TOK Essay Topics May 2023

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 and topics 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. At its core it is very English.

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. They are intended to be read slowly.

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. 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 or directly through this website.

sine qua non: the opinions expressed here are entirely my own and do not represent any organization or collective of any kind.

Essay Topics:

Topic 1. Is replicability necessary in the production of knowledge? Discuss with reference to two areas of knowledge.

“Replicability” is a requirement for knowledge in the sciences, as knowledge as understood by the sciences must be given to others so that the truth made in its assertions, statements or judgements can be shown and demonstrated to be true to others. This is done through “experiment” or “experience”, and what is asserted must produce the same results or outcomes when repeated by others. This verifies the assertions or statements made, and then the statements become held as true by others. These statements are expressed mathematically.

The word “theory” is from the Greek meaning to “look” or to “view”. This “theoretical looking” or viewing is one possible way among many possible ways of looking at the world in which we live; and if we think about it, we live in many different worlds simultaneously. These different worlds are referred to as the primary world and secondary worlds. The scientist in the lab may also be a mother when she leaves the lab, and she may be someone else entirely when she goes to her yoga classes on the weekend. If she were to remain the scientist as a mother or the attendant at the yoga classes, her life at times would be bordering on madness.

Our looking or viewing of the world is pre-determined by an a priori understanding of that world and what the things of that world are. We understand the “leafiness” of a leaf, the qualities of a stone, the animality of animals, for instance, because these beings or things disclose or give themselves to us as such. This understanding of the world is pre-scientific. This a priori understanding of things determines for us that the things of the world are required to be viewed as “objects”, a word which comes from the Latin “the thrown against”: ob: against; jacio: the thrown. We experience ourselves as “subjects”, that which is at the bottom or behind the throwing.

What is “thrown”?  That which is thrown is the framework that arranges things in a certain way, sees things in a certain way, and assigns things to a certain order: what is called the mathematical projection in the sciences. The looking (the theory) is our way of knowing which corresponds to the self-disclosure of things as belonging to a certain order that is determined from within the framework or the projection itself. From this looking, human beings see in things a certain disposition; the things belong to a certain order that is seen as appropriate to the things i.e., our areas of knowledge. The seeing of things within this frame provides the impetus to investigate the things in a certain manner, what we call our methodologies.  That manner of seeing and investigating is the calculable. Things are revealed as the calculable. Science is the theory of the real, where the truth of the things that are, views and reveals those things as calculable and disposable. This manner of viewing allows for replicability.

Physics constrains nature in its very way of posing nature, in its theoretical stance. Nature is required to report in a certain way and can only report in this way, and the way is determined by the principle of reason (“nothing is without reason” or “nothing is without a reason”). Because nature is posed in this way, how nature reports must be verifiable and replicable by others in order for its “truth as correspondence” to be demonstrated. When its truth as correspondence is demonstrated, we have what we call “knowledge”. If its corresponding truth cannot be demonstrated, then it remains “theoretical” or “subjective”; it does not achieve the level of “fact” or reality.

Lately, Nature is not reporting according to our expectations (the discoveries of quantum physics and the findings of the James Webb telescope, for instance) and so we speak of the crisis of science as to what it conceives knowledge to be. We cannot have knowledge of nature in the way that we have traditionally understood knowledge and in the way that we have traditionally understood Nature. “What we observe is not nature in itself but nature exposed to our method of questioning.  Our scientific work in physics consists in asking questions about nature in the language that we possess and trying to get an answer from experiment by the means that are at our disposal.”–Werner Heisenberg. What Heisenberg is saying is that the nature that reveals itself is from within the framework, the method (the language that we possess as both word and number as well as our disposition toward nature to ask the questions that we ask), but it is not Nature itself. Scientists are aware of this crisis in their fields and have accepted it. The power that derives from our calculations is sufficient, and knowledge of what nature is becomes secondary.

Replicability in certain respect is not required in the Arts nor is it desired. An artist strives to make us “see” in a different way, and it is in this seeing that the differentiation of the arts from the sciences is established. The Arts must constantly challenge the status quo. In this different manner of seeing provided by the Arts, we are able to view the things of the world in a new or different light. This altering of the viewing of our experience by the artist is what we call “knowledge” in the Arts.

When we examine our word “technology” closely, we can see that it is composed of two Greeks words: techne which is understood as “making”, “craftsmanship” or “know how”; and logos, from which our word “logic” or reason derives i.e., knowing. It is from this understanding of knowing as reason that the primary manner in which we think we know is derived. Thus, technology means “knowing” and “making”. The “making” brings about a “work”, whether that work be a pair of running shoes or a painting. The work is “complete”; nothing more needs to be done.

But there are many distinctions between the ancient cobbler and painter and today’s makers of shoes and paintings. The ancient cobbler brought forth one unique pair of shoes; today’s rationalization of production brings about many “ones” of pairs of shoes which replicate each other. The ancient cobbler was primarily concerned with the potentialities of the leather and threads that he would use in his cobbling together what would become a unique pair of shoes. The modern painter struggles to find his or her unique way of viewing the world which will bring about his or her works; the ancient painter, in Greece for example, was in tune with a way of viewing which brought forth a perfection for which their works are known. “Perfection” is ”completeness”. We judge the works of our artists today by the “scope” and “grandeur” of their vision regarding the depth of their vision and how it brings about a unique way of viewing the things of the world. We look to the completeness of their seeing or the “perfection” of their seeing or how far they have achieved a perfection to their seeing. This stands in contrast to the method of seeing outlined above for the sciences. The assumption in the sciences is that the correctness and completeness of the viewing is already present and the outcomes are already present within the framework given for the approach to the things.

In the performance of a work of music, however, there is a desire on the part of the audience for the work that the performance is attempting to replicate to be as close as possible to the original, whether this be a symphony of Beethoven’s or the “cover” of a popular tune in music. Sometimes efforts are made to explore different potentialities in the work as it has been given and these efforts are sometimes successful, sometimes not. This may be said to be analogous to those experiments which were/are conducted to try to disprove the indeterminacy principle of quantum mechanics. The methods of experimentation, the replication of theory and method, try to find results which are different than those that are inherent in the framework or viewing and have been unsuccessful in doing so.

Topic 2. For artists and natural scientists, which is more important: what can be explained or what cannot be explained? Discuss with reference to the arts and the natural sciences.

In our modern world, it is a very great luxury to be able to contemplate and dwell upon what cannot be explained; and in many respects we do not do so except for brief moments in our leisure hours. What cannot be explained does not give the kind of practical power that many who engage in the arts and sciences are looking for. The desire and perceived need for “useful” applications or products which derive from our theoretical viewing in both our natural sciences and our arts drives the novelty that both modern scientists and artists search for and see as their goal or end. Novelty is our substitute for wonder and admiration regarding the things that are and how they have come into being. Power and social prestige demand that money be made, and scientists who are able to work in our multiversities and our corporations are driven by “vested interests” rather than the pure desire to know that characterizes the “unexplained”. Most IB students have this same desire in their course selections, and the facts of the IB course selections from around the world seem to bear out the truth of this statement.

In the medical research professions, for example, is the desire to find a cure for cancer or other diseases the main motivation, or is it the wealth and prestige that will be certain to arrive in doing so the ground for so much research efforts in this area? Cancer is a disease of modernity and affects societies which are predominantly white and technological. Malaria does not affect whites so much so there is little effort made (relatively) to eradicating it from the world’s populations even though its affects remain devastating.

In our modern technological societies, the arts see their roles as providing entertainment and diversions. They establish the “emotional” element to the social prestige and recognition much sought after by those who pursue careers in them. Actors and actresses aspire to be “stars” and to wed into a “power couple”, to enjoy the recognition from their audiences who are looking for some diversion from the mind-numbing, alienating occupations that the technological society has placed them in. The arts as well as the medical professions will have an important role to play in the mental health state that is the apogee of technological societies. Many artists who at first were overwhelmed by the mystery and wonder of life that is the “unexplainable” succumb to the necessity of having to make a living and, in many cases, lose this sense of wonder and mystery regarding the world around them. We see this in the process of growing up: as children we are filled with wonder and amazement at the mystery of the world and life about us. As we grow older, we lose this sense of wonder and amazement as we become overwhelmed with the need to meet the necessities of life.

We have ceased to wonder and be amazed at the predictive powers of our sciences. The discoveries of modern physics have resulted in the Information Age in which we live, along with its attendant novelties and coeval dangers; and we have been able to achieve this power at the price of the lack of knowledge of what we originally set out to find i.e., knowledge of the nature of things and of ourselves. In our cinema entertainment, we view films constructed from scripts that have come from sources that resemble a writing assembly line. It would not be too far-fetched to see our movies as similar to the running shoes that come off an assembly line. We enjoy our artistic diversions, such as the cinema, in a somnambulistic state, although we hope that they will instill once again our sense of wonder and amazement at being alive from time to time.

The recent discoveries provided by the James Webb telescope have reignited a sense of wonder and amazement for many astro-physicists. The discoveries provided in the photographs of the outer regions of the universe have reawakened a questioning regarding the origins of the universe, the unfolding of the universe in time and have brought into question the explanations that have traditionally been relied upon. Certainly, trying to find answers to the questions that are arriving every day from the discoveries given by the telescope has made the search for explaining the evidence most prominent in today’s discussions. The models that have been relied upon in the past do not work when trying to provide an explanation for the evidence supplied in the photographs.

Topic 3. Does it matter if our acquisition of knowledge happens in “bubbles” where some information and voices are excluded? Discuss with reference to two areas of knowledge.

This essay topic asks you to consider and question what “knowledge” and its acquisition is as well as to whom that “knowledge” matters, whether that knowledge is “subjective” or “objective”. The “bubbles” spoken of here are the different worlds wherein what is considered to be “knowledge” occur to those human beings who dwell in those worlds. This knowledge is a “specialized knowledge”, and it is a necessity in today’s world for knowledge of the whole is beyond the capacity of the individual.

This situation, the existence of “bubbles”, has always been with us for as long as human beings have lived in communities. In the past, these were referred to as the esoteric and exoteric worlds, the individual, private world and the public world. The worlds of the philosophers and the priests from ancient times were “bubbles” from which most human beings were excluded. They were esoteric, and they required a different type of speech or logos to belong to them. Today, the worlds of the scientists, the medical practitioners, the very rich, the preachers, the politicians are realms from which most human beings are excluded for many varied and different reasons.

There are few human beings who are capable of understanding the mathematics involved in modern physics, for instance. The world of “modern physics” is limited to the few who are capable of the theoretical and practical thinking involved in the questioning and the praxis necessary for the carrying out of a life in such a world. One could say that modern medical practitioners are the evolution of the “shaman” who held a position of power in the old tribal communities. Today’s medical practitioner possesses the “magical power” given to him/her by their study of the physical sciences. Their patients do not have such knowledge and, therefore, do not have such power. Prior to the making of the Gutenberg press and the King James translation of the Western Bible, priests were able to have the power that comes from “information bubbles” because they had knowledge of Hebrew, Greek and Latin which the many did not have and they had the only Bible available as the costs of creating and possessing a Bible were prohibitive.

Being “in the know” has always mattered throughout history, for those who possessed what was called “knowledge” also possessed power in those societies where that knowledge and power were bowed down to or looked up to. Whether the possessor of the knowledge was able to make and own the means of production or whether they were able to give to themselves the power to save the souls of their followers, such “bubbles” resulted in the hierarchies of power within their communities which in turn determined the ethos and “values” of those who dwelled in those communities, and thus determined the actions and behaviours of those who lived among them. The French philosopher, Rousseau, (who has become the chief spokesperson of the political Left in history) believed that all human beings were capable of attaining knowledge of the most important matters and could become wise and would have no need of “bubbles”. We in the modern age still live in the strife of whether or not Rousseau is correct.

This title invites us to inquire about the nature of knowledge itself and if there is, indeed, knowledge within these “bubbles” or only opinions. With the arrival of information technologies, the many “bubbles” that exist exhibit the many worlds which human beings inhabit simultaneously. The existence of so many bubbles gives a clear illustration of the fragmentation and division within our social discourse and within our societies. The language of public discourse in general is rhetoric where the many may put forth their opinions (usually under the guise of anonymity) and may seek to persuade others of the correctness of those opinions. Rhetoric relies on emotions. Leaders emerge within those information bubbles and from them cults emerge. There is a clear relationship between “information bubbles” and authoritarianism, and this might be a possibility that a student may wish to explore.

The Pythagoreans of ancient Greece were a cult: they possessed a specialized knowledge of geometry to which only the few could attain. Their leader was the mathematician Pythagoras, who was said to be a very charismatic man. The practice of their geometry was a piety of contemplation and prayer towards the god they considered holy, and from this piety and contemplation emerged music, astronomy, and the perfection of the Greek arts. “Bubbles” require “specialized knowledge” to which only the few, the chosen have access, be it knowledge of “the plan” such as put forth by today’s QAnon followers or the knowledge of “helter skelter” that the Manson family gave as reason for the ferocious brutality of their murders. When cults and bubbles aspire to power, violence seems to be an acceptable political option.

Because our bubbles require specialized knowledge, members of many bubbles look for “alternative facts” which will support the perspective from which they view the secondary worlds of their bubbles. Since their bubble is the product of power, it needs to expand and gain more power whether the “bubble” be the technological domination of nature or whether it be the man trying to establish a religion who believes that when you die your soul goes to a garage outside of Buffalo. Since the authority of opinion of those who established the bubble must prevail within the bubble, how facts are to be interpreted becomes very important to the members of the bubble. Over time, dissent becomes less and less tolerated and intolerance reigns.

Topic 4. Do you agree that it is “astonishing that so little knowledge can give us so much power” (Bertrand Russell)? Discuss with reference to the natural sciences and one other area of knowledge.

The difficulty with trying to address this topic is that no context is given for Russell’s quote. With a little research we can find the full quote from a journal of his which states: “We know very little, and yet it is astonishing that we know so much, and still more astonishing that so little knowledge can give us so much power.” This has become a very popular quote among scientists, it seems.

The difficulty that arises from the quote is what type of “knowledge” is Russell referring to? One presumes it is mathematical knowledge and its applications, the mathematical projection which establishes the world as object over which human beings can domineer and control, since Russell himself was a mathematician. What Russell fails to note is that our “little knowledge” in the natural sciences has led to a crisis in that science regarding what it “knows”. We may know our mathematics, but the world to which our mathematics refers remains a mystery for us. The traditional understanding of what “knowledge” is is disregarded in favour of the power that this “knowledge” is able to bring about. This power is what we mean by technology. To characterize what modern technology is, we can say that it is the theoretical looking that disposes of the things which it looks at. Technology is the framework that arranges things in a certain way, sees things in a certain way, and assigns things to a certain order: what we call the mathematical projection. The disposition of the things is the power that our knowledge gives us over our world. We dispose of them without knowing them.

We sometimes characterize technology as the tools which technology has made possible from its manner of viewing the world. The tools of technology are predicates of the subject technology. Technology is the chief phenomenon of the modern age, the “power” of the modern age. From where does this power originate?

First is science itself, particularly mathematical physical science. From out of this science arises machine technology which is brought forth from out of the essence (the “whatness”) of modern technology itself which is identical with the essence (the what and the how) of modern metaphysics or the modern theoretical viewing of the world. Technology provides the open region where the tools of technology are made possible like the acorn that makes possible the oak tree.

It has always been presumed that what science knows is nature or the “real”, the “factual” world, the primary world. After all, “science is the theory of the real”. But with the advent of quantum physics, what the real is has come into question and the knowledge of that reality is also in question. Because we are able to gain power over the things that are, we are quite content in our ignorance of what those things are in themselves. The applications of the discoveries of quantum physics have led to the creation of any number of “virtual realities”, “realities” that were once only possible through the arts and existed in the realm of the imagination. These can now be made concrete and they deservedly bring forth amazement and wonder at their possibilities. But with this wonder comes a sense of hubris at our lack of self-knowledge.

A further characteristic of the modern age, the age of power, is the ‘experience’ of art as aesthetics, the ‘beautiful’, which is considered to be a ‘subjective experience’ based upon taste. “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is our mantra, but we have already pointed out what “beholding” is to us in the modern. Aesthetics attempts to make the beautiful calculable. The Arts are relegated to secondary importance since they deal with “secondary worlds”, not the world of power where things really matter. If there is any knowledge to be found in the Arts, then that knowledge is not important unless it is of some use in some practical application.

Topic 5. Are visual representations always helpful in the communication of knowledge? Discuss with reference to the human sciences and mathematics.

When we view the word “theory” from its roots as “to look”, “to see”, we can understand that visual representation is essential to how we think about the world. We behold the world in metaphor and make the abstractions of time and space concrete through the images or visual representations of position and movement, location and velocity . Visual representations bring things to a stand, into a presence before us, so that they can be beheld and discussed. This bringing into presence relates to truth, and truth is related to judgement and what we call the knowledge of what things are. Visual representations are not only helpful, they are also necessary if there is to be any communication of knowledge to others. It is in the interpretation and communication of visual representations that difficulties and disputes arise.

The Greek word mathematika means “what can be learned and what can be taught”. We associate mathematics with numbers. Numbers are what we bring to the things which are not in the things themselves. We see three books on the desk; the three does not come from the books themselves but is something we add on to them, something which we bring along with us. What can be learned and what can be taught is everything that is; everything that the mind can construct from its use of number, word and imagination. There is no number without there first being things that can be visualized in number.

In the same way that numbers are a visual representation words, too, bring things to presence before us. In the naming of things, the thing comes to be separated and brought to the forefront, distinct from all that surrounds it. The use of numbers and words define things, establishes their boundaries, their limits, so that they come to be what they are. This ability to recognize and establish limits and boundaries to things was what the Greeks called logos, and human beings were defined as the zoon logon echon, that living being capable of this ability to name and number things, and it is this feature of human beings that makes them distinct among other living beings. Logic, which is derived from the rules of correct speaking about things, what we call “reason”, establishes the principles and laws upon which our mathematics are based. The Latins, following the Greeks, defined human beings as the animale rationale, the “rational animal” for it was “reason” understood as “logic”, they believed, that distinguished human beings from other living beings, animals.

In the human sciences, the most common method of visual representation is through the use of statistics. What is being done when statistics are used as a means of visual representation? If we remember what the sciences attempt to do in the modern age, it is to domineer and control those objects which they investigate in order to possess predictive knowledge of the behaviours of those objects.  The application of this knowledge toward the objects of study (in this case human beings), the enfolding of the “logos” into the “techne”, or the “knowing” into the “making” or “know how” (the application of that knowledge), is what is called  technology. We have elsewhere called “technology” a way of knowing. It is one possible comportment of human beings towards beings/things that pre-determines what those beings/things are and how they are to be dealt with. The end of technology is cybernetics: the unlimited mastery of human beings by other human beings. We can see the pursuit of this goal in operation or praxis in the algorithms of our information technology, the visual representations of our human behaviours. From these algorithms our behaviours are determined by those who create and control the algorithms. It is the logos that determines how the tool that we use to engage with our present-at-hand world will be used.

In our primary, natural experience of how human beings live together with each other, we understand speech as the revealing of something by speaking about it, and as a thinking that determines and orders it, defines and classifies it, and by doing so renders an account of it. Language, speaking, thinking coincide as the human way of being in the world. They are the way we reveal and illuminate (both for ourselves and for others) the world and our own human existence so that in this illumination we gain “sight”, the human insight into ourselves and an outlook on, and a practical insight into, the world. Logic as the science of speaking studies speech in terms of what it properly is: the revealing of something. The subject matter of logic is speech viewed with regard to its basic meaning, namely, allowing the world, human existence, and things in general to be seen and, thus, known.

Aristotle begins his Metaphysics with the famous statement “All human beings by nature desire to see”. “To see” is usually translated (in the popular W.D. Ross translation, for instance) as “to know”, so we can see the close association of “seeing” to “knowing”. This is due to the fact that visual representation is essential to knowing. The fact that our existence has and understands and strives for this basic form of revealing by seeing implies that, for the most part, much of the world stands in need of “illumination” and “revelation”, of being un-covered from the darkness and made known to ourselves and to each other. In other words, much of the world and much of human existence is, by and large, not un-covered. So beings can be drawn out of their “not-un-covered-ness”, their hiddenness. They can be un-covered or un-hidden. This uncoveredness or unhiddenness of beings and things is what we call “truth”. What is the relation between “truth” and “logic” and how does “logic” illuminate for us all the areas of knowledge that we come to study as well as ourselves? We shall find the answer to these questions in what we call the proposition, the visual representation of the “position” put forward, the “perspective” from which the things are viewed, seen.

Topic 6. To what extent is the knowledge we produce determined by the methodologies we use? Discuss with reference to history and one other area of knowledge.

If human beings are capable of perceiving ends or goals, then they must also be capable of conceiving the means of bringing those ends about or of realizing those goals. The means of achieving the ends or goals chosen are what we call “methodologies”, the “know how” of the procedures or processes necessary for attaining an object or goal in a particular area of knowledge. This has been called “practical reason” historically. A methodology, therefore, is a systematic procedure, technique, or mode of inquiry employed by or proper to a particular discipline or art; and we are called upon to examine the knowledge produced in the discipline of history (or historical studies) and one other discipline, and to view what is called knowledge in those disciplines. The very word “discipline” refers to the methodology required in order to produce knowledge in the area inquired about.

History is different from the other Human Sciences, or indeed other sciences in general, in that the knowers 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. “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 artifacts and evidence is the most important aspect of the study of history as it attempts to aspire to “scientific research”.  The relevance and meaning of the artifacts chosen for study is determined ahead of time by the “values” present in the culture or “context” in which the historian is embedded. In order to overcome this essential bias inherent from the historian’s social context, there is an appeal to what is called “the fact-value distinction”.

The fact/value distinction in the Human Sciences and, by extension, History is part of the core of their metaphysics or their way of viewing the world. The way of viewing the world is what we call “theoretical knowledge”. This way of viewing is based on the need for “objectivity” in their methodology as scientific research in order to gain true knowledge of the object under investigation through the use of logic i.e. a rational view of human beings (individuals) and their communities (societies) and the actions of those individuals and communities in time. But what, exactly, is the purpose or goal, the end of the study of History or of the Human Sciences?

The fact/value distinction decrees that there is a fundamental difference between judgements of fact (scientific judgements) and judgements of value, since “values” are inaccessible to human logic and reason and, therefore, are beyond the ability of a science to make any statements about them, of what is good or bad. The social scientist and historian are told that they must avoid value judgements altogether, and this is the core of their methodology. Every textbook and methodology of the human sciences (and some in history) begin with this premise and it is part of their “shared knowledge”, their methodologies, what has been passed on to those who wish to pursue knowledge in these areas of knowledge.

Plato viewed time as “the moving image of eternity”, an infinite accretion of “nows”; we tend to view time as the “progress” of the species towards ever greater perfection, much like how we view the latest models of our technological devices and gadgets as being more “fitted” towards accomplishing our ends and purposes. Our “evolution” and “adaptation”, we believe, are signs of our progress and growth as a species as we move towards ever greater “perfection”, both moral and physical. It is sometimes called “the ascent of man”, but such a concept of human being, as an “ascending” creature, is only possible within the technological world-view.

“Values” are the things or outcomes preferred and the “principles of preference”, and if we look at these values as goals or outcomes, then we should be able to determine the methodologies behind them and the principles which ground them. If we look to the grounds for the principles of these preferences, we will see that they are based on the prevailing views of what a society (in this case Western society) upholds as being good. The Human Sciences as presented to us as an Area of Knowledge are supposedly “value free” or “ethically neutral” as they attempt to base the grounding of their viewing in the principles of the modern natural sciences. But because the Human Sciences deal with human beings and their communities, what we call “social science” is unable to justify the reasons for its existence, for instance, for to do so would be to make a “value judgement” i.e., to deduce what the purposes or the values of the Human Sciences are, or what their use is for.

History deals with memory and time or temporality, the past, present and future. The purpose for the study of history is, supposedly, to increase our knowledge in the making of predictive possibilities for future outcomes based on past specific examples. This knowledge is what the Greeks called phronesis. The purpose for the study of history is related to proper action i.e., it is ethical, for it is assumed that there are permanent principles grounding human actions. The knowledge questions and issues that arise in the study of history rest in two mutually exclusive positions with regard to the writing of history (historiography) and the “re-searching” or study of history (Historiology). The two positions are commonly referred to as the absolutist position (stated above) and the relativist position. 

According to relativism, all human thought is historical and hence unable to grasp anything eternal or “unhistorical”; there is no permanence to things or to thoughts. Plato views time as “the moving image of eternity”. According to Plato (an absolutist), philosophizing means to leave the cave where things may be viewed in their “absolute” truth beyond opinion. To we moderns, all philosophizing and thinking essentially belongs to the “historical world” or the cave, what we call our “culture”, “civilization”, and involves opinions based on these contexts. Thucydides effort to show the essence of what war is, its permanent nature, in his History of the Peloponnesian War was a vain attempt. This belief is what is called historicism and it is a recent arrival on the historical scene (early 19th century) but it continues to gain preeminence in our thinking and viewing of the world as it erodes what we have come to believe during the age of progress. The two most prominent thinkers of historicism are the German philosophers Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger; and while these thinkers are reviled for the most part in the English-speaking West, their thought permeates many aspects of the shared knowledge in the West through its interpretations and applications by lesser thinkers, the de-constructionists, for example.

The historical sense shows us that we create history, whether by “just doing it” as far as our own actions are concerned or by living in a society along with others and sharing their beliefs, customs, etc. The outcomes of our personal and social/political actions are matters of chance so we study history so as to control the outcomes making chance as ineffective as possible. History is determined by the technological and its rendering is “a giving an account of” or “giving an account for”. It is based on a calculative methodology, a “know how”.

Many people today hold the relativist view that the standards that we use to make judgements in history are nothing more than the ideals adopted by our society or our “civilization”, the “values” that are embodied in its way of life or its institutions. But, according to this view, all societies have their ideals, their values, cannibal societies (indigenous societies, if you like) no less than “civilized” ones, fascist societies as well as democratic ones. If the principles of historical choice are sufficiently justified by the fact that they are accepted by a society such as is understood by the pragmatists, are the principles of fascism or fanaticism or cannibalism as defensible or sound as those of democracy or “civilized” life?

Our modern study of History teaches us that we can become wise in all matters of secondary importance, but that we must remain ignorant in the most important matters: the historian cannot have any knowledge regarding the ultimate principles of his or her choices i.e. regarding their soundness or unsoundness other than blind preferences. Our inability to gain any genuine knowledge (of the absolutist type) of what is good or right or to recognize all preferences as equally respectable leads to the position that only unlimited tolerance is in accordance with reason; but this leads to an “absolutist” position from a position that rejects all “absolutist” positions.

The relativist position has a respect for individuality and a respect for diversity. Tolerance is one ideal or “value” among many and is not intrinsically superior to its opposite: intolerance. But it is practically (in practice, ethically) impossible to leave this at the equality of all choices or preferences. If this equality of choices is the case, then genuine choice is nothing but resolute or deadly serious decision. Such decision is more akin to intolerance than to tolerance. One sees these outcomes of these decisions in the world’s daily news events or in the discussions that you may be having in your TOK classes.

Author: theoryofknowledgeanalternativeapproach


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Theory of Knowledge: An Alternative Approach

Why is an alternative approach necessary?

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