a “pure” viewing unattended by moods or motives towards the thing that is being studied. Since we are “historical beings” such a viewing is not possible. Our viewing will be determined by what we have come to “value” as a community. The “bias” inherent in the manner we view the world determines a priori the manner in how we will question the things that are and what knowledge of those things will be. It goes without saying that our “biases” have produced many positive results. But we must reflect on the question: “At what cost?”
In approaching the question of “bias” in viewing and questioning, I am going to discuss the common statement or belief “Love is blind” as an example. This is a modern view of love and it is related to our belief that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”. But what then is “beholding”? I am going to put forward the view that love is not blind but that love is what allows us to see and recognize both ourselves (as self-knowledge) and the other, whether the other is other human beings or other things outside of ourselves.
The root cause of racism, for example, is an excessive love of “one’s own” at the expense of all others who are not “one’s own”. How does one go beyond the necessity of loving one’s own to the wider loving of that which is not one’s own? When love of one’s own lacks moderation, it becomes something evil. Evil is, at its root, a lack of light or a denial of the light as light, and we do evil by sinning or acting against the light and by denying what is “revealed” in the “lighting up” of things when they reveal themselves as what they are. This is shown in Shakespeare’s play Macbeth where Macbeth denies the reality of what is “lit up” for him in order to satisfy his lust for power. The play is not an anti-ambition diatribe, but an exhibition of the evil of “the illness should attend” ambition (in Lady Macbeth’s words). The play is a profoundly moral play. When Macbeth succumbs to evil and murders Duncan, his mind becomes “slanted” to one that only sees daggers and he brings himself and Scotland to destruction.
We have all had experiences with con artists and scam artists. They require hiddenness because what they do is evil. At the same time, we require privacy and hiddenness from those who would wish to do us harm. These paradoxes are some of the wonders of the human condition where it is not given to us “to have it both ways”. Even the dialogues of Plato are written in such a way that they will speak to those who can hear them and be silent to those who cannot and should not. In Western philosophy, the dialogues were read in similar fashion to Aristotle’s treatises and this has prevented a proper understanding of them even up to today. Written discourses, such as this blog, speak to everyone and are unable to keep themselves silent from those who should not hear them. This is the case because all speech is “political” in some fashion for it is directed to another human being about some thing and we are all beings in communities of some kind.
In Plato’s allegory of the cave, the keepers of the fire which help create the shadows of the things made by the technites on the walls of the cave could be said to be analogous to our modern universities where their research or “pursuit of knowledge” is determined by corporate interests (bias) and where taxpayer money which pays for the universities is viewed as “externalities” (to use the Economics term). There is no “pure” research in the “pursuit of knowledge” but only “vested interests”. Free thought and research is too expensive. Nevertheless, there are many positive results from this “biased” research in the pursuit of knowledge. The current anti-science movement in many parts of the globe is a symptom of the reality of the nihilism and meaninglessness brought about through our technological world-view. There is a turning away from the facts so that we may affirm what is contradicted by the experience of living (climate change, for instance). But such a condition is one of madness, is it not?
To return to the issue of bias and the assertion that love is not blind, to define love, is to say that it is consent to the fact of authentic otherness. We love otherness not because it is other, but because it is beautiful. Plato places the tyrant (Shakespeare’s Macbeth, for example) as the worst human being, the most inauthentic human being, because in his self-serving “otherness” has completely disappeared for him. Donald Trump in the USA could also serve as an example; all his actions are self-serving, and many more Americans see this self-serving as the best way in which they will realize their “pursuit of happiness”.
In the modern age, beauty has become radically subjectivized so that our belief is that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”. Our loves are determined by a vast complex of necessities and chances which constitute our desires. In all of our scientific explanations of things, we are required to discount the “other” as beautiful. The language I am using here is that the world before us is beautiful and our appropriate response to it is love and trust. However, over time trust was replaced by doubt as the methodological prerequisite for an exact science. It we confine ourselves to anything simply as an object, it cannot be loved as beautiful. The key difficulty is that in loving the beauty of the world as it is, how does this effect the desire to change it? With regard to our title and “bias”, it can be maintained that one knows more about something by loving it. In our age, reason is exalted above understanding (through the philosopher Kant and the creative projection of the imagination and intuition) and this is a reversal of the world shown to us in Plato’s Cave.
When we say that “love is blind”, this is quite the opposite of the view held in the past. In the past, love was seen as the way by which human beings were brought out of self-engrossment to find joy in the world. Today, the “pursuit of happiness” is the self-engrossment in the satisfaction of our desires and wants: the end of love is the orgasm, not the child that results from it. Children are one of life’s ways of making us recognize otherness. (The Macbeths, for example, have no children). It is through the recognition of authentic otherness that we recognize our authentic selves and in doing so find our freedom. Our desires for self-assertion and empowerment attain the opposite goals.
The father of modern psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, gave love a cup of poison to drink (to continue our allusions to Macbeth) when he emphasized sexuality as the peak of what love is. We are given our sense of the beauty of the world in the flame of desire that we feel when we see another human being. Our bias tends to see other human beings as objects to be used in our own self-engrossment in realizing our “pursuit of happiness”. When the beauty of other human beings is perceived only in terms of the sexual and this instinctual urge is determinative of our way of viewing other human beings, we see how bias becomes a habit of thought, an ossified way of viewing the world which, when we act under it or within it, destroys our capacity for empathy and recognition of other human beings as being authentically other, seeing a human being as a “who” and not a “what”.
The recent killings of African-Americans by the police in a number of cities in the USA has prompted a great social uprising demanding change captured in the slogans “I Can’t Breathe”, “Black Lives Matter”, and “Defund the Police”. It is believed that these police killings are a result of a “systemic racism” inherent in all aspects of African-American lives, and there is a demand for change in these systems and institutions with the elimination of their oppression of the day-to-day lives of African-Americans, as well as women and members of the LGBTQ community. Here we will attempt to give some thought to how this “systemic racism” arose and from what and where are its origins.
For someone such as myself who remembers the social upheavals of the 1960s in the USA, I had, at first, perceived the current protests as simply another event in a long line of events where African-Americans protested against their oppression and that these protests would be either brutally crushed or simply allowed to wallow and eventually fade away due to the short memories of those of us who dwell within the technological society.
But these protests appear to be different from the protests of the 60s. For one, they appear to have the support of the white majority in the country. In the 60s, the protests were fragmented with the whites protesting the war in Vietnam while the African-Americans expressed their anger and outrage over the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. This fragmentation is not present in the current protests going on not only in North America but around the world. They appear to have evolved into a “movement” rather than merely a protest and this movement has gathered a significant amount of momentum..
To begin to give thought to the history of North America is to note two basic facts: the history of North America begins with the genocide of its Native aboriginal peoples; and secondly, North America itself, for whites, has no history from before the Age of Progress. While the genocide against the Natives peoples was already well underway, the first 19 or so African slaves reached what were then the British colonies in Point Comfort, Virginia, near Jamestown, in 1619, brought by British privateers who had seized them from a captured Portuguese slave ship. This was over 150 years before the American Revolutionary War and the Constitution which resulted from it. In a somewhat incredible irony (based on superstition, perhaps), the slaves were usually baptized in Africa before embarking, the irony being that enslaving a human being is perhaps the most un-Christian action that a human being can do to another human being.
The “systemic racism” that is seen not only in North America but around the world wherever white Western Europeans be they English, Spanish, Portuguese, French or Dutch, through their imperial adventures, was established when they arrived at the various shores of lands that were alien to them. Their subjugation of the aboriginal inhabitants of those lands required a “morality”, a racism, that was the product of a perceived “superiority” either in their Christian faith or the result of what they perceived as the superiority of their “civilization” which found its concrete realization in the superiority of their weapons. The views of those conquered peoples by their conquerors were those of “savages” and “barbarians”. One can update this racism with a look at how America has treated those who have come under the oppression of its imperialism and its building of its empire. It should not be forgotten that the price to be paid for the realization of the American Dream at home is in the human blood shed by the victims of American imperialism abroad.
The view of Nature held by the Native peoples of North America, for instance, was quite different from that held by the white conquerors who came with Hobbes and Locke and the Protestant or Roman Catholic Christianity embedded in their consciousness. The vastness and intractability of the land created a fear that could only be overcome through a meeting with it being a relationship of conquest. This innate fear remains present even today and manifests itself in multivarious ways in the North American psyche.
The early settlers of North America were unique Europeans. They brought with them the Calvinist Protestantism (Puritanism) which was a break from the traditional Christianity of Europe, and they also brought with them the new revolutionary philosophies of Hobbes and Locke as well as those of Rousseau from France which were breaks from the contemplative tradition of ancient Greece given to Medieval Europeans from the writings of Aristotle and Plato.
Rousseau’s conflict with the English philosophers remains embedded within the consciousness of North Americans even today. Many of the commentaries on the need to change American society from today’s protesters speak of the USA’s failure to uphold the “social contract” with regard to its African-American communities and peoples. There is no questioning of the goals of the overall deeper drives that provide the stimulus for the calculating technological reasoning and its conquering of the necessities of Nature, but rather, for a just participation in the society of which this conquering relationship is a primordial given. The desire is for the upholding of the promise held in the originating liberalism that would provide the equity, justice and liberty to allow participation in that drive and the benefits that result from technological mastery.
To understand North America it is necessary to understand the connections between the new physical and moral sciences of Newton and others and their acceptance by the Protestants that first came to what was a new land. The differences between ancient and modern science can be found in the writings on The Natural Sciences in this blog. The Natural Sciences: Historical Background Both Max Weber and the Marxist historians, for instance, have demonstrated the practical connection between the early Protestants and property as primarily due to the “worldly asceticism” of those Protestants. But the deeper connection lies in the metaphysical connections between the new sciences and the new Christianity of those Protestants.
The new physical sciences of Bacon, Galileo and Newton were accepted by the Calvinist Protestants because these sciences were a critique of Medieval Aristotelianism and thus of the Roman Catholicism which based some of its doctrine on the principles of Aristotle’s understanding of nature. The new sciences critiqued the teleology of Aristotle’s science as causing human beings to view the world in a way in which it was not. The theologians criticized Aristotle’s science as a misleading road to “natural theology” that led human beings away from the Divine Revelation in the person of Jesus Christ and the reality of His Crucifixion. The tension between these two views existed within the framers of the American Constitution with Deists such as Jefferson, Washington and Franklin on the one hand and the practicing Protestant Founders on the other. The picture of Jefferson’s Bible illustrates that his Christianity would not sit well with most of today’s Christians in the USA.
How Locke made the Hobbesian view of nature compatible with the English speaking Protestantism of the early days of America is a subject that requires too much detail for this post. Suffice it to say that his doctrine of “comfortable self-preservation” as the highest end for human beings is hardly compatible with any notion of Christianity. The idea of “comfortable self-preservation” became re-worded as “the pursuit of happiness” in the final Declaration of Independence replacing Locke’s original word “property”.
Modern African-Americans have chosen the Rousseauian side of the tension between “natural law”” and “positive law” that was present in America from its beginnings, but the atheism of Rousseau would hardly find a place for the majority of them at the present time. At the heart of the current protests is the cry for the fulfillment of the “social contract” realized in the American Dream for all the citizens of the USA regardless of race.
To try to explore the reality of “systemic racism” and to provide some notes on its origins and its ultimate flowerings, it is necessary to speak of “liberalism”. In liberalism, freedom and reliance on technique are indissolubly linked, such that technology becomes the very ontology of American lives and defines who and what they are. This ontology itself is prior to any “-isms” and determines how those “-isms” are understood and interpreted by the people who hold them up as “ideals”. This ideal of what human beings are is encapsulated in the word “freedom”. This technological world-view is the common horizon that embraces both sides of what is currently understood as “the left” and “the right”. The “theory” and the “practice” within these “-isms” are indistinguishable and this must be understood if one is to gain access to the roots of who, what and how North America has become what and how it is.
The “systemic thinking” is prior to the systems and the institutions which are created from it and we must try, in this particular case, to understand how “racism” has become embedded in the systems and institutions that have been created in North America and that have since come to prominence around the world through the English-speaking and European empires and their victories in past historical wars and in the two great Wars of the 20th century. This is difficult for white people because that systemic thinking, in its commandeering, controlling and dominating stance towards the environment as “object” and in the novelty which it creates, prevents any reflection on its roots because it is primarily whites who have benefited from that thinking and its results and they have come to perceive that they must somehow be given the evolving truth of things. African-Americans wish to be a part of that hope and that truth, and to also benefit from that technological dominance that has made human beings the masters of nature. But the acceptance of the viewing comes at a cost.
The two most important documents relating to the establishment of American society and its institutions are its “Declaration of Independence” and its “Constitution”. The American Constitution begins: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” Clearly, “the People” referred to “ourselves and our Posterity” i.e. the white founders. The African slaves, the Native Peoples, and women were not considered to be “the People”. The desire for “a more perfect Union” indicates the divisiveness present from the very beginnings of what is known as the USA.
The clarification of who gets to be a “person” and who doesn’t was at the core of the establishment of the “systemic racism” that is the bulwark of white societies and their economies. Determining a subservient order for those with darker skin allowed the American founding generation (and the generations after) to define “all men” and “the people” as “white men.” As a result, they guaranteed white men the rights and liberties promised by the Constitution while preserving a thriving economy based on racial oppression. It remains a matter of debate whether or not the American Civil War was due to “economic” factors rather than the freeing of the slaves of the South or whether the freeing of the slaves was itself an “economic factor”. Subsequent American history would suggest the former rather than the latter, and that the War was not undertaken with such “noble” motives as the subsequent mythology provides. It was a war over the price of commodities.
In “The Declaration of Independence”, the attempt to hold together the permanence of “natural law” with the changeableness of “positive law” is clearly in evidence: “”We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The ‘men’ who are ‘created equally’ are, of course, the bourgeois landowners and slave owners who framed the Declaration. The “pursuits” were meant to be enjoyed by a “leisure class” founded upon the labour of the slaves.
The key to how the Declaration and the Constitution came to be written was in the replacing of Locke’s concept of “property” with “the pursuit of happiness”. Locke’s original concept of property related to the body: each human being possessed a body through which it undertook “work” and in doing so made “worthless nature” amenable to human needs. If all “men” had a right to property, and primarily the property that was their own bodies, then slave-holding would, prima facie, be “unconstitutional”. White slaveholders and the States that benefited from slave holding would not agree to this, so as the Montpelier Organization notes: “The answer lies in the idea of compromise: the founders compromised their morals (many were recorded as being opposed to slavery), and power (in some cases, states bowed to slaveholding counterparts in order to ensure the Constitution would be ratified), in the name of economics. Slavery, when all was said and done, was both profitable and convenient for many white Americans—and not just in the South.” https://www.montpelier.org/learn/slavery-constitution-lasting-legacy The entry continues: “As lifelong bondage of enslaved African Americans became more financially viable, the indentured servitude of whites (their terms only lasted five to seven years), was phased out. The system proved itself so lucrative that law and legal precedent began to leave future governments leeway for prioritizing economy over morality.” Current events in American politics continue this compromise of morality to economy both with regard to the suppression of African-Americans and to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Two examples from literature illustrate how difficult it is for whites to gain some illumination of self-knowledge to recognize how they have benefited from systemic racism. The Nigerian writer, Chinua Achebe, accused the writer, Joseph Conrad, of being “racist” in his great novella “Heart of Darkness”: https://polonistyka.amu.edu.pl/__data/assets/pdf_file/0007/259954/Chinua-Achebe,-An-Image-of-Africa.-Racism-in-Conrads-Heart-of-Darkness.pdf, and also https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1995/11/06/the-trouble-with-heart-of-darkness. Today, statues of King Leopold II of Belgium are being torn down because of his imperial racist past. While there is no doubt that Conrad speaks out against, and condemns, this imperial racism in the novella, Achebe points to Conrad’s almost unconscious racism in Conrad’s use of symbols, motifs and metaphors in the novella which de-humanize the Africans that are presented there. A small point in Conrad’s defense, the descriptions Conrad uses are for all human beings, regardless of color, and of the thin veneer that is “civilization” separating us from the brutes; but the Africans are, nevertheless, still portrayed as brutes.
A second example is Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a source and inspiration for Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”. Twain’s novel is now the most censored book in North America (although this censoring is done with the best of intentions) as it uses language and terms denigrating African-Americans (the use of the “n-word”, for instance). But the novel, in illustrating Huck’s education and growth, demonstrates the need to overcome what had become “sivilization” as it was understood in the America of Twain’s time (and remains in our time), and that included the recognition of the “humanity” of African-Americans in the character of Jim. The core theme of the book is the search for a ‘higher morality” than that present in the America of his day and our day. Twain’s warning that “Those attempting to find a moral” in his book “would be shot” is part of his effort through his humour. If these two literary geniuses, Conrad and Twain, are to be labelled “racist”, it is difficult to see how we mere mortals can possibly avoid being called the same. It represents the long journey ahead for those of us who must attempt to overcome the “systemic racism” in our views of the world.
Under the future “technology of the helmsman”, the skin color of the “human resources” and “human capital” will be a matter of indifference. The corrosiveness of the nihilism that is at the heart of our technological calculative reasoning embraces both the American “Right” and the American “Left” within a common horizon greater than either. The American “Right”, those who would probably call themselves “Republicans” and the roots of whose thinking reach back to Locke, appear to be longing for some lost “golden age” which they do not specify exactly, though its paraphernalia seems to relate to the “lost cause” of the American Confederacy and its symbols of white supremacy and which is prior to the 20th century’s various migrations to America of people of colour, These Rightists adhere to the freedom of the individual to hold property and for the enforcement of the laws that have currently been institutionalized even though those laws prevent individuals from other races from ever attaining that property and the sense of feeling ownership for those laws created for the community. But both sides do not doubt the central fact of the North American dream which is to be realized in progress through technological advance.
This leads to a number of questions: do not the institutions as they exist and produce those benefits come from the same calculative rationality? are the benefits possible without those stifling institutions? can those institutions exist as participatory democracies since centralization and uniformity are part of the essence of technology? The spontaneity of freedom is made possible through the conquering of the spontaneity of nature. Both share the deeper assumptions that have made technological society possible.
Nevertheless, as I have written elsewhere, at the present time liberalism and its “values” and “ideals” are all we have, and it is our duty to ensure that the institutions and their laws which have been and are being created are directed in such a way that all human beings can enjoy the benefits of the dynamic technology that were originally envisioned in the writings of the philosophers who were the founders of what we call “modernity”.
History is different from the other Human Sciences, or indeed other sciences in general, in that the knowers or researchers cannot directly observe the past in the same way that the object of research can be observed and studied in the Natural Sciences. “Historiology” is the study of history in general, the search for what its essence is, what its purpose is. “Historiography”, that is, a study of the writings of history, is not a study of all of the past, but rather a study of those traces or artifacts that have been deemed relevant and meaningful by historians; and this choosing of artifacts and evidence is the most important aspect of the study of history as it attempts to aspire to “scientific research”. This is where the importance of “shared knowledge” comes into play; what we call our “shared knowledge” is “history” and what we choose to select is determined beforehand by our culture.
We must distinguish between “shared knowledge” or culture, what is commonly called history, and “personal knowledge” as independently acquired knowledge. By shared knowledge we mean the scientific or philosophic knowledge that a human being takes over from former generations or from others, what we would call “history”; personal knowledge is that knowledge, whether it be scientific or philosophical in nature, that a mature scholar acquires in his unbiased discourse which is as fully enlightened as possible regarding its limits and horizons with an awareness of its presuppositions within any area of knowledge i.e. what you are attempting to learn to do here in TOK .
In the modern, this distinction between personal and shared knowledge tends to lose its crucial significance due to our belief in progress. In TOK, it appears that we tacitly assign the same cognitive status to both shared and personal knowledge and this impacts how we understand history and what we feel its importance is to our futures. What we deem to be “historical” first appears and coincides with ratio, calculation, and thought understood as ratio and calculation. What is chosen to be called “history” arises with a pre-determined understanding and definition of what human being is (the animale rationale) and this, in turn, determines what “will be held to account” in the selection of what is deemed to be important in relation to that understanding of human being.
The question of whether history is an art or a science is as old as “historiography” itself. Aristotle in his Poetics distinguishes between the poet and the historian and the philosopher and the historian. The historian presents what has happened while the poet is concerned with the kind of things that might, or could, happen: “therefore poetry is more philosophic and more serious than history, for poetry states rather the universals, history however states the particulars”. (Poetics 1451a36-b11) History might be called pre-philosophic in that it concerns itself with particular human beings, particular cities, individual kingdoms, or empires, etc. The historian must choose between the important and the unimportant things when writing her report, and in her choices illuminate the universal in the individual event so that the purpose of her recording is meant to be a possession for all times. You have done much the same in your Exhibition (if you have done it correctly). The presentation is analogical.
The availability of those relevant traces of the past and their relevance and meaning may be influenced in many ways by factors such as ideology, perspective or purpose, but this is a “modern” version of how we examine things. As knowers we seek to clarify the past and to determine whether or not what is claimed is true. In doing so, we will face problems of reliability and attitudes, and may consider the purpose of historical analysis and the issue of the nature of historical truth. “Historical truth” is bound together with our understanding of truth as “correctness” and “correspondence” arising as it does from ratio and calculation.
The spirit of historicism (the understanding of time as history) permeates every aspect of every text and every approach to the study of and knowledge of the things of our world, and it is particularly present in the IB program. Plato viewed time as “the moving image of eternity”, an infinite accretion of “nows”; we tend to view time as the “progress” of the species towards ever greater perfection, much like how we view the latest models of our technological devices and gadgets as being more “fitted” towards accomplishing our ends and purposes. Our “evolution” and “adaptation”, we believe, are signs of our progress and growth as a species as we move towards ever greater “perfection”, both moral and physical. It is sometimes called “the ascent of man”, but such a concept of human being, as an “ascending” creature, is only possible within the technological world-view.
When we speak of History as an area of knowledge, we are speaking of “human history” not the history of rocks or plants or other objects that are also part of our world. These are covered in the Group 4 subjects as part of the Natural Sciences. History as an area of knowledge deals with human actions in time whether by individuals or communities so it is considered a “human science” for the most part, and the approach to the study of it is a “scientific” one. This attempted approach to the study of history is the same as that carried out in the Natural Sciences wherein history is looked at “objectively” and demands are made of it to give us its reasons. We seek for the “causes” of events. This approach has given rise to one of the complaints against history and how it is studied nowadays: we can only learn about the past; we cannot learn from it. Nor do we today feel that we need to. This dearth of knowledge of history is most in evidence in America, and this is not surprising as America is the heartland of technological dynamism.
The spiritual crisis of our “civilization”, our “culture”, and thus our history, is that the historical moment of technological mastery of the earth comes forth from the same science which gives us the historical sense or historicism. In the past reason, virtue and happiness were united as giving to human beings purpose and meaning for their actions. The “age of progress” realized its goal of freedom in the democratic equality of all human beings. But what evidence is there for the equality of all human beings when the evidence from the biological sciences would clearly suggest that human beings are not equal when it comes to what are considered the most important matters and traits? Not all human beings are “fit” for the ends which our culture aspires to. The question of this “fittedness” is the dark question of “justice” in our time. Josef Stalin’s cynical statement that “Only the winners get to write the history” equates “winning” with the ever-evolving process of “truth” and its realization of the “empowerment” of those who can claim to be “victorious”.
Modern science has shown us that the “values” of rationalism are not finally sustained in the whole of the things that are; that is, Nature is finally not rational and it is only human beings that give to nature its “rationality” and, thus, its Being. Reason is only an instrument and it is used to provide meaning and purpose to our willing, to our desiring and creating, our knowing and making. The “happiness” sought for for all human beings is only achievable through the “lowering” of the understanding of what that “happiness” is; and its foundations are not to be found in “reason” and “virtue” (which only the few are capable of) but in the instincts and their “liberation” (which is a real possibility for the many). “Happiness” as it is understood in its modern form is only possible where “nobility” and “greatness” are forgotten or are not important as ends and have been replaced by “recognition” or “15 minutes of fame”. Human beings know that they create their own “values”, and this is upheld by both the nihilists of the political right and the democratic libertarians of the political left.
History: The Absolutist and Relativist Approaches:
Knowledge Questions: What methods do historians use to gain knowledge? What is unique about the methodology of history compared to other areas of knowledge? On what criteria can a historian evaluate the reliability of their sources? If our senses are sometimes unreliable, does this mean that eyewitness testimony is an unreliable source of evidence? Have technological developments enabled us to observe the past more directly? What challenges does archive-based history emphasize about how knowledge is shared and preserved? Is there less emphasis on collaborative research in history than there is between researchers in other areas of knowledge? How do the methods and conventions of historians themselves change over time?
History deals with memory and time or temporality, the past, present and future. The knowledge questions and issues that arise in the study of history rest in two mutually exclusive positions with regard to the writing of history (historiography) and the “re-searching” or study of history (historiology). The two positions are commonly referred to as the absolutist position and the relativist position. The discussion below attempts to illustrate both positions.
According to relativism, all human thought is historical and hence unable to grasp anything eternal or “unhistorical”; there is no permanence to things or to thoughts. Plato views time as “the moving image of eternity”. According to Plato (an absolutist), philosophizing means to leave the cave where things may be viewed in their “absolute” truth beyond opinion. To we moderns, all philosophizing and thinking essentially belongs to the “historical world” or the cave, what we call our “culture”, “civilization”, and involves opinions based on these contexts. This belief is what is called historicism and it is a recent arrival on the historical scene (early 19th century) but it continues to gain preeminence in our thinking and viewing of the world as it erodes what we have come to believe during the age of progress. The two most prominent thinkers of historicism are the German philosophers Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger; and while these thinkers are reviled in the English-speaking West, their thought permeates many aspects of the shared knowledge in the West through its interpretations and applications by lesser thinkers.
History always concerns “individuals” whether those individuals be individual groups, individual human beings, individual achievements, individual “civilizations” or the one “individual process” of human civilization from its beginnings to the present, and so on. In the IB, Group 3 subjects are called “Individuals and Societies” and History is listed as a Group 3 subject although it is given a special distinction as an Area of Knowledge in TOK. History can be our “personal history” or our “shared history”, and both provide knowledge of some type. The historical sense shows us that we create history, whether by “just doing it” as far as our own actions are concerned or by living in a society along with others and sharing their beliefs, customs, etc. The outcomes of our personal and social/political actions are matters of chance so we study history so as to control the outcomes making chance as ineffective as possible. History is determined by the technological and its rendering is “a giving an account of” or “giving an account for”.
History and the approach to it is most closely related to inductive argumentation similar to experimentation in the natural sciences. Things are explored through what is called research, and an attempt is made to arrive at the “timeless” philosophic questions regarding the incident, individual or event chosen in order to get at its “what”, “why”, and “how”. This method is possible because of the positivism that lies at the ground of how we view the world: we no longer discern any difference between historical and philosophical questions. The concepts which we use are viewed as entirely historical in that they are seen as products of our own individual societies and their historical backgrounds. Technology and The Human Sciences Pt 2: Rousseau, Kant, Hegel, Marx
Is the study of history relevant? What is the purpose of its study? Many people today hold the relativist view that the standards that we use to make judgements in history are nothing more than the ideals adopted by our society or our “civilization” that are embodied in its way of life or its institutions. But, according to this view, all societies have their ideals, cannibal societies (indigenous societies, if you like) no less than “civilized” ones, fascist societies as well as democratic ones. If the principles of historical choice are sufficiently justified by the fact that they are accepted by a society such as is understood by the pragmatists, are the principles of fascism or fanaticism or cannibalism as defensible or sound as those of democracy or “civilized” life?
If there is no standard higher than the ideal(s) of our society, are we unable to take a critical distance from that ideal?But the mere fact that we can raise the question of the worth of the ideals of our own society shows that there is something in human beings that is not in slavery to society, call it “freedom” if you will, and that we are able (and obligated) to look for a standard with reference to which we can judge the ideals of our own as well as any other society (c.f. Plato and the Cave). All societies are caves. This standard that we are driven and obligated to search for, according to Plato, is the Good, the “best society” or regime, “the good life”, the “good human being”, etc. One of the purposes of the study of history is its aid in helping us to discover what these are through the “shared knowledge” that has been handed down and over to us.
Our modern study of History teaches us that we can become wise in all matters of secondary importance, but that we must remain ignorant in the most important matters: the historian cannot have any knowledge regarding the ultimate principles of his/her choices i.e. regarding their soundness or unsoundness other than blind preferences. Our inability to gain any genuine knowledge (of the absolutist type) of what is good or right or to recognize all preferences as equally respectable leads to the position that only unlimited tolerance is in accordance with reason; but this leads to an “absolutist” position from a position that rejects all “absolutist” positions.
Absolutist positions, so it is said, are based upon the false premise that human beings can know the good. The Chinese, for example, wish to tell the Japanese what needs to be included in their textbooks regarding Japanese behaviour and atrocities during WW 2. With the relativist position, the Japanese are correct in rejecting this intrusion. Japanese citizens cannot know what behaviours occur when societies become imperial, including their own. What, then, is the purpose for studying history? What “truth” can we learn from it? What standards need to be applied to it? Parallel studies can be made with regard to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or to the history of African-Americans. Clearly, Americans are being given different views of their imperial wars and their domestic oppression of their people than the views of those who are suffering from those imperial wars and that oppression. The current Covid-19 pandemic and the protests over police killings of African-Americans illustrate that the “truth” and the “facts” of science and history are now being put to the test as they clash with the desires and views of the political populists.
The relativist position has a respect for individuality and a respect for diversity. Tolerance is one ideal or “value” among many and is not intrinsically superior to its opposite: intolerance. But it is practically (in practice) impossible to leave this at the equality of all choices or preferences. If this equality of choices is the case, then genuine choice is nothing but resolute or deadly serious decision. Such decision is more akin to intolerance than to tolerance. One sees these outcomes of these decisions in the world’s daily news events or in the discussions that you may be having in your TOK classes.
The relativist position is a late product from the “age of progress” and it is also a consequence of the thinking contained in “logical positivism”. The “belief in progress” was the belief that the current age is superior to all previous ages in that the evolution of the “historical process” showed a “progression” to the current historical situation which was far superior to previous civilizations, much like the human species in its evolution is “superior” to the apes from which it evolved; this superiority rests in reason. The past was only a preparation for the present. The positivists’ approach began as an overturning of the idealism of Hegel in favour of a realism that looked at “facts” and “reality”, and that life itself delivers evidence of this progress so that the “winners of history” are somehow in touch with an “evolving truth of history” and therefore get to write the history. That which is new is superior to that which is old.
We are in need of historical studies to familiarize ourselves with the complexity of these issues.
We will approach the topic of the historical background of who we are as knowers from two different perspectives: the ontological, which defines what human beings are; and the ethical which illustrates how human beings behave or act or how human beings have acted historically. From these approaches we hope to get a better understanding of who we are and who we think we are regarding what we consider “knowledge”.
Because the IB Program is a product of Western history and experience, this understanding of the historical background of “the knower” will be Western understanding. It should be supplemented by someone with knowledge of the Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads as well as other Eastern texts which I myself do not have.
The understanding of ourselves for those of us in the West begins with the Greeks. For the Greeks, knowledge was of three areas: physics, ethics and “speaking”. These three broad episteme roughly corresponded to our asking the 5 Ws and H questions: “who” and “what” we are as human beings, “how” we are in our manner of being or action, “where” and “when” we are in our historical and geo-political existence, and “why” we are as we are being that unique being that takes it own existence in hand. This taking our existence in hand is what we mean by “experience”.
Language, “speech”, has a most important role along with “the world” and human being itself. Language is the discussions we hold with one another as well as our discussions we have with ourselves concerning ourselves. “Speech” is the way we behave, a natural pre-scientific view of the world which illuminates who we are and what we are as human beings. This is why the Greeks defined human being as the zoon logon echon, the living being that can speak and so defines its being in and through such speaking.
The Greek word for language, speech is logos. It became translated as “logic” after Aristotle and the Latins equated it with ratione, the “rational” so that human being came to be defined as the animale rationale, the rational living being. “Logic” was originally conceived as all speaking, and it was connected with the study of grammar. As grammar became the study and rules of “right speaking”, logic became the study and rules of “right thinking”.
Language was understood as speaking to each other about something, of some thing. This speaking about something was of the revealing of that thing, of bringing that thing to light. In such revealing, the thing becomes defined and determined or ordered. Logic as the science of speaking is the revealing of something, allowing the world and human existence and things in general to be seen. This uncovering of things that are “hidden” is what is understood as “truth”. This uncovering found its height in mathematical knowledge. What is important here is to understand that the essence of human being, what human beings are is the revealing of things in the world.
We have an understanding of ourselves as “persons”. From where do the concepts of “person”, “personal”, and “personality” arise? Originally, “person” comes from “persona” the Latin word for “mask” or “what is before the face”. It originates from Greek drama where actors wore masks to indicate their roles in the performance they were about to perform. Personalitas originally designates the “role” that a persona indicates or illustrates, but it has the sense of the word “dignity” implied in it so that the designation of a “personality” was someone who was distinguished and dignified by the “role” that they played in events or in the society or community of which they were a member. It was considered an honour and a duty of a citizen to perform in the Greek dramas as these were more “religious” in nature and not merely as educational and a source of entertainment. A “role” is a particular way and manner of being a human being and it is very much related to its origins in Greek drama. In the words of T.S. Eliot in his “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”: it is “To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet”. What “roles” do we think we play in our society today?
For the Romans, particularly Cicero, a persona is someone who possesses a high degree of the quality of what a human being is as such: the animal rationale. “Dignity” is thus grounded on ratio, the animal possessing reason and the capability of discourse. The concept of the persona and of the human being are closely linked and are grounded in the determination of human being. This concept of the animal rationale is still with us today in, for example, the Roe vs. Wade decision regarding abortion by the U.S. Supreme Court wherein the Supreme Court determined that foetuses were not “persons” in the whole sense.
With the arrival of Christianity, human being comes to be determined as a “mixture of body and soul” in the writings of St. Augustine in the 5th century. This determination rested, too, on the notion of human being as the animal rationale. In the Christian determination, the human being, the persona, was determined as an individual soul whose goal and salvation lie in gaining eternal life as an individual. God is determined as the essential unity of the three personae: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. (Augustine) Here we find the beginnings of the shift in the concept of the persona in the direction of the individual, that he or she is their own goal and purpose in their search for certainty and surety regarding one’s individual salvation.
In the Middle Ages, Thomas Aquinas determines human being as the “person” who is “rational” by nature (in essence) and is incorporated in an individual body. Thomas’s understanding signified the individual self-sufficiency of a rational being: the independence of the human being, the persona, comes to the fore. The emphasis here stresses the “free will” and responsibility of the individual in their choices and decision-making, their morals and ethics.
The French philosopher Rene Descartes takes up the concepts of human being that were handed over to him to develop an entirely new concept of the “personality”: ego cogito, ergo sum, the basic principle of modern philosophy: “I think, therefore, I am”. The ego cogito is essential for within it human being is determined through its self-certainty which corresponds to an understanding of truth as “certainty”. The ratio that was historically involved in all determinations of human being receives the particular form of self-certainty (“I know because….) on the basis of which certainty about anything else first becomes possible. This means that the ego in Descartes’ principle is the subject lying at the root of everything. The human being determines itself now wholly in and from itself and no longer needs Church doctrine; the essence of human being is determined according to its capacity for self-determination, its “freedom” to choose, its freedom to make promises and to enter into contracts.
The German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, determined the next stage historically in his distinguishing the difference between human beings and things (Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals) and with respect to the determination of the human being according to three elements, one of which is the “person”. (Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone). For Kant, a thing can certainly exist in itself but its independence, its “freedom”, is only ever a mere means. In contrast, a being that is rational —for Kant, reason is the power of the principles– can never be a mere means. Because it has reason, it is its own end. The three elements of human being in Kant, are the “animal” that is humanity, the “humanity” that is humanity (together with the “animal” giving the animal rationale), and “personality” as a rational and responsible being. Kant distinguishes between the reason that is thinking and apprehending, and the reason that is “accountability”, that is, responsibility, the ethical. This distinction is important for we all know of many human beings who think according to the principle of non-contradiction but who are not at all responsible. The human being, however, is responsible in that it is free to act according to principles. These principles are ethical or as Kant says “practical principles”, praxis. For Kant, the highest is the categorical imperative; the categorical imperative was an improvement on the Golden Rule: Act as you would want all other people to act towards all other people. Kant’s categorical imperative demands us to act according to the maxim that you would wish all other rational people to follow, as if it were a universal law. For Kant, autonomy/freedom to decide constitutes the modern personality.
Kant further identifies “personality” with “character”. For Kant, “character” is the mode and manner that a cause is a cause (see the etymology of the word “character”). Kant distinguishes two types of causes: those of intelligible character and those of empirical character. This is in contrast to Hume. Kant needs these two types of character for his determination of human being as a responsible being. A “responsible” being must have free will as the cause of his actions. This free will is not found in the human world. In this world, the empirical world, human will is not free; it is conditioned, that is, its character is empirical. “Personality” is equivalent to character”. Personality is a being that is and acts according to its own responsibility. For Kant, all other determinations of personality derive from this.
The Knower: Ethical
From where does our emphasis on personal knowledge and “experience” arise in the West for it was not part of the thinking of the ancients at the beginning of Western thinking although phronesis was a way of knowing held in high esteem by both Plato and Aristotle? During the period which is called the Renaissance, a great paradigm shift occurs in what was called “knowing”, and this was the result of changes in how the world as Nature was understood, and thus how human beings were understood, and how human beings understood themselves. The French philosopher Rene Descartes is primarily responsible for this change, and the change is based on what our understanding of knowledge and truth are.
With this paradigm shift brought about by Descartes and others before and after him, what is called “humanism” comes to the fore with its focus on human beings’ central place in Nature and in the whole of things. This change occurs during the 15th and 16th centuries with the change in the understanding of the “person”. Humanism could also be said to find one of its origins in the arrival and grounding of algebra in mathematical thinking. In the search for certainty and surety of human beings’ salvation and redemption as a “personal” event in the Protestant Reformation within Christianity, and in the arrival of modern science in the experiments of Galileo, and in the philosophy of Rene Descartes where human “subjectivity” is grounded and where Nature itself is understood differently from previous interpretations, we have a great paradigm shift of how human beings understood themselves and their place within the world.
English-speaking teachers of philosophy and theory of knowledge have rarely paid attention to the two most comprehensive thinkers, the great anti-theological/atheist thinkers of the West: Jean Jacques Rousseau and Friedrich Nietzsche. There are a number of reasons for this and to go into all of them would require far more writing than this post would or could bear. Many of them will be touched upon in other areas of these writings. How has the thought of Rousseau been received and understood by English-speaking teachers of philosophy and Theory of Knowledge?
If one is familiar with the English-speaking tradition of philosophy (I will say, for the moment, the materialist, empirical, “the analytical school”), Rousseau has been called an “unsystematic poet”, a man quite incapable of the sustained and disciplined thought necessary to the true philosopher. This account can be seen from the writings of Jeremy Bentham right up to the writings of Karl Popper. Bertrand Russell’s account of Rousseau in The History of Western Philosophy, where Rousseau is dismissed as a self-indulgent poet, is filled with Russell’s contempt and anger for the man ‘whose thought is so filled with contradictions of such an obvious nature that they could be discovered by any high school student of average ability’. These, shall I say, misreadings of Rousseau have caused a lack of serious attention to this thinker which has resulted in the darkening of our self-understanding and the dimming of our understanding of ourselves as knowers and the consequences of this dimming for life and thought.
The ascendancy of the English-speaking peoples (and the IB Diploma Program is but one outgrowth or flowering of this ascendancy) has been with us historically from the Battle of Waterloo to the victories in the two great wars of the 20th century. It was achieved under the rule of various species of “bourgeois”. The members of this elite class felt their right to rule was self-evident since it was not seriously questioned at home and they were successfully extending their empires around the world. The constitutional liberalism, empowered by technological progress, was justified by various permutations and combinations of John Locke’s contractualism and utilitarianism. English-speaking political philosophy, understood as the theory of living well within communities, has largely been concerned with emendations to Locke’s account. But why be concerned with Rousseau who in many respects agreed with Locke?
Rousseau is the primary instigator of that period which has come to be called the Romantic Period. Because of Rousseau’s influence, what we know as ‘German Idealism’, the philosophies of Immanuel Kant, Hegel, and Marx get their initiation. This is because within Rousseau we come upon the presence of the concept ‘history’: the temporal process in which beings are believed to have acquired their abilities. By History is not meant ‘historiography’. Historiography is our study of the written account of human history and is included in our Part 3 subjects, the Human Sciences, or as a distinct area of knowledge in itself here in TOK. The meaning of ‘history’ used here is ontological: it is a realm of being in which human beings dwell. We call this realm “time”.
In the writings of Kant, for instance, English-speaking philosophers were deflected from the true intent of his writings by his statement that David Hume, the British philosopher, had awoken him from his “dogmatic slumber” and so they looked at him from within their own philosophical tradition and have, up till now, tried to make him part of their own philosophical tradition. But Kant’s chief encounter was with the philosophy of Rousseau and there are far more references to Rousseau in his work than to Hume. (This is not to deny Rousseau’s debt to Hobbes and Locke, both of whom established the history of English philosophy, but Rousseau is profoundly critical of that debt).
For the English-speaking peoples, ‘history’ becomes part of our ‘shared knowledge’ in the discoveries and writings of Charles Darwin. While the historical sense was present in English writings well before Darwin, the historical sense becomes central through the writings of Darwin because it was at the heart of the most important activity of the 19th century—Natural Science. It is said that Darwin’s main contribution to our shared knowledge was not ‘evolution’, but how evolution took place: through ‘natural selection’. Darwin’s chief concern, however, was not Natural Selection, but the question of Creation or Modification. (See Life and Letters, vol. II p. 371). “Modification”, in Darwin’s sense, is a synonym for History understood as the temporal process in which beings acquire their abilities, that beings ultimately have no essence. Darwin’s thinking is not possible without, first, the thought of Rousseau. Once History becomes part of our shared knowledge, what happens to the ahistorical political science of Locke who has provided the foundation of our English-speaking political and social institutions?
Locke’s contractualism is ahistorical. The American statesman, Thomas Jefferson, reveals this when he says in the American Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”. Jefferson’s Constitution is an attempt to bring together both Locke and Rousseau. Being “endowed by one’s Creator” and possessing “inalienable rights” are ahistorical principles. Shifting Locke’s “right to property” to the right of the pursuit of happiness is possibly the result of Thomas Paine’s, a student of Rousseau’s, influence on Jefferson. Locke himself was an atheist even though he wrote a book entitled The Reasonableness of Christianity. While being a man of sobriety or seriousness, he was not without a sense of humour nor without a sense of irony. These contradictions are part of the everyday reality of American and other English-speaking political and social institutions today.
The attempt to hold together history and ahistorical contractualism (that which is beyond time or permanent and that which is within time as motion or change) has made English-speaking political philosophy become thin to the point where it has become the sheer formalism of the analytical tradition. One can find an attempt at this formalism in John Rawls’ book A Theory of Justice. As a cautionary note, I would say that even though our academic curriculum and our manner of knowing is dominated by the perspectivism of historicism, our freedom from historicism in our practical affairs has preserved us, so far, from the great crimes of National Socialism and communism (I am referring to our ‘internal’ politics, our domestic politics, and not to our misguided imperial adventures of the 20th and 21st centuries nor to the behaviour of our corporate institutions abroad. That this preservation from the crimes of fascism and communism is slowly breaking down appears to be the chief concern of our new TOK guide for 2022).
The attempt to maintain contractualism, our being in societies, our politics, our ethics, freed from any ontological statements (our being-in-the-world and our understanding of ourselves as beings in this world), fails because it requires that science be taken in phenomenalist (empirical) and instrumentalist (the analytical school) senses. It may be possible to attempt this when discussing the small results of academic technological scientists (the attempt to make the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis substantive, for instance), but it is quite impossible to assume it about the results of a great synthetic scientist such as Darwin. When Darwinism is taught at school, it is not taught as a useful hypothetical tool only of interest to those who are going to be specialists in the Group 3 and Group 4 subjects. As Darwin well knew, the discussion of Creationism and Modification is an ontological one, despite the clever chat by analytical philosophers. His Holiness, the Pope’s, acceptance of evolution and the Big Bang theories retain the sense of purpose in the “createdness of Nature” (what is called “teleology), that there is meaning to creation, but whether or not this is sufficient ontologically is quite another matter. That these theories ultimately clash and contradict with His Holiness’ beliefs in not discussed in depth (to my knowledge).
What is the issue: you cannot hope to successfully combine an ahistorical political philosophy, an ethical philosophy if you will, with a natural science which is at its heart historical.
With the idea of History/Modification we are led back to Rousseau. Science views Nature as non-teleological, that is, it is a product of accident, chance not purpose. Nature has no goal in and of itself. It seems that when there is a great outpouring of scientific activity—in the case spoken of here that of the 19th century—there is always a great philosopher who in his thought of the whole has made a breakthrough against all previous thought. By “breakthrough” I am not speaking about the “progress of truth”: breakthroughs can also lead into errors. This great breakthrough occurs in the thought of Rousseau. This is what we mean by a “paradigm shift”. A true paradigm shift is very rare in history and it occurs within human being-in-the-world.
Rousseau first stated that what we are, our essence as human beings, is not given to us by what the Ancients understood as Nature but is the result of what human beings were forced to do to overcome chance or to change nature (in the modern sense of what we understand nature to be). Life is experienced as a problem to be solved. Human beings have become what they are and are becoming what they will be (the “empowerment” of human beings) through their solutions to “the problem that is life”. We are the free, undetermined animal, the perfectly malleable animal, that can be understood by a science which is not teleological (i.e. by a science that sees no final purpose in the things that are).
Rousseau understood the difficulties and the ambiguities of his thinking of human being as an historical animal far better than say, one of his followers, Karl Marx. Rousseau’s battling with the contradictions that appear in the discoveries of his thought is what has led English-speaking commentators to dismiss him, for the most part, in their tutorials at Oxford and Harvard. The contradictions are the result of Rousseau’s refusal to avoid the ambiguities which he was given to think.
The greatest critic of Rousseau is the German philosopher Nietzsche. For Nietzsche, Rousseau is the epitome of the ‘last man’, the ‘secularized Christian’ who is responsible for the “decadence” of European thought over the last three hundred years. But Nietzsche accepts from Rousseau the belief in the fact that we are historical, that we acquire our abilities in the course of time in a way that can be explained without purpose. Nietzsche claims that he is the thinker who understood the ‘finality of becoming’ in an historical way. But one deeply wonders how Nietzsche failed to recognize how much of his thought on the finality of becoming had been worked through by Rousseau. Was Nietzsche moved by an anger that clouded his openness to the whole?
The understanding that human beings acquire their abilities (their “empowerment”) through the course of time expresses itself in what we call ‘historicism’. Historicism is the fate of all Areas of Knowledge in our time. The attempts to refute historicism from within the tradition of English-speaking liberalism (Karl Popper’s The Poverty of Historicism, as an example) while well-intentioned are feeble. This is reason itself why we should read Rousseau carefully so that we can attempt to know what it is that behooves us to know when all thought is touched with the deadening hand of historicism. This becomes even more pressing as we become enamored with the word “empowerment”, the word of Nietzsche, and how this “empowerment” will unfold in the nihilism that is our future.
The Principles of Pythagorean Mathematics Applied to Ethics/Actions
We will be discussing how mathematics, in particular how Pythagorean geometry, provides the principles for our actions; in other words, how mathematics determines our ethics. In doing so, we shall examine some considerations of the differences between what is called calculative thinking and what is called contemplative thinking.
The Greeks initially thought that mathematics is “what can be learned and what can be taught”. What we call mathematics is the axiomatical theoretical viewing and projection of the world which establishes the surety and certainty of the world through calculation. Axioms provide the principles or the archai, which in turn determine the laws which, in turn, lead to the calculative results. Calculative thinking based on the principle of reason (nothing is without reason) determines that the things of the world are disposables and are to be used by human beings in their various dispositions towards the world. This commandeering challenging of the world and the beings in it to demand of them to give us their reasons for being as they are is what we have come to call knowledge. This under-standing is that upon which all of our actions are based although we attempt to separate theory from practice. This surety or certainty that beings are as we say they are through calculation arises through the viewing and use of algebraic calculation in the modern world, the mathematical projection. The results of what is and has been achieved through this calculative thinking are what we have come to determine what knowledge is in our day and what is best to be known and how it is to be known. The axiomatic viewing or theory of mathematics, what provides the theory, is not separate or distinct from the praxis required to carry it out. The theory is not something left behind as the journey for results/knowledge becomes undertaken. The theory permeates each and every stage of the journey or search, what we call the methodology.
Ethics are based on what Aristotle called phronesis: our careful deliberation over what best actions will ultimately bring about the best end result. We call this end result our happiness or what Aristotle called our eudaimonia, our “good spirits”. But how can happiness be the end result of what is, essentially, a hubristic way of viewing and being in the world?
We shall reflect on this question by examining the passage below from Shakespeare’s King Lear.
CORDELIA We are not the first Who, with best meaning, have incurr’d the worst. For thee, oppressed king, am I cast down; Myself could else out-frown false fortune’s frown. Shall we not see these daughters and these sisters?
KING LEAR No, no, no, no! Come, let’s away to prison: We two alone will sing like birds i’ the cage: When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down, And ask of thee forgiveness: so we’ll live, And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues Talk of court news; and we’ll talk with them too, Who loses and who wins; who’s in, who’s out; And take upon’s the mystery of things, As if we were God’s spies: and we’ll wear out, In a wall’d prison, packs and sects of great ones, That ebb and flow by the moon.
EDMUND Take them away.
KING LEAR Upon such sacrifices, my Cordelia, The gods themselves throw incense. Have I caught thee? He that parts us shall bring a brand from heaven, And fire us hence like foxes. Wipe thine eyes; The good-years shall devour them, flesh and fell, Ere they shall make us weep: we’ll see ’em starve first. Come.
Explication of the Passage from King Lear
To attempt a summary and explication of the whole of the greatest work in the English language is impertinent. But a brief introduction is necessary to provide some context with which to understand the play as it appears in the scene above.
At this point in the play, Lear and Cordelia, supported by French troops, have lost the civil war for Britain to Edmund’s forces. Lear, as King, has been ultimately responsible for this civil war. At the beginning of the play, he has disowned his ‘truthful’ daughter, Cordelia, and fallen victim to the flattery and machinations of his two eldest daughters, Goneril and Regan. He has divided the kingdom in two giving each sister control of half, his intention being to avert future strife. Lear wishes to retain the appurtenances of a king, the appearances of a king, while retaining none of the responsibility: Lear is satisfied with the appearances rather than the realities of things. It is this satisfaction with the appearance of things that leaves Lear open to the machinations of his two daughters, Goneril and Regan.
Lear’s responsibility is, chiefly, a moral one. Goneril and Regan soon work together to remove from Lear the power and possessions that he once held. Lear becomes an O, a nothing, and there is a pun here indicating both his reality and his suffering. In his nothingness, Lear becomes mad and rages against the ingratitude shown by his daughters and the injustice that he sees in the nature of things and in the created world as it is. This scene quoted above is Lear’s anagnorisis or moment of enlightenment, the moment in tragedies when all tragic heroes recognize the errors of their ways and the consequences of their hubris which is at the root of their previous actions.
Lear ends up houseless and homeless and wanders on a heath in the heart of a terrible storm, the inner and the outward man caught up in a terrible disunity. Lear’s physical, mental and spiritual sufferings soon drive him mad. The storm’s effect is a purification of Lear: Lear removes his clothing; his ego, his “I”, is destroyed in the madness; he no longer focuses on himself but is able to see the ‘otherness’ of human beings and to feel compassion and pity for them (in the characters of Edgar as Poor Tom and the Fool) because he sees himself and his humanity in them. Lear’s life as a king has been one of a tyrant for whom all sense of ‘otherness’ has been forgotten. Edgar, too, has become a ‘nothing’ due to the machinations of his bastard brother Edmund in the parallel plot of the play. Lear has gone from King to nothing and he is ready for re-birth. His ego has blinded him to understanding what his true relationship to his god is: initially he looked upon this god and his power as being something which he, Lear, himself possessed. Lear believed that only he himself possessed the truth and that that truth lay in his power.
The play King Lear is a play about the consequences of not knowing who we truly are, as individuals and as a species. Lear, focused as he is on his ego, his Self, is willingly duped by machination in the play; he is willingly duped by flattery as this flattery is recognition of his social prestige. His suffering and madness bring him to a true understanding of his relation to the god and to other human beings, and this relationship is Love. Love is, as Plato describes it, “fire catching fire”. It is recognition that in the most important things, all human beings are equal in that all are capable of the capacity for Love. It is not without reason that in our art and poetry, Love has been described as a homeless, houseless beggar.
Many critics suggest this play is atheistic; Lear has lost his faith in God. The above passage suggests that such is not the case: what Lear has come to understand is his true relationship to God, the true relationship of all human beings to God. Lear has lost the illusion of what he had once understood as God and what his relationship was to that God. It is this illusion that is the trap cast for those who believe that they are in possession of the truth or that truth is of their own creation or doing, their power. The God in King Lear is absent: He will not perform some miracle preventing the hanging of Cordelia by the Captain later in the play. Cordelia has been a symbol of truth throughout the play, and in her death we see the literal destruction of truth among human beings. Good does not triumph over the evil of human actions in this play and we, too, by our very silence, are made complicit in the death of Cordelia.
The play King Lear shows that the purpose of suffering is to allow the de-creation of our selves, the de-struction of ourselves. For the Pythagoreans, the study of geometry served an identical purpose: the purification of our selves through a contemplative understanding of the things that are. For the Pythagoreans, mathematics was a religious activity. When we stand on the outside of the sphere above (the circumference) and are subject to its spinning, we suffer the ups and downs of Fate. There is a wheel of fortune motif that runs throughout the play: Fortune is personified in the passage through the alliteration and personification of ‘false fortune’s frown’ to illustrate that it is, in this case, one of human making: even with the best of intentions one can incur the worst: good does not triumph over evil in this sphere but is subject to the same necessity as are rocks and stones. To decreate one’s Self is to have the Self replaced by an assimilation into the divine; it is to become one of ‘God’s spies’, to see all with God’s eyes and to see all for God. When a human being sacrifices the Self, his most treasured possession, for assimilation in God, “the gods themselves throw incense” upon this sacrifice. We believe our Self to be our most precious possession; the renouncing of this possession is not easy, nor is it pleasant: it is done through suffering.
The centre of the sphere is simultaneously both in time and space and out of time and space. The Self as center here is indifferent to the size of the prison, the size of the circle, what can be encountered through ‘experience’ and novelty. For Lear, imprisonment is a liberation, not a restriction.”Suffering (affliction), when it is consented to and accepted and loved, is truly a baptism” (Simone Weil, “The Love of God and Affliction”). Baptism is a spiritual re-birth. The spiritual rebirth for Lear is clear from this passage as well as from Act III onwards in the play. The attempted suicide of Gloucester due to his suffering is a counterpoint to this: suicide is a sin against the gods because we falsely believe that our self is our own and of our own making and that we can do away with it as we would with any other possessions that we may have. Gloucester’s realization of this results in his finding Edgar again and having ‘his heart burst smilingly’ when he meets his final end. Contrary to our view, in the world of Shakespeare some kinds of suffering have a purpose.
Our personal knowledge is our ‘sphere of influence’ on our world and on the other human beings who inhabit our world. It is what we have come to call our empowerment. That sphere should be seen as composed of wheels within wheels with our actions the spokes of the wheels. The spokes reach out to the circumferences of the wheels: from the diameter, the right angled triangle cannot exceed that circumference. The sphere created by the circumferences may be large or small; most of our lives are spent in our attempts to enlarge this sphere. In it we are ’empowered’ to carry out our activities, but the prison of ourselves is still a ‘prison’ beginning with our bodies and our egos which are placated by the social prestige and recognition which comes from this fulfillment. We become the ‘poor rogues’ and ‘gilded butterflies’ that Lear and Cordelia will chat with, the partisans and politicians of the court. The outer edges of the sphere in its spinning indicate the fates of those who are ruled by Fortune: ‘who loses and who wins; who’s in, who’s out’. It is the fate of all of us who are dominated by the wish for social prestige, recognition. This fate and our desire for this fate is part of the ‘mystery of things’: to see this we must remain at the centre of the sphere where we are not moved by the wheel’s or the sphere’s spinnings, nor are our desires dominated by the wish for social prestige and recognition.
Lear, through his madness and suffering, has been re-born (see other sections of the play particularly Lear’s awakening when he sees Cordelia as an angel, a mediator, and in the play she is, from the beginning, representative of truth). His self, ego, I has been destroyed. In this scene, Lear demonstrates the friendship that is the love between two unequal yet equal beings. Lear’s ‘kneeling down’ when asked for his blessing in order to ask for forgiveness is the recognition of this equality. It is no longer the view of the Lear who said “I am a man more sinned against than sinning”, a false view of Lear’s at the moment of its occurrence in the play for it is the view of most of us with regard to our own sufferings.
It is with a great and terrible irony that after this speech of Lear’s, the following occurs:
Come hither, captain; hark. Take thou this note;
Giving a paper
Go follow them to prison: One step I have advanced thee; if thou dost As this instructs thee, thou dost make thy way To noble fortunes: know thou this, that men Are as the time is: to be tender-minded Does not become a sword: thy great employment Will not bear question; either say thou’lt do ‘t, Or thrive by other means.
I’ll do ‘t, my lord.
About it; and write happy when thou hast done. Mark, I say, instantly; and carry it so
As I have set it down.
I cannot draw a cart, nor eat dried oats; If it be man’s work, I’ll do ‘t.
The Captain’s final words are a statement for all of us motivated by social prestige. Human crime or neglect is the cause of most suffering. On the orders of superiors, we carry out acts that we believe are “man’s work” i.e. they are not the work of Nature but we ascribe the moral necessity for our actions to Nature: “I cannot draw a cart, nor eat dried oats”. We believe that we are compelled to commit immoral actions because we believe Nature imposes its necessities upon us; and, at times, Nature does indeed do so. But if we live with a thoughtful recognition that there are simply acts which we cannot and must not do, we are capable of staying within these limits imposed by the order of the world upon our actions. Such words as the Captain’s have been used by human beings to justify to themselves and to others the reasons for their actions from the committing of petty crimes to genocides. They see their crimes as performing a duty, just following orders.
The root of all crimes is, perhaps, the desire for social prestige whether that is achieved through position, money or recognition. For the Captain, it is Edmund who will determine what ‘happy’ will become for him by his giving to the Captain ‘noble fortunes’; and the Captain believes it. He will achieve his noble fortunes through the committing of an ignoble act. One would need to look far across the breadth and depth of English literature to find two more contrasting views of humanity in a work than that which is presented here in these two brief, sequential scenes from King Lear. Human beings are capable and culpable of both forms of action: we have an infinite capacity for Love and forgiveness as well as a finite capacity for committing the most heinous crimes; only Love is both beyond and within the circle, and all human action is done within the circle (or the realm of Necessity).
Contemplation and Calculative Thinking: Living in the Technological World
The passages from King Lear give us an entry to understanding a practical alternative way of being-in-the-world to the current conditioning or ‘hard-wiring’ of our way of being under the technological world-view operating as it does under the principle of reason. This alternative way involves contemplative thinking as opposed to calculative thinking. This contemplative thinking is open to all human beings: it is not a special mental activity for the few. It is an attitude toward things as a whole and a general way of being-in- the-world. It is the attitude that Lear proposes for himself and Cordelia on how they will spend their time in prison: while they will still be in the world, they will not be of the world. While they will be involved with the “poor rogues” and “gilded butterflies”, the world of these rogues and butterflies will not be their world.
What does this mean for us? It suggests that we are in the technological world, but not of this technological world; we are here in body but not in spirit. We avail ourselves of technological things but we place our hearts and souls elsewhere. This detachment involves both a being-in and a withdrawal-from. Like Lear and Cordelia, we let the things of the technological world go by, but we also let them go on. Like Lear and Cordelia, the detachment is both a “no” to the social and its machinations, but it is also a “yes” to it in that it lets that world go on in their entertaining of it.
What is Calculative Thinking:
Calculative thinking is how we plan, research, organize, operate and act within our everyday world. This thinking is interested in results and it views things and people as means to an end. It is our everyday practical attitude towards things. Contemplative thinking is detached from ordinary practical interests.
Calculative thinking is not computational. It does not require computers or calculators and it is not necessarily scientific or sophisticated. It would be better understood in the sense of how we call a person “calculating”. When we say this we do not mean that the person is gifted in mathematics. We mean that the person is designing; he uses others to further his own self-interests. Such a person is not sincere: there is an ulterior motive, a self-interested purpose behind all his actions and relations. He is engaged with others only for what he can get out of them. He is an “operator” and his doings are machinations. His being-in-the-world may be said to rest on the principle attributed to H. L. Mencken: “No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.”
Calculative thinking is, then, more of a general outlook on things, our ‘way of life’. It is an attitude and approach that the things are there for what we can get out of them. People and things are there for us to exploit. This general outlook is determined by the disclosive looking of technology and its impositional attitude toward things.
There is no lack of calculative thinking in our world today: never has there been so much planning, so much problem-solving, so much research, so many machinations. TOK itself is a branch and flowering of this calculative thinking. But in this calculative thought, human beings are in flight from thinking. The thinking that we are in flight from is contemplative thinking, the very essence of our being human. In this flight, we are very much like Oedipus who, after hearing the omen from the oracle at Delphi and its prophecy, rashly flees in the hope that he can escape his destiny. As with Oedipus we, too, are blind and unable to see in our flight from thinking and our rash attempts to “change the world”.
What is Contemplative Thinking:
Contemplative thinking, on the other hand, is the attention to what is closet to us. It pays attention to the meaning of things, the essence of things. It does not have a practical interest and does not view things as a means to an end but, much like Lear and Cordelia, dwells on the things for the sake of disclosing what makes them be what they are. Contemplative thinking allows us to take upon ourselves “the mystery of things”, to be “God’s spies” in the two-way theoretical looking of Being upon us and of ourselves upon Being. To be God’s spies we must remove our own seeing and our own looking, that looking and seeing that we have inherited as our “shared knowledge”, and allow Being to look through us. This seeing and looking is not a redemption that is easily achieved. The pain-filled ascent in the release from the enchainment within the Cave to the freedom outside of the Cave or Lear’s suffering and de-struction on the heath in the storm are indications of just the kinds of exertions that are required. King Lear in his anagnorisis has arrived at the truth of what it means to be, as such, and of his place in that Being. Contemplative thinking is a paying attention to what makes beings be beings at all, but it is not a redemption which can be cheaply bought.
The word “con-templation” indicates that activity which is carried out in a “temple”. It is a communing with the divine. The temple is where those who gather receive messages from the divine. Lear and Cordelia’s prison is, as such, a “temple” to Lear. Within a temple, one receives auguries. An augury is an omen, a being which bears a divine message which must be heard by those to whom it is spoken. In and through this hearing one is given to see the essence of things and to “give back” those essences to Being. Contemplation is the observing of beings just as they exist and is an attending to their essence. It is a reserved, detached mode of disclosing that expresses itself in gratitude, the giving of thanks. This attention is available to all human beings who through their love, like Lear and Cordelia, are open to the otherness of beings without viewing those beings as serving any other purpose than their own being. For human beings, it is the highest form of action directed by what the essence of human being is. As the highest form of human being itself, it must be available to all since it is our very nature as human beings.