CT 1: Introduction to Theory of Knowledge: Knowledge and the Knower

“Posterity may know we have not loosely through silence permitted things to pass away as in a dream”.—Richard Hooker, Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, 1554 

This post has been updated to reflect the changes presented in the Theory of Knowledge Course Guide May, 2022, published in February, 2020.

Why an Alternative Approach is Necessary:

TOKQuestionThis alternative approach begins with a generalized assertion about the IB Diploma Program: that it is one of the flowerings of the essence of technology whose origins lie in Western European thinking which began with the Renaissance and developed from the thinking present at that time. 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. The TOK course in its ends, its assessments, attempts to be “a set of conceptual tools” that are to be applied to “concrete situations” through its Exhibition. But what are these “conceptual tools” in their essence, from where did they originate, and how do they engender our understanding of what makes for a “concrete” situation?

Because of the reality of time constraints within the overall carrying out of the Diploma program, a great deal of what is necessary to be learned to be able to discuss the topics of TOK with any depth must be “skipped over”, and this skipping over of things is very characteristic of the search for knowledge in our modern age. Every asking about something, every questioning, is a seeking. Every seeking is guided beforehand by what is sought. Our seeking is the act of questioning, an aware seeking for something with regard to the fact that it is (its “whatness”) and with regard to the manner of its being (its “howness”, its manner of being what it is). It is an “inquiry” and an “investigating” in which we lay bare what the questioning is about and we ascertain its character. In TOK the questioning is about knowledge and what we know and how we know it. We are guided in this search for the “what” and “how” of knowledge in various domains or areas of knowledge through the framework of “scope”, “perspectives”, “methods and tools”, and “ethics”.

“Scope” means to view, to see. “Microscope” means “to see small”; “telescope” means “to see far”. The “seeing” is what the Greeks called theoria or what we call “theory”; it is through “seeing” that we know things, that we “experience” things. The Greek word episteme referred to this type of knowledge. The extent of the area or subject matter that something deals with or to which it is relevant is the horizon of the seeing. TOK’s “scope” is all comprehensive for it deals with “exploring the nature and scope of the different themes and areas of knowledge. It explores how each theme/area of knowledge fits within the totality of human knowledge, and also considers the nature of the problems that each theme/area of knowledge faces and tries to address.” (TOK Guide, 2022, pg. 12) In ancient days this was referred to as “philosophy” or “knowledge of the whole”. The philosopher seeks for knowledge of the whole of things. That TOK makes explicit that it is not a “philosophy course” indicates the state of what has been called philosophy in the past and in the English-speaking tradition in particular in the present. 

The Guide provides an analogy or metaphor of the search for knowledge comparing this search to a “map” where all specific details are not, and cannot, be provided in it. But as any Middle School Geography student can tell us, there are certain requirements for a map to be a map. Most maps will have the five following things: a Title, a Legend, a Grid, a Compass to indicate direction, and a Scale.

Our title is “The Search for Knowledge”: what do we know and how do we know it? Our Legend will be our key concepts which are outlined below and which predominate throughout the journey we are taking to knowledge, how we will come to define as knowledge what we discover. Our Grid will help provide the “place”, “the position”, or the “stand” of where and how the objects of knowledge are to be discerned, our Areas of Knowledge, our hypotheses and prostheses. The Compass provides us with the methodology, the sense of direction when we begin from our starting point, the manner and mode of how we will achieve this knowledge, how we will conduct our journey. This sense of direction is precluded and pre-determined and it will determine where we will arrive at what we will determine as knowledge. And the Scale will provide the measuring of that which we would call knowledge in relation to its “actuality” or “reality”. It is in the Scale that we will find the concept of what we call “truth”, for in the Scale is “judgement”.

The essay assessment will approach knowledge questions, what are called “second order questions” for the most part, on the Areas of Knowledge that have been chosen to be examined. How do “areas of knowledge” come about? What determines how things are defined and classified so that they will be placed in one area of knowledge and not in another? From where and how does this taxonomy originate? 

A number of important concepts and key terms are prominent in the study of TOK:  evidence, certainty, truth, interpretation, power, justification, explanation, objectivity, perspective, culture, values and responsibility. Many of these 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 Latinate origin of philosophical thinking in our language is most important in how we come to interpret and to understand the meaning of the concepts handed over to us, of what we conceive our “personal knowledge” to be, and what and how we are to understand the knowledge that is given to us and to which we are indebted in the handing over to us of our traditions, the knowledge that comes to us from our communities. The understanding of these terms is “historical” for us in that their meaning and significance changes over time. Whether this is indeed the case is something that will have to be examined and interrogated.

Thinking about technology, for instance, requires us to re-determine the meaning of the sense of essence or how we understand what something is (“things” and “concrete situations”), and in this re-determination to hear what is being said in our word “technology”. This re-determination of the sense of essence, of what we think something is, is one that allows us to see the illumination of truth as it is understood in the Diploma program (and in the English-speaking West in general) as the truth revealed to us through the seeing and hearing that is called “technology”. How we will see and hear has been pre-determined for us long before our arrival on this planet as individuals.

We think of essence as a ‘one’ which many things have in common; the many human beings have the one essence, “humanity”, in common; the many trees have one essence, “treeness”, in common. The essence is, therefore, the universal concept or genus, while the individuals are the various species or single cases. In order to grasp what many things have in common, we must first go about and see or “experience” the individual things. From this “experience” we can abstract out from the individuals that respect in which they are alike. The individuals precede the essence in our experience and the individuals are instances of the essence. What those individual things are is defined or determined by the “conceptual tools” we use that determine our viewing, our way of looking upon the things. This determination is our judgement of the things which is given to others through language. This is the essence of the TOK assessment called “the Exhibition”.

How we approach to the things is the foundation of the Exhibition. Through the concepts provided from the Theory of Knowledge course, students are asked to choose artifacts that “exhibit” something of a real life situation from which they will determine general knowledge questions which are appropriate to ask or raise about how we interpret or understand those artifacts and that situation, whatever it may be. The Exhibition uses inductive reasoning to go from the individual or particular to the general to make judgements about the things being examined or the questions asked. To “exhibit” means to “bring to presence”, “to show” something which has been “grasped” and “appropriated” or taken possession of and belonging to one, to take what has previously been “hidden” and to bring it to light. This “bringing to presence” relates to how the Greeks understood “truth” as  “uncoveredness” (aletheia), “bringing something to light”, “a showing forth”. “To grasp” means “to take hold of something”, to make something “one’s own”, to “make judgements about it” and make it available for use.

The understanding of “truth” that is given here in these writings is from its original Greek understanding. Truth is an ‘uncovering’, a ‘disclosing’, ‘a revealing’, an ‘unconcealing’. Truth allows something to “shine forth in its appearance” as essence, as what it is. When the philosopher Kant says that “Judgement is the seat of truth” what he is saying is that when we determine what some thing is, we make statements (judgements) about that thing. To make judgements about things requires that we provide “evidence” to support the assertions about the thing in question and to make that thing “manifest, clear, to bring the thing to light”. We call this “making manifest” the principle of sufficient reason. Things, however, have an uncanny way of revealing and concealing themselves at the same time, one of the ways being through language. We may ask the question: do things get to arrive in their “truth”, their essence, in the technological world-view of our present time and, thus, in the IB Diploma program? The answer to this question is “no”. We shall explore what it means to say this and the consequences of saying it.

CT 1: Knowledge and The Empowering/ Empowered Self:

We need to begin by understanding that all human beings interpret themselves in their questioning and their assertions and so we are all “philosophers” to some extent. Our beginnings of our questions and the interpretations that are our answers to them take place within our being-in-the-world, the social and cultural contexts that are our shared knowledge, our traditions and our communities. The questioning determines (and has determined) what knowledge will be understood as from the beginnings of these shared traditions. This questioning and the manner of the questioning rests upon and springs from how and what we understand what truth is. What we conceive the truth to be determines what we think ourselves, as human beings, to be. Truth and human being in its “humaneness” are inextricably linked. Without truth and bringing truth to presence, human beings become something other than what they are in their essence.

TOK appears to take the position that the best way forward implies a responding to and a questioning of the traditions, legacies and histories that make us what we are: our shared knowledge.  Our response (our responsibility—the ability to respond with some sense of freedom of thought in relation to our traditions) is the liberation that is education. But this way forward is pre-determined by how truth is understood and has been understood in the traditions that have come down to us in the language that has been given to us. Our questioning and our thinking are dominated by historicism. 

Those who come from a ‘scientific’ or ‘mathematical’ background might find the thinking and questioning in TOK difficult and ‘useless’. This should not be surprising: our shared knowledge (traditions) from the sciences is based on a mode or manner (the “how”) of being-in- the-world that calculates what beings/things are in advance in order to secure them for “usefulness”, to put them to use, either now or at some point in the future. It determines the possibilities and the potentialities of things. In this determination of a thing’s possibilities and potentialities, it makes of things disposables so that human beings in their dispositions can commandeer and make use of them. But to do so, the things or entities of the world must first be turned into objects. 

Both the natural and human sciences believe themselves to be in possession of the truth of some king or at least on the way to truth, and the scientists within these domains or areas of knowledge believe this possession is genuine knowledge: science is the theory of the real. From within this possession, these scientists must strive to carry out a destiny pre-determined for them from very long ago. The word “science” itself is derived from the Latin meaning “knowledge”. The Greeks understood it as episteme and it was directly related to theoria or theory, a manner of looking at the world, and we understand epistemology as “the study of what makes knowledge to be knowledge”. The things that are secured for their usefulness were called by the Greeks pragma. Our word “pragmatic” focuses on the “usefulness” of something and that which is not deemed “useful” is dismissed in various ways or simply “skipped over”.

Scientists will deny this statement, that they are in possession of the truth, of course; but we would not have science to begin with if the “truth” of this statement were not self-evident. Truth, as understood in the sciences, is truth as “correspondence” and “correctness”. It is with and within this understanding of truth in the sciences, the pre-determined securing of the things that are, where science becomes itself a form of ‘religion’ in that it strives for certainty in the meaning and purpose of its endeavors; and like all religions, its seeking is based on a type of faith, “justified, true belief”. But this faith of science is in crisis. Perhaps, the crisis for science’s faith in itself is that it does not believe that it is in crisis. The faith of science is in the manner in which truth has revealed itself to most human beings through the ‘objectifying’ of all the things that are, even the God which it dismisses as an object that cannot be known. Science in this determination thus becomes, essentially, a closing down on the ‘openness’ to truth or to the truth as it could be understood and grasped in another way. A decision regarding what and how things are has been reached, and this decision is the determination of entities/things as “objects”.

Immanuel Kant

What we understand today as “personal knowledge” comes to us through our understanding of our human being as subjectivity. This ‘subjectivity’ we understand as our ‘Self’, and it is within this ‘Self’ that we believe we ‘experience’ our ‘freedom’, our ’empowerment’. This understanding of the Self as ‘freedom’ and autonomy is the gift that the German philosopher Immanuel Kant has bestowed on us. It is Kant who solidified and grounded the Cartesian world-view of subject/object. Cartesianism still dominates our world view and the world picture we construct from that world view. More will be said later on world views and world pictures.

What had been called the ways of knowing in TOK has been dispensed with in the new TOK Guide May, 2022; however, they remain present whether explicitly or implicitly. Our ways of looking at the world, our ways of relating to that world remain our ways of knowing that world: they are our modes of disclosive looking upon the world, the ways in which we reveal what we believe the “truth” to be and, thus, produce or “bring forth” knowledge. They are the “lens” which provide us with our “perspectives” on the world and the things about us. From this looking we are able to ‘grasp’ and ‘assimilate’ the knowledge that becomes our “personal knowledge”. Because human beings are a multiform embodied animal, and because the world is composed of multivarious beings, various ways of knowing are needed to bring this variety of beings to truth and for human beings to understand themselves regarding who and what they are. The things of the different Areas of Knowledge require different approaches, but it needs to be remembered that they are first things.

The Greeks understood “personal knowledge” as phronesis. The goal of phronesis was sophrosyne or what we call “moderation” and this related to human action. The Greeks also understood knowledge as sophia or “knowledge of the first things, the Divine, that which is permanent and does not undergo change”; episteme or what we call “theoretical knowledge”; techne or “know how”, “knowing one’s way in and about something”, being “at home in it”; phronesis or knowledge about one’s own personal ends; and nous/noeisis or what we call “intellectual” knowledge, intelligence. All of our ways of knowing as we understand them in TOK can be found in how the Greeks understood knowledge. The discussion of the various ways of knowing is undertaken by Aristotle in Bk VI of his Ethics. The various ways of knowing determine the manner in which human beings are in their world and, thus, determine how human beings come to define themselves and how human beings choose their actions and their decisions.

The Areas of Knowledge (History, the Human Sciences, the Natural Sciences, the Arts, Mathematics) are those domains that we have ‘objectified’ so that they can be known: the essence of various objects are classified and determined to belong within the various domains of the AOKs. The concepts we use and their derivations from the language that is used to represent them determine the methodology which in turn have been determined by the scope/applications (“use”) of the knowledge that comes to be revealed.

Martin Heidegger

As we go further, I am going to assert that technology is the decisive mode of this disclosive looking and determines all of the other modes or ways of knowing and of our apprehending of the world and the things that are about us. Technology is our understanding of what it means to be, what it means to be human, and this understanding is prior to and determines what we understand reason, sense perception, emotion, language, intuition etc. to be. It is our understanding of what we as human beings think we are in our own being. Technology is the ontology (the way of being) and metaphysic (our knowledge of what the first things are) of the age, as the German philosopher Martin Heidegger would say.

Is it possible for the Natural and Human Sciences (biology, chemistry, anthropology, sociology, psychology) to comprehend what human beings are, their essence (their ‘whatness’), given that the explorations and results of those sciences are the products of human activity i.e. is it possible for reason to give an account of itself through reason or emotion to give an account of itself ‘emotionally’? The consequence (the result or the way of knowing) cannot be taken for the ground (cause) from which it springs; the ground takes priority or must come first i.e. it must be a priori. We must seek out what these grounds are for from them come our understanding of our concepts, our “conceptual tools” and, thus, our understanding of ourselves.

Modern technology is the seeing, the “idea”, that employs science. Science is not the source of technology; the seeing that is “technology” is not based on science since the initial “seeing” lies outside the purview of factual, empirical science. The determination to use or employ science is not a “scientific” idea; it is not one of the discoveries of the scientific or experimental method. The methodologies of the sciences are determined and have been determined by an understanding of what it means for human beings to be and an understanding of what things are insofar as they are “things” at all. Technology is the disclosive, the revealing, looking upon all that is in general. It is the looking of technology that allows modern natural science to be applied to the things that are. Technology is not applied science; modern science is applied technology. It is difficult for us moderns to grasp this since we see technology as the gadgets that are ready-to-hand for us, the instruments that lie all about us. But these gadgets are the flowerings of the “seeing” that is our technological world-view. Technology has “opened up” the world and gives a space so that the technological gadgets can come into being.

The grounding of what we consider knowledge to be is essentially related and grounded in our conception or understanding of truth. What is knowledge is an old question of the Greek philosopher Socrates. To consider humans the agents (the sources) of truth, to consider truth a primarily human accomplishment, amounts to a hubris, a challenging of the gods (why is this the case?), and draws down an inexorable nemesis or fate, one consequence of which is the gods withdrawal from us. We see the many warnings of this hubris in the tragic literature that has become part of our shared knowledge throughout our human history.

The Ethics

At the core of what makes tragic heroes “tragic” is their lack of self-knowledge; their actions derive from a flawed understanding of who and what they are, and this flawed understanding is grounded in a flawed perception of their being-in-the-world which, in turn, determines their flawed perceptions and, thus, their actions (their ethics) in their worlds. Their actions “miss the mark” or constitute hamartia, a term that has come to us from the Greek philosopher Aristotle. The prototype of this example of tragedy is Oedipus Rex. He is the challenger of the gods (Apollo) for he will not accept the fate that has been assigned to him: he must kill his father and marry his mother. But what human being would accept this fate? In his blind journeying to avoid his fate, he eventually is led, fatefully, directly, to his fate which he has been unwilling and unable to see. The climax of the play is the moment when the “truth” that has been hidden is “unconcealed” to Oedipus: he has, indeed, killed his father and married his mother; and with this unconcealing, Oedipus comes to know who he is. Such self-knowledge is not a joyous event when it is the nemesis for the hubris of challenging the gods.

We, today, find ourselves in much the same position as Oedipus: the pride that we take in our self-centeredness as human creators and makers, our humanism, has blinded us to who and what we are as human beings. Oedipus solves the riddle of the Sphinx because he is destined or fated to do so; we have solved many of the riddles of the nature of things and have created incredible, wonderful solutions to some of the problems of our existence, from the curing of diseases to the overcoming of tedious labour and boredom, to the splitting of the atom and reconstructing the genome because we have been destined to do so. Technology is that destiny that shapes us and drives us.

By examining some aspects of the historical knowledge that has been handed over to us, the history of metaphysics, humanism, and modern technology (and as we shall see, these are all one and the same) we shall attempt to get a clearer picture of this hubris and the fate that is drawn down from the displeasure of the gods which is, ironically, revealed by their withdrawal or absence. And we shall have to question whether in fact the gods have withdrawn from us or whether we are incapable of seeing them because of what we are and what we have done. To the Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, is attributed the saying: “Everything is full of gods”. To say this to my neighbours here, the Balinese, would draw the likely response: “Of course they are”. The students in a TOK class in most parts of the world would probably not have any idea of what is being talked about here.

But human being, as the “religious animal”, will have ‘gods’ whether they name them as such or not. What we bow down to or what we look up to determines what the ‘gods’ for us, in fact, are.  In the past in Canada, our architecture was limited by the geography surrounding us: in Quebec, in many villages, the highest point would be the church steeple; in Montreal, it used to be the cross on Mont Royale. Nowadays, the highest point will undoubtedly be the telecommunications towers necessary for the transmissions of our messaging and information. Here in Bali in the old days, no building was to be higher than the tallest coconut palm. Such “superstitions” as shown in Quebec and Bali have been eliminated due to the practicality and efficiency necessary because of modern technology.

This definition of religion spoken of here is broader than the one traditionally understood. In modern societies, technology is that to which we bow down to if not literally then in other ways. It is the religion for the vast majority of us from the West, and it is now becoming the world religion. It is our way of being-in-the-world, our “lifestyle”. It is perhaps best expressed as ‘the religion of progress’, although ‘globalization’, “international mindedness” and other names have been given to it. It is always difficult to challenge and question the religion of the society of which one is a member, but this is what is being attempted here.

That which is sacred is able to look after itself even when it is denied by those human beings who claim that nothing is ‘sacred’. The hidden violence, hidden perhaps even to themselves, behind the machinations of those who cloak themselves in the banners of ‘free speech’ and ‘freedom’ is part and parcel of the product and the disposition of the technological world-view; that is, it is a predicate of the subject technology. Who and what we are and what we think the things about us are is determined by what we think “truth” is. What we think truth to be determines all of our relations to all else that is. Who and what we think we are and what we think the world about us is, is not some market place in which we can pick and choose among a variety of fruit; it is a package deal. Our IB schools world-wide, driven by the un-thinking technological gathering, ordering and commandeering of the world and its resources (including human beings, including you as students), are nothing more than encampments on the road to environmental and economic mastery.

Morain Lake
“When we go into the Rockies we may have a sense that that gods are there. But if so, they cannot manifest themselves to us as ours. They are the gods of another race, and we cannot know them because of what we are, and what we did. There can be nothing immemorial for us except environment as object.”–George Grant, “In Defence of North America”

A note on the picture above: it is of Moraine Lake in the Canadian Rockies. Anyone who has been to this beautiful place will understand that the naming of this place and the place itself are somewhat incongruous.

Author: theoryofknowledgeanalternativeapproach


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Theory of Knowledge: An Alternative Approach

Why is an alternative approach necessary?

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