Thoughts on the latest IB TOK Prescribed Essay Titles May 2022
The TOK essay provides you with an opportunity to become engaged in thinking and reflection. What are outlined below are some strategies and suggestions, prompts and prods, 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 TOK essay is a challenging assignment at any time but especially now given the worldwide Covid-19 pandemic and the various learning environments that are a result of that pandemic.
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 an answer let alone the answer to the question(s) posed by the title 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 and research. You need to remember that most of your examiners have been educated in the logical positivist schools of Anglo-America and this education and its social contexts pre-determines their predilection to view the world as they do and to understand the basic concepts as they do. The TOK course itself is a product of this logical positivism though efforts are being made to make it more universally embracing.
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 on how they might be of some use to you towards the title you have chosen.
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 the 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. Also, follow the basic format requirements of the assignment: 1600 words, 12-point font, etc. Have the assessment rubric ready-to-hand and use it to guide you in the structuring of your paper.
A sine qua non: the opinions expressed here are entirely my own and do not represent those of any organization or collective of any kind.
- Can there be knowledge that is independent of culture? Discuss with reference to mathematics and one other area of knowledge?
We are asked in Title #1 to consider whether there is a knowledge which transcends culture, a knowledge free from the limitations or biases that might be seen in the “values” that a particular culture esteems most highly. We are asked to consider mathematics as the one area of knowledge that appears to transcend cultures since a man working in Moscow, Idaho will have no problems collaborating with a woman who researches in Moscow, Russia on the same topic of research since mathematics is perceived as a “universal language”. It might be better, perhaps, to ask whether there is a mode or manner of knowing that will provide a knowledge for us that is beyond the limits of change that is brought about by becoming (time) and history, what is properly called “historicism”.
“Knowledge” is a product (something that is brought forth) of and through human beings; and individual human beings are the product, or what is brought forth, of and through the societies, communities or “cultures” they happen to inhabit at any given time. Being products of these cultures, they will value or esteem what their particular culture holds most highly or most dear. What a culture values most highly will be based upon or grounded in what that culture has determined is most necessary to its “security” and permanence. The culture’s need for security and permanence decides in advance what the individuals in that culture think experience is and what the things about them are. For us in TOK, this is central to how we understand and interpret our Core Theme of “knowers and what is known”.
Title #1 asks what is considered “knowledge” and asks you to look specifically at mathematics and one other area of knowledge. This is an appropriate question, since in technological societies algebraic calculation is esteemed or valued most highly by those various “cultures” and societies. (I put “cultures” in scare quotes because there is only one “culture” in technological societies since technology is, ultimately, an homogenizing force. That is the point of the example of the man and woman collaborating in different Moscows: they are able to do so because they are working in the same “culture”).
The word “culture” was first used by the Roman orator Cicero where he spoke of “the cultivation of the soul”, the perfection of human beings, what we today would call “empowerment”. Culture is related to the word “cultivate”, to the gathering and securing of a place, to the tilling of it, to being responsible for it, to responding to it, and to attending to it caringly. In the Biology lab, we speak of a “bacteria culture”. Care and its attendant concepts would be a central category or predicate of any discussion of our Core Theme in our attempts to describe who we are as human beings. We are the beings who “care” for things.
The concept of what we mean by “culture” today is relatively new. It came to prominence in the 18th and 19th centuries in Germany, although today it is ubiquitous or commonplace. Today we speak of “ancient Greek culture”, but this is erroneous for the Greeks had no “culture”. Their closest word to our concept of “culture” would be ethos from which we get our word “ethical”. The ethical has to do with actions, with doing something, what the Greeks called praxis, and this ethos was lived out in the polis or the “shared community”. We sometimes call a culture the sum of all the thoughts and actions of the human beings who compose it.
Why does a culture need to secure itself? Because a culture involves the activities that engage the human beings within it, there must be some purpose or goal that provides the ground to those activities, something which gives those activities meaning and stability. The concept of “culture” was necessary because of the relativism that arose with the arrival of historicism. Is there a knowledge that is independent of historicism i.e. a knowledge beyond an historical period, geographical place, localized cultures which in turn are used to give context to theories, stories and narratives, and other interpretations of our being-in-the-world from within those cultures?
The issues present in Title #1 are not new. They have been with us since human beings began questioning and thinking about the world we live in. Historically, the nominalist view thought that universals or general ideas were merely “names” without any corresponding reality or relation to particular objects. Properties, numbers, sets or the mathematical itself were considered merely a way or mode of considering the things that exist and, therefore, they were arbitrary and had no correspondence to the “real world”. It took no less an effort than Immanuel Kant’s three great Critiques: Critique of Pure Reason, Critique of Practical Reason, and Critique of Judgement to overcome this view, and Kant did so through showing how the mathematical was related to nature and to objects in the world around us. The mathematical was embedded in the objects of Nature.
In the AOK Mathematics, the title invites us to consider whether mathematics was “discovered” or “invented”. Until the thinking of the French philosopher Rousseau, reason (upon which the mathematical and mathematics are based) was considered ahistorical and beyond or independent of any cultural limitations such as time and place, etc. After all, it was reason which determined what human beings are ( the animal rationale: the being capable of reason ) and thus determined and made what became called “culture” possible. Reason was prior to mathematics and culture; and the principle of reason (nihil est sine ratione: nothing is without (a) reason) was the ground of both mathematics and culture. If mathematics was “discovered”, it would be beyond the limitations of any particular culture. If mathematics was “invented”, then it would be a product of those particular cultures wherein and from whence it arose. Today, of course, scientists are able to collaborate on projects without regard to the culture in which they are dwelling (or can they? Do they not “dwell” within the same “culture”?). Some research on your part should provide you with examples of the discoveries of the origins of mathematics which occurred simultaneously in China, India and Greece and would seem to suggest that mathematics is not a product of a culture but is more a determiner of what a culture would become. (The Greeks, for instance, rejected Babylonian algebra as being “unnatural” for them.)
Today, we rely on the mathematics of finite calculus and algebra. These define what knowledge is for us. Nature is understood as that which can be measured with exactitude, and through such measurements its “what”, “how”, and “why” can be determined through reason. Our culture esteems mathematical reason, for through it our control over nature (our “knowledge”) provides us with the power to secure our human being-in-the-world (our “culture”) through our sense of caring (concern) and responsibility. Mathematical science is a product of technology , that is, it is a predicate of technology, not vice versa as we commonly think. (See the writings on technology on other pages of this site.) Technology will be used by our culture to solve the problems that technology itself has brought about (climate change, pollution resulting from the use of fossil fuels, etc.).
When considering the Arts as an AOK relating to this title, one does not have to look far to see that the Arts play a secondary role in the estimations of value in our modern cultures. Arts are for our entertainment, amusement, or to provide us with “experiences” in our leisure hours. They help us to pleasantly pass the time when we are not engaged in the more “serious” pursuits that our cultures reward.
Whenever I ask a group of young people if they agree that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, the usual response is a one hundred percent hands raised. When I follow up the question with “what then is beholding”, the perplexed looks begin. The more brave will try to give a Cartesian-inspired response along the lines of “subject/object” and of the “subjective” representations of the evaluations of the work of art as an object and the “subjective” values deriving from matters of taste. It is no co-incidence that judgements in the Arts and their truth became “subjective” along with the arrival of the “objective” considerations of algebraic calculus in mathematical physics. Truth lies in the domain of mathematical calculus, not in the works produced by artists. Artistic judgement is now called “the philosophy of aesthetics”. The separation of human beings and their actions (what we understand as their “cultures” and “histories”) from those of nature (Descartes’ concept of the Self as Ego cogito ergo sum: I think, therefore I am) resulted in human beings being placed at the centre, as the apotheosis of nature, as makers of their own destinies and histories. This was the great paradigm shift of Occidental human beings and it began around the time of the Renaissance and found its completion in the Age of Reason. Human beings became “creators” unlike the “makers” or technites/technes as the Greeks understood them.
We can rephrase our earlier question regarding mathematics by asking: “Is great art discovered or invented?” The most probable response (because it is the easier response) will be that great art is invented or created. Does great art’s truth lie beyond (or is it independent of) the culture of which it is a product?” If great art is “invented”, then it is clearly a product of its time and place, its social contexts, etc. If it is “discovered”, from where does it originate? We often hear of the “timelessness of great art”. And when the artists themselves are asked about their art, they are at many times, at a loss for words to explain it and sometimes refer to mystical or other sources such as “muses” or “possession”, other “spirits” or “daemons”. They are usually not at a loss for words, however, when they speak of their techniques when engaging in bringing forth their works. This suggests that the truth of art and art itself (and I am only speaking of great art here) lies independent of and beyond the culture of which the artist as an individual is a product.
Here in Bali where I live, the people do homage to their gods for the many gifts that the gods have bestowed on them. Those of us from the West and from the technological societies of the East find it “silly” or “superstitious” that the Balinese would pay homage to their gods rather than to Honda, Toyota or Yamaha for the making of their motorcycles and their automobiles. But for the Balinese, it is not Toyota or Honda that have “created” their motorcycles and cars. Motorcycles and automobiles were always already there as gifts from the gods, waiting for “inspired” human beings to “discover”, or more precisely, to “uncover” them and bring them out into the “open”.
2. To what extent do you agree with the claim that “there’s a world of difference between truth and facts“? (Maya Angelou) Answer with reference to two areas of knowledge.
Title #2 asks for a personal response from you: do you agree with the claim that there is a world of difference between truth and facts and to what extent i.e. totally? partially? not at all? So the title is not looking for an academic scholarly recitation on the distinction between “truth” and “facts” (if indeed there is any) but rather, a personal response filled with personal examples (unless, of course, you happen to have made those scholarly opinions on truth and facts “your own”). These notes and thoughts to follow may not be helpful to you in this regard, but the hope held here is that they may prod you along the path to thinking about a possible response to the topic.
Truth is usually discussed from within three main theories: the correspondence theory, the coherence theory, and the pragmatic theory. The correspondence and coherence theories of truth were introduced into Western thinking through the thought of Aristotle and rely basically on the principles of logic. The pragmatic theory of truth finds its origins in the sophist Protagoras (“man is the measure of all things”) and gains further development in the thinking of British and American empiricists and finds its foundations in the Greek word pragma or practical, “material”, concrete things. If you have read any of the other writings on this blog, you will probably have noted that I subscribe to the original meaning of the word “truth” as it is found in the Greeks: aletheia, which means “to uncover”, “to reveal”, “to unconceal”, “to bring out into the open so that something may show itself”, “to retrieve from forgottenness”. This original meaning of the word “truth” is broader and encompasses the other main theories within it. No matter what your response to this topic, your essay will have to contain elements of the correspondence, coherence and pragmatic theories of truth if it is to be successful. Your essay will “bring forth and show” your propositions and assertions (correspondence), your evidence (coherence) and your judgements (pragmatic) regarding the question asked and demonstrate or show your knowledge of the terms used.
What is a “fact” and are there facts that stand alone outside of the systems which create them? Here in Bali, the date on the Balinese calendar posted on my wall is much different than the date and time shown on my computer. The Balinese calendar is a lunar calendar; the computer’s calendar is a solar one. Both calendars are correct but they express different facts. The Balinese calendar shows me when I can anticipate various religious activities to occur here; the solar calendar lets me know when, for instance, the TOK essay titles will be released. The two calendars reference two distinct worlds. Both calendars express “truths” in that they are a “showing forth” of time; it is the same time. Both calendars are attempts to understand what time is. We commonly view time as a series of consecutive “nows” which can be measured with exactitude in discrete mathematical units. We do the same with space. But what time and space are in themselves (their “truth”) remains a mystery for us, hidden from us. The use of mathematics and the facts which it reveals about the nature of ourselves and our worlds (and the world) is the reason why it is so highly valued among technological cultures. The spontaneity of our freedom is made greater through our control and commandeering of the spontaneity of nature.
We as human beings inhabit a number of different “worlds” simultaneously. You inhabit the world of being a student or a teacher; you are a mother or a father, a son or a daughter, a friend or lover in another “world”; you may have a number of different avatars in the virtual “worlds” you may inhabit; you may be a sportsperson, or musician, or inhabit some other “world” in your hobbies. Each of these worlds contain their own facts which are illuminated for you by their “truths”.
In the AOK Human Sciences, a phenomenon that should be of great concern is the assault on truth that is occurring among the populist movements of both Europe and North America, something which the African-American poet and novelist, Maya Angelou, would be greatly concerned about since truth, knowledge and freedom would be inextricably linked for her. The distinction between North American populism and its European counterpart is in the fact that European populism is based on “blood and father/motherland” while North American populism directs its goals to more abstract concepts such as “liberty, justice and freedom”, etc. Europeans and Asians, for the most part, are indigenous or autochthonous peoples: they have belonged to the “father/motherland” from before the time of making the land their own in their “conscious” memory. North Americans are not so. For North Americans, there has always been an historical awareness of making the land their own since they have no history from before the age of progress.
The North American making of the land their own began with the genocide of its Native Peoples, and in the USA, the establishment of the institution of slavery among its white landholders. The truth of these facts is not written in many of their historical narratives (which have been written primarily by white males, though this is changing). The desire to include critical race theory in the curriculum of its schools is divisive for many in the white society which does not want to know itself and which is finding itself becoming a minority and feels itself under threat. North American history texts are filled with facts, but truth is very much lacking in most cases.
North American populists are searching for the roots that they have never had. The search appears to be focusing on what they believe are their “roots” in European fascism where race, “patriotism”, and the need for a scapegoat for their perceived ills (African Americans, later immigrants, any “other” perceived as “alien’) are what they use to give their threatened identities some meaning. This sense of threat is an indication of their underlying weakness. The threat that North American whites feel is the loss of security in their own homeland (their “culture”, if you like), and they are willing to defend themselves against this perceived threat through the use of violence with the many weapons they have ready-to-hand. Any viewing of “right wing” media and its topics of discussion will reveal their concerns. The phenomenon of “alternative facts” is not directed at a desire for truth, however, but a desire for power even if this must be achieved through falsehood. (The Italian political philosopher, Machiavelli, once said that princes gain power through fraud.)
Truth as understood by the Greeks also relates to the individual human being as “one who does not hide or forget”. It referred to a person of candour and frankness, someone who does not dissemble or lie when being with others. It is the person who is “free” to be the person that they are (something that seems to be waning in the worlds of our social media today). Truth is a product of our world: it is given to us; falsehood is the product of human being-in-the-world. The world does not lie; it hides. The denial of truth destroys something essential to our humanity and makes us become more bestial.
Within the Arts as an AOK there is, literally, a world of difference between the truths expressed through the Arts and the facts and their truths given to us through our scientific interpretations of the world understood as nature. Scientific research looks for the “fixing of facts” in a world of constant change. This “solidification” of what are called “facts” is provided by our ability to give an explanation and evidence of the “what” and “how” of things (objects) so that they can be secured, fixed, and commandeered to meet whatever ends or goals that we may have in mind. Our age and culture is grounded through a specific interpretation of what is as objects (facts) and through specific comprehensions of truth (correspondence, coherence, pragmatic), and these grounds have come to determine our age as the technological age. This is the reality of our age; the “world” of our age.
The painting by Van Gogh shown here (one of his many “Sunflowers” paintings) is titled with the chemical compounds that compose Van Gogh’s yellow paint. A chemist familiar with the compositions of the paints would recognize this “fact”, but knowing this fact would not bring her anywhere nearer to the painting’s truth, for its truth lies elsewhere, literally, in another world than that of her laboratory. The chemical composition of the paint, its “fact” does reveal something about the painting, but its truth lies elsewhere. The chemist herself, as a human being, not only occupies the world of her laboratory. She also dwells within a number of other worlds, one of which may be where the beauty of the truth of the painting of the “Sunflowers” enriches her life and gives to her a greater sense of her humanity. To dwell only within the world of the facts of her science would be akin to madness.
3. Is there solid justification for regarding knowledge in the natural sciences more highly than knowledge in another area of knowledge? Discuss with reference to the natural sciences and one other area of knowledge.
To “regard” something is to show “care and concern” for that thing. We send our “best regards” to our near and dear ones when we contact them in order to show our care and concern for them. Since we modern human beings define our “essence”, what we are, as “freedom”, the knowledge that enhances and secures that freedom will be held in the highest regard i.e. it will be given our greatest care and concern (attention) and will be “valued” and esteemed most highly. The knowledge which we have gained from the natural sciences, the knowledge that controls and commandeers the chance brought about by nature’s spontaneity, increases our own spontaneity understood as “freedom”.
The two Greek words techne and logos have been combined by moderns into the one word technology, and this one word captures the knowing (the knowledge) that is present in the sciences (logos) with the making (techne) that is the application of those sciences in the applied and mechanistic arts. Modern medicine, for example, is one area where the discoveries of the natural sciences are applied through the art of healing. Technology is our way of being-in-the-world and through it we demonstrate our care and concern for “life”.
To look at an immediate example of what is being said here: nature has demonstrated its spontaneity with the arrival of the Covid 19 virus and its many mutations, and this virus has limited the spontaneity and freedom of human beings in obvious ways. Through the knowledge that we have from the natural sciences, we have been able to somewhat control nature’s spontaneity through the development of vaccines even though the virus continues to mutate. The ability to secure our freedom (our “lives”, in this case) is the reason why the knowledge that we get from the natural sciences is most highly valued in our technological societies.
This esteeming of the knowledge gained from the natural sciences comes at a price, however, and this price may be seen and understood in the use of the words “solid justification” in the title. Science is “the theory of the real”. In modernity, theory is the viewing of the real, how the real is seen and appropriated, how the world is taken into ourselves by way of experience. Science sets upon the real to set itself up as theory and to set the real up as a surveyable, calculable series of causes. What comes to presence through the viewing is the real, and science throughout its history has been transformed into the theory that entraps the real and secures its objectness, makes it come to a stand, “fixed”, “solid”, “permanent”. Theory makes secure a region of the real. Every new phenomenon emerging within an area of science (physics, chemistry, biology and even the Human Sciences) is refined to the point that it can be defined and fit into the standardized objective coherence of the theory. It becomes “solid”, “fixed” in other words. It is not permitted to change.
“Solid justification” is the requirement of the principle of sufficient reason necessitating that reasons be rendered to others for assertions made regarding the “reality” or “facts” of an object, situation or condition. Human beings are the “rational animals”; to be “irrational” is, by definition, to be less than human, to be inhumane. We believe that we can “justify” our scientific observations of the world through mathematical calculation, and from these calculations make “predictions” of events that will occur in the future. It is this “pre-dictive” power (lit. before “speech”, before the handing over to others) that gives calculative reasoning its dominance since the predictive power provides security and certainty with regard to the way things are. This security and certainty enhances our “preservation of life” and allows us to empower ourselves towards “enhancement of life” through a recognition of life’s potentialities in our freedom. By predicting and controlling nature’s spontaneity, our freedom is enhanced and our possibilities widened.
To “pre-dict” is to make an assertion prior to that speech which renders reasons. When the predictions or results are justified through reason, we believe that we have achieved a correspondence between our minds and the objects, conditions or situations under observation and questioning. To justify is to indicate “that which is responsible for” the “correctness” of the “judgement” made in the assertion. As the philosopher Kant indicated, “Judgement is the seat of truth”, or that upon which truth is grounded or based. “Reasons” bring that which is being spoken about to light and justifies them. Without such reasons, the thing being spoken about remains in the dark, hidden. “Evidence”, or that which is experienced through sight primarily, must be provided and the correspondence between that which is “experienced”, the evidence and the thing, situation or condition must correspond. For example, reasons provide the relations between a criminal and his crime and “justifies” the assertion of guilt. When one asserts a position that Democrats in the USA are really lizard-like aliens preying on children for their blood (just one of many QAnon beliefs) evidence must be provided for making such a statement. When one asserts that “the Presidential election was stolen”, one must provide corresponding evidence to show that that was indeed the case. Believing that a situation or condition is the case is not the same as “justifying” that belief, as many courts throughout the USA have asserted. Conspiracy theorists, in general, lack the corresponding evidence and reasons for their assertions to be taken as true. Their beliefs are irrational, without reasons.
One of the consequences of the type of “justification” required by reason is, some believe, not possible when making assertions about morals or ethics because moral judgements are “values” and these must be distinguished from assertions made about what we call “facts”: i.e. there are no “moral facts” because morals are ephemeral, lacking solidity, and fixity and thus without the possibility of justification. “Values” are what we human beings create through our freedom and willing in the world and through our determination of what things are and how they are and what we think they should be. This separation of statements or assertions of fact from statements or assertions of value is known as the “fact-value” distinction and it is the dominant principle or position in every Human Science. Efforts have been made to make morals subject to the same calculations that are used for scientific evidence such as Bentham’s utilitarianism, “the greatest happiness for the greatest number”, and the use of statistics is the primary language that the Human Sciences use to reveal their “truths”.
To “justify” clearly has relations to its root word “justice”. How does our understanding of the word “justice” relate to justifying and justification? With the modern view of what human beings are given to us by the philosophers Descartes and Kant, human being is that being before whom all other beings are brought before and required to give their reasons for being what they are as beings. This is the domineering, commanding stance of human being before whom all other beings are brought before and “justified” as to what they are as beings. This “justification” is that which is responsible for something being defined as what it is, how it stands in its truth. To justify is to argue for or defend. Our reasons for justifying our mathematical calculations, for instance, are that these calculations give the best explanation of our observations and experiences (experiments).
Our calculations secure our standing in our being-in-the-world and provide the potential for the all-important “life enhancing” or “quality of life” activities that are the purposes and ends of our arts, what we have come to call our “culture”. It is our calculations that give us our domination and control, our mastery of nature; and their “correctness” is demonstrated in the predictability of outcomes. There is a “justification” provided by the mind’s correspondence to the object in question and in the mind’s representations of that object in the mathematical. These justifications are shared in the language of the principle of reason through the belief in the schemata of the technological framing of the things in this world i.e. the world and its beings (things) understood as object. In many parts of the world, there is a turning away from the facts so that we may affirm what is contradicted by the experience of everyday living (climate change denial, for instance, or the need to live in an alternative reality).
In the modern age, beauty has been radically subjectivized so that we have our belief that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”. In all of our scientific explanations of things, we are required to discount the “other” as beautiful because the beautiful is not calculable (try as we may to do so). “Love” is consent to the fact of authentic “otherness”: we love otherness not because it is other but because it is beautiful. But what happens to “love” in a world dominated by the view that the freedom brought about through the objectivication of the things that are becomes most highly valued? The Greek philosopher, Plato, places the tyrant (Shakespeare’s Macbeth, for example, but the list could include all of the other autocrats currently parading or ‘strutting and fretting’ around the world’s stage) as the worst human being because in his self-serving, “otherness” has completely disappeared for him.
What I am trying to say here is that the world before us is beautiful and our appropriate response to it is love. However over time, trust in the world has been replaced with doubt as the methodological pre-requisite for an exact science. If we confine ourselves to anything simply as an object, it cannot be loved as beautiful (reflect on the example of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers in title #2). The key difficulty is that in loving the beauty of the world as it is (and esteeming it most highly), how does this affect the desire to change it? With regard to our title, what is being maintained here is that one knows more about something by loving it, and it should be this love that should be most highly esteemed because it should determine our understanding of the world. In our age, the knowledge gained in the natural sciences through the principle of reason is exalted above understanding and this is the reversal of the world shown to us in Plato’s Cave.
4. How do historians and human scientists give knowledge meaning through the telling of stories? Discuss with reference to history and the human sciences.
Title #4 is very restrictive in the parameters of its requirements: you are required to confine yourself to the areas of knowledge of history and the human sciences. You will also have to consider what “meaning” is and how it might be understood, and what is meant by “the telling of stories”.
“Meaning” is that knowledge that is handed over to others. It is “meaningful”; it is something requiring concern and care to a greater or lesser degree. It is that knowledge that is intended to be conveyed to another through the use of language, whether that language be in words or in numbers, symbols or signs. Meaning ascribes to something its “de-finition”, its limits or its boundaries so that it may be distinguished from something else which is not intended. The Greeks identified human being as the zoon logon echon, that animal that is capable of speech and thus that animal that is capable of conveying meaning through language. We constantly tell each other stories about our experiences. This telling of stories is the giving of an account, whether it be what we did over the weekend or our view of what the meaning of life is.
Since their inceptions, both History and the Human Sciences have aspired to the exactitude and “truth” that is given to us in the knowledge of our Natural Sciences because the knowledge given to us in the Natural Sciences is that which is most highly valued. This aspiration realizes itself in History and the Human Sciences in what is called “research” as the most appropriate method in the approach to what is called knowledge. The Natural Sciences deal with the objects of nature, those objects which come to presence in their own ways from out of themselves, and those objects tend to remain “fixed” and can be accounted for as masses in motion in time and space for the most part. These movements of coming to presence can be accounted for mathematically through the use of axioms, principles, laws and theories. This is how they are accounted for.
In History, the object of study is not present before us. It is in the past and must somehow be brought to presence, to the present, through a way of viewing (theory) and the selection of either appropriate artefacts or other evidence that will support the assertions or propositions put forward. In the way of viewing, the way of how the first principles have been pre-determined, the objects of History become fixed and can be researched in such a way that what we call knowledge can result. The objects that are studied in the Human Sciences are in constant motion. They, too, must be fixed so that statements/assertions can be made about them. This fixing comes about in the form of statistics which provide the “evidence” to support the assertions that are made based on the first principles that are used.
Whether the world is accounted for through language or mathematics, it must necessarily be accounted for. The giving of an account is the interpretation that provides meaning, that which makes something meaningful. The giving of an account is a narrative, the telling of a story. We must remove from our minds the fossilized conception of a “story” being a “fiction”. Accounts or stories may be simple or complex. A recipe is an account of how to bake a cake. Its step-by-step algorithm when followed correctly will result in the bringing to presence of the end product: a cake. The accounts of History or the Human Sciences, likewise though more complex, are stories which will bring about end results that are meaningful to the historian and the social scientist and their audience. The first principles will determine what will be chosen and how the stories will be told, the methodology. A difficulty in the stories told, for instance, is that many women complain that the stories are told by men, particularly white men for the most part.
History is different from the other Human Sciences, or indeed other sciences in general, in that the seekers of knowledge or researchers cannot directly observe the past in the same way that the object of research can be observed and studied in the Natural Sciences. How the past is to be viewed must be decided on beforehand. “Historiology” is the study of history in general, the search for what its essence is, what its purpose is. “Historiography”, that is, a study of the writings of history, is not a study of all of the past, but rather a study of those traces or artifacts that have been deemed relevant and meaningful by historians; and this choosing of artefacts and evidence is the most important aspect of the study of history as it attempts to aspire to “scientific research”. This is where the importance of “shared knowledge” comes into play: what we call our “shared knowledge” is “history”, and what artefacts we choose to select and what stories we decide to tell are determined beforehand by our culture.
Our ways of knowing are the manners in which we establish a relation between ourselves and our worlds, our communities, and to the things that we encounter in the world about us. One of these ways of relating is through Memory. With Memory, we must also keep in mind “forgetting” and what is forgotten or what is chosen to be forgotten, for memory and forgottenness go hand in hand.
“To forget” in Greek is lethe. It is the opposite of aletheia or the Greek word for “truth” or “a bringing to presence”. To bring something to presence, to bring something to mind, to “regard it” with care and concern, is “truth”. It is a “bringing things to light”. Lethe is to cast something into oblivion, into darkness, or that the something is “not present” for us. In Greek mythology, one must first drink of the river Lethe after death in order to be able to cross over in Charon’s boat into the underworld; remembering is essential to being human and to its “life”. To be good at rote learning, to remember facts and dates or mathematical formulas, has nothing to do with Memory as a way of knowing. Memory is more akin to “commemoration” and is part of what distinguishes human beings from other animals; we are able to “commemorate”; other animals cannot. This is why Memory is an essential part of history, and its elements of story telling for History must take the form of “narrative”, a story.
In the oral traditions prior to the arrival of written narratives and stories, Memory was seen as “saving” and “preserving” the story, but this saving and preserving also gave the story “meaning” by its being supported as plausible. The Greek philosophers, Plato and Aristotle, saw philosophy as more akin to poetry than to science. Both History and the Human Sciences attempt to find their truth through the methodology of scientific research and its first principles, but in the search for meaning and preserving both must resort to stories or the telling of narratives. This is especially so in the USA where there is no collective Memory from before the Age of Progress.
What we call History as an object of study appears simultaneously with ratio, calculation, thought. Thucydides, the first historian of the West, wished in his History of the Peloponnesian War, to give an account of the war without the “adornments and embellishments of the poets” (Homer’s Iliad and the Trojan War, for instance) so that he could arrive at his universal main theme: an understanding of the essence of war, all wars. He wished to go from the particular to the universal such as you attempted to do in your Exhibition. The height of Thucydides’ History, however, is “Pericles’ Funeral Oration” and it is a fiction: it is not a verbatim of the actual speech. It was written by Thucydides himself. Some questions could be: does Thucydides’ History as an account of the Peloponnesian War come closer to the essence of war, the universal, than does Homer’s Iliad? Does an historian aspire to make myth? If Josef Stalin is correct in his statement “Only the winners get to write the history”, are not all historians engaged in writing myth (at best) or propaganda (at their worst)? Are modern historical accounts “science” or “myth” since to arrive at their statements of “truth” they must use words (rhetoric) rather than mathematics to make their judgements? Do modern historians give a sufficient account of their first principles?
The basic problem for history in its attempts to be a “science” is that in establishing the past as object and in establishing ourselves as the summonsers for its artefacts to give us their reasons, we can learn about the past, but we cannot learn from the past since our positions as summonsers already establish us as superior to that which is being studied. Since we have seen the kind of societies the “winners” of history have produced, perhaps it is time to look at what knowledge the “losers” of history might have to share with us. This is what “critical race theory” is all about.
5. How can we distinguish between good and bad interpretations? Discuss with reference to the arts and one other area of knowledge.
What we commonly mean by “interpretation” is to provide an “explanation” for some thing that appeals to reason and to common sense. To say that the wildfires in California and Greece are attributable to “Jewish space lasers controlled by the Rothschilds” does not appeal to our reason and common sense, for instance. It is a “bad” interpretation and explanation for the phenomenon of wildfires.
An interpretation is meant to bring some thing to presence in order for it to show what, how and why it is as it is. It is associated with the thing’s “truth”. In Group 1 and Group 6 subjects, you are asked to provide an “interpretation” of a work of art, whether a novel, a poem or painting for instance, and in doing so name it as “such-and-such” or “so-and-so”, but to do so you must first turn that art into an object. In the Human Sciences attempts are made to find fixed, permanent principles that will lead to interpretations of social life which attempt to understand what is present at all times and in all places when living in communities, while in the Natural Sciences “explanations” are looked for through experiments on the “fixed” things that are the objects of nature.
Our lives are pervaded by interpretations both of ourselves and of other entities and things. Our “Core Theme” seeks to interpret how we understand ourselves, while our “Optional Themes” seek to understand other entities in the world around us. Our everyday interpretations or awareness of things is prior to our systematic interpretations undertaken in the Human Sciences and prior to our explanations provided by and given in the Natural Sciences. You need to find your way to the library or the science lab and interpret the contents in those places as books or science equipment before doing any of the activities called science or research. When you walk into a classroom, you do not first see uninterpreted black marks on the white board or hear the sounds of your classmates arriving. You perceive these things right away as printed or spoken words even if you cannot understand them. That you understand speech as speech or a textbook as a book does not mean that your interpretation is unreliable nor that it creates the meaning of what is interpreted. Your understanding of what the things are about you is bound together with your interpretation of them. Understanding is global and general; interpretation is local and particular.
Hermeneutics is a special kind of “interpretation”. In Plato’s Ion Socrates refers to the poets as the “interpreters” of the gods. Hermeneta is Greek for “interpretation”, the disclosing of that which was previously hidden. Interpretation is conjoined with what the Greeks understood “truth” to be. Formally, hermeneutics was the study of how interpretation occurs and is intertwined with “method”. It is the art of understanding written texts; but in it, all things are understood as written texts. The Irish writer, James Joyce, gives us a beautiful example of hermeneutical activity and what we understand as art, and in doing so, of what understanding and interpretation indicates, in the “Proteus” section of his novel Ulysses:
“Ineluctable modality of the visible: at least that if no more, thought through my eyes. Signatures of all things I am here to read, seaspawn and seawrack, the nearing tide, that rusty boot. Snotgreen, bluesilver, rust: coloured signs. Limits of the diaphane. But he adds: in bodies.”
Joyce here demonstrates that all objects are to be understood as “texts” and must be read. He is attempting to understand sensuality in time and space as “signatures” and “signs”.
Wilhelm Dilthey, the founder of the modern Human Sciences, expanded the methodology of hermeneutics so that it became the study of the methods of the sciences themselves. When we look at ourselves as knowers as we attempt to do in our Core Theme, what we are really doing is interpreting ourselves through the “shared knowledge” that comes to us through our culture. What and who we are is concealed to us through this shared knowledge, and so what is required is a “deconstruction” of this shared knowledge. In interpreting ourselves we are interpreting a text that has been overladen by centuries of “interpretations” and “misinterpretations”. This is how the metaphor of life as “the never ending story” is to be understood.
Hermeneutics originally focused on how the Bible was interpreted, as well as other religious texts. The word itself is associated with Hermes, the messenger of the gods, and pneuma or “breath, in-spiration” so that the word implied an “inspired hearing” or an openness and a taking in of what the messages of the gods were, and the taking in of those messages and making them our own. They are as Plato understood the poets: those who have been open to what the gods have to say and have taken their messages into themselves.
A “good” or “bad” interpretation will be determined by how well the explanation of the phenomenon brings that thing to light and makes it present to and for others. Your essay will be evaluated by how well you “interpret” the question and bring the issues inherent in the question to light based on the coherence of your arguments.
Some questions that arise from the inherent circularity of interpretation are: How can I learn what art is except by studying works of art? and How can I recognize a work of art unless I know what art is to begin with? Our implicit prior knowledge of what art is enables us to recognize clear cases of works of art. When we ask the question: Is it art?, how we interpret the work before us will determine the answer to this question. Whether the work is “serious” or “great” depends on other factors such as “how deep a life it portrays”, how does it illuminate the truth of that which it tries to bring to presence before us. We learn about what language is not by speaking about it and turning it into an “object of study”, but through conversing with it and in it. To do so, we must already know what language is beforehand. We cannot get to hear the message of the messenger unless we already know something about it ahead of time.
Many interpreters of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings see the novel as an allegory of the events of WW2. Tolkien has stated quite emphatically that the novel is not an allegory because he “does not like allegory” and prefers history. One must interpret the story as myth or fairy tale using the language and truth that are consistent with those genres. To see the novel as an allegory is a “bad” interpretation because it misses the central themes and truths of the work. The essence of power, war, friendship, and good and evil will not be brought to light through allegory (such as George Orwell’s Animal Farm for instance). They may, however, see the light of day in myth (Homer’s Iliad) or fairy tale/myth (The Star Wars Saga).
6. If we conclude that there is some knowledge we should not pursue on ethical grounds, how can we determine the boundaries of acceptable investigation within an area of knowledge? Discuss with reference to two areas of knowledge.
As has been discussed in other topics here, modern human beings see their essence as “freedom”; what knowledge enhances that freedom, what knowledge provides ’empowerment’, will be held in the highest esteem. Because we like to separate theory from practice, value from fact, we view ethical principles as theoretical possibilities of action (values) rather than the actions themselves (facts). For us, there are no ethical facts but only the values we create in our willing.
The ancient Greeks, for example, did not think in this way. The word “ethics” arose from ethos, or those actions which arise from living in a polis or a community. Our word “politics” comes from the word polis. This thinking is illustrated in the teaching of the Greek philosopher Aristotle in his work Nichomachean Ethics. There, the highest human being is the one who possesses arete or “virtue” and this virtue is demonstrated through actions. The virtue rests or is grounded in the thinking called phronesis which is the thinking based on experience acquired from the actions undertaken previously and not in the deliberations on those actions.
Human beings are also the living beings capable of discourse, using language; and because of this language, we are able to live in communities and thus be engaged in “politics”. The Canadian writer Margaret Atwood once said: “All art is political”, and we are bound to the “political” whether we would like to be or not as long as we remain within a community whether it be the factual communities of our cultures or the virtual communities of our chat worlds. Because we see our essence as freedom, ethical questions arise when the powerful in those communities choose to apply knowledge that will disadvantage other members of those communities and place limitations on their freedom or their potential to “empower” themselves. Because our societies are “technological”, these societies will reach their ultimate goals in “cybernetics”, what the German philosopher Heidegger called “the technology of the helmsman”.
The term cybernetics comes from the ancient Greek word kybernetikos (“good at steering”), referring to the art of the helmsman. From the Greek, “cybernetics” evolved into Latin as “governor” because the metaphor of the community and its guidance was compared to that of a ship in the Greek texts. The American mathematician and head of IBM, Norbert Wiener, used the term for the title of his book Cybernetics in 1948. Cybernetics cuts across the traditional Natural Sciences of Physics, Chemistry and Biology. Cybernetics is defined as the science of control over communication and actions in animals, men and machines; and it shows its most prominent form in the research of Artificial Intelligence. Cybernetics extracts, from whatever context, that which is concerned with information processing and control. Cybernetics is control theory as it is applied to complex systems, and human beings and their communities are one such complex system.
There is an obvious link between what are called cybernetics and what are called the Human Sciences, psychology in particular. What modern psychology is is determined by cybernetics. Cybernetics is associated with models, frameworks and structures, based on systems in which a “helmsman” compares what is happening to the system at various times (what its inputs are) with some standard of what should be happening (what should be the output), and the “helmsman” adjusts the system’s behaviour accordingly. The system relies on constant “feedback” loops. The search engines we use on our electronic devices are examples. It is amusing and ironic, if at the same time sad, to see “anti-vaxxers” insist that they will not be vaccinated because the “government” has put special devices in the serum in which it can track people, while at the same time boasting about their “bravery” and “courage” in how they have taken a stand against the vaccine by posting a selfie through the use of their cell phones. Those folks should be informed that that horse has long since left the barn. As Edward Snowden remarked, the people who were most happy with the development of the Facebook app were the NSA and the CIA.
What is being said here is that the opening statement of the title that “if we conclude” is no longer an “if” but has already been decided in technological societies. Cybernetics is the unlimited mastery of human beings over other human beings. Cybernetics focuses on the control of the actions and the communications of human beings, both of which define the essence of what human beings are. Cybernetics will determine what human beings will be in the future. We are reminded of Plato’s allegory of the Cave in his Republic.
Cloning and genetically modified or designer babies are predicates of the technological. As the American physicist, Robert Oppenheimer, observed: “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.” Certainly scientists see the production of cloned human beings or “designed” human beings as “technically sweet”.
Oppenheimer’s quote highlights that what we think to be the ethics of the actions in technical societies are after-thoughts; the ethics were already decided in the actions themselves. We could, of course, institute laws that would inhibit the actions of technical researchers, but those laws would have to be enacted universally and be observed as not all nations would institute such laws. Consider the difficulties involved in attempting to enact climate change laws and agreements. Given the nature and the desire for power among some human beings, any optimism in the efficacy of those laws would be seen as naïve among the more cynical among us. And we must remember that even Frodo Baggins succumbed to the power of the One Ring.