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 and suggestions, questions and possible responses only for deconstructing the TOK titles as they have been given. They should be used alongside the discussions that you will carry out with your peers and teachers during the process of constructing your essay.
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 will be useful to you 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 email@example.com or directly through this website.
A sine qua non: the opinions expressed here are entirely my own and do not represent any organization or collective of any kind.
1. “Accepting knowledge claims always involves an element of trust.” Discuss this claim with reference to two areas of knowledge.
The first title provides us with a number of terms that we need to reflect on and clarify: “acceptance”, “knowledge claims”, “always”, “involves” and “an element of trust”.
Let us approach the title by going backwards. “An element of trust” is presumably juxtaposed to “doubt” or “skepticism”. Being an “element”, it is presumably part of a compound that includes other “elements”. In TOK we begin by looking to and at ourselves and attempt to arrive at some propositions as to “who” and “what” we are both as human beings and as members of a community. We attempt to look at various things and how we express and make intelligible those things to others. We do this through language in one of its many forms. In order to do so, we must have some prior understanding of what some “thing” is. This includes all the things that are. They must have some being in some way by the very fact that we are discussing them. It is in the manner of their being that acceptance and rejection are possible. The denial of some thing, what we call skepticism or “alternative facts”, contradicts itself and is therefore impossible; we can deny the name that is given to it, but we cannot deny the existence of the thing itself. The refutation of skepticism is the refutation of every kind of relativism. This refutation appeals to the principles of non-contradiction and the principle of identity; and it appeals to “logic” and thus to “diction”, to speaking back and forth and to speaking “against” ourselves. The speaking “against” ourselves implies that we have some prior apprehension of the “truth” of the thing that is under discussion. The thing itself must have made itself manifest prior to our beginning of our discussion about it to begin with.
In our usual day-to-day lives we must have trust in some form in some things; if we do not, we are not capable of being fully “human” i.e. we are considered “paranoid” and “delusional” and such persons are considered “mentally ill”. Without some element of trust we could not function. We sometimes call this trust “common sense”. When we drive our automobiles over the Golden Gate Bridge, we place our trust in the knowledge of the engineers who have designed the bridge and in the men and women who constructed it so that we can believe that using the Bridge will not cause us to plummet into the Bay. Trust and belief go hand in hand. Through this trust and belief, we “accept” and submit ourselves to its outcomes. The knowledge claims we submit ourselves to involve “common sense” as well as the theoretical knowledge of our sciences which have been revealed to us through science’s mathematics.
“Doubt” has always been present in the act of thinking. For the ancient Greeks where philosophy began in the West, this doubt was encapsulated and contained within a being-in-the-world of trust: while one doubted the propositions or statements that were made or put forward regarding things, the things themselves and “what” and “how’ they were, nevertheless, were over-arched by a recognition that Nature (all things) were Good and the purpose of doubt was to establish that relation between the thing and the Good through the use of logos or “speaking” about them. The essential difference between ancient and modern thought was initiated by the French philosopher Descartes who began by “doubting” all things and everything until he arrived at the conclusion that what couldn’t be doubted was that he himself, the thinking “I”, could not be doubted. Cogito ergo sum: I think, therefore, I am.
The Greeks defined human being as the zoon logon echon, the animal capable of speaking, of using the logos. In later Latin, the logos was translated as ratio which means “relation”, and human beings became defined as the animale rationale, the animal capable of establishing relations to things and to others through “reason”, through speaking. “Logic” was determined as the doctrine of “right thinking” and “right speaking”, the science of thinking and its rules. Logic was the “lawfulness” of thinking, the acts and procedures of thought, what we nowadays call “method”. These rules and procedures were founded on grammar, the rules of speaking properly about things. These rules of grammar can be seen today with our programming languages for our computers and other electronic devices. With Descartes, we focus on the doubt involved in the thinking of the “I think”, but perhaps a better way of stating his principle is “I am, therefore, I think”, and within this thinking and being is the element of doubt or skepticism about being itself.
“Knowledge claims” are assertions made in speech regarding the truth of something. In the world at the moment, “trust” in many knowledge claims that are made is an element that is quite rare whether it be in the assertions of “common sense” or in the assertions contained in the theories of the sciences and the arts. The USA is today going through one of its most turbulent moments in its history because the trust that in the past had been placed in its institutions and leaders has now been placed in doubt. The lack of trust in science by many members of its communities, for instance, created a Covid-19 response that has baffled many in other countries of the world who, in the past, had looked to America for leadership on matters involving the application of the practical sciences. This admiration has now turned to pity as the wounds of the country are primarily seen as self-inflicted. They are not seen as, for example, the wounds suffered by Germany before it accepted Nazism as those wounds were brought about by others through the Treaty of Versailles.
The protests against systemic racism in America’s streets have brought to light the shallowness of its mythology surrounding its “founding fathers” and their definitions of a “people” that excluded African slaves and the indigenous peoples of the continent. “The desire to have it both ways”, which is so much of the American character, is revealed in the desire to recognize some “inalienable rights” (the lack of the right to property, for example, was overlooked) in order to create a leisure class based on the enslavement of Black people. As it so often does, greed overruled morality (virtue, if you like) in their writing of their Constitution. Perhaps we are seeing the flowering of a seed which from the outset was rotten to its core. The US Constitution and its Bill of Rights are examples of the less than “noble lies” required for the establishment of the State.
The Greek philosopher Plato placed democracy just above tyranny when listing the best order of regimes. Monarchy was the best; tyranny was the worst. This ranking was based on how a regime regulated its polis or community with regard to the place of virtue in that community when that community created its laws. Because democracy was based on the fulfillment of the common, lowest appetites and instincts of its members and not the growth of virtue of its members, Plato thought that it would inevitably devolve into tyranny (as was the case in his own Athenian polis). The USA’s founding fathers chose the economic well-being provided by the labour of its slaves above the morality of recognizing slaves as “human beings” and “people”, and thus the systemic racism of the USA which is present today was born and allowed to flourish in the country throughout its history. Democracy, according to Plato, neglects the education to “virtue” of its citizens within it or domestically, and appeals to an imperialism in the State without in its relations to its neighbouring states because of its avariciousness. Democracy inevitably devolves into tyranny through time because it is unable to develop a sense of “otherness” among its inhabitants i.e. it is not able to establish the virtue of “friendship” among its members. “Friendship” is established through logos or “speech”. Friendship is only possible when “trust” is present. While there may be “honour” among thieves, there is no “friendship”. This is discussed in greater detail in the blog regarding knowledge and politics: https://mytok.blog/2019/11/22/ot-5-knowledge-and-politics-part-1/
In literature, Shakespeare provides us with two great tragedies, Hamlet and Macbeth, in which the issue and the question of trust and the consequences of its lack are most beautifully given. When Hamlet in his anagnorisis, his moment of insight that gives him self-knowledge and illumination, is able to say: “There’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now. If it be not now, yet it will come—the readiness is all” he is able to trust in the purpose and meaning of his life and in the purpose and meaning of the world about him and in doing so is able to overcome his fear of death (indicated by the use of the impersonal pronoun “it”) and is finally able to act. Unfortunately, this illumination comes too late for him. It is his overriding doubt and skepticism that is Hamlet’s undoing.
If Hamlet can say “there is nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so” prior to his moment of illumination, the play Macbeth gives the lie inherent in that statement. Macbeth is a character who desires the power and recognition of kingship, but his character is “unfit” for that position. In order to become king, Macbeth must turn against the light given to him regarding who and what he is: he is a great soldier, brave and heroic, the saviour of his country, but he is not a king. He chooses darkness over the light and in this choosing descends int0 tyranny and madness. To become king, Macbeth must lose his fullness of “the milk of human kindness to catch the nearest way”. His choice of evil is the loss of his humanity. He recognizes this in his anagnorisis:
I have lived long enough. My way of life/ Is fall’n into the sere, the yellow leaf,/ And that which should accompany old age,/ As honor, love, obedience, troops of friends,/ I must not look to have, but, in their stead,/ Curses, not loud but deep, mouth-honor, breath/ Which the poor heart would fain deny and dare not.Macbeth Act v sc. iii,
The tragedy illustrates the great danger inherent in language as the means of creating, invoking, and sustaining trust. Human beings are the animal that uses language to reveal truth to themselves and to others. But language can also, of course, be used to deceive; deception creates distrust.. When language is used to deceive, things are “covered over”, “hidden” rather than revealed. For Plato, the things become “non-beings” like the witches themselves who “look not like the inhabitants o’ the earth,/ And yet are on ‘t” i.e. they are “not real”, and in not being real, they are not to be “trusted”. The motifs of “equivocation”, “covering”, “hiddenness” that run throughout the play “illuminate” how the play as a whole becomes darker and darker as it goes on illustrating Scotland’s descent into darkness under the tyranny of Macbeth. Such darkness is only enabled with self-delusion and this is made clear in Macbeth’s misinterpretations of the three prophecies provided by the three witches. Macbeth creates a world of fear and divisiveness because his is a mind that sees “daggers”.
2. Within areas of knowledge, how can we differentiate between change and progress? Answer with reference to two areas of knowledge.
The key concepts to be brought to light in title #2 are the differentiations between “change” and “progress”. All “change” is related to “motion” of some kind and “motion” is related to “time”. Things that change are distinguished from those things that are at “rest”, those things that do not “move”. Things that change are said to be in time, while those things that do not change are outside or beyond time. For example, the “inalienable rights” spoken of in the US Constitution are beyond “change” in that they are considered timeless and beyond the tinkering of human beings. They are “ideals” to be aspired to, to “progress toward”. “Ideals” originate in Plato’s “ideas”, those beings that were beyond change and gave rise to the things that are. The things that are dwell in time and space, and “change” is relative to location.
Our understanding of motion or change is of something without an aim, without an end or a goal. It is chaotic, without purpose, order or reason. The sciences, for example, “move forward” or “progress” when their discoveries call for a revision of their basic concepts. The work of Newton as opposed to Aristotle and of Einstein and Heisenberg as opposed to Newton are examples of this. These are sometimes called “paradigm shifts” for they result in a change of human beings in their relations toward the world they inhabit. The practical applications of the results of those sciences’ discoveries do not shift or change the paradigm itself. The latest computer model or technological gadget is available through the nano-technology that quantum physics has given to us. The whole of our Information Age and our Atomic Age is made possible by the discoveries of those physical sciences which in turn are made possible by the “progress” in the theoretical insights prior to their applications. The labeling of these historical epochs is an indication that these are global phenomenon and not simply restricted to the origins of those discoveries which occurred in the West.
What is considered the Age of Progress begins in the West with the greatest paradigm shift: when human beings, the animale rationale, become placed or elevated to the centre of created things. With this shift, the Age of Humanism begins. Humanism and the Age of Progress go hand-in-hand and begin when human beings’ view their relationship to nature as one of conquest and domination and not one of reverence; human beings take their fate into their own hands. To attempt to understand the USA and North America, for instance, first begins with a recognition that they are the only societies that do not have a history from before the Age of Progress; and because of this they have become the world leaders in embracing change as progress since their relationship to the land about them was one of conquest and domination. Sometimes novelty is confused with progress, but our fascination with the “new and improved” is counter-balanced by the old lament of “they don’t make ’em like they used to”. While change itself is perceived to have no goal or end, progress does and it seeks its end in “perfection”.
There is no question that there has been “progress” in some areas. No one who has had a sick loved one is not grateful for the progress in the medical sciences, for instance. How can we not be grateful for the eradication of a disease that has killed human beings? It is hard for me to consider as sane those who do not see progress in this area. Our current attempts to find a vaccine to counteract the Covid-19 virus is another example of how our beliefs in the scientific method will allow us to, at some point, bring this disease under control. But in looking at the progress of the medical sciences and of the arts and sciences, we must also consider what has been lost in our acceptance of our technological fate. To speak of fate is to speak of something over which we have no control or choice. Is there really any choice other than the desire for change and progress if one wishes to live in society at the moment?
Can we rightly speak of “progress” in the arts or are the various movements in the arts simply changes in techniques and content which merely bring about novelty of some kind? In the arts, “change” is obvious, but is it “progress” in the sense that it has an end or goal in view? All artists attempt to make us “see anew” and to seek out new possibilities in the things that are. Is this seeking out of new “possibilities” for their own sake “progress” as we are trying to understand it? Does a painting by Picasso exhibit progress over a painting by Titian, for example? Picasso himself lamented that he was not a greater artist than the Old Masters because he allowed himself to succumb to the temptations of popularity and money which, in turn, caused him to produce simply “novelty”, sub-standard works, for which he was well-paid and lauded by the public.
Our approach to art, our seeking for its purpose and meaning, now focuses on the artist as the creator and producer of the work of art rather than on the work of art itself. When I taught the novel The Catcher in the Rye some of my students wished to claim that its hero, Holden Caulfield, suffered from bi-polar disorder and this caused him to view the world as he did. I related to the students some of the biographical facts of Salinger’s life: that as a soldier in the US Army he was among the first to land at Omaha Beach in Normandy on D-Day, took part in the battle of the Hurtgen Forest in Germany, and that he was among the first American soldiers to liberate the Dachau concentration camp. All of these events occurred while he was writing the novel. Such experiences would challenge any faith in the belief in the moral “progress” of humanity. But my question to the students was; does the novel speak to the truth about the human condition and about our human experience, and is this truth, this illumination and uncovering, constrained by the fact that we can label it with the concept of “bi-polar disorder”? I mentioned to the students a comment made by the psychiatrist R. D. Laing that “Insanity is a sane reaction to an insane world”, and if this is so, if there is some truth in Laing’s comment, is not the artist that we might consider insane not revealing to us a view of our world that we would rather not see nor have to deal with? Canadian writer Margaret Atwood in a talk at which I was present said, “We like our artists to have tortured souls”. Has not our “Age of Progress” simply brought an age of mass meaninglessness? Has our “technological progress” been able to bring about a corresponding progress in our morality and, thus, in our humanity and in our human being-in-the-world?
3. “Labels are a necessity in the organization of knowledge, but they also constrain our understanding.” Discuss this statement with reference to two areas of knowledge.
The first question we ask ourselves with Title #3 is: what is a label? Labels are language attached to an object which provide information or act as a symbol to indicate what that thing is. To label some thing is to first make an assertion about the thing and then to place it in a classification which provides a structure and a system. It is an assertion of what a thing is and, at the same time, what it is not; and it provides the horizon and delimitation from within which the thing is to be viewed. The determination of what the thing is and where it should be placed, its classification, how the thing comes to a stand, comes first and the label is later applied For labels to be applied, assertions must first be made. For an assertion to be made, the object must be present to us in some way, and the “how” of our disposition towards the object and over the object is determined ahead of time. All of our areas of knowledge are designated by labels and you know ahead of time what to expect (and what is expected of you) before you enter a physics class or a Language A class.
Labels, too, are things and they provide us with a means of organizing information or data so that it can be easily accessible. These means of organizing and organization are sometimes referred to as “taxonomies”. Taxonomy is the practice , the action, of identifying different things, classifying them into categories, and naming them; labeling is a naming. All things, both living and non -living, are classified into distinct groups with other similar things and given a scientific name or an identifying label. Given the abundance of information regarding things which are ready-to- hand for our disposal necessitates the requirement of a system of organization. For example, without the Dewey-Decimal System, a library would be a chaos of books.
We have all experienced the frustration that occurs due to the mislabeling of things whether it be something as simple as going to the supermarket and not finding the item we are looking for in the place where we believe it should be, or doing research online and not finding the information we are seeking in an effective and efficient manner because it has not been properly defined and labeled. More ominously and dangerously, inadequate labeling creates confusion and may be used to obfuscate things so that we are unable to distinguish between the truth and non-truth of the things that are asserted. The QAnon movement is an example of the misuse of labels in providing information.
The constraints involved in “labeling” are that they occur after the essence and the content of a thing has already been determined; the definitions of things will, also, be pre-determined under their structures and systems. In the Human Sciences, for instance, the definition of “what” human beings are has already been determined; “who” human beings are creates problems for the analysis of the data because it is not so numerically pliable. We can see the constraints of our labeling most clearly and powerfully in the manner in which our information technologies consider what ‘knowledge” is. “Knowledge” is “information”. The word “information” may be broken down thus: “-ation” that which is responsible for, the “form”, so that it may “inform”. Labels may in fact be a necessity for the organization of all the possible “information” available to us, but whether or not this information is “knowledge” is an entirely different matter. The constraint determined by labeling is that a definite mode of questioning is already pre-delineated in our areas of knowledge. Through this manner of questioning, the answer is already given in advance i.e. a definite range of answers is already demarcated. No matter how far these areas of knowledge may be developed, they will never get beyond what they have already decided about their object of study and what knowledge of it consists in.
Art and artists constantly engage against the status quo established by our labeling and try to get us to see and understand common things, the ready-to-hand things, differently. In our labeling, how the thing which we are seeing may be used is at the heart of our pre-determination of what the thing is. To the left is a picture of a painting by the artist Andy Warhol, one of over 50 which he created, of the label of Campbell’s Tomato Soup. Other paintings by Warhol are of different types of soup. It would seem that Warhol wishes us to reflect on the label itself as art and to consider the significance of its use and our demeanor towards its use. Is he making a statement regarding life and its everydayness?
The attempt to disassociate the object from its use is made even more startlingly (and controversially) in the work entitled “Fountain” by Marcel Duchamp, a French artist from the earlier 20th century. Both Warhol’s and Duchamps works are done with some irony and humour. We, of course, are aware that the object is used for male urination, but does the “fountain” refer to its use or to its shape as an object? The constraint of our labeling of things is to limit the manner in which we see them; and artists are continually challenging us to see the things about us in a different light and in a different manner to disassociate an object from its use.
Another example of the constraints imposed by labeling is provided in the painting by Rene Magritte. The Treachery of Images (French: La Trahison des images) is a 1929 painting by surrealist painter René Magritte. It is also known as This is Not a Pipe and The Wind and the Song. In discussing the painting, Magritte said: “The famous pipe. How people reproached me for it! And yet, could you stuff my pipe? No, it’s just a representation, is it not? So if I had written on my picture “This is a pipe”, I’d have been lying!” Again, the tone is one of irony and humour, although there is a seriousness to it by calling it “The Treachery of Images”. The images, representations, language, labels that we attach to things can, indeed, be treacherous.
4. “Statistics conceal as much as they reveal.” Discuss this claim with reference to two areas of knowledge.
You are probably familiar with the phrase “There are lies, damned lies, and statistics” which is falsely attributed to the American writer Mark Twain, although he has been noted as using the phrase. The original source is unknown. What the phrase speaks to is our propensity to believe in the persuasive power of numbers, particularly in the Human Sciences’ use of statistics, their use to bolster weak arguments, or to believe that the thing that they are attempting to describe has been fully revealed in its truth through the numbers. It is also sometimes colloquially used to doubt the statistics used to prove an opponent’s point. Statistics are means to provide evidence to support an assertion about what something is.
We can see from the title itself that “concealing” and “revealing” are essential elements of what we mean by “truth”, the “actual”, the “real”; and that to have “knowledge” of some thing, that thing must be “revealed” to us in some way and come to a stand whether as a correspondence between the images in our minds and the objects or things outside of us, or in the coherence of the logical steps necessary to make an assertion and, at the same time, a judgement regarding the thing, or in the recognition of the possibilities or potentialities for the thing’s practical use to meet our own ends. The attempt to point to the “actual”, the “real” is what the use of statistics in the search for knowledge is all about and why it is given pre-eminence as a means of providing evidence. This is due to the Human Sciences attempt to mirror the rigour of the Natural Sciences with regard to its statements and judgements about what is. The difficulty, though, is that the object under study in the Human Sciences is much more complex than the object under study in the Natural Sciences.
For example in Economics, during the crash of the housing markets in 2008, some statisticians attempted to use Heisenberg’s probability equations to measure the risk involved for the banks in various investments, even though they were warned by the quantum scientists that this could not be done as “macro” materials do not behave in the same way as sub-atomic materials behave. However, the obscurity and technical nature of the data given to the CEO’s of the banks by these statisticians impressed the CEOs and ultimately was one of the factors causing them to make the bad judgements that caused their banks to collapse. One of the difficulties with statistics is that in them we will sometimes see what we wish to see. The judgement of the object under study will be pre-determined prior to and during the analysis of the data. “Objectivity” is not possible since the observer is bound by his/her methods and means of analysis to understand the object in a certain way. The Human Sciences and the statistics used within them are the products of Western white European culture.
With the Covid-19 pandemic at the moment, statistics are proving to be most useful in both the containment and treatment of the disease. The fiasco that has occurred in the USA’s response to the pandemic is not a result of the statistics (and science’s use of those statistics), but of those who would rather ‘deny’ the “facts” and the “reality” of the disease that the statistics reveal. Such a denial is not a “skepticism” as we spoke of in title #1 because it is not based on reason, but it is an irrational denial which views the science skeptically based on various private needs. While one may question the validity and truth of the conditions and the reality that the statistics “reveal”, attempting to “conceal” the reality of the disease and its effects is not what most of us would call a “sane” response.
When considering statistics we need to ask the basic 5Ws and H questions: who did the study? what are the statistics attempting to measure and reveal? where did the study take place? when did the study take place and who was asked? (was the study timely?) how were the subjects asked and what form was the asking? why was the study conducted in the first place and to what is the study being compared? Asking and answering these questions when you are working through the examples that you are using to write about and support the assertions that you are making with regard to this title will help you to construct your response.
5. “Areas of knowledge are most useful in combination with each other.” Discuss this claim with reference to two areas of knowledge.
Our word “technology” comes from two Greek words: techne and logos. There is no single word in Greek that would be equivalent to “technology” as we understand it and the fusion of these two words came about sometime in the 17th century. The word literally means “knowing and making” and it indicates the co-penetration of the arts and sciences that is the most clear characteristic of our modern age. The “knowing” is the logos and the techne is the “making”. It is our manner or mode of viewing the world, the things about us including other human beings, and it is the manner of how we view ourselves: what we are and who we are. How we view works of art today has come to be understood as aesthetics. The word comes from the Greek aisthesis meaning what we understand as “sense perception” or “sensory apprehension” or “empiricism”, and it indicated the view that examines the work of art as an “object” in much the same way that the sciences approach the objects of their areas of study and knowledge. The process of viewing is called “creative projection” and we are engaged in a “project”. We focus on “specialization” in our studies, but this “specialization” is really the manner of viewing of the object of study or the object at hand as it reveals itself to us in our areas of knowledge.
For example, if you wish to enter “Med School” you will probably need to have one year of Biology with lab, one year of General Chemistry with lab, one year of Organic Chemistry with lab, one semester of Biochemistry, one year of Physics with lab and one year of English. These pre-requisites indicate what we believe is “useful” to know with regard to what we consider “the study of medicine” to be, and they are clearly combinations of our various areas of knowledge in some cases. This is the logos side of “technology”; and since the object of study is other human beings, it illustrates what we have come to define human beings as being. For someone involved in medicine, these fields of study are what will bring human beings to “light” for them. But is this all that human beings are?
These initial pre-requisites are what universities will require you to study. The techne side, the “know how” of bringing about the end of good health, will require other subjects in order for you to complete your study. While it is nature that ultimately decides what “good health” will be in a patient, the doctor is a facilitator, an abettor, in that her techne, her “know how”, will enable nature to take its proper course and bring about “good health”. The “art” of the doctor is “in another, through another, and for another”. She is not a “creator” or a “maker” of good health, but a facilitator helping nature achieve its proper end.
Clearly, our approach to medicine is quite different than the Greek approach where it was called “the art of medicine”, and the Greek philosopher Aristotle was fond of using analogies to medicine when discussing various subjects because his father was a doctor. The two great differences are our modern knowledge of chemistry and its combination with other sciences, and our understanding of what and who human beings are.
Logos is that aspect of our human being which defines us whether we understand ourselves as the living creature that is capable of speech (the zoon logon echon of the Greeks) or the living animal capable of reason (the animale rationale of the Latins). What we have come to determine “knowledge” to be is through a logos of some kind which we believe reveals a “truth” of some kind. The “usefulness” of such knowledge is determined by our techne or “know how”; “know how” is that knowledge which allows us to put knowledge to use. “Know how” requires a combination of our areas of knowledge. In choosing your examples for this title, it is more than likely that you will focus on how this “know how” brings about the realization of our desires or ends.
Because we are human beings that have “needs” (what the Greeks understood as eros), the meeting of these needs and aims or goals requires action in order to bring them about. Our actions are what we understand as our “ethics”. They are not the “principles” of our actions; the “principles” are already encased in our understanding of what we are as human beings. What we need is what we “value” and what we value is not something abstract or ideal that we strive to achieve in our actions but is something we have pre-determined as the purpose for our actions themselves. The latest enhancement of our technological gadgets is a striving for a perceived “perfection” that is the aim itself. Truth itself is One. The revealing of the things that are is what we call “knowledge”; knowledge and truth are integral to each other. This was understood by the Greeks as the threefold: Nature, the world of human beings, and the “speech” of human beings. It was through speaking that human beings came to understand their world and their place in it. It was our speaking to others and to ourselves, the logos, that required the combination of various areas of study. A glance at the titles of the works of Aristotle indicate this. These titles were not given by Aristotle himself but by later scholars.
6. “Avoiding bias seems a commendable goal, but this fails to recognize the positive role that bias can play in the pursuit of knowledge”. Discuss this statement with reference to two areas of knowledge.
The title focuses on “bias” and its positive role in the “pursuit of knowledge”. What is the “knowledge” which comes about or can come about through the “slanted view” of things that bias produces? When I sit in my garden, I can see the greenness of the foliage of the plants and at the same time hear the songs of the birds in the trees present there. To be able to do so requires something more than merely sense perception as a way of knowing. I am able to take in the otherness of seeing and hearing. To try to account for these things as sensation only is insufficient. Something else must be present to hold these two different things together as a single experience. That something else is what we call thought.
“Bias” as a view of things presupposes that assertions that are made about things, what the things are, are merely “opinions” and that those assertions may also be “false”. The title seems to suggest that what is initiated as a “slanted view” could, eventually, result in an outcome that is not in itself slanted or biased. Such a view is present in many people in the USA today. The USA’s Constitution and Bill of Rights initiated the “systemic racism” that is at the core of the American ethos. That the “people” referred to in these documents happened to be the white, European immigrants which made up the ruling class of the day and not the Native Peoples or African-American slaves is obvious to anyone who views the situation and history of the USA dispassionately. When results are favourable to the ruling class of the day, the “bias” inherent in their position of privilege and its viewing devolves into “prejudice”.
The Greek word for such a viewing was pseudos which did not indicate that the viewing was “false” but rather that the knowledge of the thing under discussion would remain “covered over” or “hidden” and the thing itself would not be encountered in its truth. The result would be “illusory” or “not real” as the Greeks understood reality. It should be remembered that for Socrates, the opposite of knowledge was not “ignorance” but “madness”. Has the lack of knowledge in America reached the stage where its “intentional ignorance” has become madness?
Bias relates to how we view things, how our opinions may be formed. The desire to view without bias is what we would call “objectivity”, a “pure” viewing unattended by moods or motives towards the thing that is being studied. Since we are “historical beings” such a viewing is not possible. Our viewing will be determined by what we have come to “value” as a community. The “bias” inherent in the manner we view the world determines a priori the manner in how we will question the things that are and what knowledge of those things will be. It goes without saying that our “biases” have produced many positive results. But we must reflect on the question: “At what cost?”
In approaching the question of “bias” in viewing and questioning, I am going to discuss the common statement or belief “Love is blind” as an example. This is a modern view of love and it is related to our belief that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”. But what then is “beholding”? I am going to put forward the view that love is not blind but that love is what allows us to see and recognize both ourselves (as self-knowledge) and the other, whether the other is other human beings or other things outside of ourselves.
The root cause of racism, for example, is an excessive love of “one’s own” at the expense of all others who are not “one’s own”. How does one go beyond the necessity of loving one’s own to the wider loving of that which is not one’s own? When love of one’s own lacks moderation, it becomes something evil. Evil is, at its root, a lack of light or a denial of the light as light, and we do evil by sinning or acting against the light and by denying what is “revealed” in the “lighting up” of things when they reveal themselves as what they are. This is shown in Shakespeare’s play Macbeth where Macbeth denies the reality of what is “lit up” for him in order to satisfy his lust for power. The play is not an anti-ambition diatribe, but an exhibition of the evil of “the illness should attend” ambition (in Lady Macbeth’s words). The play is a profoundly moral play. When Macbeth succumbs to evil and murders Duncan, his mind becomes “slanted” to one that only sees daggers and he brings himself and Scotland to destruction.
We have all had experiences with con artists and scam artists. They require hiddenness because what they do is evil. At the same time, we require privacy and hiddenness from those who would wish to do us harm. These paradoxes are some of the wonders of the human condition where it is not given to us “to have it both ways”. Even the dialogues of Plato are written in such a way that they will speak to those who can hear them and be silent to those who cannot and should not. In Western philosophy, the dialogues were read in similar fashion to Aristotle’s treatises and this has prevented a proper understanding of them even up to today. Written discourses, such as this blog, speak to everyone and are unable to keep themselves silent from those who should not hear them. This is the case because all speech is “political” in some fashion for it is directed to another human being about some thing and we are all beings in communities of some kind.
In Plato’s allegory of the cave, the keepers of the fire which help create the shadows of the things made by the technites on the walls of the cave could be said to be analogous to our modern universities where their research or “pursuit of knowledge” is determined by corporate interests (bias) and where taxpayer money which pays for the universities is viewed as “externalities” (to use the Economics term). There is no “pure” research in the “pursuit of knowledge” but only “vested interests”. Free thought and research is too expensive. Nevertheless, there are many positive results from this “biased” research in the pursuit of knowledge. The current anti-science movement in many parts of the globe is a symptom of the reality of the nihilism and meaninglessness brought about through our technological world-view. There is a turning away from the facts so that we may affirm what is contradicted by the experience of living (climate change, for instance). But such a condition is one of madness, is it not?
To return to the issue of bias and the assertion that love is not blind, to define love, is to say that it is consent to the fact of authentic otherness. We love otherness not because it is other, but because it is beautiful. Plato places the tyrant (Shakespeare’s Macbeth, for example) as the worst human being, the most inauthentic human being, because in his self-serving “otherness” has completely disappeared for him. Donald Trump in the USA could also serve as an example; all his actions are self-serving, and many more Americans see this self-serving as the best way in which they will realize their “pursuit of happiness”.
In the modern age, beauty has become radically subjectivized so that our belief is that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”. Our loves are determined by a vast complex of necessities and chances which constitute our desires. In all of our scientific explanations of things, we are required to discount the “other” as beautiful. The language I am using here is that the world before us is beautiful and our appropriate response to it is love and trust. However, over time trust was replaced by doubt as the methodological prerequisite for an exact science. It we confine ourselves to anything simply as an object, it cannot be loved as beautiful. The key difficulty is that in loving the beauty of the world as it is, how does this effect the desire to change it? With regard to our title and “bias”, it can be maintained that one knows more about something by loving it. In our age, reason is exalted above understanding (through the philosopher Kant and the creative projection of the imagination and intuition) and this is a reversal of the world shown to us in Plato’s Cave.
When we say that “love is blind”, this is quite the opposite of the view held in the past. In the past, love was seen as the way by which human beings were brought out of self-engrossment to find joy in the world. Today, the “pursuit of happiness” is the self-engrossment in the satisfaction of our desires and wants: the end of love is the orgasm, not the child that results from it. Children are one of life’s ways of making us recognize otherness. (The Macbeths, for example, have no children). It is through the recognition of authentic otherness that we recognize our authentic selves and in doing so find our freedom. Our desires for self-assertion and empowerment attain the opposite goals.
The father of modern psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, gave love a cup of poison to drink (to continue our allusions to Macbeth) when he emphasized sexuality as the peak of what love is. We are given our sense of the beauty of the world in the flame of desire that we feel when we see another human being. Our bias tends to see other human beings as objects to be used in our own self-engrossment in realizing our “pursuit of happiness”. When the beauty of other human beings is perceived only in terms of the sexual and this instinctual urge is determinative of our way of viewing other human beings, we see how bias becomes a habit of thought, an ossified way of viewing the world which, when we act under it or within it, destroys our capacity for empathy and recognition of other human beings as being authentically other, seeing a human being as a “who” and not a “what”.