Deconstructing the May 2018 Titles

A few notes of warning and guidance before we begin:TOKQuestion

The TOK essay provides you with an opportunity to become engaged in thinking and reflection. What are outlined below are strategies for deconstructing the TOK titles as they have been given.

My notes 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 you provide another perspective to the ones given to you in the titles. You need to remember that most of your examiners have been educated in the logical positivist schools and this education pre-determines their predilection to view the world 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.

My experience has been that candidates whose examples match those to be found on 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.

Here is a link to a PowerPoint that contains recommendations and a flow chart outlining the steps to writing a TOK essay.

1. “The fields of study of academic disciplines can overlap, but adopting interdisciplinary approaches to the production of knowledge leads only to confusion.” Discuss this claim.

Title #1 invites us to question how the various ways of knowing determine the various methodologies for each of the areas of knowledge. The “fields of study” are the areas of knowledge or AOKs and are the objects that are studied in each AOK and whether the end result is knowledge or confusion when an interdisciplinary approach is taken. What an “interdisciplinary approach” is needs to be determined. The “approach” determines the “What”, or is determined by the pre-determined understanding of “what something is” that is studied and “How” it is to be studied.

In a preliminary way, we can say that any “approach” is using our ways of knowing and applying the schemata which results from them, the knowledge framework, to a different “field” or different objects for questioning. It is taking the methodology and schemata (framework) of the AOK natural sciences and applying these to the AOK human sciences where human beings are the objects of study rather than protons and electrons, for instance. The schemata is prior to how we recognize or “cognize” the things that we see about us. From it we get what we call “cognition” and the determination of how we will view things. The most predominant example of using a schemata for the cognizing of objects within “interdisciplinary studies” is the use of the “scientific method” in the study of the human sciences. This is shown by the nature of the AOKs included under the human sciences i.e. psychology, economics, politics, etc. Here, the objects of study are those that are of human making not those that are not of human making. Attempts are made to apply the results and laws of the natural sciences to human activities with mixed results which you can use in your RLSs.

The contents of each academic discipline or field of study are pre-determined: bio-logy, for example, already contains within itself a definition of what “life” or “bios” is and must do so in order for its “field of study” or domain to be determined. This already pre-determined understanding of what something is in the “areas of knowledge” is necessary in order for human beings to take a stand among the beings/things or to “approach to” the things to be found in the field of study under consideration and question. This “taking a stand” applies to both personal and shared knowledge. The area of knowledge and the approach to the AOK are pre-determined by the schemata we choose in order to be able to “work with” the things that are to be questioned within each AOK. In our understanding of personal knowledge, the thing must first be determined as something in order for us to cognize it, have an understanding of it, and to bring it to practical use or praxis. The decisive questions for each AOK is “what” the thing is that AOK is considering and the “why” the thing is as it is.

Biology or chemistry must, for instance, build on the discoveries of physics in order to move forward because “physics” studies the physical things, the objects that are about us and are not of our own making. Thus, the research in these disciplines, biology and chemistry, attempts to determine the nature of “life” from that which is lifeless and to find the origins of organic matter in inorganic matter or from inorganic matter. These fields of study are “overlapping” and must be overlapping because they rest on reason as a way of knowing (the principle of reason) and on the language of mathematics that is used in order to communicate their “knowledge” or “findings” to others. Reason and language (mathematics is language) as WOKs determine the methodology that will be used, “the scientific method”, and they pre-determine the “how” of the “viewing” of the things that are in advance and how this “viewing” will be reported. In the human sciences this is shown by its reliance upon “statistics” as “evidence” of the “correctness” of its use of the principle of reason: nihil est sine ratione or “nothing is without reason” or “nothing is without a cause”. Reason provides the schemata or framework necessary for the approach to the things. The schemata or framework comes first.

The overlapping of disciplines creates questions, and if the creation of questions is “confusing” then one has to concede that this overlapping is “confusing”. Is it possible for reason to give an account of itself, i.e. what reason is, rationally, and thus to determine its own grounds? Is it possible for emotion to give an account of what it is “emotionally”? Is it possible for human beings to be both the questioner and the object that is questioned in the human sciences and what is the relationship between the summonsers (questioners) and those who are being questioned? Similar questions apply to all the WOKs and to the choices of the “how” the things as a “field of study or AOK are being viewed.

But underlying this title is the need for “certainty” in what we call “knowledge” in order that confusion and obfuscation can be avoided.  Certainty relates to the truth of things, and the truth of things is related to knowledge. Without truth, we have no knowledge. As moderns, we judge the truth of things to be in our calculations about them. Our calculations provide a permanent, secure, standing presence for the objects of study. These calculations help us to rise above what we call “truth relativism” or “truth perspectivism”.

We are more “certain” about the things which we ourselves have made: our computers and our hand phones, for instance, than we are about the things about us that we have not made. This is our “production of knowledge”; we are able to “bring forth” these things from out of our WOKs that have determined what the things about us are. Because we cannot attain to certainty about the things about us and what they are, we dismiss the need for knowing what the things are in themselves and choose to determine for ourselves what they are and what their “value” is to us. We do this through our calculating reason. The things about us become merely objects that are at our disposal; “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is how this is understood in the Arts as an AOK.  This viewing of things as objects determines our cognition, our personal knowledge, and our “personal knowledge” is pre-determined ahead of time since what “knowledge” is and how it is understood has already been pre-determined: human beings, too, become merely objects to be disposed of as “human resources” or “human capital” in the human sciences. It needs to be remembered that what we call the human sciences is a 19th century occurrence or phenomenon; in the history of thought this is very recent. RLEs can be chosen from any of the disciplines within the human sciences.

2. “We know with confidence only when we know little; with knowledge doubt increases” (adapted from JW von Goethe). Discuss this statement with reference to two areas of knowledge.

Title #2 expresses an old knowledge problem: the relation between “doubt” and “trust”. Doubt has always been linked to the search for knowledge and arose with the immediate empirical perceptions of the things about us. They are not what they seem. For the ancients, doubt was placed within the broader horizon of “trust”, but for us moderns “doubt” is the ground from which we begin our search for knowledge because of our need for “certainty” about things and what they are. Students are warned against trying to place Goethe into this quotation: while the research might be interesting, it will not prove useful in responding to this title.

Historical background: Modern philosophy and science finds it foundations in the thinking of Rene Descartes: Cogito ergo sum “I think therefore I am.” Descartes’ philosophy grounded what we call the subject/object distinction by beginning with a doubt/distrust in his observations of how things appeared, what we would call “simple facts”. Descartes showed that all physical things can be doubted as to their “whatness” and their “how”, but what could not be doubted was the human being thinking about the nature of the “whatness” and “howness” of the things. Descartes’ thinking was driven by the desire for “certainty”, and this desire is fulfilled by the principle of reason realizing itself in the calculating mathematical relations of the human subject regarding the things that are (language as WOK).

Through Descartes, the focus or paradigm shifted by placing human beings at the centre of the things that are and in their thinking determining what the things are. Rather than Nature establishing the standard of “what” something is i.e. its perfection or completeness, human beings come to determine what something is in their calculations of the relations between themselves and the objects that they behold in the AOKs.

The ancient Greeks and Latins did have doubt as a necessity to the beginning of thinking, but this doubt was enclosed within a greater trust that what is is good and the purpose of thought was to arrive at knowledge of that “goodness” in the things that are i.e. how does one become a good human being; how is the universe an expression of the god’s/gods’ goodness? What is the good life and how do you lead it? In modern thinking, the “goodness” of something is determined by its usefulness to us, and this usefulness determines its “value” for us. “Values” are human creations. Nothing is except in its relation to us and how we “measure” what it is. This is the root of our “to what extent…” questions: there is a measuring of something against an ideal standard of what that something is. The Greeks and Latins had no “values”.

As with many topics in TOK, the popular idea of “truth relativism” and the perspectivism of how one interprets the “what” and “how” that things are arises, but this is really a revisiting of the old historical occurrence of the issues and debates of what knowledge is between the sophists and the philosophers that has been present throughout the history of thinking. With doubt there are no “facts”; there are only interpretations of facts (the things that are). Truth and knowledge are related. All truth is one and is an illumination of the things that are whether one chooses the correspondence, coherence or pragmatic theories of truth. Each is an example of representational thinking: the mind corresponds to, coheres to or with, or makes pragmatic use of the perceptions of the things that are. Many criticize the “alternate facts” of the language of the alternate right at the moment. There are no “alternate facts”, of course; there are only alternative interpretations of the facts or the things that are. Either these interpretations illuminate the things that are or they do not; or in the most spurious cases they are used to convey “intentional ignorance” or obfuscation by those who have other ends in view. Socrates once said: “The opposite of knowledge is not ignorance, but madness”. This statement indicates the seriousness of the conclusions we reach when we have come to a decision about what knowledge is.

What we call “personal knowledge” was understood by the Greeks as phronesis and it was the knowledge that is gained from “experience” or praxis. For the Greeks, young people were deficient in “personal knowledge” because they simply lacked the experience that comes with age to make good choices. The end of phronesis is “happiness”: one makes good choices that will lead to one’s happiness. The role doubt plays here is whether or not the choices are good choices and whether or not to trust in authorities that may provide us with advice on the making of the choices: whether those authorities be parents, teachers, doctors, etc. In many cases, the reliance upon “experts” is important in the making of choices since they have the “experience” and the “know how” (techne) that we may not. Examples abound in the tragedies of the Greeks where the heroes fail to make the right choices and the choices that they do make lead to their tragic ends. In many cases, the choices made arise from having trust in “authorities” that are not “good” whether they be doctors, witches or politicians.

  1. “Without the assumption of the existence of uniformities there can be no knowledge.” Discuss this claim with reference to two areas of knowledge.

Title #3 asks us to question our need for uniformities in order to know and to produce knowledge. Students should examine examples of “uniformities” present in what we have come to call knowledge and in our manner of viewing things as objects. “Knowledge frameworks” are based on uniformities which, in turn, are based on the principle of reason which, as a principle, is “uniform” or “universal”. Language and reason as WOKs and how they are conceived and understood is crucial here. Both language and reason as WOKs are uniform although they may manifest themselves in many particularities i.e. our various ways for accounting what reason is or the existence of the many languages present among human beings. While we may have English and German and Indonesian, for instance, they are “one” in that they are all examples of what we call “language”. What language itself is a very great mystery and much thoughtful exploration can take place when one reflects on it.

In our calculations we use “ones” and these “ones” are uniform and interchangeable. But what, exactly, is a “one”? Uniformity requires and relies on abstraction from the concrete particularity of things. In the sciences, all matter is conceived through uniform calculations of uniform masses in uniform motion. Time is conceived as units that are uniform i.e. seconds, minutes, hours, etc. Matter, space and time have been ascribed these uniform qualities by human beings and are our interpretations of the things that are. The knowledge question is whether or not these uniformities, created by human beings, are “real” in their “existence”? Are these uniform entities the true reality of the nature of the things they attempt to describe? Do we arrive at the thing’s essence, what the thing is, from these attempted descriptions? Modern physics suggests that this might not be the case.

In the AOK Human Sciences, the use of statistics is an attempt to make uniform that which is not uniform i.e. the object of study is human beings. Can this be done and is knowledge arrived at when we use statistics to understand the activities of human beings? Our viewing of the world as uniform is a decision that human beings make about the things that are. It determines our “seeing” and how the things about us are. Historically, we arrived at this viewing of things through the philosophy of Descartes. How we view a road, a tree or a child is pre-determined for us. The fact/value distinction in the human sciences (and the natural sciences) says that statements of “fact” must be distinguished from statements of “value”. But “values” are present prior to our interpretation of “facts” and they will determine what we consider the facts to be.

Counterclaims or discussions may be approached through Art as an AOK. In examining Art one needs to ask the questions “What is art”? What is a “work” of art? How is art present in the work? How does the particularity of the work manifest the uniformity of what art is conceived to be? How is a work of art knowledge? i.e. how is a Shakespearean drama, in its art, knowledge? What is it knowledge of? What is the connection between knowledge and art?

  1. “Suspension of disbelief” is an essential feature of theatre. Is it essential in other areas of knowledge? Develop your answer with reference to two areas of knowledge.

Title #4 is somewhat of a repetition of title #2 i.e. the relation between “doubt” (disbelief) and “trust”. When we speak of an “essential feature” of something, we are talking about something’s essence or “what something is” and “how something is”. In exploring this title it is essential to examine the historical background and development of the AOKs that one is going to choose to consider. Whether or not The Arts as an AOK is to be chosen for this title is a choice that has to be considered carefully. It may be best to avoid it altogether.

The title makes the assumption that Shakespeare’s King Lear, for instance, is an object and that one must go beyond “disbelief” in the “rationality”, or lack of “rationality”, of the play in order to experience the true art and nature of the play. When we experience things as objects, we do not truly know them in their essence. By this I am suggesting that if one treats King Lear as an object, one will not be able to approach the truth of the play.

Our treatment of the things about us as objects limits our emotional response or Emotion as a WOK when we take them into consideration and questioning. Through this position of “doubt” as one of “command” in which the thing or object is summoned before us to give us its reasons for being as it is i.e. we make “judgements” as to what the thing is. This commanding/doubting is not a process, but is the initial ground from which, and upon which, we view the things of the world. This commanding viewing dismisses loving as a possible WOK the thing and the world and the things within it. This summonsing commanding position of our “subjective” view of the world which, historically, was made possible through the thinking of Descartes is made necessary when one considers that the world about us is chaos and that the constituents of chaos must be given “definitions” and placed within a “schema” or knowledge framework in order for them to be made “secure” and to make sense to us or for the world to be made “rational” before we can deal with it. The human being is at the centre of this “defining” in that it is human reason as a way of knowing which is responsible for the “setting of the limits” or the “horizons” of the thing and what the thing can be in its possibilities. It is at the root of our “to what extent” questions since “extent” is the “horizon” of something.

We “suspend our disbelief” in the AOKs of Mathematics and the Natural Sciences because these AOKs are based on reason (and we have a “belief” in reason) and reason helps us to “secure” and commandeer the world within our “knowledge frameworks” and “schemas”. If we suspend our belief in reason, we do not have mathematics and natural science as we know them. We can come to view the world as rational because, through our viewing, the world can be seen as “rational” with no contradictions and with “cause and effect” operating and understood and aiding us in securing the things and their possibilities. The justification for our belief in reason is assured by the results we arrive at through reason and the pragmatic usefulness we make of them for securing our being in the world. For example, we believe that if a teacher or a critic makes an absurd interpretation of King Lear nothing further happens; should a doctor misdiagnose a patient under her care, the consequences could be disastrous. Perhaps absurd interpretations in The Arts do lead to further consequences that we are unaware of further down the road.

If religion is “what we bow down to or what we look up to’, our belief in the principle of reason is the most “fundamental” belief for through it we are able to secure our survival and, in this securing, have certainty of reason’s efficacy towards our “salvation” in a world of chaos.

  1. ‘The quality of knowledge produced by an academic discipline is directly proportional to the duration of historical development of that discipline.” Explore this claim with reference to two disciplines.

Title #5 contains a number of assumptions that need to be questioned. The first assumption is that “knowledge” has a “quality”: what exactly is “quality” when it refers to knowledge? It seems that in order to have “quality” the knowledge must be useful in some respect. It is not hard to find examples where this can be justified: common sense tells us that there has been progress in the quality of knowledge present in the medical sciences, for instance. “Qualities” are “values” that we give to things in relation to how useful these things are to our ends, whatever those ends may be.  Some comparisons and contrasts can include the knowledge of traditional disciplines and that of Indigenous Knowledge Systems.

One of the implicit assumptions of the title is that knowledge “progresses” i.e. develops. The discoveries of the sciences and their applications would certainly be evidence of the progression of what we call knowledge. But what is this? From other responses here, you can see that the application of the principle of reason produces what we call knowledge which is used to enhance our “security” i.e. the overpowering of nature and the determination of the things of nature to our own ends. We take what we have not made and turn it into something that we make i.e. light into lasers, hydrogen into bombs.

The fields that many of you have chosen to study in IB have been determined by the “value” that is placed on the knowledge to be gained from those fields in terms of ultimate monetary rewards. Such choices are “pragmatic”. These fields are “valued” by the communities of which you are members. Many of you are studying to become doctors, lawyers, accountants, etc. in the hope that your studies will provide you with a good, secure income from which you can begin your search for “happiness”. Any look at the data of what students are studying in the IB indicates this. The historical development of these various “disciplines” and the knowledge framework or schema encompassing the study within these disciplines is based on the principle of reason. While the principle of reason was defined relatively recently in the 17th century by Gottfried Leibniz, the German philosopher, it has been present and in operation throughout the history of Western thinking from its beginnings. However the Greeks, from where the principle of reason originates held Art, particularly poetry, to be higher than Reason (until the thinking of Socrates). This could be based on the “trust” that they had with regard to the nature of things (although this was still present in the thinking of Socrates and his view of Reason and its efficacy and ends is very different from our current view). If you are going to discuss The Arts as an AOK for this title it should be remembered that aesthetic theories of art arrive simultaneously with the arrival of the definition of the principle of reason in the 17th century. It is important to question Art as an “aesthetic theory”. The true paradigm shift that occurs in Western thinking, primarily through Descartes and Newton, can also be questioned as to whether or not it too follows some “historical development”.

  1. Robust knowledge requires both consensus and disagreement.” Discuss this claim with reference to two areas of knowledge.

“Robust” is the key term that needs to be defined and discussed with regard to this title. A dictionary definition of the term would be insufficient in dealing with it. Would we define a knowledge that is “robust” one that allows us to apply it to our world of things and to make use of them? “Robust” is a value that is placed on the knowledge that we discover and refers to its practical uses or applications i.e. a knowledge of something can be assumed to be “robust” if we can make use of it in our everyday dealings in the world. The Greeks referred to this type of knowledge as techne. The discoveries of quantum physics, for instance, can be referred to as “robust” knowledge as their applications have brought about the information technology that is the chief characteristic of our age.  At the cutting edge of physics, consensus and disagreement abounds over quantum physics grounds, but there is no disagreement over its applications. The knowledge “produced” gives us our hand phones, computers, nano-technology, lasers, etc.  “To produce” means to “bring forth” from out of the theoretical viewing, just as “produce”, the noun form, is that which is brought forth by nature from a season’s growth.

The Natural and Human Sciences are the two AOKs that lend themselves most readily to a discussion of this title as both use “the scientific method” to achieve and report their results which bring with them either consensus/agreement or disagreement or something in between. The use of Reason and Language as WOKs and the roles that they play in arriving at consensus/disagreement can be explored here.

How would we define “robust knowledge” in the AOK History, for example? The data that is compiled through “research” becomes “fact” based on “consensus”. There are no “facts” that we have knowledge of; what are called “facts” is that which can be determined by “consensus” of opinion or agreement in interpretation.  However, “alternative facts” do not exist; there are only alternative interpretations of facts. In this area, common sense knowledge, what the Greeks called phronesis, is what is operative and common sense or “experience” is the chief end of the study of History. We study History in order to act rightly in the future: History is not so much about the past as much as it is about the future. The role of History in establishing “personal knowledge” can be discussed as well as the WOKs memory, reason, language or imagination. Consensus and disagreement relate to interpretation.

The Arts is another AOK that could be considered with regard to this title. Is there any consensus in Art with regard to the “value” of Art? What is Art? Etc. Does Art produce “robust knowledge”? Can the play Macbeth be considered “robust knowledge”? If so, of what? What would “robust knowledge” in the AOK of the Arts be? How would it be arrived at?


Author: theoryofknowledgeanalternativeapproach


4 thoughts on “Deconstructing the May 2018 Titles”

  1. for the title #3, you suggested art as an AOK for a counterclaim. however, think about a world in which facial expressions never mean the same thing twice. there is no uniformity in how we react to stimuli. what kind of art will there be? can you write a scene for a movie or paint a picture if you have absolutely no idea what (for example) facial expression means anger?
    after considering this title for a while, I think that everything related somehow to language cannot be free from uniformities. the whole idea of language is based on the fact that when i say a dog, you will understand what i mean, even though i did not point to any specific organism. hence, one of the places in which knowledge might be independent of uniformities is in the brains of infants, as they are yet to learn a language, and are incapable of thinking in one.


    1. First of all, I want to thank you for your questions and your engaging in questioning. We live in a world where “facial expressions” may not mean the same thing twice. Macbeth as a play is an excellent example of where deception in facial expressions is necessary to attain ends. But a common motif of Macbeth is that things do not have any “reality”; truth is lacking. What is a “uniformity” for one language/culture may not necessarily be so for all and therefore it is not a “uniformity”. Language itself, the logos, is one, but it has many particularities through which it comes to expression. Art has many particularities but Art itself is one. The infant, if Noam Chomsky is correct, is born with a “language gene” or a grammar in which in will construct its world. The infant is, and must be, capable of thinking in language because it will not survive if does not do so. This gene is one, uni-form, but how or what language it will use for its construction of its world is mani-fold, many. Your point that what is connected to language cannot be free of uniformities is something I would agree with. But I can only understand “dog” because I have prior experience of this animal in some way in the culture in which this word designates it. In Indonesia I say “anjing”…means the same creature. “Dog”/”anjing” is secondary to the language itself and subsequent to it. “Uniformity” is necessary for the “theoretical viewing” of the world i.e. the looking that determines the what and the how of beings/things.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I see your side, but I still think you cannot avoid uniformities even in this areas. on the topic of facial expression and social reaction, some of them are a completely biological reaction, which we can’t control (sympathy for someone crying for example). And Biology, like all other natural sciences, relies heavily on the idea of uniformities and that the laws of nature remain constant over time. about the ‘gene-language’, the idea I was trying to say is that it doesn’t matter how the infant thinks (he has to think somehow), but the fact that he doesn’t put his thoughts into a form that is understandable to other people. hence, he might be avoiding uniformities there. that brings me to the last point, which is the idea of different languages and cultures. of course different people will think about different things when they hear the word ‘dog’ or ‘anjing’. the point is though that we talk in categories. we associate some properties with a category that we call dogs, and then put organisms that have these properties into that category. of course, you can be more specific and say ‘big dog’, but again big is another concept that has a uniform meaning. the concept of bigness can be applied in different contexts, and it will still mean the same. overall I find it really hard to come up with a counterclaim to the one presented in the title. I really appreciate your reply, this an extremely interesting question!


  2. First, I think that the only “law of nature” is that there are no laws; everything is in flux, motion. What we call laws of nature are conveniences that we impose on nature in order to control and dominate it but it is not knowledge of nature. If the quantum physicists are right, we cannot ever attain to “knowledge of nature” for we will always be looking into the mirror of our own viewing. Our apprehension of things (the categories) are constantly changing according to whether or not they “work”, but this working is determined by us, not by nature. In Thailand, elephants are ordered to make paintings which tourists pays big bucks for. In my travels through the Thai jungles, I have never seen any elephant art or signs to “Eat at Joe’s pineapple farm”. The categories or concepts are applicable only within the contexts in which they are applied, the theoretical viewing that already has a pre-determined understanding of what something is and how something is. The uniformities are imposed by us and are of our own making. Having raised a few infants over the years, I found that they communicated their needs very clearly at the most inappropriate times. Thanks for the engagement with thinking.


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