May 2019 Prescribed Titles


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 for deconstructing the TOK titles as they have been given.

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 you provide another perspective to the ones given to you in the titles and from your 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 you need to reference 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. Comments, observations and discussions are welcome.

The May 2019 Prescribed Titles

1. “The quality of knowledge is best measured by how many people accept it.” Discuss this claim with reference to two areas of knowledge.

The knowledge questions that arise from within title #1 are in its use of the concepts of “quality”, “knowledge”, “measured”, “how many people”, and “accept”. Reflection shows us that these are all related to “value” determinations of what “knowledge” is and how its “quality” may be measured. The “quality of knowledge”, historically, has been measured by its “usefulness” towards the achievement of the ends that human beings have determined and have in mind. 

For example, in the IB itself the “quality of knowledge” which has been determined to be the most “useful” is that given to us through the sciences. Views of which subjects are chosen by students and their parents illustrate this. This may be contrasted with the quality and value of knowledge which may be gotten through the Arts. Our acceptance of the value of the knowledge to be gained in the sciences is seen in our societies’ rewarding of positions of money and power to those who have knowledge in these areas.

Knowledge that arises from the sciences and the mastering of this knowledge is what is held as “valuable” today and has been held as valuable for the past two hundred years or so . This “usefulness” is due to the fact that this “knowledge” “empowers” us in meeting our ends which, at bottom, are the controlling and commandeering of beings/things towards what is determined to be “useful” for us. Whether this be in the health sciences or the social sciences, this “empowerment” to achieve “useful ends” in the aim of the hard work that is required to master these areas of knowledge. Our “production of knowledge” is the desire to control “chance” and necessity and the power that arises through this control and mastery. The world and its resources viewed as “disposable” to our ends is our “empowerment”, and the value of this “empowerment” is recognized by our communities through our “shared knowledge” in the construction of what our curriculums will be in our education and in the awarding of the variety of positions of power within our communities for those who have mastered those curriculums or those who have gained the theoretical and practical knowledge that is to be found through those curriculums or our “shared knowledge”.

In order for something to be considered “knowledge”, an account must be rendered of what that “something” is. In TOK, we call this account our WOKs or our ways of knowing. Our ways of knowing are our renderings of the accounts of things: the ‘what’, the ‘why’, and the ‘how’ of some thing. That which we call “personal knowledge”, knowledge which may, perhaps, be most important to us as individuals, is quite “useless” without its being rendered or given over to others. We render this knowledge in our accounts of things through language, reason, emotion, etc.

What is the knowledge that allows or drives an individual to chose to become a member of Medicins Sans Frontieres rather than choosing the more ‘powerful’ other options which are available to that individual, for instance? Clearly, this is a ‘knowledge’ of some thing which the majority do not accept, but is it the knowledge of the art of medicine itself or the knowledge that brings one to make such a choice the knowledge that is most important? And which knowledge has more ‘quality’? One can see here the ‘value’ estimations which we use when we think of what knowledge is and these value estimations are part of the “shared knowledge” that we have in our possession and that has been given over to us.

The account of the knowledge of things held to be most “robust” or “useful” for us is that which is given through the mathematical in the form of algebraic calculation. This account of the knowledge of things is the “language as a way of knowing” that allows us to “measure” things whether through statistics (“how many people”) or through some other calculation that renders the “reasons” for things being as they are and allows us to make judgements about them (their ‘truth’). The rendering of reasons is based on the principle of reason as a way of knowing (“nothing is without reason” or “nothing is without a reason or a cause”). The rendering of reasons is what we call “evidence”. Such a rendering of the account of things is shown, for example, in the algorithms which dominate our sciences and information technologies and communications in today’s world. This rendering of accounts through the principle of reason may be metaphorically compared to a fish and its surrounding by water: the fish is entirely unaware of the water which surrounds it but that water nevertheless sustains its life. So, too, the rendering of our accounts of things through the principle of reason is “useful” for sustaining our lives.

In contrast to the quality of knowledge found in the sciences is the quality of knowledge found in the Arts. In advanced technological societies, the Arts are what we do in our leisure time and thus are relegated to being of secondary importance. This is quite distinct from the place of the Arts in other societies at other times and places in the histories of the West and the East. The knowledge to be gained through and from the Arts is secondary to that knowledge which we gain through the sciences because of our reliance on the rendering of accounts through the principle of reason. The empowering that is to be gained through the Arts is held to be of less value than that which can be gained through the calculative sciences since we consider the ‘truth’ of the Arts to be ‘subjective’ personal knowledge and not the concrete objective knowledge given to us through our employment of the scientific method. The Arts are seen as “valuable” through their ability to create for us “aesthetic experiences” deepening our personal knowledge, and our views of the arts are primarily through sense perception as a way of knowing.

2. “The production of knowledge  is always a collaborative task and never solely a product of the individual.” Discuss this statement with reference to two areas of knowledge.

Title #2 allows you to explore the relationship between ‘personal’ and ‘shared’ knowledge and its impact on the Areas of Knowledge. It also allows you to explore the relationship between ‘theory’ and ‘practice’ and whether these two concepts are separable or not. “Collaboration” as the workings of “shared knowledge” in the present through the past might also allow some exploration of memory as a way of knowing and its relation to the AOKs. Remember that memory is both a personal WOK as well as a collective WOK.

A collaborative task is only possible where the vision of the members of the collaboration are unified, and this unification comes about through an acceptance of the “truth” of the original viewing or the “theory”. To paraphrase the philosopher Hegel,  “A single mind is enough for a million hands” and this involves that the truth of the viewing must be accepted in advance before any progress towards an outcome or “product” can take place.

The use of the terms “always” and “never” bring about some points of contention in this title as these “value judgements” always do. These visions or viewings of the collaborators may be unified by the end in view, the goal of the collaboration such as the ‘bottom line’ in business or corporate enterprises (the need to bring about results), or by the view driving the tasks that are being conducted, how one is to best achieve improvements in the ‘bottom line’ in the most efficient manner. You are using such a ‘view’ in reading this blog in the hope that it will help you to achieve the best result possible in your goal of writing the essay within the collaboration that is called an “IB education”. Astrophysicists, for example, collaborate on exploring the meaning of the data given to them by recent revelations brought about by the findings of the new telescopes in outer space. Their viewing of this data, how this data will be viewed, has already been pre-determined for them.

When we speak of the “production of knowledge” or knowledge as a “product” we are looking at knowledge as the outcome of a “making” or a “manufacturing” so that it will come to stand before us as an “object”. It is a process involving the use of materials and ideas that will “bring forth” (from the Latin producere) some thing that will be of “use” or of some “value” for us. We might call this process “experiment” in the sciences, and in the other writings in this blog it is referred to as “technology as a way of knowing” involving logos as the “knowing” and techne as the “making”. When this knowing and making involves many individuals, it may be contrasted with the “knowing” of the single individual who discovers or invents the “theory” that provides the viewing for the many. The single individual also works in a “collaboration” of a kind with the “shared knowledge” that has been given over to him or her. The discoveries of modern physics are not possible without the initial discoveries of Newton.

In the Arts, the relation of the individual to the tradition or of  the individual’s personal to the shared knowledge of the community of which he or she is a member is a possibility for exploration and discussion. While many “products” of the Arts are spoken of as “productions” (i.e. theatre, film, dance), and must certainly be seen as collaborations, many artistic works are clearly the products of single individuals (i.e. novels, paintings, etc.), but these individuals must work within a collaboration with the tradition and their audience in order for their works to communicate with the societies around them. The question of what “knowledge” is and what knowledge is “produced” in the Arts can also provide some fruitful areas for exploration.

3. Do good explanations have to be true?

Title #3 asks us to consider what makes for a “good explanation” and whether or not “truth” is necessary when giving an account of some thing. The rendering of an account of something is related to language and reason as ways of knowing primarily, and the account may be rendered through words or through numbers and symbols. An “explanation” provides an account of the “what”, the “how” and the “why” some thing is as it is and encompasses all phenomena.

Any attempt to render an explanation of something involves some “knowledge” of some kind of that thing, and to have knowledge of some thing involves having made some judgement regarding the “truth” of the “what” (definition), the “how’ or the “why” of the thing beforehand. One cannot begin an “explanation” without first having some notion of “truth” regarding the thing that one is trying to explain. This prior “knowledge” of some thing is what we call “understanding” and we “understand” something when we believe we have the “reasons” for its being as it is. When someone in authority says to you “You better have a good explanation for this” when you have made a mistake of some kind, they are looking for your account of the what, the contexts (the how) and the consequences for the error which you may have made. “Explanations” require “evidence” which corresponds to the reality of what is present. When the explanation and the evidence do not correspond with the reality (the correspondence theory of truth), what is given in the account of the thing is mere fantasy. There are many examples that you can find and use to discuss this point.

This title can be approached by looking at it from discussions of at least two WOKs or ways of knowing or how the ways of knowing account for the explanations that occur in two AOKs or areas of knowledge. Discussions of language as a WOK and reason as a WOK would be fruitful in approaching the title. Any account of things in the Natural Sciences must be given in “numbers” or in “symbols” for we believe that it is through calculation that we can be “certain” of what some thing is and we are able to make accurate predictive calculations of how and why it will behave in the way it does through these calculations. These calculations give us mastery and control over the thing even though they may lack an “explanation” for the “why” and the “what” of the thing.

For an explanation to be considered “good”, belief as a way of knowing might also be considered since “belief” deals with the phenomena of “facts” and what we believe those “facts” to be or how we account for those facts. Today, much silly ink is being spouted regarding “alternative facts”, but the fact is that the alternatives being spoken about are, really, the accounts of or for the facts or the “explanations” of the facts. These accounts may be true or false. When they are “true”, they bring the thing being spoken about “to light” so that it can be seen for what it is; when they are “false”, the account covers or hides the thing. Disputes over how things are accounted for have been with human beings since the beginning: the contest between Socrates and the Sophists in ancient Greece is one example of this ongoing discussion in the history of the West. The current persistent attack on truth in politics bodes ill for the future of human beings as human beings are the animals that require truth in order to be human beings (if Plato, Aristotle and others in both the West and the East are to be believed).

Your essay might consider the importance of “truth” and its relation to “good explanations”. There are three predominant theories of truth present today: the correspondence theory of truth, the coherence theory of truth, and the pragmatic theory of truth. These theories of truth arise from an interpretation (whether correct or not) of the Greek philosopher Aristotle’s logic. The principle of reason as a way of knowing is what is operative in Aristotle’s account of things. When the thing being studied corresponds to the ideas in the mind then the “truth” of the thing is present and with it knowledge and understanding of the thing.  The “be-cause” is answered. When we make errors regarding a thing, these errors are the results of mistakes in the synthesis of our accounts of the categories of the things (i.e. its color, size, location, etc., the “coherence” of the synthesis of our accounts) not the presence of the thing itself that is being considered (or what we consider a “fact” to be). Our account of gravity, for instance, is incomplete but not “untrue”. Elements of truth are present in it to account for our knowledge and understanding of it and, thus, our “explanations” of it. Without “truth” we have no knowledge or understanding of the things that we are addressing and cannot “give over” to others an account of the thing, and it is this giving or handing over of the accounts that is essential. It is, if you like, what you are attempting to do in your essay.

4. “Disinterestedness is essential in the pursuit of knowledge.” Discuss this claim with reference to two areas of knowledge.

“Disinterestedness” is the key concept in title #4 and warrants some careful reflection. Is “disinterestedness” possible given the conditions of the existence of human beings and the existence of their world? We would like to think that the “scientific method”, for instance, has a “disinterestedness” that must be inherent in it in order to avoid the errors that might arise from emotions or biases in order for its results to be “objective”. Is “objectivity” possible is one knowledge question that arises from this position. Two AOKs where this can be examined and explored are the Natural and the Human Sciences. Given the cost of research in the sciences, is it possible for those engaged in it to be “disinterested”? Isn’t most research today in the natural and human sciences “vested interests”? How does the concept of “disinterestedness” relate to our concepts of personal and shared knowledge? Do the majority of students who study the sciences in the IB do so out of a “disinterestedness” in terms of what they hope to learn and in their pursuit of knowledge? In our age of “empowerment”, is “disinterestedness” just another name for “indifference” as long as the thing being interrogated is under our command and control?

The historical background of the notion of “disinterestedness” begins with Aristotle’s unique coining of the term “bios theoretikos” or the “theoretical life”. This mode of being in the world was the goal of the philosopher for Aristotle. It was later understood by the Latins and the monks of the early Christian Church to be the “contemplative” life as opposed to the life of engagement in caritas or charity. This conflict in many of its permutations is still present with us today when we consider the “usefulness” of what we discover and why we study what we study and to what ends the results will be used.

Our own view of the importance of “disinterestedness” in the pursuit of knowledge is the result of the emphasis we place on Cartesianism, the separation of subject and object, in our approach to how we view (the theoretical) the world. This separation was grounded in the great writings of the German philosopher Kant in his critiques of pure reason, practical reason and judgement. We are still living out the works of Kant, and his thinking is being eroded by the later thinking of Darwin and Nietzsche . For Descartes, in order for some thing “to be”, then that thing must be “represented” by the mind of the subject. 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 that ‘the beingness of beings as a whole is conceived as the being-represented of the producible and explainable. This manner of thinking that we call “conceptual thinking”, determines beforehand the nature of our ways of knowing: reason, imagination, language, etc. Descartes’s view was that whenever I think about anything I also think that I think. In the representing, that which is represented and the representer are always co-represented at the same time. What we call “humanism” finds its grounding in the thinking of Descartes.

The findings of Kant and his thinking have been brought into question by the discoveries of modern physics in the 20th century. For example, the German physicist Werner Heisenberg has stated: “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 language that Heisenberg is referring to here is mathematics, and the answers to the questions that we pose are in the certainty of  our calculations regarding the outcomes or results which gives us the ability to predict the behaviours of the objects that are under study and, thus, give us control  over them so that they may be applied to our ends. But it is not “nature” that is being “known” here. Is this end of our knowledge, the mastery of nature in the sciences, really “disinterested”? What is the purpose of this “mastery”? How does this relate to the Human Sciences where the object of study is human beings and the development of techniques for their mastery and control? These are just some of the  knowledge questions that might be used when choosing examples to explore this title.

5. “The production of knowledge requires accepting conclusions that go beyond the evidence for them.” Discuss this claim.

When we speak about the “production” of some thing such as “knowledge”, we are speaking about knowledge as a “project”, an entity or thing that relates to our conceptual, representational thinking and the “correspondence theory of truth” of what we call our “shared knowledge” in our TOK language. To “produce” something means to bring it forth out of hiding whether that something is a peach in an orchard and is the product of Nature (and thus relates to our word “produce” when referring to things such as fruits and vegetables) or the latest tech gadget from Apple which is the “produce” of human beings. “Production” is a “bringing forth”. “Production” is related to the Greek word techne which is the “knowing” and the “know how” that guides our relations to the things that are produced by Nature and to Nature itself as well as our knowing that is related to the things produced or made by human beings. It is a kind of “knowing” that allows for the “making” of such things as hand phones and computers and we call this knowing and making “technology”.

“Conclusions” relate to our judgements of what some thing is. Our judgements are the definitions that we give to things thus providing the limits to the things so that we may classify them as such and such a thing and place them in our Areas of Knowledge. For example, while we accept the existence of atoms, we have no appropriate models to “represent” them given the “evidence” that we have regarding their nature and behaviour. Atoms are symbolic entities represented by an algebraic formula, and their physical “existence” is “skipped over” in order that we may “produce” knowledge based on the conclusions that we have already arrived at regarding the atom’s nature and what it is. In this skipping over, we “go beyond” the issue of our lack of knowledge of what the thing such as an atom might be. The Rutherford model that is sometimes used to describe an atom is simply a piece of fantasy and does not relate to the reality of the atom.

Because the mathematics of atoms or of anything else works in producing the outcomes that we desire, we do not care what the nature of the atom really is as long as we are able to produce reliable results or conclusions and can make use of those results or conclusions. This is the crisis of modern science when we consider that the word “science” means “knowledge”. Science does not and cannot reflect or question its own beginnings because this would stop it from “producing” the kind of knowledge that we are speaking about here. Science cannot conduct an experiment to provide the evidence that shows what science itself is; that is, it cannot give an “account” of itself scientifically. “Evidence” is what we call the “account of something”. It is the answer to the question of “why” and begins with “be-cause”. It is the rendering of reasons.

We have much greater knowledge of the things which we have “produced” or made than we do of the things that we have not produced or made or the things that are the products of Nature. The results or accounts of science must be reported in the language of mathematics for this is the only language adequate for the thinking that allows the space for the “production” of this type of knowledge to occur. When we speak of this kind of knowledge it must be acknowledged that it is a knowledge that operates within a limited horizon regarding its understanding of “what”, “why” and “how” things are, but again, this does not really matter to us as long as we can make “use” of the results that are gathered. Again, this is the crisis of science in our era.

In the Arts one can discuss our general lack of knowledge regarding the mysteries of imagination, language, the work of art and Art itself. To produce or bring forth the work of art whether as a “production” or an object of art does not require that we know or are certain of what “art” is, or what “language” is, or what the “imagination” is. The work “speaks for itself” and is its own account. We may discuss whether something is or is not art or whether a production is “good” or “bad” but these are secondary to the work itself. The artist is originated by the work of art. The point is not simply that no one is an artist until he or she creates a work, but that the artist is not in control of his or her own creativity. Art is a sort of impersonal force that uses the artist for its own purposes and in this way the artist must accept “conclusions” (the work) over which they have no or limited “control” or “evidence”. This may be the reason why artists find it so difficult to account for their art; they simply do not know.

The aesthetic view of art so prevalent today stems from the human-centred metaphysic of modernity or what we call humanism, and coheres with the conception of beings as what is ‘objectively representable’. My own states, the way I feel in the presence of something, determines my view of everything I encounter. Art is thus “subjective”. Hence art has become a device for the provision of ‘experience and part of our “personal knowledge”. This view is abetted by the view that a work of art is a thing, a crafted thing, with aesthetic value superimposed on it by us. Despite the Greek use of techne for both ‘craft’ and ‘art’ (since techne means bringing forth beings through “know how”), this “production” is present both in human beings and in Nature. The “ends”, the conclusions, are accepted even though we have no “knowledge” of the whats, the hows and the whys of the things.

6. “One way to assure the health of a discipline is to nurture contrasting perspectives.” Discuss this claim.

Using the metaphor of “health” when speaking about a “discipline” indicates that the discipline is considered a “living being” or a living thing. We do not speak of the “health” of rocks, for instance. To be capable of living implies, concurrently, the capability of dying so the “knowledge” that is present in the discipline is not permanent but historical.

The statement implies an historical approach to knowledge. This statement is very much a “modern” viewpoint or “perspective”. The great thinker of perspectivism in the West was Friedrich Nietzsche. Plato, by contrast, saw knowledge as being contained in the Ideas and in the beholding of the Ideas and was thus “permanent” or eternal. Title #6 implies that the “methodology”, the “discipline” of any area of knowledge for how the things within that area of knowledge are to be beheld and accounted for, is contained in the “perspective” or the “viewing”, the theory and the concepts resulting from the theory, which drives the methodology forward. “Contrasting perspectives” are not from within the “viewing” itself, the “theory”, but in the accounts that result from this viewing. The viewing is but one possible way of viewing; many others are possible.

We see various accounts in the various disciplines in the experiments that are performed by scientists, for instance, or in the papers that are required to be written by the learned professors in their academic disciplines. Some of these accounts are quite silly and I’m sure that many of you will be able to find ample examples of these academic inanities for your papers. Some are merely “putting old wine into new wine skins” where concepts and ideas that were much better thought out by our predecessors in our shared knowledge are renamed to give them, what the unthinking moderns believe is some modern relevance.

Thinking involves asking questions. A question is distinct from a knowledge problem. A knowledge problem (such as the freewill problem) is an objectified timeless entity, extracted by philosophers from the works of Plato, Kant, etc. It is something studied in the Group 3 course on philosophy and its history of philosophical ideas. A question is a concrete, situated event and it is something you are asked to do in both your oral presentations and in your essays through arriving at the questions in the examples that you have chosen. Questions, unlike problems, are not restricted to a traditional menu or historical account that has become part of our shared knowledge. Does the “health” of a discipline imply the kind of thinking that is within it and the kinds of questions which are asked in that discipline? Is the horizon of the thinking within a discipline quite limited in the possibilities of its “various perspectives”? Does science “think” and is it capable of thinking? Is there any perspective in the arts that goes beyond the viewing of the arts as an “aesthetic experience” i.e. art as an object?

In exploring title #6, using the knowledge framework to explore the key concepts of the AOKs chosen and the WOKs within those AOKs might be a fruitful approach. Arriving at some statements regarding the “health” of an AOK, and providing an account for the making of those statements could result in a good paper.


Author: theoryofknowledgeanalternativeapproach


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Theory of Knowledge: An Alternative Approach

Why is an alternative approach necessary?

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