Religious Knowledge Systems: Introduction

Religious Knowledge Systems: Introduction

Technology and Justice:

Friedrich Nietzsche

“Every age has its own divine type of naïveté for whose invention other ages may envy it—and how much naiveté, venerable, childlike, and boundlessly clumsy naïveté lies in the scholar’s faith in his superiority, in the good conscience of his tolerance, in the unsuspecting simple certainty with which his instinct treats the religious man as an inferior and lower type that he has outgrown, leaving it behind, beneath him—him, that presumptuous little dwarf and rabble man, the assiduous and speedy head- and handiworker of “ideas”, of “modern ideas”!—Nietzsche Beyond Good and Evil (Kaufmann trans. #58)


“….a proof for the existence of God can be constructed by means of the most rigorous formal logic and yet prove nothing, since a god who must permit his existence to be proved in the first place is ultimately a very ungodly god. The best such proofs of existence can yield is blasphemy.”—Heidegger, Nietzsche “The Eternal Recurrence of the Same”, trans. D. F. Krell p. 106

Before beginning this introduction to “Religious Knowledge Systems”, we must have a short discussion of what a “system” is.

In TOK we are given our program of study in the form of a “knowledge framework”. A “framework” is an example of a “system”. Our two new recent AOKs are called “Religious Knowledge Systems” and “Indigenous Knowledge Systems”.

What is called a “system” originates and depends on the mathematical projection and the quest for certainty that arose in the 17th century in Europe, primarily through the French philosopher Rene Déscartes. A framework or a system is only possible in the wake of the dominance of (in the wide sense) mathematical thinking: mathematics understood in its original Greek sense as what can be learned and what can be taught according to the new discoveries of mathematics and science.  This mathematical thinking has been called technology as a way of knowing, and this way of knowing or “seeing” was prior to its inception in the 17th century. A thinking that stands outside this mathematical-technological realm and the corresponding definitions of truth as certainty (the correspondence and coherence theories of truth) that is maintained within this mathematical-technological realm is thus essentially lacking in what can be called a “system”, and is thus considered un-systematic. The French philosopher Rousseau, for example, is criticized for his “unsystematic” thinking.

The Greeks had no system as we understand a “system”. We understand a system in the sense of a structure or plan projected and executed as a unity and embracing all essential questions and matters uniformly. We view the various adherents of the “religious knowledge systems” of the world’s great religions as human beings who believe that they are in possession of the truth and that this possession and its interpretation determines their thought and actions. This possession of truth can be held ‘fundamentally’ or ‘liberally’ in terms of its interpretations by those who adhere to the religion in question.

This “systematic” approach to thinking is nowhere to be found in Plato. The Platonic Socrates ‘knows that he knows nothing’. In Plato, the most varied questions are posed from different starting-points and on different levels. Everything is gathered together in the guiding question of philosophy: the essence and the how of what we think beings or things are. When applied to Religious and Indigenous Knowledge Systems, to call these phenomenon “systems” is related to what must have been communicated or written down as revealing what these religious and indigenous systems are to begin with, what they have or hold the truth to be. The conception of truth, the revelation of truth is prior to the determination of the system. Systems arise to establish the certainty of that truth when one’s primary ground is ‘doubt’; the Greeks’ primary ground was ‘trust’.

In TOK, concepts and questions are “systematically” connected to each other, and each has its appropriate place within the “knowledge framework” i.e. we do not question the biological nature of a tree in Group One subjects; there, in Group One, the tree is something different than the tree studied in the Group 4 subjects (and yet, paradoxically, it is not). The place within the system of a knowledge problem or a knowledge question is the interconnection, the “relatedness” that marks out the direction and range of our questioning i.e. how the ways of knowing are connected to or joined up with the areas of knowledge. In other writings we have called this the “logos”, that which “gathers together”. In TOK, the logos is what we have called the “knowledge framework”. This knowledge framework depends on our human being in the world: the original and unique connection of the concepts that we use is and has already been established by human being itself, what knowledge becomes and what we understand as our “shared knowledge”. The concepts depend on how human beings have come to interpret Being at a particular time.

This joining together of human beings and Being is what the Greeks understood as dike or justice. It was a “fitting together”, a “fittedness” and contained overtones of ‘fate’, or what one has to ‘bow down to’ or succumb to. It named a ‘joining’ or a ‘jointedness’, a holding together of the human being to their time. When Hamlet says “The time is out of joint”, he is referring both to his ‘unfittedness’ for the task given to him (revenge) as well as to his sense of the ‘unfairness’, understood as a ‘fittingness’ that he suffers from the burden of his task which is his destiny. Hamlet cannot see any justice in his world and, thus, hates his world.

Dike is what the Greeks understood as Necessity. For Plato, human beings in their desire for the perfection of the Good are required to understand the gulf that separates the Necessary from the Good. Not to do so makes human beings idolatrous and choose that shadow of the Good which is present in the things themselves rather than the Good itself. The theoretical viewing and the practical action are not separate for the Greeks. This is made quite explicit in Republic by Plato: not to distinguish between the Necessary and the Good is to choose the Great Beast that is the social and to desire the prestige that comes from the worship of social as presented in Book VI of Republic.  

The fragment of the first Greek philosopher Anaximander speaks: ‘out of those things whence is the generation for existing things, into these again does their destruction take place, according to what must needs be (necessity); for they make amends [diken] and give reparation to one another for their offense [adikias], according to the ordinance of time’: Anaximander’s conception of the world is the prototype of the Greek view of nature as a cosmos, a harmonious realm within which the waxing and waning of the elemental powers march in step with the astronomical cycles. Dike, thought in terms of being as presence, is the joining-enjoining order that Plato understood as Necessity. Adikia, the out-of-joint, is disorder and, therefore, injustice. The theoretical viewing and the practical action (the ethics) are not separate from each other; they are inextricably linked to each other. Socrates at the end of the Phaedrus prays for the unity of the inward and outward worlds of human being: “Beloved Pan, and all ye other gods who haunt this place, give me beauty in the inward soul; and may the outward and inward man be at one.”

The relationship between technology as the theoretical viewing and justice as the requirement of our practical actions is at the core of the thinking in the comments of these blogs about TOK and the questioning which occurs, why it occurs and how it occurs in TOK.

“Technology” is a very difficult word to define. Most of us understand it as the sum of all modern techniques i.e. as the sum of all the substance of the content of the IB Diploma programme including the ways of knowing, the areas of knowledge, what is called “personal knowledge” and what has come to be called our understanding and interpretation of our “shared knowledge”. By naming or calling a “system” the knowledge that occurs through a “religious” way of being-in-the-world reveals how dominant technology is and how technology comes to determine how we view the world from out of ourselves.

The understanding presented here is that “technology” (coming from the Greek words “techne“: to make; and “logos“: to know or to reason although this is still far too inadequate an understanding) is the unique co-penetration of the knowing and making of the arts and the sciences which originated in Western Europe and has now become worldwide. But “technology” is still an inadequate word for what is going on within us and around us.

It is foolish to say that technology dominates the Group 4 subjects and not the Group 1 or Group 6 subjects. Anyone who is awake in any part of our IB educational system knows that the paradigm of what it conceives knowledge to be stamps the institutions of the system; and it stamps the curriculum in what the young are required to know and be able to do if they are to be called ‘qualified’. This unifying technology as a way of knowing is part of that destiny that sends us on our way and shapes the ‘shared knowledge’ in which we are situated. While initially a Western destiny, it has now become world-wide. It is what is understood by the word dike above.

Aristotle indicates that man is the religious animal; by this I think he means that human beings will have a religion whether they like it or not and whether they “believe” in it or not. The atheist will have a “religion” for first principles are required for any action and these first principles will be the religion or belief of that person who holds that they are atheists and will in self-contradiction insist that they do not ‘believe in’ any first principles. First principles are found in that knowledge that the Greeks defined as “sophia” and were the foundation or the “grounds” of the “theoretical” knowledge that were occasioned by these first principles. Our axioms, for example, are those first principles which have their “shining” in themselves and are not products of human beings; our laws in mathematics and the sciences are those products that human beings have “brought forth” from the beholding of these axioms. But how many of us still look in wonder at 1+1=2 and in that beholding are moved to thinking about and contemplating the nature of a “1” or the nature of a “2” and how a 1 and another 1 bring about a 2?

To prevent some of the controversial (and often silly) discussions that come from viewing religion in its institutionalized forms, we will view religion as “what we bow down to” or “what we look up to”, that which we hold as the ‘loftiest’. The ‘system’ manner of viewing the outward appearance, the presence or phenomenon of any religious being in the world is to be contrasted with that ‘way of life’ which is the true being and essence of those religions. Most adherents to any religious way of being insist that one must be “inside” the “system” or the religion in order to truly and fully understand it i.e. it is not something that can be comprehended “objectively” or as an “object”.

For most of the sophisticated in today’s society, the religion that they adhere to is the “religion of progress”. To give the most general substance to this religion, it might be said to be the “willing” of justice in the world and this religious way of being represents the ideal of what these human beings aspire to. Its primary belief is that the progress of the arts and sciences would/will help alleviate the human condition, that is, bring about greater justice. This is what the “international mindedness” and “global citizenship” that the IB Learner Profile and the IB’s mission statement attempts to promote. Negatively, this progress helps to eliminate many of the injustices of the past; positively, it would open new apprehensions of what justice is by making a greater percentage of the population wise. This hope or goal of making the general population wise is the blurring of the ancient distinction between theoretical and practical knowledge, for in the thinking of the ancients, only the few were capable of theoretical knowledge while everyone was capable of practical knowledge or “common sense”.

Jean Jacques Rousseau

Many people throughout the world who are most deeply engrossed in the arts and sciences still see their engrossment and engagement in terms of the realization of justice. Our participation in CAS activities is our putting this hope into practice. We might call it the religion of the atheists of the left and it has its foundations in the thought of the French philosopher Rousseau. This atheism of the left has already been called a predicate of the subject technology in this blog.



The religion of the atheists of the right is also technology: the will to will of their own will to power i.e. what we have come to call empowerment in many statements of what we think we are as human beings and what we think is the purpose of our actions in the world. The central knowledge question and knowledge issue related to whether or not we, as human beings, are our own as is understood in our humanist understandings or whether or not we, as human beings, are not our own as is understood in all the world’s great religions is the core of what must be thought about and reflected on in any discussion of “religious knowledge systems”.

Both sides of the atheism that focuses on human beings as being their own are dominated by technology as that first principle which creates those other principles that motivate their actions. Those who chose to express their religion within a traditional form or domain i.e. one of the world’s six great religions, are still dominated by technology as a way of viewing and being in the world. That is, technology has become their “world view” and their religion has degenerated into a “world picture” or a “system” as the IB has chosen to call it in the recent TOK guide. This distinction between world views and world pictures should become clearer in other writings in this blog.

But the core issue for these writings on TOK in general, and of Religious Knowledge Systems in particular since at the root of all great religions is the desire and thirst for justice, is not the practical one of the fact that from this technology have come forth powers that can be used for purposes that speak against justice (e.g. the majority of those who study Group 3 subjects will not use their knowledge to “cure” human beings but to make them more “ill” i.e. they will become the advertising experts, financial advisors, economists, historians etc. of the future  as they take their place within the corporations and institutions that dominate our societies and determine, and are determined by, the regimes of our societies), but that technology itself may speak against any traditional notion of justice and may blur any understanding of what justice is that is not apprehended from beyond ourselves and beyond our own making.

We can all make out lists of issues coming forth from technology that threaten justice and these make up the substance of most of our teaching in our classrooms. Many of the best people are aware of these issues and difficulties and are doing their best to try to make the world more congruent with justice. But in doing so we are denying that the present difficulties in the world constitute a real ‘ambiguity’ in technology itself. (On a practical level, all of us must be concerned in the name of justice with one or other of the practical problems such as climate change, pollution, population, etc.).

The ‘ambiguity’ of the realization of technology has meant a dimming of our ability to think justice lucidly. Technology, which came into the world carrying in its heart the hope of justice, has in its realization dimmed the ability of those who live in it to think justice. The “objectivization” and “disposability” of that which is ourselves and not ourselves is a prior determining of our understanding of what justice is.

Immanuel Kant

The most influential contemporaries (the keepers of the fire in Plato’s cave) would deny that anything essential has been lost in our ability to think justice during the realization of technology. They would assert that justice was/is at the heart of technology from its origins. Progress in the control and commandeering of human and non-human nature is essential for the improvement of justice in the world. And what is justice apart from its existence in the world? The control of nature has freed us to bring about justice in the world which was not possible when we were bound by immediate tasks. In modern ethics, beyond the practical claims, the assertions have been made that justice can appear to thought with greater clarity than ever before because it can now be understood as utterly the work of human beings. This is the legacy of the shared knowledge that has come to us from the philosopher Immanuel Kant.

What is Justice?

Socrates in affirming that justice is “what we are fitted for” is asserting that justice is intimated for us in the ordinary occurrences of space and time. In these occurrences one is reaching towards some knowledge of the good which is not subject to change and which rules us in a way more pressing than the rule of any particular good (human beings aspire to the perfection of what it means to be human and this perfection is to be found in the Good). In the Phaedrus Plato writes of the beauty of the world, and Socrates states that it is the beauty of the world that leads us to justice. It is the beauty of the world that gives to us an intimation of the harmony that is the jointedness of the inner and outer worlds that is the substance of Socrates’ prayer at the end of the Phaedrus.

Beauty is always seducing while justice often appears unattractive. If in this world we could see justice as it is in itself, it would engulf us in its loveliness according to Socrates. But that is not our situation. Justice’s demands make it unattractive both to our conveniences and in our apprehension of the situations which call for our response. This is the essence of the knowledge problems and the questions that arise from them that are posed in the AOK Ethics.

Because the harmony of beauty is in some sense immediately apprehended by us, it is the means by which we are led to that more complete harmony which is justice itself. The harmony of beauty is not of our own making i.e. it is not a beauty that is in the eye of the beholder for if this is or were the case, we would need to ask “what then is beholding?” It is our apprehension of what beholding is and of what we do when we “behold” that prevents us from understanding or grasping the beauty of the world: our science cannot conceive of the objective world as beautiful in itself.

The Socratic affirmation about justice can be put negatively by saying that if we are realistic about our loves and realistic about any conceivable conditions of the world, and if we apprehend the unchangingness of justice, we must understand that justice is in some sense “other” to us, and has a cutting edge which often seems to be turned upon our very selves. The unchangingness of justice is given to us in the fact that we can know in advance that there are actions which must never be done (cf. Macbeth).  Beauty is not in the eye of the beholder but is the beholding itself of that which is human and that which is beyond time and space (see William Blake on the Divine Imagination).

What is meant by being realistic about our loves is that justice is very often not what we would want in any recognizable sense of ‘want’. What is meant by being realistic about the conditions of the world is that I cannot imagine any conditions in which some lack of harmony in some human being would not be putting claims on me–the meeting of which would often carry me whither I would not. Teachers of the young experience this on a daily basis; parents, too, are often participants in this requirement of justice. The young often experience the requirements of justice as restrictions on their freedom to do what they will.

Plato-raphaelBut as soon as justice as “otherness” is expressed in the negation that it is something other than what we desire, we must hold with the positive affirmation that we can know justice as our need in the sense that it is necessary to happiness, and we can have intimations of loving its harmony. The holding together in thought of our need and love of justice and its demanding “otherness” is expressed by Plato in ontological terms: justice is an “idea”. Justice is an unchanging measure of all our times and places and our love of it defines us as human beings. But our desiring need of an unchangeable good which calls upon us to pay its price is theoretically incongruent with what is thought in technology.

For example, one can easily describe realized human love these days as if it were the height for human beings, and our modern media abound with examples of this; yet, at the same time, for some it is described as if it were not qualitatively different from our need for food and is simply another expression of our appetites. How difficult it is to see it as neither height nor simply as appetite, but as the intimation of that immediacy of justice which Plato has described as “fire catching fire”, that intimation of justice’s presence as a recognition of ‘otherness’ of both other human beings and of the world.

Issues for Language as a WOK:

First, in using the word “idea”, I recognize that I am using a language which has no meaning in the current day to day everydayness of events. (Think of what “idea” means today or what we have come to call our “ideals”). “Soul” and “oblivion of eternity” run the same problems. Second, one must beware of using language which springs from the new forms of thought which have brought the current modern world about.

“Transcendence” is a popular word now; but it comes forth from the thinking of “freedom as autonomy”, firmly fixed so beautifully in the work of the philosopher Immanuel Kant. But this thinking is part of the loss brought about by the technology. (One of the main tasks of this TOK course is to make students mindful of the use of such language).

Simone Weil
Simone Weil

Third, and more important, the question of language is difficult because it must never move away from what is pressed upon us concerning justice in our daily situations. This is the difficulty for all of us: if we are to speak about the essence of justice we must always start from where it meets us in an immediate way every day. The French philosopher Simone Weil says: “Human nature is so arranged that any desire of the soul which has not passed through the flesh by way of actions, movements and attitudes which correspond to it naturally, has no reality in the soul. It is only there as a phantom.” (“Theory of the Sacraments” in Gateway to God Williams Collins and Sons: Glasgow 1974 p. 40). Much of modern Ethics thinking is no more than these academic phantoms because the problems and questions that arise have the appearance of being abstracted from the immediacies of justice. Think of the “trolley car problem” and how it has become applied to self-driving cars as an example; it seems that in this abstract ‘ethics’ problem, self-driving cars will not be fitted with brakes! The realities of the world present sufficient conundrums for the reasoning associated with ethical questions in real-life situations that we can dismiss such academic phantoms and not waste our time with them.


Martin Heidegger

The central ontological confrontation of thinking in the West is that between Plato’s concept of “truth” as “aletheia” (unhiddenness) and Martin Heidegger’s criticism of that concept. Heidegger criticizes Plato’s account of “being” as “idea” because it is the foundation of the definition of truth as “correctness” or “correspondence” and is therefore the foundation of the age of metaphysics or of the technology that realizes itself through the principle of reason (which are one and the same for Heidegger). According to Heidegger, this is the originating affirmation from which Western technological rationalism comes forth. The attentive reader will notice that what is singularly absent in Heidegger’s discussion of the “idea” is the “politeia“, the virtues (the ethics, if you will) in which the Sun, the Line, and the Cave are written. The powerful and pain filled language used by Plato concerning the breaking of the chains, the climbing out of the Cave into the light of the sun, and the return to the Cave are all related to the virtue of justice and its dependence upon the Sun or the Good. This is absent from Heidegger’s commentary. From his translation of the allegory of the Cave, one would not be able to understand that in the Sun, the Line, and the Cave, the metaphor of sight is to be taken as love. That which we love and which is the source of our love is outside the Cave, but it is the possibility of the fire in the Cave and of the virtues that make it possible for getting out of the Cave, for the fire to catch fire. When Heidegger defines good as used by Plato simply formally as what we are fitted for, he does not give content to that fitting as Socrates does when he says that it is better to suffer injustice than to inflict it (Gorgias). Heidegger describes Plato’s doctrine of truth so that “being” as “idea” is abstracted from love of justice in terms of which the “idea” can be alone be understood as separate. Goodness itself is beyond Being and there is a great gulf separating the Necessity of Being from the Idea of the Good.


Heidegger is the consummate historicist. For our students for whom the university is a destination, scholarship and the research associated with it as a substitute for thought is being imposed on them, but it is that historicist scholarship which destroys the presence of the past. Knowing technology for what it is requires recognition of what has been lost politically and ethically, and what has been found in technology’s coming into being. The questioning that TOK students must begin in their study of Religious Knowledge Systems is the questioning that will lead them to thinking about justice.








Author: theoryofknowledgeanalternativeapproach


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