May 2020 Prescribed Titles: Deconstruction


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 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 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. 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

Title 1: “Others have seen what is and asked why. I have seen what could be and asked why not” (Pablo Picasso). Explore this distinction with reference to two areas of knowledge.

Title #1 asks you to explore and question the thought of a great artist, Pablo Picasso. We should try to set aside whatever pre-conceptions we might have of Picasso and his art and explore the more general implications of his implicit understanding of what being-in-the-world is and how, in his utterance, he distinguishes the contrasts between art and science, poetry and philosophy, “others” and the “I”. These contrasts and distinctions are very old questions and have been with the people of the West since their historical beginnings. Picasso should be seen as a representative of Art as an area of knowledge and of the imagination as a way of knowing in the modern world i.e. a particular example, and your discussion should be about how “knowledge” and the search for knowledge is implicitly given in his quote. Do not focus on Picasso himself in your discussion even though I will say a few words here about him as a general representative of modern art (albeit a great one) and provide an example in relation to him.

By doing some research, you will find that Picasso himself began the art movement known as Cubism, and the principles behind the techniques involved in this type of art form are helpful in expanding on what Picasso might have meant in his quote, particularly with regard to “what is” and “what could be”. The development of the techniques of art throughout the centuries could provide examples for you to explore in your discussion of the relationship of art to the imagination. Seeing beyond the limitations of three-dimensional “seeing” as an example, through the use of imagination, could be a focus for your discussion. It might be interesting to approach a discussion of the title with some reflection on modern techniques in art such as Picasso’s and other post-Modernists and the mathematics involved in matrix mechanics in modern Physics.

In the mural Guernica below, we have Picasso’s presentation of “reality” at a terrible moment in Spanish history. Clearly, a great truth is presented in the painting so a discussion of the relation of truth to art could be in order. Questions regarding the role of art in personal and shared knowledge could also be a useful approach. A discussion of the work of art and truth can be found by following this link: What is a work of Art?. The relation of art to “reality” through the use of imagination as a way of knowing could be contrasted with the approach to reality using the scientific method (inductive reasoning) and how sense perception as “seeing” is involved in each. You may find the following links on The Arts as an Area of Knowledge and Imagination as a Way of Knowing helpful in exploring ideas that could lead to reflection on the topics involved in the title.


The quote distinguishes between the “actual” and the “potential”, between necessity and possibility, between reason (“why”) and imagination (“why not”). Historically, the Scottish philosopher David Hume discusses the role of imagination as a way of knowing most pointedly in his critique of reason as a way of knowing. The imagination is that faculty which allows for a “projection” of our understanding of the “real” from the “habits” informed through “experience”. Cause and effect is an example of this habit-formed view of the world, according to Hume. Artists, if they are great artists, are in constant contention with this view of being-in-the-world as they attempt to change the way we see the things of our world, to change our “habits” of how we view the world. One could take the Cartesian approach and discuss “objective” and “subjective” knowledge. Is beauty a product of the imagination and, thus, “in the eye of the beholder” or is beauty something “objective” in itself, something to be seen and not judged? What role does language as a way of knowing play in determining “what” something is? Is the destruction of language in the technological world an attack on the imagination? Is the desire to change the way we view the world in Art connected to or related to the desire to change the world itself and is part of the techne and logos that we call “technology”? What role does art play in what we call “technology”?

The “present” as the “actual” is contrasted with the “future” as the “why not” in the title. Picasso, like most artists, questions “why the why?” as our experience of being-in-the-world in his quote. The “present” and “future” relate to time, so art as producere, “a bringing forth” of something that was not, is implied in the title. Discussions of dystopias (Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale) or utopias (Thomas More’s work by the same name, but there are many others) could be used as examples. Here, language as a way of knowing, how language “brings something to light” could be examined. How imagination requires language in order to be a way of knowing is a topic that can be explored. See the following link: Imagination as a Way of Knowing.

How is art “the production of knowledge”? and other questions regarding what knowledge is also a possibly that could be explored through the title. The “techniques” or methodologies, the approaches, in the various areas of knowledge and the role imagination plays in them are some possibilities. Another approach could be a discussion of Ethics and the issue of novelty with regard to the production of “knowledge”, the “should I” or “shouldn’t I” issue. The American physicist Robert Oppenheimer once said: “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and you argue about what to do about it only after you have had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.” This quote can be related to the role of imagination in our everyday lives and the impact that it has. Picasso himself once said “Giotto, Titian, Rembrandt, and Goya were great painters. I am only a public entertainer who has understood his times and has exhausted the best he could the imbecility, the vanity, the cupidity of his contemporaries”. What is the role of the artist in the society of which he is a member? Of what “value” is “originality” in the arts?

Title 2: “There is a sharp line between describing something and offering an explanation of it.” To what extent do you agree with this claim?

The key terms to define in title #2 are “describing” and “offering an explanation”. Discussion of “a sharp line” is also required if one is to examine this title in depth. Another aspect of the title asks “to what extent do you agree” and this, too, must be addressed along with a demonstration of how you support your agreement or disagreement with the statement through examples from the WOKs or the AOKs.

A “description” of some thing gives us its “what” while an “explanation” gives us its “how” and “why”. Both descriptions and explanations are a “rendering of an account” of some thing so both involve language as a way of knowing and both involve other human beings so that these renderings of the things can become “shared knowledge”. This “rendering of an account” is what the Greeks called logos from where our word logic is derived, so it might appear at first glance that the use of the phrase “a sharp line” may be somewhat hyperbolic.

Whatever is being rendered in an account must also first  be “sensed” in some way, so sense perception as a way of knowing comes into play. But what shapes this “sense perception” so that some thing becomes defined as what it is in such and such a way? What some thing is is its “essence”;  a description of a thing provides the boundaries and limits of the thing so that we can arrive at a “de-finition” of the thing and so are able to distinguish one thing from another i.e. a donut from a coffee cup. Historically, these descriptions were referred to as “categories” or “what was said about something” or “down to some thing”. How large or small, the position in time and space, the color of something, etc. were all predicates of the subject that the thing itself was. Human beings were not themselves the subjects. That is a development that came into thought through Rene Descartes where human beings became the centre of knowledge and gave being to the things themselves. The “descriptions” of the things determined ahead of time what they were and how they would be examined i.e. our AOKs.

An “explanation” of a thing has its roots in our demand that a thing give us its “reasons” for being the way it is, its “why” and its “how”, and this is based on the “principle of reason”, nihil est sine ratione, “nothing is without a reason” or “nothing is without reason”. But is there such a “sharp line” dividing these accounts of the thing in question? Each area of knowledge has its own “thing” for which it gives an account and, perhaps, an exploration of the thing and how it is accounted for in two or three AOKs might be a way of approaching the title. A tree in a Group One text such as a poem and a tree in a Group 4 biology class are still the same “tree”, but the approach to knowing what, why and how the tree is are quite different in these AOKs. Choosing to discuss WOKs or AOKs will determine the approach that you will take on this title.

Thinking, or what is called thinking  in our age, is a metaphysical stance involving an empowering and overpowering activity, and our search for knowledge involves this primordial stance towards the things that are requiring that we demand “explanations” not only for “what” the things are but “how” and “why” they are as they are. This “sense perception” of the thing originally determines what the thing will be for us. The inquiry into who the knowers are and what the things that they know are, how they establish the horizons or boundaries of those things in their definitions and classifications, arises from a preliminary “description” of the things that they choose to examine and a preliminary determination of what the things are. The inquiry into the “how” of definitions and classifications is a search for an understanding and “explanation” of the “key concepts” that are used in TOK and in learning today.

Another possible approach could be a discussion of  “to what extent” a “description” or an “explanation” gives greater illumination regarding the “truth” of the thing that is being discussed. When we are speaking about the “truth” regarding things, we are speaking about the manner in which we make propositions or assertions regarding the thing so that the thing under discussion comes to presence or “presents” itself to us. If, for example, we were to “describe” Picasso’s Guernica shown above, that is give a description of its form and its content, would that give a greater “illumination” of the work than an “explanation” of the work? In both cases, the work would have to become an “object” for us and be placed “outside” of us, and in so doing we would miss the “truth” that is “present” in the work itself. Great art, by its very nature, resists “objectivization”. “Description” precedes “explanation”; an awareness and agreement of what a thing is is prior to the “why” and the “how” of the thing itself. Newton’s law of motion, for example, as a description of the nature of things must be preceded by a prior description or understanding of nature that will allow that law to operate in our reasoning. Once that “description” is in place, then the laws of mathematics can be applied to it to provide an “explanation” for its behaviour.

Both “descriptions” and “explanations” are based on metaphors or analogies in that a thing to be an original, unique thing, must be identified as some thing in contrast to something else in order for it to be classified and defined. Our AOKs are all descriptions of the things that have been interpreted beforehand. All of our metaphysical accounts of things are based on metaphor i.e. they are interpretations. When we ask “to what extent” questions, a normative or standard interpretation of the thing about which the question is asked is already understood.

Should you choose to approach the topic from the point of view of the WOKs, you may find the following links helpful in building your arguments: Language as a Way of Knowing;  Personal Knowledge and Reason

Title 3: Does it matter that your personal circumstances influence how seriously your knowledge is taken?

Title #3 invites the student to reflect on the relation of personal and shared knowledge and what kind of knowledge is considered “valuable” to the community of which one is a member. What “type of knowledge” matters or is of some importance to that community, or what knowledge is taken “seriously” by that community?

One can see, for instance, what kind of knowledge is “valuable” to the “international community” of the future by looking at student choices of what IB subjects to study.  One can see that it is science and its applications which can be achieved through the study of mathematics as algebraic calculation. Calculative thinking is what is and what will be “valued” in the “future” world society of which you will be members. Some few individuals may be driven because they value “truth” and will find such truth in scientific knowledge; others will be driven towards the goal of making “big bucks” and gaining the prestige they desire within the communities of which they are members. Because of their “personal circumstances”, some students will be able to afford to enter the Ivy League colleges of the USA or the Oxfords and Cambridges of the UK, and as past historical examples have shown, if their entrance cannot be achieved by merit, then they will find other ways to gain entrance. Today, the appearance is all with regard to how “seriously” “your knowledge” will be taken whether you have any knowledge or not.

As I write this, there is a controversy in the USA regarding what occurred during Hurricane Dorian and its threat to the American East coast. The hurricane brought catastrophic devastation to parts of the Bahamas and was a threat to do the same to the USA. In the controversy, President Trump, who had decided to spend the weekend golfing rather than monitoring the hurricane and providing solace to those who might have been victimized by it, insisted that the state of Alabama was in danger from the storm in one of his many infamous tweets, but the scientists of the National Weather Service contradicted the statements that the President had made. It was quite clear that the President had decided not to keep himself updated on the progress of the storm while he was golfing, and his statement regarding the state of Alabama was based on information published three days earlier, prior to the storm arriving in the Bahamas, and not on the current weather information that had been issued by the NWS scientists.  Trump insisted, nevertheless, that his statement was accurate.

This incident illustrates the difficulty of establishing “reliable sources” for one’s information even prior to this information becoming “knowledge”. What role do “authorities” play with regard to how “seriously” one takes their knowledge? What constitutes an “authority” on a particular subject? How “seriously” is a rational person to take the information that is received from Donald Trump? What role do “experts” play in whether their knowledge should be taken seriously? What makes a source “reliable” and what is “reliability”? Given the existence of mass media, anyone can put themselves forward as an “expert” or “authority” of one kind or another on any topic. These are all questions that you should consider when writing your essay on this topic.

Shakespeare’s Macbeth is a play that shows us the what, why and how of the relation of truth to tyranny in human beings and in the societies they form. We can relate this example to the “for whom” that “knowledge matters” and the consequences which result when the truth of the knowledge does not matter (there is no “knowledge” without “truth”). In tyrannies and fascist societies, truth must be manipulated and finally destroyed in order for the tyranny to flourish. Macbeth must first cloud and obscure his own reception of truth before he can carry out the murder of King Duncan; he must become “unnatural”. Following the murder and Macbeth’s becoming king, falsehood and deception rule and are constantly required for him to maintain the semblance of power. Shakespeare sees truth as something that belongs to human beings as human beings, and without truth we are not human beings; we become “monsters”, a word which comes from the original Latin monere or “warning”.

This example from Macbeth leads to the question of “personal circumstances” with regard to how “serious” one’s knowledge is taken. The Divine or the Eternal can take care of itself, but “truth” requires human beings to be receptive to it and to bring it to presence. Without the presence of truth, human beings will cease to be human. Our parables and the fairy tales that are part of our shared knowledge illustrate to us that truth somehow rests in “the smallest of things”, not in how many “likes” someone gets on their postings on modern media platforms. Perhaps our modern fascination with “giganticism” has led to this perception of what propositions should be taken “seriously”. When judging the sources of knowledge or information (they are not the same thing, and you could develop your essay by distinguishing between the two), one must be alert to “red flags” regarding the statements or propositions put forward by those who make them. If, for example, someone calls themselves “a philosopher” one can be quite certain that they are not in much the same way that when we hear someone who calls themselves a “saint” is not: their very calling precludes their being what they say they are. One can find many examples and parallels of this in American and world politics today where political leaders claim to be “experts” in fields in which they are clearly not. If Einstein had published his “Theory of Relativity” on the Internet and not in a respected scientific journal, its “truth” would not be known to us today but its “truth” would, nevertheless, remain present. Einstein was not in the best of “personal circumstances” when he wrote the paper.

What is the kind of knowledge that we value and why? Is “valued knowledge” in the “eye of the beholder”? That the emphasis on calculative thinking and the sciences as what is worthy to be called “knowledge” and is what is valued today is shown where art as “knowledge”, for instance, is not taken “seriously” and is considered to be merely for the entertainment of the masses in their leisure hours. What is being said about the culture that does not take its art “seriously”? When the Romans conquered ancient Greece, it was when the Romans removed the Greeks’ statues and their art that the Greeks wept. Would we weep today if our societies, our cultures lost their works of art? When the issue of cloning is brought up, the ideal of reproducing Einsteins and Mozarts is often mentioned. There is no mention of cloning a Mother Teresa. But this begs the question of whether or not our world needs more Einsteins or  more Mother Teresas. 

A long quote from Picasso should provide some perspective on “personal circumstances” and the “serious” knowledge of which we are speaking here: “In art the mass of people no longer seeks consolation and exultation, but those who are refined, rich, unoccupied, who are distillers of quintessences, seek what is new, strange, original, extravagant, scandalous. I myself, since Cubism and before, have satisfied these masters and critics with all the changing oddities which passed through my head, and the less they understood me, the more they admired me. By amusing myself with all these games, with all these absurdities, puzzles, rebuses, arabesques, I became famous and that very quickly. And fame for a painter means sales, gains, fortune, riches. And today, as you know, I am celebrated, I am rich. But when I am alone with myself, I have not the courage to think of myself as an artist in the great and ancient sense of the term. Giotto, Titian, Rembrandt were great painters. I am only a public entertainer who has understood his times and exploited them as best he could the imbecility, the vanity, the cupidity of his contemporaries. Mine is a bitter confession, more painful than it may appear, but it has the merit of being sincere.”

Title 4: “The role of analogy is to aid understanding rather than to provide justification.” To what extent do you agree with this statement?

Title #4 asks the student to distinguish between a number of key concepts in Theory of Knowledge: “understanding”, “justification”, “analogy”, and has the ubiquitous “to want extent” prompt for the thesis of an argument for the essay. Avoiding simple dictionary definitions of these key terms is best, so a recommended approach is an exploration of them through examples.

How does analogy work with regard to thinking? An analogy is a comparison which establishes a relation between unlike things. A map, for example, is an analogy which establishes a relation between the user of the map, the terrain of which the map is a model, and the unknown terrain over which he or she is traversing. Maps are “models”, and all models are analogies. Some models are more useful than others when it comes to helping our understanding of the things that we are trying to understand but some prior understanding of the things, the situations or contexts or of the things themselves is required before the analogy can be made and be effective.

If we look at our Venn diagram used to describe the TOK program, personal knowledge and shared knowledge are interwoven through the “relation” established by the WOKs. This diagram is also an analogy, an ana-logos or an “appropriate correspondence”, as this was understood by the Greeks and Latins. The relation between the “unlike” things is established through logos or speech: a naming of the thing to be discussed is put forward first so that a “correspondence” can be established between human beings and the thing that is named. For this naming to occur, it must first “come to light” as some thing. An “understanding” is reached through an agreed upon “judgement” of what the thing is, and this is how an analogy “aids” our understanding in our naming of what the things are. The naming helps us to ascribe limits to the thing and a “definition” of the thing beforehand. The naming allows us to classify the thing. What we call “knowledge” is the appropriate correspondence of the name to the thing and from it derives “the correspondence theory of truth”. Logos, fatefully, becomes translated by the Romans as logic so that it is through “logic” or what we have come to call “reason” that the correspondence between human beings and their world is most firmly established. For the Greeks, human beings were the zoon logon echon or the animal capable of speaking, or the animal whose nature was dominated by speaking or discourse; for the Latins, human beings become defined as the animale rationale or the animal capable of, or dominated by, reason. For the Greeks, things were brought to light through speech; for the Romans (and, subsequently, for us) it is through reason that things are brought to light. This bringing to light was done through “analogy”, an “appropriate correspondence”.

The role of analogy in reason as a way of knowing can be seen in our construction of inductive and deductive arguments and in our use of the algebraic calculations which are dominated by logic or “cause and effect”. Our use and reliance on algorithms is a dominant example of the role that analogy plays in our thinking today. “Argument from analogy” is a type of inductive argument where perceived similarities are used as a basis to infer some further similarity that has yet to be observed. They aid in our making predictions of the possible outcomes of events or experiments, and we “value” the “correctness”, “precision” and “certainty” of establishing these outcomes or our judgements of the outcomes in advance. “Justification” is “judgement” and judgements require “evidence” which is obtained through what was historically known as the “categories”. The categories provide us with descriptions of the “case” under discussion. The categories give us the “what”, the “how”, and the “why” of the things.

Our metaphysical understanding of the world is based on analogy, or metaphor to be more precise. These analogies help us to navigate the terrain that is the mystery of Being-in-the-world, to use an analogy. They “aid” our understanding by helping us to clarify our understanding of what is. In your oral presentation, it is more than likely that you will use inductive analogy to move from a specific example (case) that you are examining to arrive at some universal question or statement regarding what the example’s “truth” is or how the general principle throws light on the essence of the example under discussion, the “whatness” of what the example is, your “judgement”.

The Scottish philosopher, David Hume, critiqued the use of analogy in inductive reasoning, and it took nothing less than the philosopher Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason to adequately respond to his critique. Kant’s attempt to demonstrate that “synthetic judgements a priori” are possible is his attempt to save reason as a way of knowing from Hume’s critique. Hume critique states that our establishing of relations between the objects of the world and ourselves, our “experiences”, rests in and is driven by our own necessities and not necessities in the objects themselves. There is no analogy. Our belief and “understanding” of things is false from the start. Hume radically separates the mind within which ideas occur, from the body which receives impressions through sense perception as a way of knowing. The analogies that are made, according to Hume, are in the constructions of the mind and imagination, and their relation to the body is only based on whether or not they provide “pleasure or pain”.  There is no “justification” for our beliefs in the analogies that we have made between the world and ourselves because there is no correspondence; it is our necessities and not the necessities of nature which inhere in our judgements about things. What was the correspondence theory of truth devolves into the pragmatic theory of truth where “know how”, or “knowing one’s way about” in something (technology) or what we regard as our “understanding”, comes to dominate since our “know how” is how we grasp the things that are and this grasping “works” for us by helping us to achieve our ends whatever they may be, what we desire.

An inductive argument by analogy is an argument that goes beyond the information in the premises by making a projection on the basis of them and contains an analogy as one of its premises. As such, it is an argument where it is possible for the premises to be true and the conclusion false. An inductive argument by analogy can range in strength from very weak to very strong. There are two key features that determine the strength of an argument: the amount and variety of the features that A and B share; and the relevance of the features shared between A and B with respect to the conclusion. If A and B are similar in many relevant ways, then you are likely to have a strong argument. However, if A and B are similar in only a few ways or if the similarities are not really relevant to the conclusion, then you are likely to have a weak argument. Remember to consider this in the preparation of your oral presentations and also in the development of your arguments as you “judge to what extent”. In the Natural Sciences, for example, uniformity in the prior determinations of mass and motion allow the use of algebraic calculation to make predictions that can be verified through the outcomes of experiment. These “analogies” are very strong and until the discoveries of modern physics worked quite well for us as what we called “knowledge”. The discoveries of modern physics place this knowledge into question.

To say that two things (or situations) are analogous is to say that they are comparable in some relevant respect. This is not to say that two things are identical but only that they are relevantly similar in some way. In the Human Sciences, Social Darwinism is an example of an analogous model used to predict and determine outcomes of human behaviour in the politics, actions, and the societies that human beings create. The “fact/value” distinction that is the primary methodological principle of modern social science has its roots in Hume’s distinguishing between arguments of what ought to be cannot be made from arguments of what is. That is, that nature provides no grounds or “evidence” for determining what good and bad or good and evil are other than the “pleasure/pain” principle. In the Natural Sciences, we use the Rutherford model of the atom to “aid” us in understanding what an atom is even though the model has no relation to the results that arise from the discoveries of quantum physics. In Indigenous Knowledge Systems, on the Nicobar Islands, stories of the battles between the Goddesses of the Sea and the Earth informed the villagers that when the Earth Goddess appeared to gain the upper hand by the withdrawal of the sea, they knew that the Sea Goddess would return with a vengeance and so they took to higher ground and were saved from the resulting tsunami in December 2004.

In deductive argument by analogy, a deductively valid argument contains an analogy as one of its premises. First, an argument by analogy contains three parts: (1) the analogy  between two situations A and B, how they are alike and the manner in which they are alike (2) a statement P follows from situation A, and (3) the conclusion that P follows from situation B. However, there are also two key additions to this three part analysis. First, arguments by analogy contain an analogy (as a premise) which contends that two different situations (A and B) are analogous, i.e. they share some relevant feature x. Many arguments by analogy, however, do not specify what the specific relevant feature x is that A and B share. That is, they do not specify exactly how A and B are analogous. In order to analyze arguments by analogy, we add a fourth feature, which is an explanation of the analogy.

Second, in order for the argument by analogy to be deductively valid, we need a principle that makes it such that if the premises are true, the conclusion must be true. Without this principle, it would be possible for the premises to be true and conclusion false. For example, it is possible for A and B to share a similar feature x, for P to be true in A, yet for P to be false in B. What a deductive argument by analogy requires is a principle that makes the argument valid. This is a principle asserts that P is true for anything that has some specific relevant feature x. The argument is now deductively valid for if the premises are true, then the conclusion must be true. None of this is to say that the premises or conclusion are in fact true, just that if they were true, then the conclusion also would be true. In your drafts of your essays and oral presentations, you should construct the inductive and deductive arguments by analogy that you are going to use. Following the steps outlined above by enumerating them should help you with this.

In the Arts, the now old film Forrest Gump often shows Forrest quoting his mother’s analogy that “Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you are going to get”. This use of analogy attempts to make appropriate valid comparisons between two unlike things. (See the discussion of Title #2 above).  The “correspondence” of the relation between the two things used for comparison is what makes the analogy and its use effective. In comparing life to a box of chocolates, the analogy stresses the element of chance in life with regard to the outcomes of our decisions and that, at times, we will not enjoy the outcomes of our choices.

In literature the use of simile, metaphor, allegory and analogy are common artistic techniques in poems and other works. When Robert Burns says “My love is like a red, red rose”, he is making a comparison between something abstract (“love”) to something that all human beings can relate to ( a red, red rose). If we should take his simile and change it to a metaphor “My love is a red, red rose” then confusion would reign with regard to his meaning. Someone from a scientific world-view would not be able to comprehend the statement because they would take it in a literal sense and think Burns was a botanist! George Orwell’s Animal Farm is considered to be an allegory or analogy of the Russian Revolution, but it could be an allegory for all revolutions.  In the Christian Bible, Christ often uses parables as analogies of complex ideas comparing them to things that all human beings can relate to: “”The Kingdom of Heaven is like a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and sowed in his field; which indeed is smaller than all seeds.” Obviously, the analogies that parables make are not based on “emotion as a way of knowing” but are “aids” to “understanding” our experience of being-in-the-world and illustrate that “religion” is not, primarily, an emotional experience only. Many examples may be found in Indigenous Knowledge Systems as well as Religious Knowledge Systems. Analogical reasoning is one of the most common methods by which human beings attempt to understand the world and make decisions.

Title 5: “Given that every theory has its limitations, we need to retain a multiplicity of theories to understand the world.” Discuss this claim with reference to two areas of knowledge.

Title #5 invites you to explore the meanings of a number of key concepts that are used throughout the explorations carried out in a TOK course. It is important that you demonstrate your understanding of the quote used in discussing two AOKs through examples from those AOKs in developing your response. These examples must be RLSs (real life situations) not hypothetical examples. To do so, something must be said about “theory”, the knowledge “produced” from these “theories”, the “limitations” of these various theories, our “need” for a “multiplicity” of theories, and our prior “understanding” of the world in which we live that establishes what things are and how they will be viewed to begin with.

A “theory” is a way of seeing. The manner in which we see or view the world will determine how our “theories” will be stated in language, whether that language be words or numbers. It is through language that the relations, the ways of knowing, between ourselves as knowers, our “personal knowledge”, and the things to be known, our “shared knowledge”, are established. The multiplicity of theories or ways of viewing the world is required because the world is experienced as a multiplicity of objects of various types. “Specialization” is what is required because it has become impossible for us to have knowledge of the whole. Was knowledge of the whole ever possible? TOK is an attempt to return to the questioning of the whole. When examining events historically, for instance, a number of various theories from various AOKs are used to try to gain an understanding of the whole of what that event is because each “theory” is limited in its nature or “essence”.

“Theory” is a very complex concept. From its Greek origins, théa means ‘look’, ‘sight’ and hora means ‘to see’, ‘to bring to sight’.  Thea as ‘sight’ is that which allows the look of something to be seen and is connected to eidos (form) which is the ‘outward appearance’ of some thing. For Plato, the eidos is eternal or permanent; the theoretical looks upon the permanent things, upon their “essence”, what the thing is. The ‘treeness’ of a particular tree is that which is present and permanent in all trees. The theoretical person is the one who looks upon something as it shows itself, who sees what is given to see. From this word comes our word “theatre”, and the theoros is the spectator who goes to the great festivals and dramas to ‘see’ and ‘to be seen’.

The other complex of ideas associated with theoretical is that of the root theo which is to look upon the divine, to look upon the eternal things, the permanent things or the things that do not change. For the Greeks, however, this looking was not one way: the theoretical was also how the divine looked upon us so that we are given a sight of the eternal things, or the first things (archai), and this giving of the sight of the divine was a ‘gift’. So, the theoretical is both the god’s looking upon us, which comes first, and our response to that look (theo=divine, horao=the disclosive looking back). The proper response on our part was, initially, a contemplative, pious, thankful ‘looking back’ in response to the god’s look upon us. To be a spectator at the theatre for a Greek was to have both the god looking upon them and their response to the god’s looking; to be a participant/spectator at the Greek theatre was to take part in a religious activity similar to our attitudes when we go into our churches, temples or mosques. There were no ‘fourth walls’ in the Greek theatre. The whole conception of a ‘fourth wall’ in theatre may, indeed, be a product of modern fantasy or a result of our predominant subject/object perspective which requires that the play being viewed be turned into an object.

The connection between the Greek understanding of the theoretical and the modern understanding is that in the modern the theory encompasses the first principles, the first things, which determine the procedures and experiments or experience of the things that are (methodology); this is what the Greeks understood as techne.  For us, the dominant first principle is the principle of reason. The things are required to ‘come to light’, to ‘come to sight’, within the principle of reason which establishes the validity of the other first principles e.g. the principle of contradiction, etc. The great achievement of quantum physics is the discovery that things don’t quite come to ‘sight’ in the manner in which we expected them to under this manner of viewing.

It is through our “theories” that we arrive at our understanding of what the “essence” of things are. Essence means “what something is”, “that which lets something be whatever it is”, but our understanding of what something is and what lets be what something is has changed since ancient times. Many of the important concepts and key terms that are given in the Theory of Knowledge course are based on the Latinate origin of these terms in English because contemporary philosophical English is, for the most part, Latin in origin. This origin of the thinking in our language is most important in how we come to interpret and to understand what we conceive personal knowledge to be and what the shared knowledge is that is given to us in the handing over to us of our traditions.

Language is “the giving of an account”, and our account is that we reach knowledge when we represent things to ourselves as objects, summonsing them before us so that they will give us their reasons for being as they are. This is true whether we are speaking about the Natural Sciences or the Arts. In order to do this, well-defined procedures or “methodologies” have been developed and these procedures are what we call “research”. The “knowledge framework” is just one attempt to illustrate these procedures. These procedures belong to the very essence of what we think knowledge is because we believe that “research” is the effective condition for the realization of any knowledge; research “produces” knowledge. That which we call “knowledge” is such because the object which has been researched has been “revealed” or uncovered, “re-searched”. There are many examples that you can point to of the results that have come about through this research and have justified their theories in their uses.

While there are a “multiplicity of theories” within the various AOKs, our “understanding” of the world is based on the distinction between ourselves as “subject” and that which is as “object” so that most, if not all, theories begin with this assumption as their starting point, and our “seeing” are “pro-jections” on the things that are. All three words contain the Latin root jacio “to throw”, so our theories are a “throwing forward” and/or a “throwing against” the world understood as object. The world stands over against us. The “knowledge framework” of TOK is one example of this “throwing forward” in that the past (as History) is represented as an object or our “shared knowledge”. When we look at a thing as an object, it can only have meaning as an object for us. We can learn about it but not from it. This stance of command necessary to research kills the past as teacher.

In the Arts, the “work” of art must first be turned into an object so that it will lay below us as the transcending summonsers in order to answer our questions for its being as it is. In this transcendence, we ensure that the work’s meaning is “under” us and is therefore “dead” for us in the sense that it cannot teach us anything greater than ourselves. All the multivarious theories in Art today arose from the understanding of Art as “aesthetics”. It is not a coincidence that the theory of “art as aesthetics” arose in the 17th century simultaneously with our mathematical projection of the natural world: both required that the world be viewed as object. The place that experiment plays in the sciences is taken in arts’ and humanities’ research by the critique of historical sources i.e. the social contexts, the biographies of artists. The ancient Greeks, for example, did not relate to their art as “aesthetics”. Our views of the Arts as “aesthetics” has led the Arts to have less significance in the societies that these works inhabit. They have become “entertainment”. They provide us with “experiences” and are crucial to the “fun culture”. 

Belief is required to overcome the “limitations” that are present in our “theories” or views of the world. In the Natural Sciences, “evolution” is not taught as “theory” but as “fact”. This belief coincides with the “need” that human beings have for “truth”. In the West since the thinking of the French philosopher Rousseau, we have believed that there is a realm of being called ‘history’, and that there is a need to try to understand what the science of that realm was supposed to teach us. The need for truth that human beings have as the deepest part of their nature, that “need” that provokes them to give thought to the whole of things, requires that we ask questions that go beyond the “research” and “theory” in the natural sciences or of history. When human beings ignore this “need”, they will become less “humane” because of the inevitable tyranny that will result from their way of viewing the world.

Title #6: “Present knowledge is wholly dependent on past knowledge.” Discuss this claim with reference to two areas of knowledge.

Title #6 invites you to explore the nature of “present knowledge” and “past knowledge” and whether or not “present” knowledge is “wholly dependent” on the knowledge that has been handed over to us from the past. The reference to “present” and “past” is, of course, a reference to time, and time is a reference to History. This presents a challenge in that our word for “History” in English does not distinguish between “the study of” what is called history (which might be better called “historiology” or “historiography”) and “that which is studied”, the “object” of history that is an historical event or artifact. “History” relates to time; “knowledge” to human being-in-the-world. The German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, said that “Only that which has no history can be defined” by which he meant that the necessity and contingency of “change” is our dominant experience of being-in-the-world and because of this, we can never have “knowledge” of the things that are but can only impose “permanence” on this change through our “will to power”. Another statement by the French existentialist, J. P. Sartre, is that “Existence precedes essence” and it indicates that “what” something is cannot be determined until it has no “history”.  History dominates our understanding of what things are; all things have a “history”. Nowadays, many write as if God has a history.

While the title speaks of “present” and “past” knowledge and their relation to one another, the purpose of this knowledge in the “present” must also be taken into consideration and that implies that the “future” is also understood in what we consider knowledge to be. What is the aim or goal for that which we call “knowledge”? Why study history, for instance?

This title can be approached in either a direct way, by using the “knowledge framework” and examining the histories of the development of the Human Sciences and the histories of the discoveries in the Natural Sciences, for instance. A similar approach could also be taken towards a discussion of the Arts. One may take a chronological approach where every development or significant discovery builds upon past research such as the Periodic Table, our models of atomic structure, and so on. The history of “movements” in the Arts could also be undertaken showing how these “movements” relied on a “past” understanding of what the Arts were attempting to do. “Past knowledge” creates the “box” which thinking becomes enfolded in, and yet the thinking is not wholly dependent on this “box” as paradigm shifts do in quantum theory and Einstein’s relativity. (See The Natural Sciences: Historical BackgroundNotes on Ancient Greek Philosophy and Modern ScienceThe Arts as an Area of KnowledgeThe Natural Sciences as an Area of Knowledge:)

“Historicism” dominates how we view our “past knowledge” and how our past knowledge comes to be “interpreted” and “understood” as “present knowledge”. Under the influence of the French philosopher, Jean Jacques Rousseau, and later through an impressive array of historical data and analysis, European intellectual life became influenced and later dominated by the contention that all human thought is radically contingent. That is, the diversity and bewildering change that was revealed by the historical sciences led many intellectuals to assume that the ideas of the past were bound absolutely by the particular historical limitations of the age, and such limitations can never be overcome by any human effort.

This historicism, especially in its more radical and nihilistic forms, meant that no ideas can ever claim any sort of universal validity, including the ideas of “good” and “evil”. The effect that this historicism has on human thought is that the conclusions of the historicist do not lead to “enlightenment”,  (as the Age wherein these thoughts first arose) but rather leave the thinker without any rational guidance in ordering his personal or social-political existence: a single comprehensive view is imposed on us by fate: the horizon within which all our understanding and orientation take place is produced by the fate of the individual or of his society. As mentioned in the discussion of title #5, examination and research in the Arts is dominated by the examination of historical sources. The same could also be said of the Human Sciences. One of the essential questions regarding historicism is that is not historicism, our “present knowledge” regarding the truth of things, is not historicism itself a product of its time and, therefore, not inherent in the truth of things themselves?

The historical development of the Human Sciences shows the abandonment of an unconditional distinction between right and wrong among modern thinkers, and by modern I mean that thinking which first arose in the Age of Enlightenment in the 16th and 17th centuries. What is lacking because of this abandonment is any substantive conviction concerning those permanent moral and ethical principles not of merely human making or contrivance that can provide us with an intelligible guide toward the proper ordering of our existence. To put it in other words, for us moderns the “good” is not accessible to “reason” but is merely a “value” judgement i.e. the “good” is in the eye of the beholder. For we moderns, much of the personal and political nihilism that we have inherited as part of our “past knowledge” and upon which our “present knowledge” depends, stems from this lack of any standard independent of positive right and higher than positive right (i.e. of our own making or contrivance), a standard with reference to which we can judge of the ideals of our own as well as of any other society. This abandonment of “natural right” has taken place because of the role of history and historicist thought in the development of the nineteenth and twentieth century social sciences.

“Past knowledge” requires interpretation. An “interpretation” is what is called hermeneutics nowadays. Hermeneutics comes from Hermes, the messenger of the gods in Greek mythology (though he is very similar in nature to the Norse god, Loki), and pneuma or “breath”, “in-spiration”, to “breathe in” or “take in”, and was related to the life spirit or our being-in-the-world. So hermeneutics is initially rooted in the “divinely inspired” interpretation of religious texts or the “messages of the gods”. Today, however, everything is understood as text, or “object”, something to be interpreted from the commanding summonsing of the “subject”. The physical world is a text; the works of Shakespeare and their productions are texts; the Bible and the Koran are texts. These texts, however, are not understood as “messages from the gods” to be interpreted and understood, something which has been given or gifted to us, but are more related to what we call “theory”, “truth” and “method” (which is why we have the “knowledge framework” and Indigenous and Religious Knowledge Systems as two AOKs). From our commanding summonsing stance, “past knowledge” is “old knowledge”, “outdated knowledge”, something that we can learn about but cannot learn anything of worth from. We somehow see our own knowledge as a creation ex nihilo, which is not dependent on anything but our Selves. The findings of relativity and quantum physics in the Natural Sciences are clearly not “wholly dependent” upon “past knowledge” but are also not possible without that “past knowledge” already being in place.

The commandeering summonsing stance is the ground of historicism and is what is called the “technological”. It is part of our fate, first as Westerners and now as “global citizens”. It issued forth in “the religion of progress”, but now historicism has even shown that “progress” itself is a “value” which is highly questionable. The “know how” that is understood in the Greek word techne illustrates our summonsing stance and is one of the flowerings of the essence of technology. Essence means “what something is”, “that which lets something be whatever it is”, but our understanding of what something is and what lets be what something is has changed since ancient times and this change arose from our differing view of how Nature was interpreted.

Many of the important concepts and key terms that are given in the Theory of Knowledge course are based on the Latinate origin of these terms in English because contemporary philosophical English is, for the most part, Latin in origin. This origin of the thinking in our language is most important in how we come to interpret and to understand what we conceive “past knowledge” to be and thus what we consider our personal knowledge to be and what that past or shared knowledge is that is given to us in the handing over to us of our traditions. For those of us from North America, we have to understand that North American societies have little or no cultural history of their own which pre-dates the modern age, i.e. the age of utilitarian reason, “free-thinking” rationalism, and material-technical progress (technology as it is commonly understood). In North America, the needs of the spirit have been overcome by a pre-occupation with consumption and pleasure, and this is in no little way due to North Americans’ inheritance from the “past knowledge” of the thinking that was going on in Europe.

Historicism dominates our interpretations of what we call the Human Sciences. In North America (and now world-wide),  we have become completely oriented toward some future world, one that must bear the mark of our own creative freedom. Our destiny has become bound up with the will to change the world (to “make history”) through the expansion of scientific learning. We have made actual the dream of the philosophes of our past knowledge — to conquer an indifferent nature and harness it for purposes limited only by the human imagination. In the process we have learned to subordinate the past and the present to the future, so much so that the very meaning of human existence is bound up with what is yet to be (“existence precedes essence”). What is and what has been find their significance only in their relationship to the future; for modern human beings, time has become history, and history means the progressive fulfillment of man’s quest for a humanist centred mastery and perfection.

When the production of knowledge is directed towards the future, the net of inevitable progress is a shallow secular form of the belief in God,  and just as the historical sense has killed god, it kills the secular descendants of that belief (Nietzsche). For Nietzsche, two distinct character types will emerge in the modern world as a result of this “past knowledge”: the “last men” and the “nihilists.”

The last men are those who will continue to understand their existence simply in terms of the shallow and petty pleasures of life based on the “passions”, and will understand politics in terms of mass democracy and the continued social quest for material progress. Such individuals will, in turn, make up the mass of ordinary individuals in the modern technological society. The nihilists, on the other hand, are those relatively few individuals who, under the influence of scientific rationalism, recognize that all values, especially the trivial values of the last men, are all relative and contrived for they have learned this from their “historicism”. They will be the ones to see through the contradiction at the heart of contemporary liberalism, even to the point of undermining rationalism itself. It is from these individuals, the true heirs of Western rationalism, that Western civilization has the most to fear. Such men, says Nietzsche, are strong-willed, yet have no content for their willing, not even reason itself. This means that they will be resolute in their will to mastery, but they cannot know what that mastery is for (Grant, Time as History 1969, 34). The violence which is precipitated by the nihilists will therefore be unlike any experienced in past ages; the rise of Nazism is a prime example of the Nietzschean prophecy fulfilled. The thinking arose in Germany and it was Germany that first had to endure its coming forth. Contemporary North American and world politics see Nietzsche’s prophecy being enacted and unfolded globally. The thinking of Nietzsche lets us know where we are and who we are from the “past knowledge” that we have inherited.

Author: theoryofknowledgeanalternativeapproach


20 thoughts on “May 2020 Prescribed Titles: Deconstruction”

  1. You have used “rendering of an account” while explaining title 2. What exactly does “rendering of an account” mean?
    Thanks in advance.


    1. To “render” means “to cause to be” or “to give”, to “hand over”. Än “account” is to provide an “explanation for”, “a descriptive reckoning” or “judgement” of that which is being accounted; what something is. This rendering is done through the “logos”, language, whether it be in words as is done in the arts and sciences, or mathematics such as is done in the physical sciences. There is no knowledge without the “rendering of an account”. I hope this helps. If not let me know where the confusion lies.


  2. Stop overcomplicating your arguments by mindlessly jamming in adjectives! It’s not very helpful towards my understanding and it just makes your argument terrible.


  3. Please specifically identify where I am “overcomplicating your arguments by mindlessly jamming in adjectives!” Are we dealing with description of political/ethical concepts here or rational ones? I have certainly tried not to be “mindless” in my writing of my thoughts regarding the titles. Are the adjectives necessary to “enlighten” the categories regarding the things that they are describing, for instance? But specific examples would help me to help you to cease your grovelling :-).


      1. First, these are not adjectives; they are verbs or nouns. The word “pro-duce” is in scare quotes in order to have students think about its origins and to distinguish the productions of nature from that of techne. I would suggest you read the writings that I have done on “nihilism” on other sections of this blog to see if I’m, in fact, misusing the term. Nietzsche’s understanding of nihilism is certainly more profound and thoughtful then that given by those who do not want to think about the consequences of the word’s meaning and its use.


  4. Your language is verbose and sounds like it was translated from another language using google translate. Stop misusing the thesaurus buddy


    1. First, I have never used a thesaurus so I can’t “misuse” one, John. I have spent a lifetime studying literature and do not require the use of a thesaurus. I do use the Liddell, Scott, Jones Greek -English Lexicon and Dictionary and the Oxford Etymological Dictionary. These are necessary because of Google translators. That you find my verbosity intimidating is unfortunate but I am trying to make difficult ideas as clear as possible.


  5. Your definition of the word theory in relation to TOK isn’t correct and makes your breakdown of the prescribed title confusing. A theory in the natural sciences is something supported and built from facts, concepts and generalizations and it universally true. Unlike the laymen’s use of the word theory in everyday conversation, a theory is something that is true.


    1. Dear, Wren. Thank you for taking the time to respond to my offerings on the prescribed titles. “Theory” is from the Greek meaning “to view” or “to see”. The “theory” is prior to what is understood as the seeing and determines the manner of the seeing, the viewing. Our way of viewing/seeing is subject/object. The theories of the natural sciences are the ways in which the things/objects of natural science are to be seen, to be viewed. The “theory” of evolution is the seeing which is prior to the viewing of those living beings called flora and fauna and determines what we consider to be “facts”, concepts etc. How the flora and fauna will be looked at is determined prior to the results that result from such viewing, and they can only produce results that agree with that viewing. When they do not, the theory is discarded. “Facts” are interpretations. Concepts are the tools used and are derived from the universals that are understood as “mathematical”, the principle of reason. A theory is not something that is true; it is a way of seeing the world so that the things in the world will be revealed in a manner as something that is believed to be true: justified, true belief. I do not use the layman’s understanding of theory.


  6. “Theory” comes from the Greek “theoria”, which means “to view, to see”. The viewing/seeing is prior to the establishment of “facts”. The theory “produces” the facts, not vice versa. From it, evidence or support, the concepts, and universals (generalizations) are grounded. My whole point is the reversal of how “theory” is understood…and it is given support through modern relativity and quantum physics in the sciences.


  7. I feel dumb. period

    but thanks for breaking it down 😀 I shall re-read this 5x lololol

    But if possible, can you tone down the words T_T .. not that I hate it. On the contrary, I think it sounds cool, it’s just that I feel some students like me won’t really understand your arguments….. making a video would REALLY help 😀

    thanks and have a great day!


    1. Your reply indicates that you might be beginning the journey towards knowledge soon should you wish to do so. The “feeling dumb” is where we begin, but we should not worry about what we don’t know. I’ve had a lifetime to think about the questions and to search for answers to them and I still do not know…By wishing for a video, you are looking for a “sophist” as they used to say in the old days. The video is “rhetoric”, not dialogue or “dialectic” (which only means “conversation”). Also, you can begin your reflections on why you have chosen that most famous of identities these days “anonymous”. I’m not sure that I understand why you laugh when you say that you will read the responses 5 Xs. They require that, I hope. Also, I do not understand “tone down the words” or your short anagram. I am trying to make clear what are difficult thoughts…or what should be difficult thoughts…and I am trying to use the language that I have to do so. But thank you for your response.


      1. To whoever is writing this, and wrote this guide in general, you are clearly shielding yourself from any kind of criticism, whether constructive or not. For one, I am writing my essay about the “personal circumstances” prompt, and I can see that you completely misunderstood it. The title is implying that PERSONAL circumstances affect how OTHERS take OUR knowledge. You are arguing that it depends on who is judging the value of said knowledge, and you cite Macbeth, who values HIS OWN knowledge (in the excerpt); this is unrelated to the title. Remember, what others value matters not, how their opinion about our knowledge based on our personal circumstances changes is what matters.


      2. I am sorry that you feel that I am deflecting criticism. That is not my intent. The fact that you are able to take IB i.e. you are one of .00000001% of the world population of your age to be able to do certainly indicates your intent that your knowledge be taken seriously by the power elites in the world. In many places, such knowledge is considered a hindrance, but these places are not important in today’s world, right? The comments on Trump and Macbeth are those of two tyrants. Their personal circumstances means their “knowledge” (or what they claim) is taken very seriously by members of their communities. It is more relations of power and place in one’s community how seriously one’s knowledge will be taken. Thank you for taking the time to respond. If you really do “hate IB” do you have any thoughts or suggestions for an alternative to it? This is what I am trying to do in my blog, though I certainly do not hate IB. And I do welcome your criticism.


  8. I feel like some of the criticism is unfair. Whoever wrote this article has clearly put in a lot of time and effort, and while it is possible that some of the points made may be ambiguous, it’s clear that there are some really helpful pointers in the article.


  9. To be honest, I think this guy is autistic. The verbosity of this hunk of BS and his replies is insane, IB IS FOR TEENAGERS, U THINK UR BLOG IS SIMPLE AS CAN BE? THINK AGAIN


    1. Even if this guy is autistic (which, fortunately, he is not) this is not the matter that is under discussion here. Thinking is the matter that is under discussion. Teenagers are capable of that, are they not? (well, perhaps, some are). The cowardice of the emotional bullying so prevalent in some of the young today when they believe they can hide behind on-line anonymity, is an indication of that ‘pretence to knowledge’ that is not an indication of ignorance but of madness. There are more than teenagers involved in IB (but perhaps you weren’t aware of that) and this blog is written for the two or three that recognize the value of hard work when it comes to thinking.


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Theory of Knowledge: An Alternative Approach

Why is an alternative approach necessary?

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